All 10 entries tagged Coins In Focus

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September 13, 2013

Athens and the Augustan Cultural Revolution


Coin of Athens with head of Gorgoneion

As Spawforth has demonstrated in his Greece and the Augustan Cultural Revolution, the transition of Rome from a Republic to a principate under Augustus meant that Greeks (and others) were forced to redefine themselves in view of this new power structure. In Greece, this period saw an emphasis on the glorious archaic past, epitomised in the glory and achievements of archaic Athens, and, to a lesser extent, Sparta. New 'old' temples were built, and new 'old' festivals revived. This was in part a reaction to how the Romans (and Augustus) saw Greece, a vision that emphasised the legacy and achivements of the Classical period.

This 'return to the glory days' can also be traced on coinage at the time. Towards the end of the Republic (42-39 BC), a bronze issue at Athens was struck showing the head of a gorgoneion on the obverse and Athena on the reverse. Kroll pointed out that the inspiration for this rather obscure obverse type must have been the original coins of Athens struck in the 6th century BC - today these coins are called Wappenmünzen, alluding to the scholarly idea that the types were familial shields, a theory that is now discounted. (Kroll, J. 1972. Two hoards of first-century B.C. Athenian bronze coins. ΑΡΧΑΙΟΛΟΓΙΚΟΝ ΔΕΛΤΙΟΝ, 27, 86-120.)

Wappenmünze of the 6th century BC

It is remarkable that the type of the gorgoneion should be revived after a period of around 500 years - the inspiration may have been a text referring to the type; it is hard to believe that any of the original Wappenmünzen were available to be viewed at this time. The revival of old types and/or reference to the archaic history of Greece is also found on other coin types struck by cities in the region after they come under Roman dominion - Lycurgus, for example, appears on the coins of Sparta, and the Roman provincial issues of Cyrene reference earlier silver issues that carried images of the silphium plant.

The Athenian example is of great interest since it demonstrates not only a reaction to Roman 'visions' of Greece, but an interest in old coin types and their resuscitation. This brings to mind Suetonius' account of Augustus (75), which notes that Augustus had an interest in old and foreign coins. The Roman vision of the Greeks, and the particular Roman understanding of coinage as a memorial as well as a piece of money, meant that the gorgoneion once again graced Athenian coinage, if only for a brief period. Greece looked to their past in order to place themselves in a new future.

Images above reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group (

August 21, 2013

Roman Portraiture and Pompey

Denarius with portrait of Pompey the Great

In 45-44 BC in Spain, Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompey the Great, released a denarius series showing the portrait of his deceased father (RRC 477/1-3). The portrait is accompanied by Sextus' name and titles IMP SEX MAGNVS PIVS (Imperator Sextus Magnus Pius). The reverse shows the image of Pietas, a reference to the filial piety of Sextus, whose claim to legitimacy in the civil wars stemmed from his declaration that he was avenging his father and brother. The appearance of Pompey the Great's portrait at this juncture has been seen as extremely significant, and is commonly believed to have been potentially shocking for a Roman audience. But was it so revolutionary?

Denarius of Rufus showing his grandparents

Examining other Roman coin types from this period reveals that from the middle of the first century BC, there was a significant increase in the portrait-style portrayal of ancestors on coinage. In 54 BC M. Iunius Brutus (who would later go on to assassinate Caesar) struck an issue showing his famous ancestor, who was believed to have driven out the Tarquin Kings from Rome and become the first consul in 509 BC (RRC 433/2). Around the same time (c. 54 BC) Q. Pompeius Rufus struck an issue with two portraits of his grandparents, both of whom were consuls in 88 BC (RRC 434/1, image right). In the following years two other moneyers (Marcellinus and Restio) also showed ancestral portraits on their coin issues, with Restio probably displaying the image of his father (RRC 437/1-4, 439/1, 455/1). Seen in this context, Sextus' use of the portrait of Pompey the Great is less shocking; rather it appears to conform to what had become a fashion of the period.

The Togatus Barberini

The display of deceased ancestors was no doubt linked to the Roman phenomenon of imagines, ancestor masks that were used and displayed in a variety of contexts (see the Togatus Barberini statue right for a possible sculptural representation). But why, in the middle of the first century BC, should there have suddenly been a trend towards displaying ancestral portraits on coins? Flower (Ancestor Masks and Aristocratic Power) suggests the increase in ancestral image may have been linked to the turbulent political situation. This may be so, but the sudden use of portraiture in this fashion and at this juncture needs more careful examination. Why Romans began to do this remains, for the moment, a mystery; what is clearer is that it provides an important context for Sextus' imagery.

(Images above reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group (, and Wikimedia Commons).

August 12, 2013

Caesar's elephant and Usekerte–Osicerda
Coin of Osicerda imitating a coin of Caesar

Several coins in focus have examined the reception of Julius Caesar's imagery, the elephant and 'snake' coin he struck in 49 BC. A further example of the reception of this imagery is a bi-lingual coin issue struck by Usekerte-Osicerda in Spain (Villaronga and Benages 1292-3). The obverse of the coin imitates a quinarius struck in Rome in 47 BC. It shows Victory, accompanied by the Latin legend OSI, a reference to the issuing authority. As with many Iberian coins in this period, this issue is bilingual, naming the tribe or city in both Latin and Iberian (or another local language). The reverse imitates Caesar's coin type of an elephant trampling a 'snake' (exactly what the creature/object is remains the subject of debate), with the Iberian legend Usekerte in the exergue. The question is: why would Iberians imitate Caesar's coin in this manner?

One suggestion is that the coin was struck to celebrate a victory of Caesar in the region, perhaps Caesar's victory over Lucius Afranius and Marcus Petreius at the battle of Ilerda in 49 BC, or his success at the battle of Munda in 45 BC (M.G. Justo, 1996-7. Las acuñaciones de Usekerte/Osicerda. Annals de l'Institut d'Estudis Gironins, 36, 321-33). The mint of this piece may have been located close to where the battle of Ilerda took place, and so this seems a possible scenario. If this is the case the coin series must have been commemorative: the obverse, after all, imitates a coin of 47 BC, several years after Ilerda.

What this piece demonstrates is that the iconography used by Caesar and the Romans more broadly was seen and understood by Iberians, who could then appropiate the imagery to make their own statements of allegiance and support. The coin communicates Isekerte-Osicerda's support of Caesar during the civil wars - the elephant is a reference to Caesar and his coinage, while another Roman coin type, Victory, was appropriated to celebrate the success of Caesar in the region. Coin hoards suggest that Caesar's elephant type circulated in the region in quantity - the imagery would thus have been 'seen' as it moved from hand to hand. But instead of the legend CAESAR, this coin series has an Iberian legend, one of the last struck that carry the Iberian script.

(Coin image reproduced courtesy of Image reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (Auction 91, lot 26) (

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., (

July 10, 2013

Sardus Pater and Roman–Sardinian Interaction

Coin of Sardinia struck c. 43-33 BC

Last week Warwick hosted an international workshop focused on the coinage of islands. One of the coins under discussion was an issue struck on the island of Sardinia by Marcus Attius Balbus, a Roman praetor and possibly also a governor of Sardinia. After its conquest by the Romans in 238 BC, Sardinia did not strike its own coinage - instead currency arrived on the island from Rome. It was only at the end of the Republic that coinage began to be produced locally again, with this issue and several others. It is likely that renewed minting on the island was a result of the Republican civil wars - Sardinia was an important grain supplier, and both sides of the conflict did their best to win control of the island.

The Temple of Antas, Sardinia

The obverse of this coin probably shows a portrait of the praetor himself, Attius Balbus. Although the first living Roman portrait to be shown on a Roman coin was Julius Caesar in 44 BC, the practice was quickly adopted after his murder (even by the assassins!) The reverse of the coin shows the god Sardus Pater. The god was an important figure through which the Romans and the local Sardinian population interacted. There was a temple to Sardus Pater at Antas, close to an important mining district. This was originally a local temple to an indigenous (Nuragic) deity, which the Carthaginians, when they conquered the island, identified as Sid Addir. The Romans in their turn identified the deity as Sardus Pater, and the emperor Augustus rebuilt the temple sometime after 27 BC. It is clear that Sardus Pater provided a figure through which the Romans could incorporate Sardinia into their world view: both Sallust and Pausanias record that Sardus was the son of Hercules, who went with a mass of people to settle Sardinia. As a focal point for Roman engagement with the Sardinians, it is no surprise that it is this god which was chosen to grace another medium intended for intercultural interaction: coinage.

(Images above provided courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group (Mail Bid Sale 78, 1170) (, and Wikimedia Commons).

June 21, 2013

Sextus Pompey the Iconographic Innovator

Pompey the Great as Janus

Although the reign of Augustus as first emperor of Rome is often seen as a period of innovation in iconography and ideology, several Romans in the late Republican period also pushed the boundaries of traditional representation. This role is often obscured in literary sources, which were written to favour the emperor Augustus. Coins, however, survive in abundance from this period and can provide an insight into what other Romans, the opponents of Augustus, were thinking and doing.

Coinage reveals that Sextus Pompey, the son of Pompey the Great, was a great innovator in terms of ideology and iconography. Although Augustus portrayed himself as the pious successor of Julius Caesar after the latter's assassination in 44 BC, Sextus Pompey had, in fact, already been developing this ideology after the death of his father in 48 BC. The way Sextus used the memory of his father went beyond the normal boundaries of the Roman Republic, and indeed, was far more radical than the ideology and imagery eventually used by Augustus. In this sense, Sextus Pompey was one of the great innovators of his time.

This coin, a bronze As struck by Sextus Pompey somewhere in Sicily or Spain, is a perfect illustration of this. Roman bronze coins normally had the head of Janus on the obverse, and the prow of a ship on the reverse (in fact, the Roman version of our game 'heads or tails' was called 'heads or prow'). On this coin the features of Janus are changed so that they resemble Pompey the Great, an allusion that is reinforced by the legend MGN or Magnus ('Great') above. Neither Julius Caesar nor Augustus were ever portrayed in such a blatantly divine fashion. In fact, Sextus also portrayed his father as Neptune. The reverse of the coin displays the traditional prow alongside the legend IMP or imperator, as well as the legend PIVS or pious. Sextus potrayed himself as the pious son of his assassinated father (see these other coin issues), and so when Augustus and Antony did the same after the death of Caesar they were actually playing catch up. Coinage thus reveals that Sextus Pompey had an important role in setting the ideological agenda that would eventually shape the ideology of Marc Antony, Octavian and the Roman principate.

(Coin image above reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group (Auction Triton XVI Sessions 3 & 4, Lot 876) (

June 10, 2013

Osca and Iconographic Entanglement
An Iberian denarius from Osca.

In examining how the Romans represented themselves and their growing Empire, it is clear that ideology and iconography arose from the interaction Rome had with her provinces. As Dietler disccusses in his book Archaeologies of Colonialism, any colonial or cultural encounter does not just affect the people being conquered, but also the conqueror. Both sides are transformed by these encounters, in a process called entanglement.

Entanglement(s) between the Roman Republic and other areas can be traced on numerous coin issues. Of interest here are the coin issues of Osca in Spain (modern day Huesca, but called Bolskan in the local Iberian language). Osca is perhaps best known for connection with the Roman rebel Quintus Sertorius, who made Osca his base and established a school to educate the children of local chieftans in the Roman manner. Osca also struck 'Iberian denarii', a series of silver coins carrying Iberian legends that were struck by numerous mints in Spain after the Roman conquest. The motivation behind these coins is heavily debated in modern scholarship, but they can be connected with the Roman conquest, and were in all likelihood used by the Romans in Spain. Although struck by numerous mints and different tribal gorups, these coins all carried a common iconography: a male head on the obverse, and a horseman on the reverse.

Coin of Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus, struck at Osca

In 40 BC Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus was sent as governer to Spain by Octavian. Calvinus remained in Spain for three years and appears to have been military successful. Calvinus had supported Julius Caesar during the civil wars, and after Caesar's death he supported Octavian. While in Spain, Domitius Calvinus struck Roman denarii (RRC 532/1) with a male head on the obverse and pontifical emblems on the reverse. The obverse type is clearly inspired by local Oscan issues (also referenced with the legend OSCA). The Roman conquest had sparked the issue of Iberian denarii at Osca, which in turn influenced the official Roman coinage struck by Roman officials - a case of entanglement. The reverse type was believed by Crawford to refer to Calvinus' position as a member of the Roman priesthood. The image, however, may have an alternative reference. Given Calvinus' long term support of the Caesarian cause, it may be a reference to the famous elephant and pontifical emblems coin of Caesar. This was one of the most prolific Republican denarius issues ever struck, meaning its imagery would be known and recognised. Others had referenced Caesar's coin as a statement of their political alliances (see the case of Hirtius), and Domitius Calvinus may be doing so in a subtle manner here. The imagery on the coin may thus have multiple layers of interpretation and meaning - it might be read as a statement of individual political loyalty, individual prestige, and as the product of entanglement between the Roman Republic and her provinces.

(Coin images reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., ( and Numismatica Ars Classica NAC AG).

May 17, 2013

Imitation and the Legacy of Mark Antony

Coin of New Carthage imitating an earlier coin of Mark Antony

The coinage of Carthago Nova in Spain (modern day Rio Tinto) during the Roman Republic is unusual to modern eyes since they rarely have a portrait on the obverse of the coin. That is, there is no 'heads'. The coins also sometimes imitate the silver coinage struck by the Roman Republic (see for example RPC 1 151). One example of particular interest is the coin pictured right (RPC 1 155). While the legend on the coin gives the names of the local individuals responsible for the issue (L. Appuleius Rufus and C. Maecius), the imagery on the coin is taken directly from a famous coin series of Mark Antony.

Before the battle of Actium, Mark Antony struck an enormous series of coins, showing a ship on one side and an aquila (military standard) on the other (see image). This series, known as Antony's 'legionary denarii', are found in almost every corner of the Roman world, well after other Republican coinage disappeared. Indeed, Antony's coins are still found in hoards in the third century AD (some 200 years after they were initially struck). The longevity of Antony's coins is likely due to the fact that there were produced with a slightly less than pure metal content (meaning that they were not melted down or hoarded alongside other coins of purer silver). The result was, ironically, that Antony's coins circulated much longer than the coins of Octavian. Why Octavian didn't destroy these coins after Antony's defeat is a difficult question, but because of their sheer number and impure metal content, it may have been easier for Octavian to use the coins rather than melt them down.

Why the moneyers of Carthago Nova felt the need to adopt the numismatic iconography of a defeated Roman general is again a difficult question. But the moneyers were certainly not alone in their imitation; later on the emperor Marcus Aurelius would also reference and celebrate the coinage of Mark Antony (see image). Imitations of other triumviral numismatic imagery have a political context (for example, the adoption of Caesar's imagery by Hirtius in Gaul was likely meant to signify his support of the Caesarian cause). But here it may be that because Antony's coin type also did not have a 'heads' side per se, it appealed to Carthago Nova, since it fit in with their own numismatic tradition. By using the imagery of Mark Antony, and placing it alongside their own names on a local coin of Carthago Nova, the moneyers transformed the context and perhaps also the meaning of the image. Whatever associations the image may have had for users of this coinage, the imitation of 'Roman' iconography demonstrates that people were paying attention to what the Romans put on their coinage, as it increasingly became a vehicle for communication.

(Image above reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group (Mail Bid Sale 78, lot 1092).

April 15, 2013

Mineia and the City of Paestum

A coin in the name of a woman (HN Italy 1258)

Before the Roman Empire, women were rarely featured on ancient coinage. Even with the arrival of an emperor and his associated empress, it took some time before women featured regularly on coins (Livia, for example, was not shown on the coinage of the first emperor Augustus). A bronze coin struck at the city of Paestum in Italy, however, proves a rare exception to this general rule.

Mineia and the city of Paestum

Coin of Paestum showing the woman Mineia M.f.

Amongst the bronze coins struck by the city of Paestum is an issue naming a female inhabitant of the city, Mineia M.f. The coin may also show her portrait (although others suggest that this is the goddess Bona Mens). From inscriptions we know that Mineia was the wife of a senator, Cocceius Flaccus, who was an officer (quaestor) under Julius Caesar, and who had an active role in the Civil Wars at the end of the Roman Republic.

After the death of her husband, Mineia sponsored a construction programme in the forum of Paestum, including the construction of a new basilica. Within the niches of this new basilica inscriptions were found honoring her dead husband and her son, who may also have predeceased her. This coin shows Mineia on one side and the basilica she sponsored on the other. The question is: did Mineia also sponsor this coinage (meaning her image was placed on it), or was the coin issue voted for her in gratitude by the city? It is impossible to know. The S C legend on the reverse of the coin, on either side of the basilica, may refer to the Senate of Paestum, and that the coinage was issued by their decree. The issue of Mineia is an example of how coins and other ancient monuments can interact, and often communicate the same message.

Interactions with Rome

As Burnett demonstrated in 2011, one of the effects of growing Roman power was a changed understanding of coinage in areas under Roman control (JRS 2011). Unlike many other ancient states, the Romans saw coinage as more than just money; coins were a medium to commemorate events and history, often highlighting the achievements of the moneyer's family (in this sense they were 'monuments in miniature'). With increased Roman power and control, this attitude to coinage spread to other regions, seen here in this example, which commemorates the activity of a female patron of Paestum. This method of using coins to highlight achievements and civic structures should be seen as a result of interaction and entanglement with Rome.

(Coin image reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group (Electronic Auction 169, Lot 5) (

April 08, 2013

Macedonian aes coin with Silenus/legend in wreath.

As part of my research project The Beginnings of Empire: Visualising Rome in the Republican Provinces 168-27 BC I am examining coin icongraphy to better understand how Rome and other cultures interacted during Roman expansion. While examining Macedonia I was struck by a particularly odd specimen, discussed below.

Macedonian aes coin with Silenus/legend in wreath.

The Romans enter Macedonia

The region of Macedonia came under Roman silenus.jpgcontrol in 168 BC, after Lucius Aemilius Paullus defeated Perseus of Macedon at the battle of Pydna. The hellenistic kingdom of Macedonia was divided into four merides or administrative territories, each of which was given a capital (Amphipolis, Thessaloniki, Pella and Pelagonia). The quaestors who were likely attached to Aemilius Paullus, Gaius Publilius and Lucius Fulcinnius, probably took over the existing Macedonian mints. Amongst other issues, both released a coin type with the head of Roma on the obverse, and their titles and the name of Macedonia within an oak wreath (a traditional Macedonian type) on the reverse. The choice of Roma is unusual at this time, when such blatant statements of Roman control and power on coinage were rare. The type also had multiple associations: Roma is often portrayed wearing the helmet of the hero Perseus, the same helmet that Macedonian kings (e.g. Philip V) had worn on their coinage. How this image was 'read' by the Macedonian population is thus uncertain.

Mediating Imagery: 'Roman', 'Macedonian', or neither?

Soon after the release of the Roma coin types in 168-166 BC, a new type was released, overstruck on the earlier issues. The new type was unusual in both Macedonian and Roman contexts: a frontal head of Silenus on the obverse, and the name of Macedonia within an ivy-wreath on the reverse, along with the Latin letter D. MacKay (ANSMN 14, 5-13) suggests that the letter D stood for decreto, a decree of the Senate allowing for the recoining of the earlier aes issues to take place. The imagery of the earlier coin was thus unsatisfactory, either to the Macedonians, or to the Romans, and the coinage was overstruck with this new and unusual type. The traditional interpretation of the Silenus type by Gaebler suggested that it was a canting type, or a pun on the name of a Roman official called Silanus. This may be the case, but in the absence of evidence to suggest that there was a Roman official named Silanus in Macedonia at this time, an alternative possibility may exist. Coinage is a key media through which conqueror and conquered interact, and the 'hybrid' imagery of Roma and the oak wreath was deemed unsatisfactory to one or both parties in this particular context. Instead, a coin type may have been chosen that was neither offensive, nor particularly symbolic, to either the Romans or the Macedonians: the god Silenus. The fact that the god is portrayed frontally, also highly unusual in both Roman and Macedonian visual culture at this time, suggests the image was chosen because of its foreign nature. Although 'hybrid' or 'creole' images are important in understanding how different cultures interact, we should perhaps also look for this third type of artefact, one which mediates by being 'foreign' to all concerned.

(Based on 'Coinage between Cultures: Mediating Power in Roman Macedonia', The In Betweenness of Things: Materializing Mediation and Movement between Worlds, The British Museum and University College London, 22-23 March 2013. A more detailed publication is forthcoming. Above image reproduced courtesy of Numismatica Ars Classica, Auction 59, lot 1610)

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