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October 16, 2018

Converting Roman coins into tesserae: development and value

The conversion of Roman coins into coin-like objects is a practice documented during the imperial period. Although it is not always easy to date and determine the value of countermarks, incisions and other types of intervention on coins after their production, full academic awareness has not yet been acquired on the complexity of the reuse of coins in antiquity, which lost their previous economic function in order to acquire new meanings and purposes. In addition to pierced specimens – which were hung on the neck by a cord (funiculum) to be reused as amulets or jewels – official Roman coins were also transformed into tesserae by erasing their reverses and engraving Roman numerals on the surface instead.

fig_1a_.jpg fig_1b.jpg fig 2a fig 2b






Figures 1-2: Late Antique coins with numerals scratched on the reverse. Both are bronze coins, BnF Paris.

The specimens shown above (Figs. 1-2), both held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), bear on their obverses respectively the draped, cuirassed, and diademed bust of Julian the Apostate (on the left) and Theodosius I (DN THEODO-SIVS PF AVG) right (on the right). The reverses of both specimens were erased and smoothed, with the Roman numerals IIII and XII incised respectively. This phenomenon also appears to be attested on some earlier fourth-century bronze coins, e.g. those carrying the portrait of Maxentius and Constantius II (Alföldi 1975, Taf. 7, nos. 9-10) on the obverses. However, their conversion into tesserae may have occurred before, at the same time or even after that of the two pieces mentioned above.

fig 3a

fig 3b







Figure 3: Bronze coin (Münzkabinett, Staatlichen Museen Berlin).

A specimen kept at the Münzkabinett in Berlin (Fig. 3) bears the bust of Julian the Apostate left on the obverse, while the image originally depicted on the reverse was erased and replaced with two engraved symbols, namely a palm branch and the monogram PE (“palma emerita”, “praemia emerita”?) whose meaning is controversial. Both motifs frequently occur on contorniates as well as on late Roman material culture, and they could allude to games and competitions or may have been used just as propitious and favourable symbols. Nevertheless, it is unclear how these motifs on contorniates were interpreted by their recipients, and even less clear how they connected with the function of the contorniates.

fig 4








Figure 4: Vota Publica brass token (“Festival of Isis coinage”) (Collection H. Hoffmann, Médailles grecques et romaines, françaises et etrangers. Auktionskatalog Delestre-Rollin-Feuardent, 2-11 Mai 1898, Lot 2168).

fig 5







Fig. 5 Fig. 5: Vota Publica brass token (“Festival of Isis coinage”): Numismatica Ars Classica NAC AG, 23.05.2016, Auction 92, Lot 781. 2.75 g

Roman numerals could be engraved not only coins but even on tokens themselves, again converting them from one purpose to another. The two pieces shown above (Figs. 4-5) belong to the so-called “Vota Publica issues” (or “Festival of Isis coinage”) and, in particular, they have to be ascribed to the so-called “Anonymous series”, generically dated to the fourth century. A specimen carrys the radiate and draped bust of Serapis right, while the number V is incised on the reverse. Another piece, repeatedly published in auction catalogues since 1950, bears the crowned and draped busts of Isis and Serapis right, while the number XVI is engraved on the smoothed surface of the reverse. The obverse types of these two brass tokens show the same iconographies depicted on some Vota Publica specimens published by Alföldi (see Alföldi 1937, Taf. 7,31; Taf. 14).

Undoubtedly, the Roman numerals incised on the reverse of these coins and tokens evoke the Roman tesserae with numerals belonging to the Julio-Claudian period (27 BC – AD 68), which show the busts of members of the imperial dynasty or other depictions on the obverses, and Roman numbers generally within a laurel wreath – sometimes with the additional letters A or AVG – on the reverses. Also the so-called spintriae, characterized by erotic images (symplegma) on the obverses, carry Roman numerals on the reverses, at times connected by scholars to a ludic function (game counters) or an erotic context (“brothel tokens”). In addition to these two categories of tesserae, bone and ivory tokens also bear numbers written in both Latin and Greek on one side, and they were regarded as gaming counters on the basis of their findspots.

How should we interpret the coins as well as the Vota Publica specimens that were converted into tokens by engraving Roman numerals on their reverses? This kind of transformation of late Roman coins into tesserae suggests that they probably imitated earlier tokens carrying Roman numerals, and this presupposes a demand for this type of object also in the following centuries. The interpretation of these special “tesserae” is therefore closely related to the unknown function of earlier Roman tokens with Roman numerals, suggesting a continuity between the tokens of the earlier and later Roman period in terms of imagery and reception. New evidence could help to clarify the meaning of Roman numerals as well as the purpose and effects of these objects within Roman society across a longer term perspective.


This blog was written by Cristian Mondello, a British Academy Visiting Fellow at Warwick. This research is supported by the British Academy’s Visiting Fellowships Programme under the UK Government's Rutherford Fund.

Select Bibliography

Alföldi A., A Festival of Isis in Rome under the Christian Emperors of the IVth Century (Budapest 1937).

Alföldi A., ‘Heiden und Christen am Spieltisch’, JAC 18, 1975, pp. 19-21.

Bianchi C., ‘«Pedine alessandrine»: testimoni illustri di un gioco ignoto’, in Lambrugo C. & Slavazzi F. (eds.), I materiali della Collezione Archeologica “Giulio Sambon” di Milano (Milano, 2015), pp. 53-65.

Buttrey Th., ‘Spintriae as a Historical Source’, NC 13, 1973, pp. 52-62.

Campana A., ‘Le Spintriae: tessere romane con raffigurazioni erotiche’, in Morello A. (ed.), La donna romana. Immagini e vita quotidiana. Atti del convegno, Atina, 7 marzo 2009 (Cassino, 2009), pp. 43-96.

Küter A., ‘Roman tesserae with numerals – Some thoughts on iconography and purpose, in Rowan C., Crisà N. & Gkikaki M. (eds), Tokens: Culture, Connections, Communities, ed. by (London: Royal Numismatic Society, forthcoming).

Mittag P.F., Alte Köpfe in neuen Händen: Urheber und Funktion der Kontorniaten (Bonn 1999).

Perassi C., ‘Monete amuleto e monete talismano. Fonti scritte, indizi, realia per l’età romana’, Numismatica e Antichità Classiche. Quaderni Ticinesi 40 (2011), pp. 223-74.


October 26, 2016

Anubis Tokens and the Festival of Isis in Late Antique Rome

As part of the Token Communities project I have been examining the Roman lead tokens housed in the British Museum. Amongst the tokens are several that show the Egyptian goddesses Isis and Anubis. One example of these type of tokens is shown below: one side of the token shows Isis with a sistrum (a type of musical instrument associated with the goddess) and what may be a situla (a type of bucket). The legend on the left reads ACICI. The other side of the token shows the dog-headed god Anubis with a branch and a rather stylised sistrum.

anubis_token_1.jpg
Lead token with Isis on one side and Anubus on the other.

The designs reminded me of the Isis coins of late antiquity, which are gathered together in Alföldi's 1937 book A Festival of Isis in Rome under the Christian Emperors of the IVth Century. Alföldi observed that even as late as the fourth century AD coins were being struck in Rome with the imperial portrait on one side and the Egyptian gods Isis and Sarapis on the other. Another series, which Alföldi called the 'anonymous' series, was also struck in the city. These had Isis or Sarapis on the obverse and various Egyptian motifs on the reverse: they did not name or show an emperor (an example is shown below). Alfödi suggested that this 'anonymous' series was created in the official mint after AD 378-9, the date at which coins showing the imperial portrait in association with Egyptian deities ceased. Alföldi believed that although the increasingly Christian emperors could no longer be associated with Isis or Sarapis, the (pagan) senatorial elite in Rome continued to produce coin-like objects for the festival of Isis, which could be given to their clients. Without the imperial portrait, these pieces weren't officially currency, Alföldi suggested, but instead were gifts given by select senators to their clients (and these pieces, in turn, may have later been used as playing pieces or small change).

anubis coin
'Anonymous' issue with the portrait of Isis and figure of Anubis.

On the anonymous series Anubis carries a sistrum and (stylised) caduceus, and is accompanied by the legend VOTA PVBLICA. This legend is also found on the coins struck with the imperial portrait, and probably references the fact that the festival of Isis in Rome was often connected with vows for the health and safety of the emperor. There are stylistic similarities, particularly with the sistrum held by Anubis, between the coins and the tokens. This, and the unusual appearance of Anubis at all, leaves me to wonder whether the lead tokens are not also from the same time period, and connected to the same, or a similar festival for Isis. If the elite were already creating 'anonymous' coin-like objects for use in the festival, perhaps the lead tokens with Anubis were a complementary or later development. While the Anubis British Museum tokens don't have any find data associated with them, they were catalogued by Rostovtzeff in his catalogue of tokens from Rome and the suburbs (Tesserarum Urbis Romae et Suburbi Plumbearum Sylloge no. 3190), and similar tokens were mentioned by Ficorini in his 1740 work. Specimens are also held in the Museo Nazionale in the Baths of Diocletian in Rome and in the Vatican, suggesting that maybe these are tokens that come from Rome, despite their Egyptian motifs. Other lead tokens also show strikingly similar imagery to the late antique coins associated with the festival.

Until further data is found this is just an idea, but perhaps we should add these tokens into the discussions of the yearly festival of Isis in late antique Rome.


This blog was written by Clare Rowan as part of the Token Communities project.


Anonymous series coin image reproduced courtesy of Numismatica Ars Classica, Auction 92 Part 1, lot 772.


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