This bronze coin from Abonuteichos, on the southern coast of the Black Sea, depicts the snake-god Glycon on the reverse. The serpent is depicted curled up, but with its head raised, and with long hair. It is labelled as ‘ΓΛΥΚΩΝ ΙΩΝΟΠΟΛΕΙΤΩΝ’ (Glycon of the Ionopolitans).
It was minted during the dual reign of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (AD 161-69). The latter is depicted on the obverse wearing a laurel, along with the legend ‘AVT KAC (sic) Λ ΑΥΡΗ οΥΗΡοC’ (Imperator Caesar L. Aurelius Verus).
This coin is especially interesting as a result of a treatise penned by the second century AD satirist Lucian. Alexander the False Prophet details how the titular Alexander (born c. AD 105-115) managed to con locals and outsiders alike into handing over their money in return for prophecies from Glycon, whose cult he founded. The survival of Lucian’s treatise gives us a fantastic opportunity to tie together material and literary evidence on the cult.
The first thing to notice on this coin is the long, thick hair of the snake, which is somewhat anthropomorphic. Lucian explains that even though the snake was living, a new head was crafted out of linen by Alexander and a colleague before the cult began:
they had long ago prepared and fitted up a serpent’s head of linen, which had something of a human look, was all painted up, and appeared very lifelike. It would open and close its mouth by means of horsehairs, and a forked black tongue like a snake’s, also controlled by horsehairs, would dart out.
Lucian, Alexander 12
Lucian explains how once this stage was complete, Alexander buried tablets prophesying that Asclepius would take up residence in Abonuteichos, which provoked people to build a temple (Lucian, Alexander 10). He then ran around in a frenzy, before ‘discovering’ a goose-egg, from which a baby snake emerged (Lucian, Alexander 13-14).
When the cult opened soon after, people apparently assumed that Glycon, the full-size snake-god shown on this coin, had grown out of this tiny snake within a few days (Lucian, Alexander 16). Lucian claims that when Glycon was being displayed at this grand opening, Alexander concealed its real head under his arm, showing only the linen head to the people (Lucian, Alexander 15). This is in contrast to the depiction on the coin, in which the anthropomorphic head is shown as a part of the snake’s body.
The cult then began offering predictions and oracles for anyone able to pay, and there were plenty of visitors, whom Lucian characterises as ‘thick-witted’ (Lucian, Alexander 17). Alexander would ask them to hand in their requests on scrolls, which he would unroll and secretly reseal, and pretend that the answer he gave them came from Glycon (Lucian, Alexander 19-20). He even purported to make Glycon’s (linen) head speak, thanks to an attendant using a horsehair mechanism and a tube (Lucian, Alexander 26).
Lucian’s account also broadly ties up with other evidence suggested by this coin. For example, the satirist writes that once Alexander gained fame, even in Rome, due to the rapid spread of the cult, he requested that a coin be produced with an image of himself on one side, and Glycon on the other (Lucian, Alexander 58). While we have never found any coins which depict Alexander himself (Jones (1986) 146), this coin shows that half of his desire was granted, at any rate.
According to Lucian, Alexander also requested that the Emperor change the name of his city from Abonuteichos to Ionopolis (Lucian, Alexander 58). Petsalis-Diomidis argues that this was a more prestigious name, relating to the mythical ancestor of the Ionians, Ion. This emphasis on Greek identity was perhaps enhanced by the success of the cult (Petsalis-Diomidis (2010) 31). Our coin does indeed display the name of Ionopolis. However, we need not assume that the rise of the cult and the name change came in parallel. This is because an earlier Glycon coin, minted under Antoninus Pius, uses the name Abonuteichos instead of Ionopolis, so the change must have been a gradual one (RPC IV 5359).
Some Epicureans, and even Lucian himself, attempted to expose the cult’s fraudulence. Alexander attempted to whip up the crowd to stone one such detractor (Lucian, Alexander 44-45), and Lucian himself claims to have been almost killed (Lucian, Alexander 56). Despite these efforts, however, the cult seemed to stay strong long after Lucian, because Glycon remained a popular image on Abonuteichos’s coinage from as late as the reign of Trebonianus Gallus in the mid-third century (RPC IX 1218).
Jones rightly suggests that we should take Lucian’s account with a pinch of salt. He argues that it is heavily biased, and contains many common tropes of invective literature, and that the question of fraudulence seems unanswerable or perhaps beside the point (Jones (1986) 134, 136, 146, 148). Nonetheless, literary and material evidence do provide a broadly unified picture for the fame, the influence and the imagery of the cult of Glycon.
This month's entry was writte by Matthew Smith. Matthew is an MA by Research student at the University of Warwick. He is especially interested in Greek authors of the second century AD. His research focuses on the role which divine dreams from Asclepius played in medicine during this period, looking in particular at Galen and Aelius Aristides
Petsalis-Diomidis, A. (2010) Truly Beyond Wonders: Aelius Aristides and the cult of Asklepios (Oxford University Press: Oxford)
Jones, C.P. (1986) Culture and Society in Lucian (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, M.A.)
Lucian, ‘Alexander the False Prophet’, in Lucian Volume IV, trans. A.M. Harmon (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, M.A. 1925)
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).
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.
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.
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.
Dupondius of Tiberius, Rome, AD 22-23. RIC I2 Tiberius 47, British Museum No. R.6361. Image reproduced courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.
This Roman copper alloy coin was produced in 22-23 AD, in the middle of Tiberius’ reign, and is held by the British Museum, but is not currently on display.
It is part of a series depicting a draped female bust, with the legend “SALVS AVGVSTA” on the obverse, while the reverse carries the abbreviation “S C”, signifying the coin was struck by a decree of the Senate, and the legend “TI.CAESAR.DIVI.AVG.F.AVG.P.M.TR.POT. XXIII”.
The obverse is understood to be a portrait of Livia Drusilla, wife of Augustus and Tiberius’ mother, who died in 29 AD, aged 86. While Livia was honoured with statues and portrait busts in her lifetime, there are no explicitly identifiable representations of her on contemporary imperial coins. Instead, depictions which may represent her on Roman imperial coins are ambiguous, carrying attributes which are identifiable with Ceres, or Pax – both of which are associated with Livia in various inscriptions, statues and possibly on the Ara Pacis. However, coins from provincial mints, particularly Greek and Egyptian, carry portraits with legends which do name her. This may partially be due to Augustus being cautious of imagery in Rome which could be construed as reflecting suggestions of monarchical ambitions. Although the idea of monarchy was abhorrent in Roman culture, it was much more acceptable and less contentious in societies in the eastern Mediterranean, which may explain why Livia was clearly portrayed there. Additionally, Marcus Antonius had featured women (Fulvia, Octavia and Cleopatra) on his coinage, and Augustus may have wished to both distance and differentiate himself from this for a variety of reasons (see August 2018 blog entry which discusses Fulvia).
Despite this, Augustus (then Octavian) had, in 35 BC, granted both Livia and his sister Octavia unprecedented honours: public protection comparable to that provided for tribunes; the right to manage their own estates without a guardian; and the right to honorific statues (see Cassius Dio, Roman History, 49.38.1). Honouring both Livia and Octavia thus had an underlying political motivation – by elevating them as paradigms of Roman matronly behaviour, Augustus obliquely, but publicly, reproached Marcus Antonius, who was living openly with Cleopatra in Egypt and mistreating Octavia, who he had married in 40 BC in an attempt to cement relations between himself and Octavian.
With the death and deification of Augustus in 14 AD, Livia had been adopted into the Julian family and was known as Julia Augusta, however the “Augusta” on the dupondius’ legend is not her name, but an adjective relating to “salus”. Tiberius gave his mother further honours, but vetoed attempts by the Senate to grant more titles to Livia – in this he followed Augustus’ lead, as he had granted Livia no official titles in his lifetime, again perhaps to avoid suggestions of monarchical ambitions. However, despite this, Livia was popularly, but unofficially, designated mater patriae (mother of her country).
In 22 AD, Livia had been seriously ill, and in view of her advancing years, her recovery was considered remarkable, and resulted in the Equestrian order dedicating a statue to Equestrian Fortune at Antium (see Tacitus Annals 3.71). The coin’s obverse legend “Salus Augusta”, is not a direct reference to this illness or recovery, although it may be understood to allude to it. Comparatively, Augustan coins from 16 BC commemorate vows for Augustus’ salus (health/safety), but on these the legend is clear “Salus Augusti”, with the genitive case clearly evidencing the salus belonged to Augustus. Instead, in this case, it is understood as being a reference to the good health of the state, and there may also be a politically-charged reference to this being dependent on Livia’s well-being.
Looking more closely at the portrait on the coin, Livia’s coiffure is arguably the most striking element. Parallel waves on the crown of her head from a central parting, connect to fuller waves across her forehead, becoming rolled braids which run from her temples to wrap the chignon, which sits at the back of her neck. Absent from this coiffure is the nodus - a wide knot of hair rolled forward to sit above the forehead.This was a defining characteristic in Livia’s portraiture in statuary prior to 14 AD.
This later hairstyle was softer and although the portrait may hint at Livia’s maturity via the fuller cheeks and perhaps the suggestion of a double chin, the overall impression is of idealised youthful Roman beauty – large eyes, an aquiline nose and strong mouth. At least four sculptural marble heads, which all date to the reign of Tiberius, match closely the coiffure shown on the Salus Augusta dupondii series, suggesting that this particular representation of Livia, not dissimilar to her coiffure on the Ara Pacis, had become more widely disseminated, although it is worth noting that the nodus portrait type of Livia was not replaced by this and continued to be used.
This month's coin was written by Jacqui Butler. Jacqui has just completed the first year of the MA in Ancient Visual and Material Culture (part time), having gained a BA in Classical Studies with the Open University last year. Her main interests lie in the visual depictions of both mythical and real women in Roman material culture, specifically in art, but also their representation in epigraphy on funerary monuments.
Barratt, A.A. (2002) Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome, Yale University Press.
Bartman, E. (1999) Portraits of Livia, Cambridge University Press.
Wood, S.E. (2001) Imperial Women, A Study in Public Images, 40 BC – AD68 (Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava, Supplementum 195).
RIC II Trajan 557. Image reproduced courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.
The practice of issuing a victory coin after the conquest of a new territory was frequent in ancient Rome and it was a practice with a long tradition. In most instances what is depicted on the coins is either a scene in which a representation of the defeated country is mourning (cf. Iudeea capta, RIC II, Part 1 (second edition) Vespasian 161), or a symbol of the defeated country (cf. Aegypto capta, RIC I (second edition) Augustus 275A). However, one of the coins issued by Trajan after the conquest of Dacia is very different.
This coin is a sestertius dated between AD 103 and AD 111, issued in Rome, and now kept in the British Museum. On the obverse of the coin we find the bust of Trajan, laureate, facing right, with the text ‘IMP CAES NERVAE TRAIANO AVG GER DAC P M TR P COS V P P’- Trajan’s name and titles in the dative. On the reverse is a combat scene in which the river Tiber pushes Dacia to the ground with his right knee. The violence and the dynamism of this image is unusual for a Roman coin and I will present my hypothesis for this matter in this article.
This coin was issued to celebrate the Trajan’s victories over the Dacians. In AD 101, Trajan crossed the Danube and attacked Dacia despide the treaty that his predecesor Domitian had made with the Dacians. Another war followed in AD 106 after which most of Dacia became a Roman province.
The exact causes are controversial because of the lack of contemporary sources, but Dio’s text suggests that it was a punitive war. Regardless if this is true or not, it is clear that Trajan wanted to display this image and maybe show through this image that the nations willing to attack Rome would be defeated in battle.
The fact that it is the personification of the Tiber, a river, that is shown defeating Dacia is very interesting. On Trajan’s column, which depicts his wars against the Dacians, there is another personification of a river: the Danube. As the coin circulated over time, a viewer who had seen the column once it was completed in AD 113 might recall its scenery and the battle scenes depicted upon the monument. On the column the Danube is represented helping the Roman army.
This was the first Roman conquest in fifty years and it is possible that Trajan wanted to show it in a memorable way. To do this he chose to use this vivid violent scene to impress the people who would see it and to suggest that more territories would be conquered: in 114 and 115 he would also annex Armenia.
So, I think that the fact that Trajan wanted to show the people what happened if a people were to challenge Rome may have contributed to the creation of this unusual victory coin.
This month's entry was written by Luiza Diaconescu, a third year undergraduate student in Classical Civilisation. Luiza is very interested in Roman history and literature.
Bellinger, A & Berlincourt, M (1962) ‘Victory as a coin type’, Numismatic Notes and Monographs 149:1-68
Bennett, J. (2001) Trajan: Optimus Princeps (Bloomington: Indiana University Press)
This coin looks like a Roman coin. It is circular, it bears the head of the emperor, in this case Nero, and the legend (the writing on the coin) appears around the head. It is made of copper rather than the mixed-alloy bronze that was common in the Roman imperial period. However, the intent of the maker is to make a low value denomination. The lettering S C on the reverse (tails side) is a common feature for Roman issues in bronze, and the appearance of monuments, like the Ara Pacis in this case, is well attested. However, this is not a Roman coin, nor is it a modern imitation. This is a Fantasy coin; a coin reflecting the currency of a fantasy or an alternative history world.
Fantasy coins are produced by a number of different modern companies in response to the explosion of interest in fantasy games, such as Dungeon and Dragons. The coins can reflect specific worlds, such as Westoros (the world of Games of Thrones) or ancient Rome. Other ranges relate to generic fantasy worlds, particularly a specific racial or cultural group in that world. Elvish, dwarvern, barbarian, dragon and orcish communities are among the many catered for. Futuristic coins, representing the coins of imagined galactic empires, are also produced. In order to relate the coin to the subject matter, the images on the coin and more occasionally its shape are utilised. Such images are based on popular tropes related to the fantasy race. Dwarvern coinage for instance tend to show anvils, hammers and bear Nordic runes, ultimately derived from a Norse description of dwarfish smiths in the Prose Edda, a medieval text detailing Scandinavian myths. Orc coins often bear weapons or warriors, reflecting the original inspiration of orcs from Tolkien as creatures obsessed with war.
In many cases, a specific range of Fantasy coins is not tied to a particular game. The generic imagery is used so that the pieces can be accommodated in a number of different settings, allowing for a wider array of customers. The general audience of these coins are gamers and curiosity collectors, though these are often not separate groups. Players of “roleplaying” games, in which the players control characters in an imagined setting, with one player known by various names (Game Master, Dungeon Master or Keeper among many others) guiding the story. In these contexts, props are often utilised. These primarily consist of miniature figures representing the characters and their opponents, but increasingly other props are utilised to increase the immersion in the game. This is particularly evident in the real-world equivalent of role-playing, larping (otherwise known as live-action roleplaying) in which the participants physically portray their characters through costume and acting. Props are particularly valued in such settings, and the organisers of these events often produce their own coins. There are even events where complex denomination systems accompany the coins. For these groups, the coins are often bought in bulk. However, individual coins are also available for purchase. These would not be suited to games that require many coins, so these coins have a premium on their artistic value. As a result, Fantasy coins tend to be larger than most modern coins, and they often bear high quality designs. The Ancient Greeks also produced large coins with high quality images, so the use of coins as aesthetic pieces marks a continuation of an ancient tradition.
One would think that the coins would be highly unusual, as they are products of imagination. However, most fantasy coins are almost identical to the coins produced in the ancient period. The majority of fantasy coins are depicted as round objects, with an image on each side. Most ranges of fantasy coins have three separate denominations, with a gold, silver and copper issue. The only differences are the subject matter of images upon the coins and that they are not usually made of precious metal (like gold or silver), unlike the ancient coins which were intrinsically valuable in their own right. Since coinage began in 7th century BC Turkey, coins in the western world have retained the same features. Even Bitcoin is represented as a circular object, despite its digital form itself having no physical shape. Fantasy coins, for all the imagination behind them, are slaves to the trope. There are a few attempts to get away from round coinage for particularly exotic cultures, with some coins represented as moons, axe heads or as hexagons. In most cases, however, the producers of these coins are bound to their customers’ understanding of what a coin should look like.
Returning to our Fantasy Coin example, the coin copies a Roman issue in terms of its iconography (e,g, RIC 1 527). It is not, however, an imitation. The size of the original Roman denomination, an as, is not copied. As with other fantasy coins, the Nero coin is part of a series of gold, silver and copper coins, classed under the title “Roman”. As the smallest denomination, the coin is the smallest size in the series, whereas the gold coin is the largest coin of the set. In the ancient world, the size difference in coins was usually unnecessary; gold coins were intrinsically more valuable due to their metal content, so even the smallest gold coin was more valuable than the largest bronze coin and bronze coins were generally larger in antiquity. However, for modern Fantasy coins it would seem that bigger is better, so the highest denomination is afforded the largest size, and thus the greatest prestige. Within the series is a silver coin depicting a Constantine issue, and a gold coin bearing the Republican head of Roma, the titular goddess of Rome, with Jupiter riding a chariot alongside Victory on the reverse. The latter image was prominently featured on silver coins struck during the Roman Republic; the placement of the image on a gold coin here indicates that the modern manufacturer saw this image as worthy of a higher value.
Historical accuracy is not the intention behind these coins. What matters is the modern audience’s perception of what a coin is and what Roman culture was. Hence the more valuable coins are larger and the images chosen are ones that reflect “Roman-ness”. Hence emperors, monuments and famous gods are preferred over other images, like the many personifications of lesser deities that decorate the majority of ancient Roman coins. However, the manufacturers have chosen to imitate Roman coins rather than create their own images, so there is a modern desire for “authenticity” in some sense that the producers of these pieces are accommodating. This is not always the case; Fantasy Spartan coins exist, yet in reality the Spartans had no coins. As a result, standard pieces of Greek military equipment, like the Corinthian style helmet, are utilised for the iconography of these pieces.
The expansion in the Fantasy coin trade represents a continuation of coins as an art form. From their beginnings, coins in Europe bore high quality designs. The Rennes Patera show that certain individuals collected coins and valued them for the iconography upon them. There is little difference here.
Fantasy coins have yet to receive any major academic study. Yet studying these coins in an academic fashion is of great use in understanding modern conceptions. This is particularly true of the “historical” ranges of Greek and Roman coins. As a form of reception studies, one can see what particular images a modern audience considers as being “most Roman” or “most Greek”. The more fantastical ranges are also of interest, as it would be curious what real-world influences are attributed to these fictional races. Overall, the production of Fantasy coins shows that in the modern world where most transactions are carried out online or through credit, coins continue to attract interest.
This month's coin was written by David Swan. David is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Warwick. His thesis examines coinage and hoarding patterns across the Channel in Iron Age Europe. He specialises in Iron Age (otherwise known as Celtic) coinage.