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Coins in focus

All 20 entries tagged Coins In Focus

In the period 90-88 BC several Italian allies revolted from Roman control, objecting that they contributed resources and troops to the Roman cause while receiving little in return. The assassination of Marcus Livius Drusus, who proposed granting Italian allies Roman citizenship, in 91 BC sparked revolt. The Italians created their own confederation named Italia, with a new capital at Corfinium, which was renamed Italica (see Diodorus Siculus 37.4).

Roman Republican Denarius showing Apollo and Roma
(RRC 335/1). © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Italians also began to strike their own coinage, which carried a mixture of Roman and non-Roman elements. The coins were denarii, and circulated alongside Roman issues (at least, we find them buried alongside Roman denarii in hoards). Alongside Latin, Oscan was used. Some types derived from Roman coinage; one in particular demonstrates how imagery can shift and change meaning according to context, an idea explored in several other posts on this blog. In c. 96 BC the moneyers at Rome released a type showing the wreathed head of Apollo on the obverse and Roma seated on a pile of shields on the reverse, holding a sword and shield and being crowned by Victory (RRC 335/1-2).

This imagery was then adopted by the Italians during the Social War, but the head of Apollo and the figure of Roma were given a very different meaning. On one type (HN Italy 412a) the laureate head is given a necklace and accompanied by the legend ITALIA: the head has now become the personification of Italia herself. On the other issue (HN Italy 412b), the legend ITALIA is found on the reverse, suggesting that the image of Roma being crowned by Victory has transformed into a triumphant image of Italia.

hn italy 412a HN_Italy_412b
Denarius of the Italians from the Social War (HN Italy 412a). © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Denarius of the Italians from the Social War (HN Italy 412b). © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Thus during their rebellion from Roman control the Italians took existing imagery and converted it to support their cause, communciating these new meanings through the clever use and placement of legends. That the Italians felt the need to strike their own coinage demonstrates the role of money in the formulation and expression of identity. These coins and others struck by the Italians represent one of the few pieces of evidence that suggest dissatisfaction with Roman Republican control. The Romans did not take too kindly to this material manifestation of opposition: at the end of the war, it is clear that the coinage of the Italian allies was melted down and converted into Roman denarii. What is left to us today are those coins which were lost before the conclusion of the war, or those which somehow were overlooked during this process.

Writing about web page

Something a little different - in the last few weeks, as part of the Hellenistic World module, my students and I have been considering how to represent the ancient world and academic research in new (digital) ways. Here is my first attempt at a Digital story examining the ancient world, incorporating an idea that comes from my research. Enjoy!

A picture is less like a statement or speech act, then, than like a speaker capable of an infinite number of utterances. An image is not a text to be read but a ventriloquist's dummy into which we project our own voice.

W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? p. 140

'Zeus / Warrior' Coin from Sicily (Bahrfeldt 2)

This sentence encompasses the problems of ambiguity and meaning that have been the focus of several previous blogs. Since I posted about the ambiguity of images used by the Romans in Macedonia, I have come across several more examples that show a similar tendency. One is shown to the right, part of the 'Zeus / warrior' coin series struck by the Romans in Sicily. These coins are entangled objects: released by the Romans and carrying references to Roman quaestors in Latin (in this case via the Q for quaestor and a monogram spelling MAL on the far right), the design was likely created by a Greek die engraver, and the coins were intended for circulation within the Roman province of Sicily. Bahrfeldt, acknowledging their mixed nature, termed them 'Roman-Sicilian', a phrase also used by Frey-Kupper in her study of coin circulation in Sicily, which concluded these issues dated to the period 190/170-130/120 BC.

Coin of Panormos with head of Zeus and Warrior

Ever since Bahrfeldt's publication, people have wondered 'who' exactly the warrior is. Is it a Roman soldier, a local Greek soldier, or is it the god of war (Mars/Ares)? The Romans might easily have made the picture more 'understandeable' by providing the coin a legend, but here, as with the case of Macedonia, they chose not to. This may have been intentional, allowing, in the words of Mitchell, for each person to 'project their own voice' through seeing their own meaning in the image. In this way, each member of the community that was Roman Republican Sicily might have identified with the image, allowing the image and the coin that bore it to actively generate a shared sense of community. When Panormos began to strike its own coinage bearing its name under Roman dominion from 130/120 BC, they adopt the Zeus / Warrior type. The money created by the conquerors (Rome) has been claimed and adopted by the conquered: 'their' money had become 'our' money. It is in a moment like this that Anderson's 'imagined community' is created. Again, the warrior shown on the coins carrying the ethnic of Panormos may have been Roman, Greek, divine, or as representative of the warriors of Panormos itself. Or it may not even have been seen as a warrior at all.

Coin of Italica with head of Augustus and Roma

While we often think of Roma as a seated goddess, some representations of her show her standing with a spear and shield in a very similar manner to the 'warrior' of Sicilian coinage. One example from Spain is shown on the right, which (although it is not visible on this particular specimen) identifies the figure next to the shield as ROMA on the reverse legend (RPC 61). Given this and other examples, could this be another possible reading of the 'warrior' type seen on Roman-Sicilian coinage, the issues of Panormos, and other towns? Just as the image can evoke various soldiers, and perhaps Ares, it may also have been seen as the personification of Roman power itself. But the ambiguity, which still provokes scholarly debate today, was likely the key behind this and other images.

Coin images reproduced courtesy of ArtCoins Roma (Auction 6 lot 257), Classical Numismatic Group (Electronic Auction 327, lot 521) ( and Jesus Vico S.A. (Auction 132, lot 611)

US $1 bill, defaced by an ink stamp. From

Included the Disobedient Objects exhibition currently at the V & A are a series of defaced monetary items, including the US dollar bill above. As material representations of a particular ruling authority that permeate our daily lives, currencies are often used to express dissatisfaction with governmental authorities, or even rebellion. A similar practice also occured in the Roman Empire, when the vast majority of circulating coinage carried the portrait of the emperor, an image that had strong power and charisma. In Roman culture it was vitally important to be remembered after one's death through one's actions and monuments; to destroy a monument or a portrait, then, was to attack the person's very being. (This Roman practice of destroying or defacing an image, whether material or literary, is called damnatio memoriae in modern scholarship).

We find numerous instances of coin mutilation and defacement in the Roman world: coins being slashed, stabbed, subject to graffiti, cut and pierced. If there is no archaeological context, it is difficult to know the motivations behind these actions. In some instances, a coin would be mutilated before being given as an offering to a deity (ensuring that the coin could never again be used for 'profane' commercial transactions, it would always belong to the god or goddess). We do not know the motivations behind the mutilation of the coin below, for example, recently found in Hertfordshire in Britain, and registered on the Portable Antiquities Scheme. But a well-known and clear example of politically motivated currency mutilation can be found at the archaeological site of Kalkriese.

Mutilated Roman Coin. (PAS BH-57-3B8).

The site of Kalkriese was the site of a battle between Roman and German forces in the early first century AD. Though not universally accepted, many identify the site as the location of the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, in which the Roman general Varus was horribly defeated by the Germans in AD 9, losing several legions and cohorts. Amongst the finds on this ancient battlefield are numerous coins, with a large number of Augustan small bronze coins (called asses) from the mint at Lugdunum (Lyons). A significant proportion of these asses were defaced by stabbing, cuts or slashes. The original publication of these coins argued that these actions were performed by dissatisfied Roman troops (Berger). More recently, Kemmers and Myberg have suggested that the Germans may have been responsible: after defeating the Romans, the Germans then went on to deface one of the most potent symbols of Roman imperial power. Interpretation remains open, but the finds indicate that the coins must have been carried onto battlefield by the Romans. In this case it is perhaps unlikely that Roman troops were responsible for the mutilation - after the defacement the coins would no longer have been considered valid currency and there would be little reason for a Roman to be carrying them around, particularly into battle. The mutilation might thus have occured as part of the German post-battle victory celebrations.

For more on the defaced currrencies currently on display in London see this post. For the coins at Kalkriese see F. Berger, (1996). Kalkriese 1: Die römische Fundmünzen. Mainz; and F. Kemmers, F. and N. Myberg (2011). "Rethinking numismatics. The archaeology of coins." Archaeological Dialogues 18: 87-108.

george iii
Sovereign of George III

Over the last week or so I have been doing a lot of thinking about the role that images and material objects play in constructing identities, communities, empires and nations. A more modern example that I think demonstrates the sort of phenomenon we might also look for in the ancient Roman world is the Elgin marbles, the parthenon frieze taken from Athens to London by Lord Elgin at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Few people realise I think (and I didn't until last week) that when the marbles arrived, the British government believed they were worthless, and refused to buy them (a good cartoon demonstrating the general sentiment can be found here). Lord Elgin and his friends thus had to wage something of a publicity campaign to ensure that his investment would pay off, a campaign that was apparently waged from Elgin's backyard shed, where the marbles were temporarily housed. But what it interesting is that the marbles arrived just as Britain was attempting to articulate its identity as a nation and as an Empire, and the marbles became an object that featured in these discussions. Since the images on the parthenon marbles are a bit ambiguous (there is still discussion over their exact meaning), people could see in the marbles differing ideas of British identity: British masculine superiority, the power of the British war machine, the idea of elite cavalry, the British male body, and the fact that the marbles were monochrome meant that they could even be used to discuss ideas of white superiority. (An excellent discussion of all of this can be found in Rose-Greenland, F. (2013). "The Parthenon marbles as icons of nationalism in nineteenth-century Britain." Nations and Nationalism 19: 654-673.)

What I find interesting is how these particular objects played an active role in forming British identity, and that the formation of this ideas took place not in the government, but among the elite (Elgin and his friends). Moreover, when a new coin design was introduced under George III in 1818 (for the earlier coinage design see here), the marbles served as direct inspiration. The Greek imagery, however, has been adapted to its British context in that the Greek-style figure is now slaying a dragon, a reference to St. George. These objects then, brought from outside Britain, played an active role in forming British identity and, in the end, epitomised a new idea of Britain on a new style of coinage (tellingly called 'a sovereign'). The question is, why did the marbles act in this way, out of ALL the objects that came into London in this period? I wonder if it has something to do with the ambiguity of the imagery of the marbles, meaning that they were susceptible to multiple meanings and interpretations in a way that other objects were not. (I have, of course, blogged on ambiguity before).The Elgin marbles also raises the question as to how other 'entangled objects' may have influenced the formation of Roman identity, and, ultimately, the design of coinage under Roman dominion. And, given the ongoing discussion over British identity in the modern day, it makes me wonder what will be chosen for the new British one pound coin.

(Image above is © The Trustees of the British Museum. See the coin online here.)