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October 24, 2014

Ambiguity, Roma and Soldiers in Sicily

A picture is less like a statement or speech act, then, than like a speaker capable of an infinite number of utterances. An image is not a text to be read but a ventriloquist's dummy into which we project our own voice.

W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? p. 140

'Zeus / Warrior' Coin from Sicily (Bahrfeldt 2)

This sentence encompasses the problems of ambiguity and meaning that have been the focus of several previous blogs. Since I posted about the ambiguity of images used by the Romans in Macedonia, I have come across several more examples that show a similar tendency. One is shown to the right, part of the 'Zeus / warrior' coin series struck by the Romans in Sicily. These coins are entangled objects: released by the Romans and carrying references to Roman quaestors in Latin (in this case via the Q for quaestor and a monogram spelling MAL on the far right), the design was likely created by a Greek die engraver, and the coins were intended for circulation within the Roman province of Sicily. Bahrfeldt, acknowledging their mixed nature, termed them 'Roman-Sicilian', a phrase also used by Frey-Kupper in her study of coin circulation in Sicily, which concluded these issues dated to the period 190/170-130/120 BC.

Coin of Panormos with head of Zeus and Warrior

Ever since Bahrfeldt's publication, people have wondered 'who' exactly the warrior is. Is it a Roman soldier, a local Greek soldier, or is it the god of war (Mars/Ares)? The Romans might easily have made the picture more 'understandeable' by providing the coin a legend, but here, as with the case of Macedonia, they chose not to. This may have been intentional, allowing, in the words of Mitchell, for each person to 'project their own voice' through seeing their own meaning in the image. In this way, each member of the community that was Roman Republican Sicily might have identified with the image, allowing the image and the coin that bore it to actively generate a shared sense of community. When Panormos began to strike its own coinage bearing its name under Roman dominion from 130/120 BC, they adopt the Zeus / Warrior type. The money created by the conquerors (Rome) has been claimed and adopted by the conquered: 'their' money had become 'our' money. It is in a moment like this that Anderson's 'imagined community' is created. Again, the warrior shown on the coins carrying the ethnic of Panormos may have been Roman, Greek, divine, or as representative of the warriors of Panormos itself. Or it may not even have been seen as a warrior at all.

Coin of Italica with head of Augustus and Roma

While we often think of Roma as a seated goddess, some representations of her show her standing with a spear and shield in a very similar manner to the 'warrior' of Sicilian coinage. One example from Spain is shown on the right, which (although it is not visible on this particular specimen) identifies the figure next to the shield as ROMA on the reverse legend (RPC 61). Given this and other examples, could this be another possible reading of the 'warrior' type seen on Roman-Sicilian coinage, the issues of Panormos, and other towns? Just as the image can evoke various soldiers, and perhaps Ares, it may also have been seen as the personification of Roman power itself. But the ambiguity, which still provokes scholarly debate today, was likely the key behind this and other images.

Coin images reproduced courtesy of ArtCoins Roma (Auction 6 lot 257), Classical Numismatic Group (Electronic Auction 327, lot 521) ( and Jesus Vico S.A. (Auction 132, lot 611)

June 11, 2014

Entangled Objects, British Nationalism and the Elgin Marbles

george iii
Sovereign of George III

Over the last week or so I have been doing a lot of thinking about the role that images and material objects play in constructing identities, communities, empires and nations. A more modern example that I think demonstrates the sort of phenomenon we might also look for in the ancient Roman world is the Elgin marbles, the parthenon frieze taken from Athens to London by Lord Elgin at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Few people realise I think (and I didn't until last week) that when the marbles arrived, the British government believed they were worthless, and refused to buy them (a good cartoon demonstrating the general sentiment can be found here). Lord Elgin and his friends thus had to wage something of a publicity campaign to ensure that his investment would pay off, a campaign that was apparently waged from Elgin's backyard shed, where the marbles were temporarily housed. But what it interesting is that the marbles arrived just as Britain was attempting to articulate its identity as a nation and as an Empire, and the marbles became an object that featured in these discussions. Since the images on the parthenon marbles are a bit ambiguous (there is still discussion over their exact meaning), people could see in the marbles differing ideas of British identity: British masculine superiority, the power of the British war machine, the idea of elite cavalry, the British male body, and the fact that the marbles were monochrome meant that they could even be used to discuss ideas of white superiority. (An excellent discussion of all of this can be found in Rose-Greenland, F. (2013). "The Parthenon marbles as icons of nationalism in nineteenth-century Britain." Nations and Nationalism 19: 654-673.)

What I find interesting is how these particular objects played an active role in forming British identity, and that the formation of this ideas took place not in the government, but among the elite (Elgin and his friends). Moreover, when a new coin design was introduced under George III in 1818 (for the earlier coinage design see here), the marbles served as direct inspiration. The Greek imagery, however, has been adapted to its British context in that the Greek-style figure is now slaying a dragon, a reference to St. George. These objects then, brought from outside Britain, played an active role in forming British identity and, in the end, epitomised a new idea of Britain on a new style of coinage (tellingly called 'a sovereign'). The question is, why did the marbles act in this way, out of ALL the objects that came into London in this period? I wonder if it has something to do with the ambiguity of the imagery of the marbles, meaning that they were susceptible to multiple meanings and interpretations in a way that other objects were not. (I have, of course, blogged on ambiguity before).The Elgin marbles also raises the question as to how other 'entangled objects' may have influenced the formation of Roman identity, and, ultimately, the design of coinage under Roman dominion. And, given the ongoing discussion over British identity in the modern day, it makes me wonder what will be chosen for the new British one pound coin.

(Image above is © The Trustees of the British Museum. See the coin online here.)

July 26, 2013

Roma or Perseus? The ambiguity of images

Coin of Roman Macedonia, c. 168 BC

This week I returned to thinking about Roman Macedonia, and the unusual series of bronze coins struck by Roman quaestors there (an earlier post on the topic can be found here).The first series of bronze coinage struck after the Roman conquest of Macedonia in 168 BC was issued by the quaestor Gaius Publilius, who struck the unusual type pictured right (MacKay 1). Catalogues identify the obverse of this type as Roma, with the reverse giving the name of the province (Macedonia) in Greek, as well as the name and title of the questor (ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΩΝ ΤΑΜΙΟΥ ΓΑΙΟΥ ΠΟΠΛΙΛΙΟΥ).

To a Roman audience, the type is Roma, similar to representations of the goddess shown on Roman denarii. But the image is also extremely similar to the iconography of the hero Perseus, who was shown on the bronze coins of the Macedonian kings during the Hellenistic period (shown below right. Philip V even presented himself as Perseus on silver coinage). This raises the question: would a Macedonian, glancing at the coin as they used it, have recognised 'Roma', or would they have seen Perseus, a continuation of the monetary tradition in the region?

philip v
Coin of Philip V, Macedonia, 221-179 BC

Images can have multiple associations, and this is particularly the case for numismatic imagery. Unlike other public monuments, which are erected within a particular landscape or context determing the way they are 'viewed', coinage is a medium in motion, being seen by different users in a wide variety of different contexts. This, in turn, results in a broad spectrum of possible associations and interpretations. The ambiguous nature of the image here may have been intentional - there is no obverse legend identifying the image for the viewer. Thus this image may have been intentionally chosen by the Romans for its ambiguity - it had meaning and significance for both Romans and Macedonians, but this meaning was not necessarily the same for both groups. One image, with mutually incompatable possible interpretations, may have served as a focal point in bringing together two different cultures. Indeed, the fact that the existing Macedonian currency carried portraits of Perseus may have actually inspired the Romans in adopting the 'Roma' type for their coinage in the region, explaining why Roma appears here and not in other areas under Roman control in this period.

So is the image Roma or Perseus? The answer all depends on one's perspective....

(Images above reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (

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