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Coin of the month

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Among the numerous Roman tesserae and coin-like objects that have been emerging on the market in recent years is an unusual specimen made of bronze, which can be associated to the “Vota Publica” token series (AD 305/306 – c. late fourth century) (Fig. 1). As is comparatively known, this late Roman emission consists of two clusters displaying the portrait of a Roman emperor or an Egyptian deity (Serapis, Isis, Hermanubis) on the obverse – hence they have been respectively named as “imperial” and “anonymous” series – which share a set of ritual scenes referring to different aspects of Egyptian and Isiac cults on the reverse, mostly accompanied by the legend “Vota Publica’” (= “public vows”).

On the obverse of the focused token is a bare-headed, draped, male bust facing right, with a pointed nose, a short, grape–shaped beard, and a coiffure with straight hair except for a row of curls on his forehead, which is accompanied by the legend DEO SE-RAPIDI in the dative case (“to the god Serapis”). This portrait has none of the typical features of Serapis iconography, such as a mature look, a voluminous beard, and above all a grain measure called a modius or kalathos worn as a headdress (accompanied by a radiate crown in some variants), which regularly typify the Egyptian god on the tokens from the “anonymous” group (Figs. 2-3). It should thus represent a different male figure which is not otherwise identified by the legend. On the reverse is a draped (and veiled?) female figure standing front, head turned l., holding uncertain objects in each hand, accompanied by the peculiar legend VOTA P-VBLICA. These two obverse and reverse types are unrecorded and are therefore worthy of closer examination.

vota_publica_figure_1_obverse vota_publica_token_rev

Figure 1: Æ “Vota Publica” token (15mm, 1.59g, 11h). Artemide Aste 19.1E, 20-21 October 2012, lot 381. Reference: L. Bricault & C. Mondello, Isis Moneta. The ‘Vota Publica’ tokens from late antique Carthage and Rome (forthcoming), cat. no. E169.1.

vota_publica_figure_2_obverse vota_publica_figure_2_rev

Figure 2: Æ “Vota Publica” token (19mm, 2.93g). Ashmolean Museum (inv. HCR71378, Douce coll.). Reference: L. Bricault & C. Mondello, Isis Moneta. The ‘Vota Publica’ tokens from late antique Carthage and Rome (forthcoming), cat. no. S83.1.

vota_publica_figure_3_obv vota_publica_figure_3_rev

Figure 3: Fig. 3: Æ “Vota Publica” token (18mm, 2.52g). Gorny & Mosch 278, 21.04.2021, lot 3851. L. Bricault & C. Mondello, Isis Moneta. The ‘Vota Publica’ tokens from late antique Carthage and Rome (forthcoming), cat. no. S86.3.

The specimen, with a module of 15mm and a weight of 1.59g, was offered for sale in an online auction about ten years ago but remained unsold. In the relevant auction catalogue, the token was given as a very rare (genuine) piece (“RRR”). As for the imagery, the commentator identified the obverse portrait as the emperor Julian (AD 361-63) and described the female figure on the reverse as Isis, holding a sistrum in her right hand and situla in her left (sic). Nevertheless, this description does not appear to be supported by the evidence provided by the official coinage nor by the obverse and reverse depictions occurring on the surviving “Vota Publica” tokens.

Julian’s portrait as Augustus (AD 361-363) is commonly figured on coins in the guise of a draped and double–pearl diademed bust, with a mostly long and pointed beard, either wearing military clothing or consular garb; with such features it also recurs in some of the “Vota Publica” token issues, where the ruler is clearly identified by the legend D N FL CL IVLI-ANVS P F AVG or FL CL IVLIA-NVS P F AVG. Inspired by the Greek philosopher’s model, the short or long-bearded portrait of the last ruler of the Constantinian dynasty constituted a “revolutionary” innovation with respect to the iconographic tradition of the new clean–shaven portrait of the emperor in late antiquity which was established by Constantine I (AD 306-337). However, the Julian-type portrait of the Julian type failed to prevail over the Constantinian imperial portrait model which, inspired by Augustan and Trajanic imagery, was later followed by most emperors in the West and East across the fourth and fifth centuries.

Although the male portrait in Fig. 1 is also bearded as in the case of Julian, its general features do not match the latter’s coin portraiture. Closer parallels can instead be found in the coin images of another fourth-century bearded ruler, the usurper Nepotian.Son of Virius Nepotianus and of Eutropia (half-sister of Constantine I), seemingly born after the dynastic purge by the sons of Constantine I in the summer of AD 337, Nepotian was hailed emperor by a mob on 3 June 350 after the revolt of Magnentius, and ruled the city of Rome as usurper for twenty-eight days, before being killed by his rival Magnentius’ magister officiorum Marcellinus. As a usurper, he struck coins in his own name (as well as in the name of Constantius II), the production of which was limited to the Roman mint and only consisted of two denominations, that is solidi and large billon AEs. On the two “Urbs Roma” and “Gloria Romanorum” series, the portrait of Nepotian occurs either bare-headed or rosette-diademed, with an oblong face shape, a peculiar hooked nose, a short beard, and curly or straight hair with a mostly wavy fringe.

As can be seen in Figs. 4 and 5, the vultus of Nepotian and general features of his coin portrait seemingly have some affinities with the bearded bust on the obverse of the focused “Vota Publica” token.* If this assumption is correct, such a relation may suggest that the former inspired or served as a model for the latter, although it must be said that there are some slight differences which are probably due to a different engraving style. On the other hand, in this author’s opinion, no remarkable parallels can be found with the few bearded portraits of the emperors or usurpers of the West and East on coins issued since the post-Tetrarchic period (e.g., Martinian, Vetranius, Procopius, Eugenius, Maximus of Hispania, Joannes), nor with those on Roman medallions and “contorniates” from the fourth and fifth centuries AD.


Figure 4: Large Æ2 (c. 24mm, 5.36g), usurper Nepotian (AD 350), “Urbs Roma” series (= RIC VIII, Rome 203).


Figure 5: Large Æ2 (5.05g), usurper Nepotian (AD 350), “Gloria Romanorum” series (= RIC VIII, Rome 200). Numismatik Lanz München, Auction 100, 20.11.2000, lot 581.

As for the reverse, the overall scheme of the type showing a female figure standing front in Fig. 1 is reminiscent of Isis’ common depiction, standing with her body supported on one leg, while brandishing a sistrum (a percussion musical instrument associated with her cult) or a palm branch in her right hand and a situla (a bucket for holy water), sometimes replaced by a patera (a libation bowl), in her left (e.g. Fig. 3). However, the draped figure on the token cannot be identified with the Isis as she lacks a basileion and other attributes which typify the goddess. The objects held by the figure remain difficult to decipher, which could maybe be interpreted as a branch of a not recognizable tree or plant in her right hand and a strip of drapery in her left. Therefore, this precludes to enlighten the precise nature of the reverse motif. Looking at the types belonging to the reverse figurative repertoire of the “Vota Publica” series, the female figure in question appears to be conceptually closer to the depictions of auxiliaries and participants in (Isiac?) religious ceremonies (e.g. torch and candelabra holders, canephores, female attendants, and devotees) (e.g. Fig. 6) than to those of the goddess Isis.

vota publica figure 6 vota publica figure 6

Figure 6: Fig. 6: Æ “Vota Publica” token (14mm, 1.41g, 12h). Naville Numismatics 12, 18.01.2015, lot 249. Reference: L. Bricault & C. Mondello, Isis Moneta. The ‘Vota Publica’ tokens from late antique Carthage and Rome (forthcoming), cat. no. I154.4.

Interestingly, this token mixes some features from the “imperial” series (= the depiction of a bust of an alleged Roman emperor or usurper on the obverse) and the “anonymous” one (= the obverse legend “Deo Serapidi”), which were both part of the “Vota Publica” token emission. As recently shown (Bricault & Mondello, forthcoming), the “imperial” series consists of a small first issue from the mint of Carthage dating back to the Second Tetrarchy (AD 305-306) and the Third Tetrarchy (AD 306-307), and a subsequent, large production from the mint of Rome struck from the reign of Constantine I (AD 313-330/331) through at least the first two generations of the Valentinian dynasty (AD 365-378). In contrast, the “anonymous” series is devoid of any chronological reference from which a reliable date can be inferred. Due to die-linkage with some of the Valentinianic groups from the “imperial” series, the “anonymous” series has commonly been regarded as a product of the Roman mint and dated to the years between AD 379-380 and 395, based on some stylistic and historical assumptions (Alföldi 1937, p. 17). However, it remains debated when the production of this undated series began and ended.

If the male portrait on the obverse of the outlined token was indeed intended to represent the usurper Nepotian or was at least borrowed from his official coinage, it may shed light on some aspects of the “anonymous” series manufacture. Among other options, one might consider the token as a trial piece or as part of a transitional group between the “imperial” and “anonymous” series by virtue of its mixed characteristics; or, it could even lead one to consider pre-dating the starting point of the “anonymous” series to AD 350.

However, in this author’s opinion, some remarks on the iconography of the specimen and its historical background may raise serious questions on its genuineness.

Not only are the types occurring on this token unattested, but even certain of their details look anomalous. Regarding the obverse, the anonymous male bust does not constitute a full copy of Nepotian’s coin portrait, as seen above. Rather, the former seems to arise from a re-working of the latter by the engraver, despite the close affinities between them. Noteworthily, the curls on the forehead of the male portrait on the token have a quite unnatural round shape, the appearance of which seems reminiscent of the rosettes forming the imperial diadem often occurring on fourth century Roman coins, including Nepotian’s Roman issues. One might imagine that the die-cutter misrepresented a rosette diadem as a sort of curly fringe when designing the obverse portrait on the token, maybe in an attempt to imitate one of Nepotian’s portraits occurring on the relevant Roman coin dies. In contrast, it seems unlikely that the curly fringe of the male bust’s hair is in fact to be understood as a rosette diadem, due to its position as jutting out on the forehead instead of being placed on the top of the head, as well as given the absence of any diadem’s ties which normally flowed down behind the ruler’s neck on coin imperial portraiture.

Moreover, the obverse of the token deviates from the epigraphic pattern attested on the extant pieces. In fact, the legend DEO SERAPIDI only accompanies the portrait of Serapis, Hermanubis, or even the jugate busts of Serapis and Isis on the obverses of the “anonymous” series, and is never combined with the portrait of a different figure.

Likewise, inconsistencies can also be found on the token’s reverse design. For instance, the right hand of the female figure and the object she bears were drawn as single whole here. As with the obverse type, this “oddity” could also result from an error or misrepresentation by the engraver, who maybe depended on one or other of the variant of Isis holding a palm branch in her right hand, as found on the reverses of the “Vota Publica” tokens. Moreover, it is worth noting that the style of both types has no parallels with any of the surviving “Vota Publica” tokens, which seem to have come out of a different workshop.

Further to these considerations on iconography and style of the token, some aspects related to its expected distribution context also need to be considered. Nepotian’s accession and death dates do not match the date and context in which the “Vota Publica” tokens were supposedly distributed, namely the imperial “public vows” pronounced annually on the 3rd January against the backdrop of the New Year’s festivals. As reported by some late antique literary sources (Descriptio consulum, Eutropius, Jerome, Socrates), Nepotian seized power on 3rd June AD 350 and held it for twenty-eight days until his death, 30 June or 1 July. Therefore, no token could have been issued in the name or with the portrait of this usurper for the public vows on 3rd January in that year or even the following year(s). After all, if one were to consider the possibility that Nepotian’s coin portrait was only used as a model for “Vota Publica” token issue struck at some point since AD 351, cui bono (“to whom is it a benefit”)?

Ultimately, the above analysis suggests that the token may be the result of a counterfeit, most likely made in modern times. Such a forgery may have resulted from the combination of genuine coin image prototypes, which were respectively taken from the Roman coinage of Nepotian (= obverse type) and the “Vota Publica” token series (= reverse type). These images were reworked by the engraver and paired with legends from the “Vota Publica” token series, in order to create an otherwise unknown specimen in an attempt to increase its market value.

We hope that a metallurgical examination of this specimen, currently held in private hands, could be conducted in the near future in order to solve this dilemma.

* Thanks are due to Dr Vincent Drost (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des monnaies, médailles et antiques) for suggesting a possible relation between the obverse type of the token discussed here and the coin portraits of the usurper Nepotian.

This blog was written by Cristian Mondello as part of The ‘Vota Publica’ Tokens from Late Antique Rome: Isiac and Egyptian Cults within a Christianizing Roman Empire project, which has received funding from the NRRP, Mission 4, ‘Education and Research’ – Component 2, ‘From Research to Business’ – Investment line 1.2, ‘Funding projects presented by young researchers’ (European Union – NextGenerationEU, proposal no. CFFE1C55, CUP J43C22001030001). The project is hosted at the University of Messina, Italy.

Select Bibliography

  • Alföldi A., Isis-szertartások Rómában a negyedik század keresztény császárai alatt = A Festival of Isis in Rome under the Christian Emperors of the IVth Century, Budapest 1937.
  • Bricault, L., & Mondello, C., Isis Moneta. The ‘Vota Publica’ Tokens from late antique Carthage and Rome. Volume 1: Catalogue, London (forthcoming).
  • Burgess R.W., ‘The Date of Nepotian’s Usurpation’, Historia 72.3, 2023, pp. 370-384.
  • RIC VIII = Kent, J.P.C., The Roman Imperial Coinage. The family of Constantine I. A.D. 337–364, Vol. VIII, London 1981.

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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.

When Titus captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD, the triumph awarded to him and his father Vespasian was swathed in luxury and decadence. This was a victory that celebrated the violent result of years of strained relations between Jerusalem and Roman governance. The taking of Jerusalem involved a long and bloody siege resulting in the deaths of a reported 1.1 million people, most of whom where Jewish (Josephus, Jewish Wars 6.9.3). Those who survived were paraded through the streets of Rome, and the spoils of war contributed to the building of the iconic Flavian amphitheatre we know as the Colosseum.

The Roman victory, as so often was the case, was advertised upon the contemporary coinage. As travelling propaganda, these coins reinforced the idea of Roman supremacy and the might of the empire. The Judaea Capta type was minted in various denominations in the name of Vespasian and both of his sons, and in spite of several variations in design the overall message remained the same.

judea_capta_Vepasian_obv iudaea_capta_rev

Sesterius of Vespasian, AD 71, RIC II.12 167, reproduced courtesy of the American Numismatic Society (inv. no.0000.999.18073).

The legend on the reverse states IVDEA CAPTA ,‘Judaea conquered’, and the coin depicts a woman seated beneath a palm tree, with a man, interpreted as the emperor, watching. The woman is Jerusalem, her hand to her cheek in a traditional expression of mourning. She is wearing civilian dress, and reflects the prophecy of Isaiah 3.26: ‘…And her gates shall lament and mourn, and she being desolate shall sit upon the ground’ (Young (1992) 170). By contrast, the male watching is standing, and still wears his armour, his foot placed on a helmet. The palm tree sets the scene of the victory in Judaea.

Personification was often used by Rome to reflect victory, as it expresses an effective message that was simple to comprehend. In this case, the use of opposing characteristics of the figures on the coins is extremely powerful in conveying the intended message. Jerusalem is depicted as female, and therefore as weak and submissive in contrast to the male figure representing Rome. The male figure, often interpreted as Vespasian himself, stands in reference to his elevated position over the woman in his victory. Where the woman is unarmed, the man is still dressed for battle in a reflection of victory

Other versions of this coin replace the armoured man with a winged Victory, or sometimes a bearded man with his hands tied behind his back. The latter is a depiction of a soldier of Jerusalem, bearded to reflect his ‘barbarian’ status in the eyes of the Roman Empire. His weapons and armour are laid down beside him in an image of defeat (RIC II.1² Vespasian 159). The legend also has variations, such as IVDAEA DEVICTA, ‘Judaea defeated’ (RIC II.1² Vespasian 1120), or DE IVDAEIS ‘[the booty] from the Judaeans’ (RIC II.12 1179) in reference to the wealth stolen from the temple of Jerusalem. The palm tree has been interpreted as a representation of Rome victorious over Judaea.

The coin is one of many examples of media expressing the Flavian victory over the province of Judaea, including the arch of Titus which still stands proudly at the entrance to the Roman forum today. In a passing glance it appears as just another Roman victory arch, but if you take a closer look you can spot iconography relating to the siege, including a parade of people carrying aloft a menorah from the temple.


Close-up of the menorah being carried in the victory parade on the Arch of Titus .Image from WikimediaImages from Pixabay.

The Judaea Capta coinage reflects an important moment in the history of Rome, and likewise the history of Jerusalem. The Great Revolt resulted in a mass of deaths, displacement and enslavement. The minting of Judaea Capta coinage therefore becomes part of the Roman narrative of glorified victory and imperialism in the Flavian period.


This month's entry was written by Rebecca Preedy. Rebecca is an Ancient History and Classical Archaeology with Study Abroad student. She is completing her final year at Warwick after a year abroad at La Sapienza. Since studying in Rome, Rebecca has been fascinated by the ancient city and is hoping to continue her studies with a postgraduate degree in Roman Material Culture.

Select Bibliography

• Josephus, The Jewish War, trans. G. Williamson (London: Penguin)

The Holy Bible: King James Version (Massachusetts: Hendrickson 2004)

• Carradice, I. (2012) ‘Flavian Coinage’ in The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage ed. W.E. Metcalfe

• Claridge, A. (2010) Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford: University of Oxford Press)

• Moresino-Zipper, A. (2009) ‘Die Judaea-Capta-Münze und das Motiv der Palme. Römisches Siegessymbol oder Repräsentation Judäas?’ in Jerusalem und die Länder: Ikonographie - Topographie - Theologie eds. A. Moresino-Zipper, G. Theißen, H.U. Steymans, K.M. Schmidt, S. Ostermann

• Stevenson, T.R. (2010) ‘Personifications on the coinage of Vespasian (AD 69-79)’ Acta Classica 53:181-205

• Young, E.J. (1992) The Book of Isaiah (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

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.

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.