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April 01, 2019

The snake–god and the satirist

glykon obverse glykon reverse

RPC IV 5364 (temporary)

This bronze coin from Abonuteichos, on the southern coast of the Black Sea, depicts the snake-god Glycon on the reverse. The serpent is depicted curled up, but with its head raised, and with long hair. It is labelled as ‘ΓΛΥΚΩΝ ΙΩΝΟΠΟΛΕΙΤΩΝ’ (Glycon of the Ionopolitans).

It was minted during the dual reign of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (AD 161-69). The latter is depicted on the obverse wearing a laurel, along with the legend ‘AVT KAC (sic) Λ ΑΥΡΗ οΥΗΡοC’ (Imperator Caesar L. Aurelius Verus).

This coin is especially interesting as a result of a treatise penned by the second century AD satirist Lucian. Alexander the False Prophet details how the titular Alexander (born c. AD 105-115) managed to con locals and outsiders alike into handing over their money in return for prophecies from Glycon, whose cult he founded. The survival of Lucian’s treatise gives us a fantastic opportunity to tie together material and literary evidence on the cult.

The first thing to notice on this coin is the long, thick hair of the snake, which is somewhat anthropomorphic. Lucian explains that even though the snake was living, a new head was crafted out of linen by Alexander and a colleague before the cult began:

they had long ago prepared and fitted up a serpent’s head of linen, which had something of a human look, was all painted up, and appeared very lifelike. It would open and close its mouth by means of horsehairs, and a forked black tongue like a snake’s, also controlled by horsehairs, would dart out.

Lucian, Alexander 12

Lucian explains how once this stage was complete, Alexander buried tablets prophesying that Asclepius would take up residence in Abonuteichos, which provoked people to build a temple (Lucian, Alexander 10). He then ran around in a frenzy, before ‘discovering’ a goose-egg, from which a baby snake emerged (Lucian, Alexander 13-14).

When the cult opened soon after, people apparently assumed that Glycon, the full-size snake-god shown on this coin, had grown out of this tiny snake within a few days (Lucian, Alexander 16). Lucian claims that when Glycon was being displayed at this grand opening, Alexander concealed its real head under his arm, showing only the linen head to the people (Lucian, Alexander 15). This is in contrast to the depiction on the coin, in which the anthropomorphic head is shown as a part of the snake’s body.

The cult then began offering predictions and oracles for anyone able to pay, and there were plenty of visitors, whom Lucian characterises as ‘thick-witted’ (Lucian, Alexander 17). Alexander would ask them to hand in their requests on scrolls, which he would unroll and secretly reseal, and pretend that the answer he gave them came from Glycon (Lucian, Alexander 19-20). He even purported to make Glycon’s (linen) head speak, thanks to an attendant using a horsehair mechanism and a tube (Lucian, Alexander 26).

Lucian’s account also broadly ties up with other evidence suggested by this coin. For example, the satirist writes that once Alexander gained fame, even in Rome, due to the rapid spread of the cult, he requested that a coin be produced with an image of himself on one side, and Glycon on the other (Lucian, Alexander 58). While we have never found any coins which depict Alexander himself (Jones (1986) 146), this coin shows that half of his desire was granted, at any rate.

According to Lucian, Alexander also requested that the Emperor change the name of his city from Abonuteichos to Ionopolis (Lucian, Alexander 58). Petsalis-Diomidis argues that this was a more prestigious name, relating to the mythical ancestor of the Ionians, Ion. This emphasis on Greek identity was perhaps enhanced by the success of the cult (Petsalis-Diomidis (2010) 31). Our coin does indeed display the name of Ionopolis. However, we need not assume that the rise of the cult and the name change came in parallel. This is because an earlier Glycon coin, minted under Antoninus Pius, uses the name Abonuteichos instead of Ionopolis, so the change must have been a gradual one (RPC IV 5359).

Some Epicureans, and even Lucian himself, attempted to expose the cult’s fraudulence. Alexander attempted to whip up the crowd to stone one such detractor (Lucian, Alexander 44-45), and Lucian himself claims to have been almost killed (Lucian, Alexander 56). Despite these efforts, however, the cult seemed to stay strong long after Lucian, because Glycon remained a popular image on Abonuteichos’s coinage from as late as the reign of Trebonianus Gallus in the mid-third century (RPC IX 1218).

Jones rightly suggests that we should take Lucian’s account with a pinch of salt. He argues that it is heavily biased, and contains many common tropes of invective literature, and that the question of fraudulence seems unanswerable or perhaps beside the point (Jones (1986) 134, 136, 146, 148). Nonetheless, literary and material evidence do provide a broadly unified picture for the fame, the influence and the imagery of the cult of Glycon.

matthew smith

This month's entry was writte by Matthew Smith. Matthew is an MA by Research student at the University of Warwick. He is especially interested in Greek authors of the second century AD. His research focuses on the role which divine dreams from Asclepius played in medicine during this period, looking in particular at Galen and Aelius Aristides


Petsalis-Diomidis, A. (2010) Truly Beyond Wonders: Aelius Aristides and the cult of Asklepios (Oxford University Press: Oxford)

Jones, C.P. (1986) Culture and Society in Lucian (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, M.A.)

Lucian, ‘Alexander the False Prophet’, in Lucian Volume IV, trans. A.M. Harmon (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, M.A. 1925)

March 01, 2019

MORA! A Roman token showing a game

token showing a game

Bronze token from the Julio-Claudian period. On one side two boys are shown seated facing each other, a tablet on their knees, playing a game. The boy on the right has a raised right hand. At the left is a cupboard or doorway (?); MORA above. On the other side is the legend AVG within a wreath. (From Inasta Auction 34, 24 April 2010, lot 381, Cohen VIII p. 266 no. 6, variant).

This token is part of a larger series of monetiform objects which are characterised by Latin numbers on the reverse. Some examples, like that shown here, have the legend AVG (referring to the emperor, Augustus) instead of a number. This same imagery, of two boys playing a game, is also found on a token with the number 6 (VI) on the other side; another example has the number 13 (XIII) on the reverse (Paris, Bibliothèque national no. 17088). This token series carry portraits of Julio-Claudian emperors or deities, or playful scenes, including imagery of different sexual positions (a sub category of tokens called ‘spintriae’ today).

Token with Augustus and AVG. (Photo courtesy of the Heberden Coin Room, Ashmolean Museum)
0010544o.jpg 0010544r.jpg

We know this token is connected to the broader series from the Julio-Claudian period because of another specimen, now in the Ashmolean museum (Ashmolean Museum, Heberden Coin Room, photo no. 10544; shown left). This token carries the same design (AVG within a wreath) as the token above, and in fact the same die was used for both tokens (called a die link).

But what of the scene on the other side? Two men or youths sit opposite each other with a gaming board between them; the figure on the right raises his hand and there is a doorway behind the figure on the left. The word MORA sits above the scene: in Latin mora meant a pause or delay; it might also be used in a more imperative sense: wait! The word moraris is found on rectangular bone pieces whose function is also unknown but are thought to be gaming pieces (tesserae lusoriae). We thus have a scene of game play involving two individuals at a moment in time when one player is being asked to pause.

The scene is reminiscent of a painting from the bar of Salvius in Pompeii in which two men are depicted playing dice with their speech written above them - one declares 'I won' (exsi), while the other protests 'It's not three; it's two' (non tria duas est). Other paintings show the quarrel escalating, with the landlord eventually throwing the two individuals out of the bar.

Scene from the Bar of Salvius in Pompeii (image from Pompeii in Pictures)

The gaming scene on this token, as well as the numbers present on most of the tokens of this broader series, has led to the suggestion that these pieces functioned as gaming counters. However, unlike the bone gaming counters that carry numbers, these pieces have never been found together as a ‘set’, and don’t carry scratches that suggest they might have been used on a board (though this does not exclude their use in lotteries or similar). Instead it is possible that the scene was chosen because it communicates a feeling of fun. Lead tokens also carry numbers and similar scenes (including a scene of game play on a lead token said to be found in Ostia); these objects may have been used in festivals or other contexts associated with game play.

This blog entry was written by Clare Rowan as part of the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean Project. It is based on a catalogue entry for a token that will feature in a forthcoming exhibition on ancient games and gaming in Lyon in June 2019, which is part of the Locus Ludi project.

Related Bibliography

Mowat, R. (1913). Inscriptions exclamatives sur les tessères et monnaies romaine. Revue Numismatique 67: 46-60.

Rodríguez Martín, F. G. (2016). Tesserae Lusoriae en Hispania. Zephryus 77: 207-20.

Rostovtsew, M. (1905). Interprétation des tessères en os avec figures, chiffres et légendes. Revue Archéologique 5: 110-24.

February 01, 2019

Honours, Health and Hairstyles

coin showing livia

Dupondius of Tiberius, Rome, AD 22-23. RIC I2 Tiberius 47, British Museum No. R.6361. Image reproduced courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

This Roman copper alloy coin was produced in 22-23 AD, in the middle of Tiberius’ reign, and is held by the British Museum, but is not currently on display.

It is part of a series depicting a draped female bust, with the legend “SALVS AVGVSTA” on the obverse, while the reverse carries the abbreviation “S C”, signifying the coin was struck by a decree of the Senate, and the legend “TI.CAESAR.DIVI.AVG.F.AVG.P.M.TR.POT. XXIII”.

The obverse is understood to be a portrait of Livia Drusilla, wife of Augustus and Tiberius’ mother, who died in 29 AD, aged 86. While Livia was honoured with statues and portrait busts in her lifetime, there are no explicitly identifiable representations of her on contemporary imperial coins. Instead, depictions which may represent her on Roman imperial coins are ambiguous, carrying attributes which are identifiable with Ceres, or Pax – both of which are associated with Livia in various inscriptions, statues and possibly on the Ara Pacis. However, coins from provincial mints, particularly Greek and Egyptian, carry portraits with legends which do name her. This may partially be due to Augustus being cautious of imagery in Rome which could be construed as reflecting suggestions of monarchical ambitions. Although the idea of monarchy was abhorrent in Roman culture, it was much more acceptable and less contentious in societies in the eastern Mediterranean, which may explain why Livia was clearly portrayed there. Additionally, Marcus Antonius had featured women (Fulvia, Octavia and Cleopatra) on his coinage, and Augustus may have wished to both distance and differentiate himself from this for a variety of reasons (see August 2018 blog entry which discusses Fulvia).

Despite this, Augustus (then Octavian) had, in 35 BC, granted both Livia and his sister Octavia unprecedented honours: public protection comparable to that provided for tribunes; the right to manage their own estates without a guardian; and the right to honorific statues (see Cassius Dio, Roman History, 49.38.1). Honouring both Livia and Octavia thus had an underlying political motivation – by elevating them as paradigms of Roman matronly behaviour, Augustus obliquely, but publicly, reproached Marcus Antonius, who was living openly with Cleopatra in Egypt and mistreating Octavia, who he had married in 40 BC in an attempt to cement relations between himself and Octavian.

With the death and deification of Augustus in 14 AD, Livia had been adopted into the Julian family and was known as Julia Augusta, however the “Augusta” on the dupondius’ legend is not her name, but an adjective relating to “salus”. Tiberius gave his mother further honours, but vetoed attempts by the Senate to grant more titles to Livia – in this he followed Augustus’ lead, as he had granted Livia no official titles in his lifetime, again perhaps to avoid suggestions of monarchical ambitions. However, despite this, Livia was popularly, but unofficially, designated mater patriae (mother of her country).

In 22 AD, Livia had been seriously ill, and in view of her advancing years, her recovery was considered remarkable, and resulted in the Equestrian order dedicating a statue to Equestrian Fortune at Antium (see Tacitus Annals 3.71). The coin’s obverse legend “Salus Augusta”, is not a direct reference to this illness or recovery, although it may be understood to allude to it. Comparatively, Augustan coins from 16 BC commemorate vows for Augustus’ salus (health/safety), but on these the legend is clear “Salus Augusti”, with the genitive case clearly evidencing the salus belonged to Augustus. Instead, in this case, it is understood as being a reference to the good health of the state, and there may also be a politically-charged reference to this being dependent on Livia’s well-being.

Looking more closely at the portrait on the coin, Livia’s coiffure is arguably the most striking element. Parallel waves on the crown of her head from a central parting, connect to fuller waves across her forehead, becoming rolled braids which run from her temples to wrap the chignon, which sits at the back of her neck. Absent from this coiffure is the nodus - a wide knot of hair rolled forward to sit above the forehead.This was a defining characteristic in Livia’s portraiture in statuary prior to 14 AD.

This later hairstyle was softer and although the portrait may hint at Livia’s maturity via the fuller cheeks and perhaps the suggestion of a double chin, the overall impression is of idealised youthful Roman beauty – large eyes, an aquiline nose and strong mouth. At least four sculptural marble heads, which all date to the reign of Tiberius, match closely the coiffure shown on the Salus Augusta dupondii series, suggesting that this particular representation of Livia, not dissimilar to her coiffure on the Ara Pacis, had become more widely disseminated, although it is worth noting that the nodus portrait type of Livia was not replaced by this and continued to be used.


This month's coin was written by Jacqui Butler. Jacqui has just completed the first year of the MA in Ancient Visual and Material Culture (part time), having gained a BA in Classical Studies with the Open University last year. Her main interests lie in the visual depictions of both mythical and real women in Roman material culture, specifically in art, but also their representation in epigraphy on funerary monuments.


Barratt, A.A. (2002) Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome, Yale University Press.

Bartman, E. (1999) Portraits of Livia, Cambridge University Press.

Wood, S.E. (2001) Imperial Women, A Study in Public Images, 40 BC – AD68 (Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava, Supplementum 195).

December 01, 2018

An Unusual Victory Coin


RIC II Trajan 557. Image reproduced courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

The practice of issuing a victory coin after the conquest of a new territory was frequent in ancient Rome and it was a practice with a long tradition. In most instances what is depicted on the coins is either a scene in which a representation of the defeated country is mourning (cf. Iudeea capta, RIC II, Part 1 (second edition) Vespasian 161), or a symbol of the defeated country (cf. Aegypto capta, RIC I (second edition) Augustus 275A). However, one of the coins issued by Trajan after the conquest of Dacia is very different.

This coin is a sestertius dated between AD 103 and AD 111, issued in Rome, and now kept in the British Museum. On the obverse of the coin we find the bust of Trajan, laureate, facing right, with the text ‘IMP CAES NERVAE TRAIANO AVG GER DAC P M TR P COS V P P’- Trajan’s name and titles in the dative. On the reverse is a combat scene in which the river Tiber pushes Dacia to the ground with his right knee. The violence and the dynamism of this image is unusual for a Roman coin and I will present my hypothesis for this matter in this article.

This coin was issued to celebrate the Trajan’s victories over the Dacians. In AD 101, Trajan crossed the Danube and attacked Dacia despide the treaty that his predecesor Domitian had made with the Dacians. Another war followed in AD 106 after which most of Dacia became a Roman province.

The exact causes are controversial because of the lack of contemporary sources, but Dio’s text suggests that it was a punitive war. Regardless if this is true or not, it is clear that Trajan wanted to display this image and maybe show through this image that the nations willing to attack Rome would be defeated in battle.

The fact that it is the personification of the Tiber, a river, that is shown defeating Dacia is very interesting. On Trajan’s column, which depicts his wars against the Dacians, there is another personification of a river: the Danube. As the coin circulated over time, a viewer who had seen the column once it was completed in AD 113 might recall its scenery and the battle scenes depicted upon the monument. On the column the Danube is represented helping the Roman army.

This was the first Roman conquest in fifty years and it is possible that Trajan wanted to show it in a memorable way. To do this he chose to use this vivid violent scene to impress the people who would see it and to suggest that more territories would be conquered: in 114 and 115 he would also annex Armenia.

So, I think that the fact that Trajan wanted to show the people what happened if a people were to challenge Rome may have contributed to the creation of this unusual victory coin.

luiza Diaconescu

This month's entry was written by Luiza Diaconescu, a third year undergraduate student in Classical Civilisation. Luiza is very interested in Roman history and literature.

Select Bibliography:

Bellinger, A & Berlincourt, M (1962) ‘Victory as a coin type’, Numismatic Notes and Monographs 149:1-68

Bennett, J. (2001) Trajan: Optimus Princeps (Bloomington: Indiana University Press)

November 01, 2018

Fantasy Coins

fantasy coins 1 nero

This coin looks like a Roman coin. It is circular, it bears the head of the emperor, in this case Nero, and the legend (the writing on the coin) appears around the head. It is made of copper rather than the mixed-alloy bronze that was common in the Roman imperial period. However, the intent of the maker is to make a low value denomination. The lettering S C on the reverse (tails side) is a common feature for Roman issues in bronze, and the appearance of monuments, like the Ara Pacis in this case, is well attested. However, this is not a Roman coin, nor is it a modern imitation. This is a Fantasy coin; a coin reflecting the currency of a fantasy or an alternative history world.

Fantasy coins are produced by a number of different modern companies in response to the explosion of interest in fantasy games, such as Dungeon and Dragons. The coins can reflect specific worlds, such as Westoros (the world of Games of Thrones) or ancient Rome. Other ranges relate to generic fantasy worlds, particularly a specific racial or cultural group in that world. Elvish, dwarvern, barbarian, dragon and orcish communities are among the many catered for. Futuristic coins, representing the coins of imagined galactic empires, are also produced. In order to relate the coin to the subject matter, the images on the coin and more occasionally its shape are utilised. Such images are based on popular tropes related to the fantasy race. Dwarvern coinage for instance tend to show anvils, hammers and bear Nordic runes, ultimately derived from a Norse description of dwarfish smiths in the Prose Edda, a medieval text detailing Scandinavian myths. Orc coins often bear weapons or warriors, reflecting the original inspiration of orcs from Tolkien as creatures obsessed with war.

In many cases, a specific range of Fantasy coins is not tied to a particular game. The generic imagery is used so that the pieces can be accommodated in a number of different settings, allowing for a wider array of customers. The general audience of these coins are gamers and curiosity collectors, though these are often not separate groups. Players of “roleplaying” games, in which the players control characters in an imagined setting, with one player known by various names (Game Master, Dungeon Master or Keeper among many others) guiding the story. In these contexts, props are often utilised. These primarily consist of miniature figures representing the characters and their opponents, but increasingly other props are utilised to increase the immersion in the game. This is particularly evident in the real-world equivalent of role-playing, larping (otherwise known as live-action roleplaying) in which the participants physically portray their characters through costume and acting. Props are particularly valued in such settings, and the organisers of these events often produce their own coins. There are even events where complex denomination systems accompany the coins. For these groups, the coins are often bought in bulk. However, individual coins are also available for purchase. These would not be suited to games that require many coins, so these coins have a premium on their artistic value. As a result, Fantasy coins tend to be larger than most modern coins, and they often bear high quality designs. The Ancient Greeks also produced large coins with high quality images, so the use of coins as aesthetic pieces marks a continuation of an ancient tradition.

One would think that the coins would be highly unusual, as they are products of imagination. However, most fantasy coins are almost identical to the coins produced in the ancient period. The majority of fantasy coins are depicted as round objects, with an image on each side. Most ranges of fantasy coins have three separate denominations, with a gold, silver and copper issue. The only differences are the subject matter of images upon the coins and that they are not usually made of precious metal (like gold or silver), unlike the ancient coins which were intrinsically valuable in their own right. Since coinage began in 7th century BC Turkey, coins in the western world have retained the same features. Even Bitcoin is represented as a circular object, despite its digital form itself having no physical shape. Fantasy coins, for all the imagination behind them, are slaves to the trope. There are a few attempts to get away from round coinage for particularly exotic cultures, with some coins represented as moons, axe heads or as hexagons. In most cases, however, the producers of these coins are bound to their customers’ understanding of what a coin should look like.

Returning to our Fantasy Coin example, the coin copies a Roman issue in terms of its iconography (e,g, RIC 1 527). It is not, however, an imitation. The size of the original Roman denomination, an as, is not copied. As with other fantasy coins, the Nero coin is part of a series of gold, silver and copper coins, classed under the title “Roman”. As the smallest denomination, the coin is the smallest size in the series, whereas the gold coin is the largest coin of the set. In the ancient world, the size difference in coins was usually unnecessary; gold coins were intrinsically more valuable due to their metal content, so even the smallest gold coin was more valuable than the largest bronze coin and bronze coins were generally larger in antiquity. However, for modern Fantasy coins it would seem that bigger is better, so the highest denomination is afforded the largest size, and thus the greatest prestige. Within the series is a silver coin depicting a Constantine issue, and a gold coin bearing the Republican head of Roma, the titular goddess of Rome, with Jupiter riding a chariot alongside Victory on the reverse. The latter image was prominently featured on silver coins struck during the Roman Republic; the placement of the image on a gold coin here indicates that the modern manufacturer saw this image as worthy of a higher value.

fanatsy coins 2 roma

fantasy coins 3 constantine

Historical accuracy is not the intention behind these coins. What matters is the modern audience’s perception of what a coin is and what Roman culture was. Hence the more valuable coins are larger and the images chosen are ones that reflect “Roman-ness”. Hence emperors, monuments and famous gods are preferred over other images, like the many personifications of lesser deities that decorate the majority of ancient Roman coins. However, the manufacturers have chosen to imitate Roman coins rather than create their own images, so there is a modern desire for “authenticity” in some sense that the producers of these pieces are accommodating. This is not always the case; Fantasy Spartan coins exist, yet in reality the Spartans had no coins. As a result, standard pieces of Greek military equipment, like the Corinthian style helmet, are utilised for the iconography of these pieces.

fantasy coins 4 sparta

The expansion in the Fantasy coin trade represents a continuation of coins as an art form. From their beginnings, coins in Europe bore high quality designs. The Rennes Patera show that certain individuals collected coins and valued them for the iconography upon them. There is little difference here.

Fantasy coins have yet to receive any major academic study. Yet studying these coins in an academic fashion is of great use in understanding modern conceptions. This is particularly true of the “historical” ranges of Greek and Roman coins. As a form of reception studies, one can see what particular images a modern audience considers as being “most Roman” or “most Greek”. The more fantastical ranges are also of interest, as it would be curious what real-world influences are attributed to these fictional races. Overall, the production of Fantasy coins shows that in the modern world where most transactions are carried out online or through credit, coins continue to attract interest.


This month's coin was written by David Swan. David is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Warwick. His thesis examines coinage and hoarding patterns across the Channel in Iron Age Europe. He specialises in Iron Age (otherwise known as Celtic) coinage.

August 01, 2018

Fulvia: the power behind the lion?

coin of antony and lion

Fig. 1. Antony, Cisalpine Gaul, Silver Quinarius, c. 43-42 BC, RRC 489/6. (Image © the Trustees of the British Museum).

This is a Roman Republican silver quinarius, dated to 43-42 BC, believed to have been minted in Cisalpine Gaul, and is currently held by the British Museum. It was issued by Mark Antony and its iconography is similar to another coin type referring to Lugdunum.

The reverse of the coin carries the legend “ANTONI IMP XLI”, and this, together with the walking lion provide personal references to Antony. XLI (41) refers to his age, and the lion, a recurrent iconographic emblem on Antony’s coinage, may represent the claim that the Antonii were descendants of Hercules (see Plutarch, Life of Antony, 4.1). Plutarch states that Antony believed his physical attributes confirmed this heroic descent, choosing also to attire himself in a manner suggestive of Hercules. Such self-representation would have offered a counter-claim to that of the Julian family’s divine descent from Venus via Aeneas. Plutarch also states that Antony’s excesses ran to excursions in chariots drawn by lions, and this is also attested to by Pliny (Natural History 8.21) who asserts he was the first man to harness lions to his chariot in Rome. Therefore, the depiction of the lion can be read as a means to promote and emphasise both his physical strength and prowess, and also to accentuate his alleged ancestry.

The obverse has a border of dots and an anti-clockwise inscription of III.VIR.R.P.C. which expands to III vir rei publicae constituendae consulari potestate (triumvir for confirming the Republic with consular power) and refers to the second triumvirate formed by Antony, Octavian and Lepidus in 43 BC.

The portrait bust on the obverse is a personification of Victory, signified by the wings at the base of the neck, and convincing arguments exist to suggest that it is a portrayal of Antony’s wife Fulvia. This is partly due to the image’s facial features having more in common with contemporaneous lifelike portraiture than the classicism favoured for deities, and equally the hair is similar in style to what was fashionable at the time, with this particular hairstyle not being featured on other representations of female deities.

Fulvia is a fascinating, albeit not endearing, character. Antony, who she married in 47 or 46 BC, was her third husband – having previously been married to Publius Clodius Pulcher, then Gaius Scribonius Curio – and all three were supporters of Caesar. Literary sources indicate she was highly politically motivated, more so after Caesar’s death, purportedly to promote and protect Antony’s interests while he was in Gaul, becoming powerful and influential in the senate (see Cassius Dio, Roman History, 48.4-10, Appian, Civil Wars, 5.3.19). Appian relates that Fulvia was actively involved in the proscriptions of 43 BC (see Appian, Civil Wars 4.4.29) whilst Cassius Dio condemns her as responsible for many deaths to satisfy her greed for wealth and hatred of certain adversaries – in particular, he recounts her brutal treatment of Cicero’s decapitated head (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 47.8). She was also directly involved in, if not being the cause of the uprising by Antony’s brother Lucius, who was consul in 41 BC, which resulted in his defeat by Octavian at Perusia in Etruria in 40 BC. Fulvia then fled to Greece where she died, having been rebuked by Antony for her involvement in the debacle.

The significance of the amount of power Fulvia wielded is also evidenced by the city Eumenea in Phrygia being renamed Fulvia around 41 BC, where it is believed she was also honoured on coinage, again in the guise of Victory. Equally, as the competition for political dominance between Octavian and Antony is apparent in other coinage, the appearance of Fulvia may have been intended as an important advertisement to convey a widespread political message of strength and unity via their marriage and perhaps even suggesting some dynastic ambition.

It is interesting in comparison, that women connected to Augustus rarely featured in his coinage during the principate, and this may be resultant from a desire to disassociate himself from both Antony’s reputation of being ruled by women (see Plutarch, Antony 10) and his apparent penchant for utilising his wives’ images on coinage – Fulvia was followed by Octavia, whose image was not disguised by deific attributes, and then Cleopatra, who he is thought to have married around 37 BC, (although this marriage was not valid in Rome). Additionally, Augustus’ own personal experience of Fulvia, may also have been influential in his later social reforms and moral legislation in attempting to ensure a higher standard of behaviour for women and a return to more traditional domestic roles.


This month's coin was written by Jacqui Butler. Jacqui has just completed the first year of the MA in Ancient Visual and Material Culture (part time), having gained a BA in Classical Studies with the Open University last year. Her main interests lie in the visual depictions of both mythical and real women in Roman material culture, specifically in art, but also their representation in epigraphy on funerary monuments.


Bauman, R.A. (1994) Women and Politics in Ancient Rome (London, Routledge).

Fraschetti, A. (2001) Roman Women (London, The University of Chicago Press). Kleiner, D.E.E (1992) “Politics and Gender in the Pictorial Propaganda of Antony and Octavian”, Echos du monde classique: Classical views, Volume XXXVI, n.s. 11, Number 3, 1992, pp. 357-367.

MacLachlan, B. (2013) Women in Ancient Rome, A Sourcebook (London, Bloomsbury Academic).

Rowan, C. (forthcoming) ANS/CUP Handbook to the Coinage of the Ancient World 49 BC – AD 14. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Wood, S.E. ( 2001) Imperial Women, A Study in Public Images, 40 BC – AD68 (Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava, Supplementum 195).

July 01, 2018

Augustus and the Exaggeration of Military Victories

armenia capta coin

Figure 1: Figure 1: Gold Aureus from the reign of Augustus, 19-18 BC (RIC I (second edition) Augustus 514). The obverse depicts the head of Augustus, with ‘AVGUSTVS’ inscribed (not visible on this specimen). On the reverse is the deity Victory cutting the throat of a bull, representing Armenia. The reverse legend reads ‘ARMENIA CAPTA’. Image produced courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

This coin is indicative of Augustan propaganda, where Augustus exaggerates the role of the military in dealings with Armenia. The Roman Empire and the Parthian Empire were in constant dispute over Armenia, which acted as a buffer zone between the two empires in the East in the first century BC. Armenia fell under Roman influence as a result of treaties and the installation of a pro-Roman ruler, not military annexation. Thus the portrayal of the deity Victory slaughtering a bull (presumably representing Armenia) paints a false militarised narrative of events. The question is why Augustus, on this aureus dating from 19-18 BC, would want to exaggerate his dealings with the Armenians.

It is my belief that this false depiction is an attempt by Augustus to link himself with the military and military success, both key factors in obtaining popularity and support in Ancient Rome. Augustus tries to ‘piggyback’ off the popularity of the army in order to consolidate power; he wishes to be seen as a military man in an attempt to secure his longevity. The military’s popularity stems from the role they played in achieving and maintaining the Empire alongside their connection to the beginnings of Rome, explored by Virgil’s Aeneid. Augustus’ own position was extremely fragile due to the unprecedented nature of his Principate and the real threat of civil war occurring again; he thus sought avenues of popular support. The term ‘capta’ indicates military success, suggesting that the entire state was captured and subjugated, yet this is wholly false. Augustus later on in his own autobiography, Res Gestae (27), even admits this, stating ‘though I might have made it a province’ and details installing a Pro-Roman ruler, further highlighting the degree of exaggeration on the aureus.

The history between Rome and Armenia is particularly key in deciphering why Augustus would exaggerate Rome’s dealings with the Eastern state. Due to Armenia constantly being fought over by Rome and Parthia, it was as a prize for Augustus, that he could claim displayed not only the strength of the Roman military, but his own. Augustus, by portraying himself on the obverse is clearly taking credit for dealings in Armenia, emphasising his role in proceedings, echoed by the inclusion of the Armenia episode in his Res Gestae. One reason why Augustus would particularly emphasise any dealings with Armenia would be to show victory against Roman enemies, the Parthians. The Parthians humiliated Rome with the annihilation of Crassus’ army and loss of the famous legionary standards in 53 BC. This would still be fresh in Roman minds. Augustus’s return of Armenia and later the standards would boost his popularity. Augustus portrayed himself as correcting the wrongs that the Republic never could, cementing his position of singular rule.

This aureus indicates the usage of coinage to foster support and is a prime example of Augustan propaganda through exaggeration of militarism. Both the military popularity and Parthian context are key motivators for Augustus’ actions. The use of this coin to promote popularity indicates that coins were not simply economical tools but key in spreading the Imperial view. This work is based on the view of an imperially directed die-engraver, rather than a die engraver creating something to his own taste.

dillon patel

This month's coin was written by Dillon Kylan Patel. Dillon is an undergraduate first year Ancient History and Classical Archaeology student and current Secretary of Classics Society with a keen interest in Numismatics, especially in the Imperial period. This summer I’ve been luckily enough to gain a placement at the British Museum where I will further explore numismatics.


Bellinger, A & Berlincourt, M (1962) ‘Victory as a coin type’, Numismatic Notes and Monographs 149:1-68.

Edwell, P. (2008) Between Rome and Persia (London: Routledge).

Gow, J. (1895) ‘Horatiana’. The Classical Review 9:6:301-304.

Res Gestae Divi Augusti, trans Shipley, F.W (New York/ London: Harvard University Press 1924).

June 01, 2018

A Roman Token Mould in Harvard

token mold harvard
Roman Token Mould from Harvard Art Museums, 2008.118

Amongst the McDaniel bequest to Harvard Art Museums in Boston is one half of a mould made of palombino marble. Shown here, this piece is one of the numerous moulds of this type used to cast Roman lead tokens. This particular mould half is 10.8x7.6x2.9cm and weighs 389.2g. It would have been used in conjunction with another half to cast seven circular lead tokens of c. 14mm, all carrying an image of the goddess Fortuna holding a cornucopia and rudder (and presumably another image on the other side, engraved on the other half of the mould). It has previously been published in Hirschland and Hammond 1968.

This type of token mould is characteristic of Rome and Ostia, and was donated to Harvard along with McDaniel's collection of Roman lead tokens and other antiquities. We know from McDaniel himself that he purchased his lead tokens (and thus probably also this mould) from the city of Rome. In his memoir, Riding a Hobby in the Classical Lands (p. 71), McDaniel writes:

For the integrity of one dealer in Rome I can vouch unreservedly and so, as a contrast to some of the rest of my group, I name him here at the end of the chapter, honoris causa, Signore Scalco. His sunny face and smile alone used to lighten the tiny, gloomy shop not far from St. Peter’s in which he exposed for sale his modest stock of classical antiquities. A charming, well-informed Italian was he, who often had unusual things for sale. Thus, it was from him I bought a considerable number of papal medals…. From him, too, came my piombi, those coin-shapes of lead which have so much about them to pique the curiosity and to puzzle the best of scholars as they work on the problem of their various uses. While I almost never saw any customers in the shops of the other small dealers in Rome, Scalco was one who received calls from archaeologists, who liked to chat with him, and also from the proprietors of the more pretentious establishments, who would buy from him in order to sell again. There, too, one might chance at any time upon one of the rough dwellers of the Trastevere who had fished something out of the Tiber which he expected to have identified as modern, or, if good luck were his, to sell as an antiquity. He was just as sure as the most promising customer to receive all the attentions of courtesy and fair treatment; that was Scalco."

tokens cast
Cast lead tokens
from Ostia.

The mould carries the channels through which molten lead was poured into the token cavaties; the resulting tokens were then broken off to be used (see the picture left for an example of what the resulting cast would have looked like before the tokens were broken off). The mould still contains the iron nails used to fasten both halves of the mould together (in the top right and lower left corners) - this would ensure that both halves of the mould were correctly aligned. The top and bottom sides of the mould carry faint grooves (see image below); it has been suggested that these grooves were created for or by wire that was wrapped around the moulds during the casting process (Pardini et al 2016). The back of the mould is unworked, as many moulds of this type are.

The top right corner of the Harvard mould has an unusual feature: two concentric circles are etched into the material (see image below). The inner circle is 14mm, the precise diameter of the tokens produced by this mould. These two circles may have been an error made by the person producing the mould, or they may in fact provide a clue as to how these moulds were made: perhaps two concentric circles were sketched before a design was carved into the inner circle- here, perhaps, it was decided that this additional token design was not needed. When one looks closely at each of the circular designs, one sees a deep circular depression at the centre, on Fortuna's body. Jack Kroll, in his unpublished catalogue of these pieces, suggested that this depression was caused by the bit of an instrument used for cutting the circular depressions before the designs were engraved (much like the point of a compass). Many Roman lead tokens carry circular protuberances at their centre; the Harvard mould allows us to understand these protuberances were the result of the mould manufacturing process rather than an intentional part of the design.

Images below from left to right: the side of the mould with faint grooves; a close up of the top left corner of the mould showing two concentric circles and a central depression on the body of Fortuna; a Roman lead token from the Harvard Art Museums collection (2008.116.41) with a wreath and a central dot, now understood to be a result of the mould making process.

harvard side of mould top left of mould token from harvard

This coin of the month was written by Clare Rowan as part of the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean Project.

Select Bibliography:

Hirschland, N. L. and M. Hammond (1968). Stamped Potters' marks and other stamped pottery in the McDaniel Collection. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 72: 369-382.

Kroll, J. H. (unpublished manuscript). Roman Lead Tokens in Harvard Art Museums.

McDaniel, W. B. (1971). Riding a Hobby in the Classical lands. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Printing Office.

Pardini, G., M. Piacentini, A. C. Felici, M. L. Santarelli and S. Santucci (2016). Matrici per tessere plumbee dalle pendici nord-orientali del Palatino. Nota preliminare. In: Le regole del gioco tracce archeologi racconti. Studi in onore di Clementina Panella. ed. A. F. Ferrandes and G. Pardini, Edizioni Quasar: 649-667.

May 01, 2018

Tokens for the Eleusinian Mysteries

The intersection of imagery between tokens and coins in Hellenistic Athens remains an understudied phenomenon. It has previously been thought that tokens functioned as substitute for coinage or as an alternative currency according to a ‘functional’ approach. A more semiotic approach to these objects has underlined the obvious verisimilitude of Hellenistic tokens to the moneyer’s symbols of Athenian New Style coinage, identifying the common imagery used by a wide set of media, which included tokens, coins, weights and measures, as well as bronze allotment plates (pinakia).

goettingen token with wheart ears

Athenian lead token from Göttingen with a poppy head between two ears of wheat. (Göttingen, As-Pb-085, 13mm)

A token, shown above, struck only on one side with a poppy head between two ears of wheat and recently studied in the University Museum of Göttingen, returns to this question. The type follows closely coin types of the 70s BC. (J.H. Kroll with contributions by A.S. Walker, The Greek Coins, The Athenian Agora, vol. 26, Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1993, 118; 133-134). It is very probable that two different but closely associated workshops prepared two distinct sets of dies. The fact that dies for tokens have to date never been found, in conjunction with the evidence that indicates a continuous circle of disposing of the old tokens and recycling them, points to the fact the polis carefully controlled the production of tokens.

Tokens gave access to a broad array of state pay: for example assembly pay, misthos ekklesiastikos, from the late 5th cent. BC, juror’s pay from the late 5th century BC onwards, theatre tickets paid out on an ad hoc basis from the late 5th century BC, and regularly from the theorikon fund from the middle of the 4th century BC. Fraudulent behaviour then is likely to have been quite common. In fact it is impossible to know how many, if any, of the tokens surviving today are ancient counterfeits.

Among the tokens with ‘coin imagery’ a particular group stands apart. These are the tokens that fully copy or closely follow the imagery of Eleusinian coinage, struck in the name of Eleusis and likely connected to festivals. The ‘poppy-ear wheat token’ is one of them. But the ‘kernos’ or ‘plemochoe’, a type of vessel, is a far more popular ‘Eleusinian’ device on tokens.

goettingen token with kernos another goettingen token with kernos
Token showing a kernos.
Göttingen, AS-Pb-090, 12mm
Token showing a kernos.
Göttingen, As-Pb-091, 11mm

Two such tokens showing a kernos are also found in the University Coin Collection of Göttingen, shown above. Remarkable also is a bronze token with a kernos on the reverse, accompanied by the legend ΔΗΜΟΣ ΑΘΗΝΑΙΩΝ, ‘the demos of Athens’ (Svoronos 1898, 124). The vessel is also attested as a countermark on a lead token of the letter series (Crosby 1964, L5). The kernos appears for the first time on Athenian bronze coinage (hemiobols and chalkoi) of the period following the evacuation of the Macedonian garrisons from the forts of Attica in 229BC.

The last day of the Eleusinian Mysteries was called ‘Plemochoai’, named after these particular vases, which were used ceremonially. A. Dumont has suggested that tokens carrying these designs could have been used in the Eleusinian Festival. The circumstances could have been similar to the ones that prompted the ‘ΕΛΕΥΣΙ coinage’, the coins carrying a reference to Eleusis. Perhaps tokens were employed as credit when the appropriate money was not available. Or – more probably – tokens were issued by the Boule and the magistrates responsible for the Eleusinian Mysteries or the panegyriarch, who presided over the panegyris (assembly) related to the festival. Today ‘kernos-tokens’ have been found in and around the tholos of the Agora in Athens.

The connection of tokens to Athenian Festivals in the Hellenistic Period is also attested through another important find: all the ‘Panathenaic Amphora – tokens’ have been found very near the so-called Arsenal, on the North side of the Agora, the only building which contained sherds of Panathenaic Amphoras.

This month's entry was written by Mairi Gkikaki as part of the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean Project.


W. Bubelis, ‘Tokens and Imitation in Ancient Athens’, Marburger Beiträge zur Antiken Handels-, Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte 28, 2011, pp. 171-195.

Fr. De Callataÿ, ‘Les Plombes à type Monétaires en Grѐce Ancienne: Monnaies (officielles, votives ou contrefaites), jetons, sceax, poids, épreuves ou fantaisies?’ RN 167, 2010 pp. 219-255.

M. Crosby, ‘Lead and Clay Tokens. Part II’, in Lang, M. Crosby, M., Weights, Measures and Tokens. The Athenian Agora, vol. 10 (Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1964).

L. Deubner, Attische Feste (Berlin 1932).

A. Dumont, De Plumbeis apud Graecos Tesseris (Paris 1870).

M. Gkikaki, 'The Collection of Athenian Lead Tokens at the University Museum of Göttingen' (SchwNumRu forthcoming)

J.H. Kroll with contributions by A.S. Walker, The Greek Coins, The Athenian Agora, vol. 26 (Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1993).

C. Mann, Spent or Saved? The Circulation of Festival Coins Struck for the Eleusinian Mysteries, Unpublished MA Essay (University of Warwick 2017, RNS Parkes Weber Prize)

G.E. Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Princeton 1961).

M.P. Nilsson, Die Geschichte der Griechischen Religion (München 1941).

P.J. Rhodes, The Athenian Boule (Oxford 1972).

I.N. Svoronos, ‘Περί των Εισιτηρίων των Αρχαίων. Μέρος Α΄ Εισιτήρια του Λυκούργειου Διονυσιακού Θεάτρου και της Κλεισθενείου Εκκλησίας των Αθηναίων’. JIAN 1, 1898, pp. 37-84.

April 01, 2018

Tessera hospitalis: a gift for your guests

Drawing representing the concept of hospitality
Fig. 1: A drawing representing
the concept of hospitality.
(Tomasini 1670: 133).

“Hospitality” was worthy of high, valuable consideration in the Greek and Roman world. It is not a coincidence that Zeus Xenios was the powerful protector of guests. The Greek word for hospitality was xenia, while the Romans called it hospitalitas. This concept was strongly sincere and implied a true friendship between the host and the guest. The latter could be a friend or a relative, who came to his host’s house for a brief or long period of time (fig. 1). Moreover, hospitality was considered a sacred institution. It was therefore based on serious rules and rituals. First, the host had to accommodate the guest respectfully. Second, the guest had to esteem his host, being kind and gracious while he was staying at his house. Third, hospitality established a mutual exchange of favours, reciprocal esteem and a series of gifts. Among them, the host could donate a tessera hospitalis (token of hospitality) to his guest.

This ‘ad hoc’ gift was prepared and personalised every time to testify that the hospitality was successful and to strengthen the bond between the guest and the host. We even know that the tessera might be broken in two parts, one for the guest and one for the host. Considering how heart-felt and widespread the concept of hospitality was, it is quite surprising that these artefacts seem to be quite rare nowadays. Two such objects are currently preserved at the Archaeological Museum of Madrid (1st century BC) (Saquette 1997: 420, n. 238) and the Museum ‘B. Anselmi’ in Marsala (Trapani – Sicily), ancient Lilybaeum (Trapani – Sicily) (2nd-1st century BC) (Salinas 1873: 53).

A third tessera (fig. 2) found at Trasacco (Aquila) (fig. 3) in 1895, is now stored at the National Museum of Rome. Dated to the 2nd century BC, the artefact was published by Felice Barnabei (1842-1922), a well-known archaeologist and General Director of Antiquities and Fine Arts (1896-1900), who wrote a detailed paper in the Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità (Barnabei 1895: 85-93; Letta 2001: 152; Luschi 2008: 137-86). The tessera is curiously shaped as a ram’s head and carries the following Latin legend, testifying a mutual hospitality between T. Manlius and T. Staiodius:





Fig. 2: Tessera hospitalis found in Trasacco (Aquila) (Letta 2001: 152).


Fig. 3: Map showing Trasacco and Rome (Google Maps).

Antiquarians have been interested in tesserae hospitales since before the 19th century. For instance, Jacopus Philippus Tomasini (1595-1655) (fig. 4), Catholic bishop and learned historian born in Padua, even wrote even an entire book on these artefacts. Published in Amsterdam in 1670 and written in Latin, De tesseris hospitalitatis liber singularis (1670) (fig. 5) is a thorough 230-page essay that signifies Tomasini’s deep knowledge of Greek and Roman history and analyses the concept of hospitality through historical and antiquarian sources (fig. 6).

tomasini tomasinis book  
Fig. 4: Portrait of Jacopus Philippus Tomasini (1595-1655) (Wikipedia). Fig. 5: De tesseris hospitalitatis liber singularis by J. P. Tomasini (1670) (online, GoogleBooks).


Fig. 6: Drawing of a tessera from a private collection (Tomasini 1670: 107)

Why did Tomasini write this work? He began to seriously think about his essay (serio mecum cogitare coepi) when he was in Rome admiring its ruins. Although the concept of hospitality was not ‘directly’ shown by Rome’s major antiquities, a targeted study was lacking and therefore it was essential to collect all the antiquarian and historical evidence (Tomasini 1670: 1-3).

nino crisa

This blog post was written by Nino Crisa as part of the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean Project. Nino is an archaeologist, numismatist and historian. His research and published works mainly focus on numismatics and the history of Sicilian archaeology and excavations, particularly on archival records, antiquarian collecting, the history of museum collections, antiquities safeguarding and legislation on the cultural heritage between the Bourbon and post-Unification periods (1816-1918).


Barnabei, F. 1895, ‘Di una rarissima “tessera hospitalis” con iscrizione latina’, Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità: 85-93.

Letta, C. 2001, ‘Tessera hospitalis dal territorio di Trasacco’, in A. Campanelli (ed.), Il tesoro del lago. L’archeologia del Fucino e la Collezione Torlonia. Catalogo della mostra, Avezzano, 22 aprile-31 ottobre 2001. Pescara: Soprintendenza Archeologica dell’Abruzzo: 152.

Luschi, L. 2008, ‘L’ariete dei “Manlii”: note su una “tessera hospitalis” dal Fucino’, Studi Classici e Orientali, 54: 137-86.

Salinas, A. 1873, Del Real Museo di Palermo: relazione. Palermo (reported in V. Tusa (ed.) 1976, Scritti scelti, Palermo: Regione Siciliana, I: 240-86).

Saquette, J. C. 1997, ‘Tessera di ospitalità a forma di mano’, in J. Arce, S. Ensoli and E. La Rocca (eds.), Hispania Romana: da terra di conquista a provincia dell’impero. Catalogo della mostra, Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, 22 settembre-23 novembre. Milan: Electa: 420.

Tomasini, J. P. 1670, De tesseris hospitalitatis liber singularis, in quo ius hospitii universum, apud veteres potissimum, expenditur. Amestlodami: Sumptibus Andreae Frisii.

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