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May 01, 2021

A Flavian token in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow

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Lead token, 19mm, 12h, 2.74g. Side a: Laureate head of Vespasian right; IMP AVG VES around. Side b: Laureate heads of Titus (on left) and Domitian (on right) facing each other; IMP above and T DO CAES below.

TURS 40, The Hunterian Museum, RLT 24. Photo by author.

Amongst the Roman lead tokens now in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow is a piece that presents the Flavian dynasty. On one side of the token we find a portrait of the emperor Vespasian, accompanied by a legend that names him. On the other side we find his sons, Titus and Domitian, facing each other with a globe between them. The token recalls coinage that was struck in Vespasian's name in AD 70 (RIC II.12 Vespasian 15–16, 37). An example of this coinage is shown below.

silver coin showing Vespasian Titus and Domitian

Silver denarius, 7.5mm, 6h, 3.22g. Obverse: Laureate head of Vespasian right, IMP CAESAR VESPASIANVS AVG around. Reverse: Bare head of Titus on left facing bare head of Domitian on right, CAESAR AVG F COS CAESAR AVG F PR around.

RIC II.12 16, American Numismatic Society 1944.100.39897.

At first glance, the coin and token are very similar: both show Vespasian on one side and his sons on the other, with accompanying legends naming the individuals shown. But upon closer examination there are also important differences. On the token both Titus and Domitian are shown wearing laurel wreaths ("laureate"); one can see the ties of the wreaths flowing down behind their respective necks. On the coin they are bare-headed. On the token a globe is placed between the busts, absent on the coin issue. This globe, and the representation of Vespasian's sons, recalls an earlier token issue showing the twin sons of Drusus the Younger, Tiberius Gemellus and Tiberius Germanicus, shown below.

token showing sons of Drusus

Orichalcum token, 21mm, 4.67g, 12h. Obverse: Two young busts facing each other, each with a star above (the twin sons of Drusus the Younger), globe in between them. Reverse: VIIII within dotted border within wreath.

Buttrey B19/VIIII, © The Trustees of the British Museum, R. 4456.

The IMP on the token (an abbreviation of the title imperator) sits above the heads of Titus and Domitian. Who the title refers to is ambiguous; it may refer only to Titus, but since both Titus and Domitian are laureate it perhaps references both of them. Both Titus and Domitian also had the title CAESAR, abbreviated to CAES on the token and placed on the right hand side. In sum, although the token was likely inspired by the coin type, the makers did not merely copy the coin. They adapted the 'official' image and altered it; the resulting tokens were presumably given to an audience who were receptive to the alterations.

The precise occasion that motivated the creation of this token series is not known. It might have been created in connection to Vespasian's triumph (an important moment in which the new Flavian dynasty was presented to Rome), or at some later occasion. Another token issue also shows the laureate heads of Titus and Domitian, this time without the globe (TURS 41-42). On the other side of this token issue we find a horse rider carrying a spear accompanied by the legend IMP AV VES. The reference to Vespasian suggests that it is the emperor shown on horseback here. Whatever the occasion for the tokens showing laureate Titus and Domitian, their existence provides us with an insight into a particular vision of the Flavian dynasty not found on coinage or other media. This particular imagery of the imperial family would have contributed to the emotions, experiences and memories of the events in which the tokens were used.

This month's blog was written by Clare Rowan, as part of the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean Project.

September 01, 2020

The lead tokens of Roman Egypt: Thoughts on function

Based upon the work of J. G. Milne, lead tokens in Roman Egypt are thought to be an unofficial coinage. Milne came to this conclusion because, when he analysed the Roman coins from Oxyrhynchus’ rubbish dumps, he noticed that there were fewer bronze coins present for the period AD 180 – 260 (Milne 1908; Milne 1922). He thought that the lead tokens replaced the lower denomination bronze. The Oxyrhynchite tokens depicting Athena are not, however, standardised as would be expected for even a pseudo-coinage. It is also apparent that lead tokens were in use in Roman Egypt before the period AD 180 – 260, as evidenced by an example bearing the image and name of Messalina, and a series of tokens found at Abydos dating to the first century BC. Despite his awareness of these examples, Milne still took a broad-brush approach to his interpretation that tokens were low denomination coins. It is therefore worth exploring other possibilities for the ways in which tokens could have functioned in the province.

Milne’s theory regarding the use of tokens as a low denominational coinage is not totally unfounded, as there are a small quantity of tokens that indicate a denomination. These include those with the legend ‘OBOΛOI B’ (‘two obols’, see figure 2) from Tebtunis and the Serapeum at Saqqara, as well as a specimen in the Ashmolean collection with the legend ‘ΔIOB’ (‘diob[ol]’, see figure 1. It is also possible that the I is instead a Φ that has become worn. If this is the case, then the inscription cannot refer to a diobol). These are, however, in the minority in comparison to hundreds of other specimens that do not bear a denominational mark, which suggests that this was not an extensive issue of tokens. The thin flans of the examples from Tebtunis also suggest that they were impractical for everyday use, and so may not have been intended for quotidian circulation.


Figure 1: Token possibly naming the denomination diobol. Obverse: Wreath, within which ΔIOB(?); solid line border. Reverse: Egyptian style altar(?); solid line border. Metal: Lead. Diameter: 26mm. Weight: 7.12g. Die axis: 12. Ashmolean Museum, Milne 5441. Image: Ashmolean Museum.

The paucity of tokens bearing a denomination, alongside the impracticality of the Tebtunis issues, suggests that another possibility is worth exploring. It is feasible that these tokens were intended to represent the given amount, without actually holding this worth or circulating as a coin. A lead token series from Rome refers to 1000 sestertii, but it seems unlikely it would have been worth that amount (TURS 1460). A modern parallel is the ‘Hell money’ used today in Asia, which while having the appearance of a banknote, exhibit denominations running into the millions. It is offered to the ancestors and not accepted as legal tender (Scott 2007, 26-28). Although these examples have a much higher denominations than on those found on the tokens from Roman Egypt, they demonstrate that a denomination does not necessarily indicate an all-purpose coin. This point is particularly pertinent as a token of the ‘OBOΛOI B’ type was found at the Serapeum of Saqqara at Memphis. When this token, and others bearing the ethnic ‘MEMΦΙC’ (Memphis), were studied by Longperier in the nineteenth century he posited that they could be religious coins used exclusively at Memphis (Longperier 1861, 411). He states that Pausanias references the use of a ‘local coin’ as a votive offering at Memphis (Pausanias Description of Greece 7.22, 3-4; Longperier 1861, 412). Pausanius implies that the coins were copper, which does obviously not fit the description of the lead tokens. The nome coinage of Roman Egypt displays imagery relevant to each of the nome districts and could perhaps fit this description, however, this was struck at Alexandria and so was ‘local’ to a questionable extent. The fact that ‘local coins’ were important for votive offering at Memphis does, however, leave open the possibility that the lead tokens fulfilled this need. A ‘coin’ created specifically as a votive offering can feasibly be encompassed within the term ‘token’.


Figure 2: : Token from Tebtunis. Obverse: Apis bull facing right, with solar disc between horns, to left Isis(?) standing right wearing solar disc and to right janiform figure(?) standing left and holding uraeus serpent. Crescent and garland above in field; border of dots. Reverse: Nilus sitting left, holding cornucopia in left hand and reeds in right, Alexandria-Euthenia standing before him holding ear of corn aloft in right hand; border of dots; OBOΛOI B. Metal: Lead. Diameter: 30mm. Die axis: 12. Image: Milne 1900, pl XXVI, fig 1.

Others have posited that some of the lead tokens were tax receipts (Rostovtzeff and Prou 1900, 151-152; Mitchiner 1984). Some tokens bear the legend ΕΠ ΑΓΑΘW, which has been translated to mean ‘interest payable upon wealth’ (Mitchiner 1984, 113). However, tax receipts are known from papyrological evidence in Roman Egypt, so it seems unlikely they would take the form of tokens as well. There are also many instances in the ancient world where the phrase means ‘good fortune’, such as this inscription on a marble column drum from Lepcis Magna. The phrase is also found on rings in the Roman period (Le Blant 1896, 90; Ogden 1990, 109). Given that tokens in the ancient world are likely to have been used for euergetic distributions, this phrase would not be out of place on such tokens.

A group of tokens that are unprovenanced within Egypt can also offer an alternative function. They depict Athena on one side (unconnected to the Athena tokens from Oxyrhynchus) and have the legend ΑΓΟ (‘AGO…’, see figure 3) on the other face. It is likely that the legend refers to the agoranomoi, who oversaw markets in the Greek world. Tokens with similar legends – ΑΓ (AG…), ΑΓΟΡ (AGOR…) and ΑΓΟΡΟΝΟΜΩΝ (AGORANOMON) - have also been discovered in the Athenian agora. A possibility for their use that they were issued as proof of payment to sacrificial banquets organised by the agoranomoi (Bubelis 2013, 125). This is also plausible for Roman Egypt, as a papyrus from Karanis dating to the early third century AD also provides a link between religious banquets and their organisation by the agoranomoi (P.Mich. 8511).


Figure 3: Token possibly referring to the agoranomoi. Obverse: Athena standing left, wearing Corinthian helmet, left hand resting on shield at feet to right, outstretched left hand holding Nike with wreath and palm; solid line border. Reverse: AΓO; solid line border. Metal: Lead. Diameter: 24mm. Weight: 9.98g. Die axis: 12. Köln, Institut für Altertumskunde accession no. AL_3560. Image: Köln, Institut für Altertumskunde.

The instances highlighted above are only a minority of the tokens found in Roman Egypt, however, they provide alternative suggestions for utilisation other than a low denomination coinage, and emphasise how tokens could have a variety of functions within the province.

This blog is written by Denise Wilding. The content of this blog is adapted from: Wilding, D. 2020. Tokens and Communities in the Roman Provinces: An Exploration of Egypt, Gaul and Britain. Unpublished PhD thesis, The University of Warwick.

With thanks to the Humanities Research Fund, University of Warwick for their support.


Blant, E. Le. 1986. 750 Inscriptions de pierres gravées inédites ou peu connues. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale.

Bubelis, W. 2013. “The Agorastikon of Hellenistic Athens: Not a Market-Tax.” Zeitschrift für papyrologie und epigraphik 185: 122–26.

Longperier, A. 1861. “Monnaies du Sérapéum de Memphis. Trouvaille de Myt-Rahinch.” Revue Numismatique VI: 1–24.

Milne, J. G. 1908. “The Leaden Token Coinage of Egypt under the Romans.” The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society 8: 287–310.

Milne, J. G. 1922. “The Coins from Oxyrhynchus.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 8: 158–63.

Mitchiner, M. 1984. “Imperial Portrait Tesserae from the City of Rome and Imperial Tax Tokens from the Province of Egypt.” The Numismatic Chronicle 144: 95–114.

Ogden, J. M. 1990. “Gold Jewellery in Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine Egypt.” Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Durham.

Pausanias, Description of Greece, trans. W. H. S. Jones. 1918. London: Heinemann.

Rostovtzeff, M., and M. Prou. 1900. Catalogue Des Plombs de l’antiquité, Du Moyen Age et Des Temps Modernes Conservés Au Département Des Médailles et Antiques de La Bibliothèque Nationale. Paris: Rollin et Feuardent.

Scott, J. L. 2007. For Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors: The Chinese Tradition of Paper Offerings. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

August 17, 2020

Lead Tokens depicting Athena from Roman Oxyrhynchus

The result of our excavations showed that I had been so far right in that the rubbish mounds were nothing but rubbish mounds; and the miscellaneous small anticas which we found are of little interest…

Grenfell 1896-1897, 3.

Oxyrhynchus, the ‘city of the sharp-nosed fish’, is situated in the Fayum of Egypt. Originally an Egyptian city that was colonised by the Greeks, it continued to thrive under the Romans. Today is best known for the reams of Ptolemaic and Roman papyri discovered in its rubbish heaps by Grenfell and Hunt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There is, however, more to Oxyrhynchus than its papyri, and after more than a hundred years some of the so-called ‘miscellaneous small anticas’ deserve reassessment.

Amongst the artefacts of which Grenfell was so disparaging, are around three hundred lead tokens, dating to the Roman period (Milne 1922, 159). These small, unassuming objects, often worn and with traces of their designs barely discernible, are largely ignored in modern scholarship. A series of papers published in the early 20th century by J. G. Milne focused on identifying the types, and posited that they functioned as a low-denomination token coinage. How tokens were used in Roman Egypt still remains uncertain, but analysis of their iconography can move beyond identification of types.

Milne rightly noted that different series of tokens were present at Oxyrhynchus (Milne 1908, 297). Some have imagery similar to the Alexandrian coinage, depicting for instance deities such as Serapis or Nilus. Like Alexandrian coins, tokens often have a date in regnal years which is signified by an ‘L’ before the numerals in Greek. Unlike coins, tokens in Roman Egypt don’t bear the portrait of the emperor, and so it is usually unclear to whose reign this date refers. Tokens of this series are found on other sites in Egypt, such as Antinoopolis, Karanis and elsewhere in the Fayum, as well as just outside of Egypt at Qasr Ibrim and in a shipwreck off Israel’s Carmel coast.

In contrast, another series of tokens appears to have local significance to Oxyrhynchus. These all feature the goddess Athena on one face. Most frequently it is her bust that is depicted (Figure 1) but she also appears fighting a serpent (Figure 2), and sometimes her cult statue features within a temple. Most tokens pair her with Nike on the reverse, aside from a small subset on which Zeus is depicted seated (Figure 2).

ashmoleanmilne5302obvjpg.jpg ashmolean_milne5302reverse

Figure 1: Token depicting Athena with labrys. Obverse: Bust of Athena-Thoeris right, wearing Corinthian helmet, labrys to front. Solid line border. Reverse: Nike advancing left, holding wreath in right hand and palm in left hand; ΟΞ. Solid line border. Metal: Lead. Diameter: 20mm. Weight: 3.34g. Die axis: 11. Ashmolean Museum, Milne 5302. Image: Ashmolean Museum.

Despite the variation in the manner of her depiction, there is clearly a preference for tokens featuring Athena at Oxyrhynchus; Milne identified the goddess on 184 tokens out of a total of 271. This frequency is further emphasised by the fact that the Oxyrhynchite Athena types are not found anywhere else in Egypt (Milne 1908, 297. This still holds true based on the data available today, which includes discoveries made after Milne’s study.). The presence of the Greek legend ‘ΟΞ’ (OX) on some of the Athena tokens also clearly refers to the first two letters of Oxyrhynchus. This legend works alongside the imagery to emphasise the distinct local character of this type of token.

The uniqueness of these tokens to Oxyrhynchus is further exemplified by the choice of attribute for Athena on the tokens: the labrys, or double-headed axe. It is present on types where she is depicted attacking a serpent and also alongside her bust. The labrys is an unusual attribute for Athena. It does not feature alongside her on many depictions from antiquity, aside from one representation from Mycenae, the nome coinage of Οxyrhynchus, possibly on a terracotta lamp from Οxyrhynchus, and perhaps as part of a statue of Athena found at Οxyrhynchus (LIMC II, Athena no. 2; LIMC II, Athena no. 27; RPC III 6355-6358; British Museum OA.11020;Mathiopoulos 2001, 202-217 for the statue, who posists that the statue’s missing attribute is a cornucopia. However, a labrys is also a possibility, given the association of Athena with this attribute at Oxrhynchus).

ashmolean_milne5304obv ashmolean_milne_5304rev

Figure 2: Token depicting Athena fighting serpent. Obverse: Athena-Thoeris advancing right, holding labrys in right hand and shield in left, attacking serpent before her. Reverse: Zeus seated left, in right hand holding Nike right with wreath, and in left hand holding sceptre. Metal: Lead. Diameter: 23mm. Weight: 7.88g. Die axis: 11. Ashmolean Museum, Milne 5304. Image: Ashmolean Museum.

In terms of the significance of the labrys to the town, current scholarship does not appear to have reached a definitive conclusion. In her study of the double-headed axe, Kouremenos states in reference to the nome coinage of Οxyrhynchus that it might be associated with workmen in the city that used the double axe as a woodworking tool (Kouremenos 2016, 47). Others have interpreted the presence of the labrys on the nome coinage as an ‘Egyptian’ emblem, due to the fact that in art it was often depicted with the Egyptian god Tutu, in which context it has been interpreted as an apotropaic symbol (Weber and Geissen 2013, 168). Its association with Athena at Οxyrhynchus might be viewed as acknowledging her role as a protective guardian goddess of the town, while also amalgamating Egyptian and Greek elements (Weber and Geissen 2013, 168). The labrys is, however, found frequently in Greek and Roman art (Kouremenos 2016, 43-50 for overview). In this regard, it appears in many places in different contexts, similar to the manner in which the imagery of Athena is common. It is, however, only when Athena and the labrys appear together in the specific context of the material culture of Οxyrhynchus that they are able to transform into a new image which becomes associated with the locality.


Figure 3: Coin of Hadrian (nome coinage). Obverse: laureate bust of Hadrian, right; border of dots; ΑΥΤ ΚΑΙ ΤΡΑΙ ΑΔΡΙΑ CΕΒ. Reverse: Athena standing facing, head left, wearing Corinthian helmet, holding labrys in left hand and Nike in extended right hand; border of dots; ΟΞΥΡ/ LΙΑ. Metal: Bronze. Weight: 4.70g. Mint: Alexandria. Date: AD 117-138. RPC III 6357. Ashmolean Museum Accession no. HCR34309. Image: Ashmolean Museum.

The unusual pairing of Athena with the labrys at Οxyrhynchus was not her sole distinction from the ubiquitous Athena of the classical world. From numerous references in the town’s papyri, it is evident that Athena was equated with, or given the epithet of, the goddess Thoeris. There are references to ‘worshippers of the cult of Athena-Thoeris’, the ‘temple of Athena-Thoeris’ and the ‘place of the temple of Athena-Thoeris’, amongst others (P.Oxy. 3.579; P.Rein. 2.93; P.Oxy. 34.2722; P.Oxy. 50.3567). To some extent perhaps the goddesses were perceived as separate: one document refers to ‘the temple of Athena and Thoeris’ (P.Oxy. 10.1268).

Thoeris is the Greek name for the Egyptian goddess Taweret. She took the form of a hippopotamus, and her worship had become prominent at Οxyrhynchus from the late Ptolemaic period (Whitehorne 1995, 3080-82). The reason for the connection of Athena to Thoeris/Taweret in not clear, but it is perhaps because each goddess was associated with childbirth and fertility (Whitehorne 1995, 3080-82). In ancient Egypt Taweret was associated with the protection of women and children. Inscribed magical knives from the Middle Kingdom period bear apotropaic figures and texts indicating that they were for the protection of women and children, and most frequently feature Taweret as the apotropaic figure (Weingarten 1991, 4: 45 out of the 58 published knives feature Taweret). From the New Kingdom, jugs in the form of Taweret were used for the pouring of libations from a hole in one of the jug’s breasts, indicating an association with childbirth and breastfeeding mothers (Bruyère 1939, 104-107). Athena’s link to women and motherhood is less explicit, but it is perhaps her capacity as a protector that syncretises her with Taweret.


Figure 4: A faience amulet depicting the Egyptian goddess Taweret. 332-30 BC. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession no. 26.7.888. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Despite the outwardly classical style of Athena on these tokens, these syncretisms should be taken into account. The Athena depicted on these tokens’ had associations with Thoeris, and her Egyptian counterpart Taweret, which lent a particular local context to the way in which the imagery may have been viewed and read by the community of Οxyrhynchus. Veronique Dasen has also reached similar conclusions in her analysis of a gem depicting Athena attacking a serpent with a labrys, which bears the inscription ‘Thoeris’ (Dasen 2019). She considers how the imagery of the gem could have been read on both Greek and Egyptian terms due to the iconography evoking all three goddesses.

The choice to depict Athena in classical form underlines the creation of tokens in a Graeco-Roman milieu, especially as Taweret was concurrently worshipped independently at local shrines and certain populations would have recognised her Egyptian guise. This does not, however, discount the possibility that those who used and viewed tokens interpreted the image on their own terms and read different combinations of Athena, Thoeris and Taweret.

Blog written by Denise Wilding, The University of Warwick.

The content of this blog is adapted from: Wilding, D. 2020. Tokens and Communities in the Roman Provinces: An Exploration of Egypt, Gaul and Britain. Unpublished PhD thesis, The University of Warwick. With thanks to the Humanities Research Fund, University of Warwick for their support.


Bruyère, B. 1939. Rapport Sur Les Fouilles de Deir-El-Médineh, 1934-35. Cairo: l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale.

Dasen, V. 2019. “One God May Hide Another. Magical Gems in a Cross-Cultural Context.” In Magical Gems in Their Context, Proceedings of the International Workshop Held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest 16–18 February 2012, edited by K. Endreffy, Á.M. Nagy, and J. Spier, 47–58. Rome: L’Erma Di Bretschneider.

Grenfell, B. P. 1896-1897. “Oxyrhynchus and Its Papyri.” Archaeological Report (Egypt Exploration Fund) 1896-1897: 1–12.

Kouremenos, A. 2016. “The Double Axe (Λάβρυς) in Roman Crete and beyond: The Iconography of a Multi-Faceted Symbol.” In Roman Crete: New Perspectives, edited by J. E. Francis and A. Kouremenos, 43–58. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Mathiopoulos, E. 2001. “On the Transformation of the Athena Velletri Type in Hellenistic Alexandria.” In Athena in the Classical World, edited by S Deacy and A. Villing, 197–218. Leiden: Brill.

Milne, J. G. 1908. “The Leaden Token Coinage of Egypt under the Romans.” The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society 8: 287–310.

Milne, J. G. 1922. “The Coins from Oxyrhynchus.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 8: 158–63.

Weber, M., and A. Geissen. 2013. Die Alexandrinischen Gaumünzen Der Römischen Kaiserzeit. Die Ägyptischen Gaue Und Ihre Ortsgötter Im Spiegel Der Numismatischen Quellen. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

Weingarten, J. 1991. The Transformation of the Egyptian Taweret into the Minoan Genius: A Study in Cultural Transmission in the Bronze Age. Partille: Aström Forlag.

Whitehorne, J. 1995. “The Pagan Cults of Roman Oxyrhynchus.” Aufsteig Und Neidergang Der Romischen Welt II (18.5): 3050–91.

June 01, 2020

Frederick Parkes Weber and the Bowl of Coins Prize

frederick_parkes_weber interesting cases book cover
Frederick Parkes Weber,
Interesting Cases and Pathological

Amongst the papers of the famous dermatologist Frederick Parkes Weber now housed in the department of Coins and Medals in the British Museum is a book rather intriguingly entitled Interesting Cases and Pathological Considerations and a Numismatic Suggestion. While most of the book will not interest the student of coinage, the ‘numismatic suggestion’ appended at the end provides a great insight into Weber’s knowledge of ancient coinage (he was an avid coin collector) and the Royal Numismatic Society’s Parkes Weber Prize, currently awarded to the best essay ‘of not more than 5,000 words on any subject relating to coins, medals, medallions, tokens or paper money’ written by someone under 30.

The numismatic suggestion (photographs of the text available to read here and here) records that originally Parkes Weber proposed to the Royal Numismatic Society (RNS) an annual ‘bowl of coins’ prize. The idea came to him since, as a collector, he had to frequently quickly assess bowls of coins from various dealers across the world. The council found the suggestion impractical, and so instead implemented the prize in its current form. But it appears that Parkes Weber was not happy with the solution, and so published his original letter of 1st October 1953 to the President of the Royal Numismatic Society ‘in the hope that at some future time my suggestion will be carried out by a society of private donor. I believe that a small analogous prize is being offered to postage stamp enthusiasts with considerable success.’

Reading the letter, Parkes Weber originally proposed to the RNS an annual prize of 10 guineas to young collectors for ‘the best written diagnosis (with half an hour) of the contents of a bowl of miscellaneous coins and coin-like objects (twenty pieces in the bowl) under the supervision of a delegate of the Society in question’. He suggests they should all be good or moderately good specimens, as well as one or two imitations. He then goes on to offer detailed advice on what this ‘bowl of coins’ should contain.

Parkes Weber suggested the bowl should contain two or three counters or admission tickets (e.g. the Nürnberg Rechenpfennige, the card counters struck on the accession of Queen Victoria with the Duke of Cumberland on horseback on the reverse). He also suggests the inclusion of Greek and Roman tokens, including the so-called spintriae. These tokens carry sexual imagery on one side and a number on the other: Parkes-Weber includes the now discounted idea they were used as brothel admission tickets. He then notes that a fellow collector gave him two spintriae because the collector ‘did not like having them in his collection, when he was showing it to ladies’. Two bronze Roman tokens from the Parkes Weber collection are now in the British Museum, although only one shows an erotic scene.

spintria of parkes weber
'Spintria' in the British Museum once owned by Parkes Weber.
The obverse shows a scene of sexual intercourse and the reverse
carries the number III within a wreath. © The Trustees of
the British Museum, 1906,1103.2927.

Parkes Weber writes that only five of the twenty coins in the bowl should be of very rare or obscure types, and suggests specific coin types for ‘occasional admission to the bowl’. These include a copper coin of the Seljukian Turks with types copied from Byzantine Christian pieces, a coin of Edessa ‘preferably a coin of Count Baldwin II with the slashing horseman reminding one of the Norman knights on the Bayeux tapestry’, a coin weight of Charles I struck by Briot, school tokens of the seventeenth century, the ‘dolphin coins’ of Olbia, medieval and modern badges, and Russian beard tokens and prison tokens. Reading the list, one is struck by the interest and knowledge Parkes Weber had of tokens from all ages.

There is, despite the publication of the letter (admittedly in a venue which may not be frequently read by numismatists) still no ‘bowl of coins’ prize. But it does make one think about what types of coins and money might make up the bowl today!

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

May 01, 2020

Casting Roman tokens: Notes on two unpublished token moulds from Florence collections

Whilst the interest in token moulds has mostly been confined to excavation reports and occasional enquiries to date, recent scholarship is increasingly focusing on the value of these objects to better understand crucial aspects related to the manufacturing techniques, production location and use of tokens in antiquity (cf. Pardini et al. 2016; Rowan 2019). Lately, token moulds are also gaining attention on the market and in auction sales.

Two unpublished token moulds are presented below, which exist as part of two museum collections from Florence, Italy. Both token moulds are discussed in a study currently being undertaken by the author.

The token mould shown on Fig. 1 is held in the Museo Archeologico of Firenze (MAF) (inv. no. 79209). It is one half of a mould made of limestone, rectangular in shape, whose size is 115 x 80 x 27 mm. It would have been used in conjunction with the other half (now lost) in order to create 8 circular tokens of about 16-17mm in diameter.

mondello fig 1a mondello fig 1b

Figure 1: Roman token mould from Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Firenze (MAF) (inv. no. 79209) (Courtesy of the MAF).

Based on the designs engraved on the surface – but some of them are unfortunately in poor condition – the resulting tokens carried at least three different types of images: on the left side, two of the preserved designs show Mars, helmeted, in military dress, standing right, holding spear in right hand and resting left on shield on ground (the type is also applied to Minerva, who is generally portrayed with a longer robe); on the top, two token cavities depict Mars helmeted, in military dress, standing right, holding spear in right hand and patera in left hand; in the lower right corner, a token design shows Hercules standing right, holding scyphum in left hand and club in right hand. These images are variants of types commonly depicted on Roman lead tokens, as already known through the examples published by M. Rostowzew as well as on individual catalogues of museum collections (for some of the types in question, see e.g. Rostowzew and Prou 1900, 135, fig. 32; Arzone and Marinello 2019, nos. 108-111 and 113). It is noteworthy that the first of the two images of Mars mentioned above appears on the tokens produced at the time of Nero, and was adopted on official coinage just afterwards, occurring on the coins issued during the Civil Wars of AD 68-69 (Fig. 2). However, the designs attested on the MAF mould are closer to the variant of a Mars type largely found on coinage from the time of Trajan (Fig. 3) up to the fourth century, which allows us at least to date the token mould to this broad time frame. To support this, morphological and stylistic features, as well as the material used, are consistent with the token molds from Rome and Ostia, generally assigned to the period between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD.


Figure 2: Silver denarius, RIC 12 Civil Wars 20, AD 68-69. (UBS Gold & Numismatics, Auction 83, lot 183).

fig2obv.jpg fig2rev.jpg

Figure 3: Bronze As of Trajan, Rome AD 99-100 (= RIC II, Trajan 410), American Numismatic Society (inv. no. 0000.999.18549)

This token mould is said to have been found in Corneto Tarquinia (Lazio), whose ancient site was one of the most important settlements of the twelve Etruscan cities (the ‘Dodecapolis’), and which was under Roman domination since the third century BC. This place does not appear among the sites documented as find spots of token moulds to date, which have been found in Rome and Ostia, except for two examples from Como and Telesia (Rowan 2019, 98-99). If one accepts as reliable the information on its place of discovery, this mould specimen might suggest that a local production of lead tokens existed in Tarquinia in the imperial period. Moreover, it has recently been assumed that a ‘distributed production’ rather than a centralized single workshop was the common ‘model’ for the manufacture of tokens over the Roman period, which would have been created ‘in multiple places by multiple individuals’ (cf. Rowan 2019, 97).

This piece was sold to the MAF on 10 May 1901 by the collector and member of the Accademia Colombaria Anton Domenico Pierrugues, who donated his collection of Greek and Roman coins to the museum after his death (1915).

mondello_fig4a mondello_4b

Figure 4:Roman token mould from Casa Buonarroti, Florence (Lenzini Moriondo’s inventory (1964), 22/1) (Courtesy of Casa Buonarroti).

Fig. 4 illustrates one half of a token mould housed at Casa Buonarroti, whose collection was formed from the 16th to the 19th century from the bequest of Michelangelo Buonarroti and his descendants. The piece is made of limestone, quadrangular in shape, and is 83 x 76 (min. 73) x 28 mm in size. The other half of the artefact is lost also in this case. The mould would have created seven circular tokens of 14-15 mm in diameter, which were decorated with the image of the Three Graces on one side. This depiction is a popular type on Roman lead tokens. A bronze uniface Roman token (14mm, 2.90g) showing the Three Graces on one side while blank on the other side exists as part of the Casa Buonarroti collection. The iconography and size of this token perfectly match the token cavities of the mould, making it likely that the bronze tessera was cast through the mould in question (Figs. 5-6). Anyway, it is likely that this bronze token was a product of a sample casting from the mould after its discovery. This might be suggested by the absence of remains of casting sprues on the token specimen as well as by its uniface appearance, since it is highly probable that the other half of the mould containing casting branches to the cavities was also decorated (see below). However, no data is available about the place of discovery of the mould, and it is not possible to determine when precisely in modern times the tessera was cast.

mondello_fig4lowres mondello_4blowres


Figs. 5-6: AE Roman token (14mm, 2.90g), Casa Buonarroti, Florence.

The mould has a remarkable resemblance to a token mould of palombino marble with the same designs (105 x 75 mm for 7 circular tokens of ca. 17 mm) published by Cesano (1904, 11, fig. 1), which was found in the 19th century in Rome during the Lungotevere works. Such close ties might hint that the Casa Buonarroti mould came from Rome. According to ongoing research by the author, the mould may have been part of the inheritance of the antiquarian and senator Filippo Buonarroti (1661-1733), the great-grandnephew of Michelangelo Buonarroti, who stayed in Rome over the years ca. 1684-1699 serving as secretary, conservator of collections and librarian of the influential family of Cardinal Gasparo di Carpegna. In Rome, Filippo Buonarroti led a number of archaeological explorations which allowed him not only to assemble an impressive collection of Roman and Etruscan antiquities, but also to conduct pioneering studies in ancient iconography, epigraphy, and numismatics.

fig6lowres.jpg fig7lowres.jpg

Figs. 7-8: Top and bottom sides of the mould from Casa Buonarroti, Florence.

Both token moulds show morphological and technical features which are largely documented for this class of objects. The extant half of the MAF mould shows a ‘herringbone’ arrangement, with a central casting channel with branches leading to the individual token moulds. The piece from Casa Buonarroti has instead only a central casting channel and no ‘branches’; one should assume that the now lost other half of the mould contained the channels through which molten lead was poured into the token cavities. In the top right and lower left corners, both molds bear the holes of the nails which were used to fasten both halves of the mould together, but also to ensure that they were correctly aligned (cf. Rowan 2019, 95). Furthermore, all four sides of the token mould from Casa Buonarroti carry small grooves which, as has been argued, would be suggestive of the use of wire which wrapped around the molds during the casting process (cf. Pardini et al. 2016) (Figs. 7-8). Also, as with a token mould from the Harvard Art Museums discussed by Rowan, a deep central hole is found in the center of each token cavity of the Casa Buonarroti mould, being visible in the guise of a protuberance on the body of one of the Graces in the resulting token, as is attested on the extant bronze tessera from Casa Buonarroti. This depression would be a clue of the method employed for engraving the token designs, since it would have been caused by the bit of a tool used for cutting the circular depressions before the designs were engraved. Finally, the back of both mold specimens is unworked, as attested on many moulds of this type.

Further analysis and the potential discovery of new specimens could help develop future discussion on the ancient token moulds, thus providing a more complete picture about the production and use of tokens in the ancient world.


This blog was written by Cristian Mondello as part of The creation of tokens in late antiquity. Religious ‘tolerance’ and ‘intolerance’ in the fourth and fifth centuries AD project, which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 840737.

Select bibliography

A. Arzone and A. Marinello, Museo di Castelvecchio. Lead Tokens. Tessere di piombo (Modena, 2019).

L. Cesano, ‘Matrici e tessere di piombo nel Museo Nazionale Romano’, NSc. (1904), 11-17.

G. Pardini, M. Piacentini, A.C. Felici, M.L. Santarelli, and S. Santucci, ‘Matrici per tessere plumbee dalle pendici nord-orientali del Palatino. Nota Preliminare’, in A.F. Ferrandes and G. Pardini (eds), Le regole del gioco. Tracce, archeologi, racconti. Studi in onore di Clementina Panella (Rome, 2016), 649-667.

U. Procacci, La Casa Buonarroti a Firenze (Firenze, 1965).

M. Rostowzew, Tesserarum urbis Romae et suburbi (St. Peterburg, 1903).

M. Rostowzew and M. Prou, Catalogue des plombs de l’antiquité (Paris, 1900).

C. Rowan, ‘A Roman token mould in Harvard’, Coins at Warwick Blog.

C. Rowan, ‘Lead token moulds from Rome and Ostia’, in N. Crisà, M. Gkikaki, and C. Rowan (eds), Tokens. Culture, Connections, Communities (London, 2019), 95-110.

October 01, 2019

Hortensia Sperata, Token Issuer in Rome or Ostia

token obverse hortensia token reverse palm within wreath

Lead token from Rome or Ostia, now in the The Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (Rostowzew and Prou 422a). 12h, 20mm, 4.13g, TURS 1241.

Side A: HORTE SPER around in a circle.

Side B: Palm branch within a wreath.

Pictured above is a lead token, which, from the style of its design and its fabric, we can assign either to the city of Rome or to Ostia. What is remarkable about this piece is that the token carries the name of a Roman woman: Horte(nsia) Sper(ata). Her name circles around the edge of one side of the token in a way very similar to Roman coinage. The other side carries imagery commonly found on lead tokens in this region: a wreath and palm branch. These communicate to the user a festive, happy atmosphere.

This was not the only token that Hortensia issued. Another token carries her name in full: HORTENSIA SPERATA, with the same design (palm branch within wreath) on the other (TURS 1240). Two further tokens are smaller in diameter (13-15mm) and seem to carry an abbreviation of her name: HOR on one side and SPE or SP on the other (TURS 1242, 1243). Why would Hortensia have so many variant tokens? She might have wished to have two sizes of token (20mm and 13-15mm), with one perhaps worth more than the other, or with each representing different products or levels of access. An engraver could have created a mould for her tokens that cast both sizes at once, a practice known from other surviving examples.

mould from the esquiline

The palombino marble mould pictured here would have been utilised to make tokens during the Roman imperial period. It was found along with several others on the Esquiline Hill in Rome in 1882. Here we can find another individual responsible for tokens, whose name has been abbreviated to LVE (a practice also commonly found in graffiti). Like the tokens of Hortensia, we can see that LVE wanted two sizes of token: a larger and a smaller piece. On the smaller piece his initials have become ligate: i.e. they have been joined together ti fit into the reduced size. In a similar way Hortensia's name was abbreviated on her smaller tokens.

We do not know anything more about Hortensia Sperata, but one presumes she had a certain amount of wealth. From the men and women named on Roman lead tokens, some were magistrates in government or colleges; others appear to be linked to bath houses. Whatever the specific use of these tokens (and it is very hard to be certain), they were likely used in an act of patronage: the provision of necessary small change, for example, the sponsoring of a banquet or other event, or a distribution. The lead tokens of Rome and Ostia reveal a world otherwise unrecorded in our sources, where both men and women utilised these objects to cement personal relationships and consolidate local communities.

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

July 01, 2019

The 'man with the shovel' on the 'plomos monetiformes' of Baetica

plomos monetiformes showing man with a shoel

A lead token from the 'series de las minas'.

Obverse: a naked man walking left, a shovel marked PRVM on his shoulder, holding out a bell. P S to either side; wreath border.

Reverse: Naked man standing right pouring water from an askos onto a beribboned phallus; broom below on exergual line, Q. CO ILLI Q around and LVSO in a tablet in the exergue; wreath border.

Stannard PC 25. American Numismatic Society, New York, Richard B. Witschonke Collection. Ex CNG 31, 9 September 1994, lot 1857 Casariego 1987, p. 26, no. 1, Carbone 2018 pl. 29 no. 3.

In Spain there exist large (45-50mm) struck lead monetiform pieces whose precise function remains elusive. Many of the pieces are decorated with the design shown on the specimen above: a naked man carrying a 'shovel'. Because of this image they were traditionally believed to be monetary pieces associated with mining in the region - the naked man was interpreted as a miner. But the figure looks very different to known representations of Roman miners, and Stannard has demonstrated that this figure (and other images) are actually shared between Baetica (Spain) and central Italy, appearing on monetiform objects in both regions. It is thus not a miner - but who is it? Stannard (1995) suggested the figure might be associated with agriculture (a farmer going off to work with a shovel, shown watering his plants on the other side) or with Italian theatre, since often the figure is shown with an overly large phallus.

close up picture of shovel
Close up of the 'man carrying a shovel' inscribed with PRVM
or PRVNA and carrying a bell. (Stannard et al. 2017 fig. 25).

Many other pieces connected to this series show imagery related to the baths or the palaestra, and it perhaps in this context that we should seek clues as to the identity of our individual. As briefly mentioned by Stannard et al. (2017), the figure should likely be understood as a fornacator, the individual responsible for stoking the fires in the bath house to get the water warm. These individuals can be shown as naked and ithyphallic, as seen in the mosaic shown below. Our 'naked man with shovel' also holds a bell in his right hand, a variation only found in Baetica and not in Italy. This is likely a reference to the bell or gong that was rung by bath houses to announce that the water had reached the optimum temperature - so come take your bath now! This practice is referenced by several ancient authors and a bell was found in 1548 in the baths of Diocletian in Rome bearing the inscription FIRMI BALNEATORIS. A gong, uncovered in the Palaestra of the Stabian baths of Pompeii, probably served a similar function; bells might also be rung to indicate that the baths were soon closing and now was the last opportunity for a bath (Nielsen 1990, 111). If the fornacator was responsible for making sure the water was at the right temperature, then it would make sense that he is depicted with the bell that was rung when the temperature for bathing was perfect. Having identified the individual as a stoker of fires, we might return to the legend inscribed on the man's shovel: PRVM. I wonder if the legend might actually be PRVNA, the Latin term for glowing charcoal, with the N and A ligate (joined together). The figure on the other side of this lead piece, puring water from a vessel, may be a slave attending a master in the bath complex or bath attendant.

screen_shot_2019-06-28_at_101314.png token showing man with shovel
Mosaic from Thamugadi showing a fornacator (stoker). (Nielson 1990) Plomo monetiforme showing an ithyphallic man with shovel. Stannard PC no. 29

Are these pieces then bathing tokens? Stannard et al. 2017 argue they are not, since images related to bathing in this series are connected with other imagery that is not connected to the baths at all; some specimens also carry value marks, which suggests they had a monetary function. Lead tokens found in bath complexes in Italy, however, (e.g. in Fregellae and in Ostia), do not necessarily carry 'bathing' imagery; a wide variety of images may have been used in this particular sphere (just as mosaics in Roman bath houses are not all necessarily related to the activity of bathing). Those in Fregellae also appear to carry value marks. The alternative is that an image of a low-ranking bath worker should be chosen as an image for a pseudo-coinage, or a monetary series commemorating an act of euergetism related to the baths (as suggested by Stannard et al. 2017). This possibility is an intriguing one; hopefully future work will offer us further information in this regard!

This blog post was written by Clare Rowan as part of the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean project.


Carbone, L. (2018). The unpublished Iberian lead tokens in the Richard B. Witschonke collection at the American Numismatic Society. American Journal of Numismatics 30: 131-144.

Casariego, A., G. Cores and F. Pliego (1987). Catálogo de plomos monetiformes de la Hispania Antigua. Madrid.

García-Bellido, M. P. (1986). Nuevos documentos sobre minería y agricultura romanas en Hispania. Archivo español de arqueologia 59: 13-42.

Nielsen, I. (1990). Thermae et Balnea (2 vols). Aarhus, Aarhus University Press.

Spagnoli, E. (2017). Un nucleo di piombi 'monetiformi' da Ostia, Terme dei Cisiarii (II.II.3): problematiche interpretative e quadro di circolazione. Per un contributo di storia economica e di archeologia della produzione tra II e III secolo d.C. Annali dell'Instituto Italiano di Numismatica 63: 179-234.

Stannard, C. (1995). Iconographic parallels between the local coinages of central Italy and Baetica in the first century BC. Acta Numismàtica 25: 47-97.

Stannard, C., A. G. Sinner, N. Moncunill Martí and J. Ferrer i Jané (2017). A plomo monetiforme from the Iberian settlement of Cerro Lucena (Enguera, Valencia) with a north-eastern Iberian legend, and the Italo-baetican series. Journal of Archaeological Numismatics: 59-106.

June 01, 2019

Countermarks on Athenian Tokens

Athens is the city in the Classical world that minted tokens on a scale previously unparalleled, only to be superseded by Rome. Tokens in Athens had a continuous life of about seven centuries and facilitated numerous aspects of public life: the functioning of the Council, the Courts, the Assembly, participation in the Dionysia, the Panathenaea and the other festivals.

Researchers have commented on the relations between tokens and coins and have asked to what extent coins functioned as an archetype for tokens. The answer is clearly negative. Classical tokens do not resemble coins and functioned in an altogether different manner. They were probably used for the selection procedure of citizens who would fill offices and serve as public functionaries, and consecutively for the allotment of citizens to offices and even ‘workplaces’.

1.) Agora Museum IL1463.
Alpha with countermark of winged
caduceus, 31 mm.

Tokens with letters signify the allotment, the fact that citizens would be allotted randomly to offices (fig. 1). And here is a seeming similitude to coins: there exist letter tokens which are countermarked. But contrary to coins, where countermarking meant the revalidation of the item, so that issues were put afresh into circulation, the countermarking in this case signifies the particular sector of public life and complements the token design. Flans are particularly wide, probably because the placement of the countermark was conceived from the beginning. The designs of the countermarks – the winged caduceus (fig. 1), the kernos and the amphora in an ivy-wreath – are well attested in categories of official artefacts and they qualify as designs of the state seal (sphragis demosia). The exact offices they represent can only be conjectured but they can be seen as analogous to the stamps on the juror’s allotment plates; here the ‘owl in wreath’ stamp meant that the citizen was eligible for jury allotments and the ‘Gorgoneion’ stamp meant magisterial allotments.

It seems that the solution of the countermark was short-lived because only three out of the approximately three hundred Hellenistic tokens excavated in the Athenian Agora have a countermark placed next to a letter type.

Contrary to the rarity of countermarks on tokens dated to before Sulla’s sack of the city (86 BC), which practically marks the end of the city’s independence, countermarks are far more common in Athens of the Roman Imperial Period (fig. 2). In particular more than 200 specimens demonstrate at least one countermark out of the 620 tokens that can be securely dated to the period between the first century AD and AD 268, when the destruction inflicted on the city by the Herules marked the end of token use in Athens. It is worth noting that most of the tokens in strata and deposits containing Herulian debris carry countermarks. Our attention is particularly attracted by the countermarks of ‘snail and rabbit’ and ‘stork holding lizard by the tail’, which are the most abundantly attested. In the trench containing dumped fill as a result of clean-up operations after the Herulian sack, countermarked tokens co-exist with un-countermarked specimens, albeit they are found on the same types. These mainly celebrate the cults of Asklepios, Hygieia and Telesphoros (fig. 3) or Asklepios alone, Dionysos (fig. 4), Serapis, Zeus and Nike, Athena and Nike and also Themistocles, and the Minotaur, alone or with Theseus. The latter cases may be related to the claims of Athenian elite families for status and prestigious ancestry.

selection of tokens from agora
2.) Selection of tokens excavated in and around the Attalos Stoa,
Athenian Agora (Archives of the American School of Classical
Studies 2012.25.0091).

IL384 IL 1113

The same pattern is also encountered on the tokens found in piles on the floors of the Attalos Stoa and also in the immediate vicinity of the Attalos Stoa to the south.

IL 1116

Specimens are also quite often found to have been countermarked twice by the same stamp, such as the token with an Athena bust and two countermarks of the snail and rabbit type (fig. 5). More puzzling are the Herakles and tripod tokens, which on their reverse side bear three distinct countermarks: stork and lizard, snail and rabbit, and a third design not easily identifiable (fig. 6).

Both the designs of stork and lizard and of snail and rabbit relate to universal symbols and refer to narratives that could be easily adapted as badges and emblems. The stork in particular was very popular in medieval heraldry.

The meaning of the countermarks is not easy to decode. The countermarked tokens capture only a moment in the history of Athens, because they represent the types and specimens that were in circulation at the time of the Herulian Invasion and their preservation may be thought random. Even the hoarding of countermarked pieces together with un-countermarked specimens may have been occasioned by the circumstances that prevailed shortly after the destruction. The interpretation of the countermarks is all the more hindered by the scarcity of tokens in the centuries from the Augustan Period to the mid-third century AD, which could serve as a point of comparison.

Margaret Crosby suggested that the same countermark on varying types might help to identify the same authority behind the issuing of the tokens. The purpose of these tokens would have been admissions to games and festivals, such as those referred to in inscriptions of the third century AD. In fact the legend on two of the types reads ‘of the Gerusia’, the council formed by notable Athenians and instituted by the emperor Commodus in the year AD 178/9, which had the agonothesia of festivals. The Attalos Stoa was thought to provide an advantageous view of spectacles and processions going along the Panathenaic Way and in view of this function, tokens excavated there seem to come as no surprise.

It is well known that the holding of offices in the Hellenistic and increasingly in the Imperial period involved considerable private expense. The iconography of the countermarks and even some of the token types might then be related to wealthy gerusiastai and office-holders in general, who competed for the recognition of the people, an idea already advocated by Margaret Crosby.


Along these lines, the countermarking a second or even a third time of tickets is to be considered as a renewal of their otherwise short lifetime. Roman period tokens were literary ‘time stamped’ and given out for a second or a third use since all the festivals were naturally recurring events. The registration of singular events constitutes the very essence of tokens across time, not unlike the modern-day block chain and its digital database or ledger.

This month's entry was written by Mairi Gkikaki as part of the Marie-Sklodovska-Curie Project, Horizon 2020-MSCA-IF-2017, Project ID: 794080. It is based on a chapter from an upcoming monograph on the Tokens of Athens.


W. Bubelis, ‘Tokens and imitation in ancient Athens’, Marburger Beiträge zur Antiken Handels-, Wirtschafts-, und Sozialgeschichte 28 (2010), 171-195.

E. Curtius, Über Wappenstil und Wappengebrauch im klassischen Altertum (Berlin, 1874).

M. Crosby, ‘Lead and Clay Tokens’, in M. Lang and M. Crosby, Weights, Measures and Tokens. The Athenian Agora, vol. 10 (Princeton, 1964), 69-146.

D.J. Gaegan, The Athenian Constitution after Sulla, Hesperia Supplements 12 (Princeton, 1967).

M. Gkikaki, 'Tokens in the Athenian Agora in the Third Century AD: Adverstising Prestige and Civic Identity in Roman Athens', in A. Crisà, M. Gkikaki, and C. Rowan, Tokens: Cultures, Connections, Communities (London: Royal Numismatic Society, forthcoming)

S. Killen, Parasema. Offizielle Symbole griechischer Poleis und Bundesstaaten (Wiesbaden, 2017).

J.H. Kroll, Athenian Bronze Allotment Plates (Cambridge, 1972).

J.H. Kroll, ‘The Athenian imperials: results of recent study’, in J. Nollé, B. Overbeck and P. Weiss (eds), Internationales Kolloquium zur Kaiserzeitlichen Münzprägung Kleinasiens. 27-30 April 1994 in der Staatlichen Münzsammlung (München, 1997). 61-9.

M. Lang, ‘Allotment by tokens’, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 8, 1959, 80-9.

B. Maurer, ‘The Politics of Token Economics’, in. A. Crisà, M. Gkikaki, and C. Rowan, Tokens: Cultures, Connections, Communities (London: Royal Numismatic Society, forthcoming).

K.D. Mylonas, ‘Αττικά Μολύβδινα Σύμβολα’, ArchEph 40, 1901, 119-22.

J.H. Oliver, The Sacred Gerusia. The American Excavations in the Athenian Agora. Hesperia Suppl. 6 (Princeton, 1941).

P.J. Rhodes, A Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (Oxford, 1981).

G.C. Rothery, Concise Encyclopedia of Heraldry (London ,1994, reprint of the book first published in 1914).

H.A. Thompson and R.E. Wycherley, The Agora of Athens: The History, Shape and Uses of an Ancient City Centre, The Agora of Athens, volume 14 (Princeton, 1972).

P. Tselekas, ‘Countermarks on the Hellenistic Coinages of Lesbos’, in P. Tselekas (ed), Coins in the Aegean Islands. Proceedings of the Fifth Scientific Meeting 16-19 September 2010, (Athens, 2010), 127-153

O. Van Nijf and R. Alston (eds), Political Culture in the Greek City after the Classical Age (Leuven, 2011)

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.

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.

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