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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.

In the two centuries following the tetrarchic reform of Diocletian (AD 293-305), tokens continued to be regularly produced in the Roman West for a variety of purposes. Given their religious and social-cultural value, the evidence of late antique tokens and coin-like objects helps us to understand the gradual religious transformation within the Roman Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries AD, allowing us to trace wider patterns in the shift from a pagan to a Christian culture. Nevertheless, the connection between tokens and late Roman religious communities remains a relatively unexplored or inadequately understood phenomenon.

figure 1 asina token

Fig. 1: 1 Bronze token from Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques (BnF), Paris. 20 mm, 3.05 g

Remarkable is the bronze token shown above (Fig. 1), described in 1719 by B. de Montfaucon and held at the Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques (at the BnF) in Paris. It was part of the collection of the Roman antiquarian Marcantonio Sabatini and was purchased by Abbé Le Blond, who brought it to France. This token carries on the obverse the bust of Alexander the Great left, wearing lion’s skin, with the legend ALEXSΔ-DRI; on the reverse is a donkey suckling a foal with a scorpion above, accompanied by the Christian legend D N IHV XPS DEI FILI-VS (“Dominus Noster Jesus Christus Dei Filius”).

This specimen is one of the so-called “Asina coins”, perhaps struck in Rome during the reign of Honorius (AD 395-423). They are a small group of very rare bronze tokens, on whose obverses are portraits of Alexander the Great or the Roman emperor, while the reverses carry Graeco-Roman images, including Hercules-Minerva, a centaur fighting a hero and even an erotic scene.


Fig. 2a: Bronze token with Honorius (obv.) and the donkey/foal (rev.), from British Museum. 15 mm, 0.8 g

fig 2b

Fig. 2b: Bronze token with female bust/Providentia (obv.) and the donkey/foal (rev.), from British Museum. 14 mm, 2.04 g.

These Asina tokens named for the donkey suckling a foal, which appears depicted on 4 other pieces. On the two specimens shown above, both housed at the British Museum, the donkey type on the reverse is accompanied by the legend ASINA (Latin for a donkey) (Fig. 2a), or the legend ROMA in the exergue (Fig. 2b). On the obverse of Fig. 2a is the portrait of the Roman emperor Honorius with the Urbs Roma Felix style, while in Fig. 2b the obverse carries a female bust with a crown ending in a crescent shape (Isis?) right, with the legend PROVI–DENTIA and R M below the bust.

Although the donkey was generally considered in the ancient world to be a symbol of fertility, a sacred animal, and an attribute of deities (e.g. Seth, Dionysus, Silenus, Vesta, Priapus), the image of the donkey suckling a foal is an unicum (unique) and has no comparanda in the material and visual culture of the Greek and Roman periods. According to some scholars, the Asina type might be an indirect satirical allusion to Jesus, who was mocked by pagans as a god with a donkey’s head (H. Tanini 1791; A. Alföldi 1951) (Fig. 3). By this hypothesis the “Asina coins” might be considered anti-Christian medals, part of a covert pagan propaganda against the oppressive policy of the emperor Honorius towards polytheistic cults.

alexamenos graffiti

Fig. 3. Fig. 3 The Alexamenos graffito (3rd century AD?) from Palatine Hill Museum, Rome.

However, historical and numismatic considerations oppose this interpretation. Other late antique tokens, like the so-called “Festival of Isis coinage” and the “contorniates”, carry pagan iconography and were used in the late Roman world despite repressive measures by the Christian empire. Although they too were interpreted by the early twentieth century scholarship as instruments of pagan propaganda, more recent hermeneutical approaches suggest instead that these coin-like objects had to be multifunctional. They were produced by a complex religious world, in which the categories of ‘Christian’ and ‘pagan’ are neither as homogeneous nor as mutually exclusive as is often assumed. Moreover, the contorniates often show Christian symbols (the cross, the Chi Rho monogram), portraits of Christian Roman emperors (e.g. Honorius, Theodosius II, Valentinian III, Majorian, Anthemius), and even Christian graffiti engraved on the surface of the pieces after their manufacture (Fig. 4).

fig 4 obversefig 4 reverse

Fig. 4. Fig. 4 Contorniate with Trajan and an engraved Chi Rho monogram in l. field (obv.) and a charioteer driving quadriga right (rev.), from Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence. Photo: S. Bani-M. Benci-A. Vanni 2012).

In light of the above, should the “Asina coins” be considered as an expression of satire or religious koine? The combination of Graeco-Roman and Christian features on the Asina tokens suggests how complex the relations between pagans and Christians were in late antiquity. At this moment in history religious groups interacted along a variety of axes, which at times lead to conflict, and at times competition, but which, above all, was a form of coexistence.

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:

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

A. Alföldi, ‘Asina. Eine dritte Gruppe heidnischer Neujahrsmünzen im spätantiken Rom’, GNS 2 (7), 1951, 57-66.

A. Alföldi, ‘Asina II. Weitere heidnische Neujahrsmünzen aus dem spätantiken Rom’, GNS 2 (8), 1951, 92-96.

A. Alföldi, E. Alföldi, Die Kontorniat-Medaillons. Teil 1: Katalog (Berlin 1976)

A. Alföldi, E. Alföldi, Die Kontorniat-Medaillons. Teil 2: Text (Berlin-New York 1990).

S. Bani, M. Benci, A. Vanni (eds), I medaglioni romani provinciali e contorniati nelle raccolte del Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze. Vol. II (Massa Marittima-Follonica-Firenze, 2012).

C. Cavedoni, ‘Médailles du temps d’Honorius portant des signes chrétiens mêlés à des types païens’, RN 1857, pp. 309-314.

B. de Montfaucon, L’antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures (Paris 1719), II, 2, pp. 372-373, Pl. 168.

J.H. Echkel, Doctrina numorum veterum (Vindobonae 1798), t. VIII, p. 174; 289.

L. Lavan, M. Mulryan (eds), The Archaeology of Late Antique ‘Paganism’ (Leiden-Boston 2011).

F. Lenzi, ‘Di alcune medaglie religiose del IV secolo’, Bilychnis 2, 1913, 113-131.

S. Mazzarino, ‘Contorniati’, in EAA, Roma 1959, pp. 784-791.

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

M.R. Salzman, M. Sághy, R. Lizzi Testa (eds), Pagans and Christians in Late Antique Rome (Cambridge 2015).

H. Tanini, Numismatum Imperatorum Romanorum a Trajano Decio ad Constantinum Draconem ab Anselmo Bandurio editorum Supplementum (Romae 1791), p. 352, Pl. VIII.

token mold harvard
Roman Token Mould from Harvard Art Museums, 2008.118

Amongst the McDaniel bequest to Harvard Art Museums in Boston is one half of a mould made of palombino marble. Shown here, this piece is one of the numerous moulds of this type used to cast Roman lead tokens. This particular mould half is 10.8x7.6x2.9cm and weighs 389.2g. It would have been used in conjunction with another half to cast seven circular lead tokens of c. 14mm, all carrying an image of the goddess Fortuna holding a cornucopia and rudder (and presumably another image on the other side, engraved on the other half of the mould). It has previously been published in Hirschland and Hammond 1968.

This type of token mould is characteristic of Rome and Ostia, and was donated to Harvard along with McDaniel's collection of Roman lead tokens and other antiquities. We know from McDaniel himself that he purchased his lead tokens (and thus probably also this mould) from the city of Rome. In his memoir, Riding a Hobby in the Classical Lands (p. 71), McDaniel writes:

For the integrity of one dealer in Rome I can vouch unreservedly and so, as a contrast to some of the rest of my group, I name him here at the end of the chapter, honoris causa, Signore Scalco. His sunny face and smile alone used to lighten the tiny, gloomy shop not far from St. Peter’s in which he exposed for sale his modest stock of classical antiquities. A charming, well-informed Italian was he, who often had unusual things for sale. Thus, it was from him I bought a considerable number of papal medals…. From him, too, came my piombi, those coin-shapes of lead which have so much about them to pique the curiosity and to puzzle the best of scholars as they work on the problem of their various uses. While I almost never saw any customers in the shops of the other small dealers in Rome, Scalco was one who received calls from archaeologists, who liked to chat with him, and also from the proprietors of the more pretentious establishments, who would buy from him in order to sell again. There, too, one might chance at any time upon one of the rough dwellers of the Trastevere who had fished something out of the Tiber which he expected to have identified as modern, or, if good luck were his, to sell as an antiquity. He was just as sure as the most promising customer to receive all the attentions of courtesy and fair treatment; that was Scalco."

tokens cast
Cast lead tokens
from Ostia.

The mould carries the channels through which molten lead was poured into the token cavaties; the resulting tokens were then broken off to be used (see the picture left for an example of what the resulting cast would have looked like before the tokens were broken off). The mould still contains the iron nails used to fasten both halves of the mould together (in the top right and lower left corners) - this would ensure that both halves of the mould were correctly aligned. The top and bottom sides of the mould carry faint grooves (see image below); it has been suggested that these grooves were created for or by wire that was wrapped around the moulds during the casting process (Pardini et al 2016). The back of the mould is unworked, as many moulds of this type are.

The top right corner of the Harvard mould has an unusual feature: two concentric circles are etched into the material (see image below). The inner circle is 14mm, the precise diameter of the tokens produced by this mould. These two circles may have been an error made by the person producing the mould, or they may in fact provide a clue as to how these moulds were made: perhaps two concentric circles were sketched before a design was carved into the inner circle- here, perhaps, it was decided that this additional token design was not needed. When one looks closely at each of the circular designs, one sees a deep circular depression at the centre, on Fortuna's body. Jack Kroll, in his unpublished catalogue of these pieces, suggested that this depression was caused by the bit of an instrument used for cutting the circular depressions before the designs were engraved (much like the point of a compass). Many Roman lead tokens carry circular protuberances at their centre; the Harvard mould allows us to understand these protuberances were the result of the mould manufacturing process rather than an intentional part of the design.

Images below from left to right: the side of the mould with faint grooves; a close up of the top left corner of the mould showing two concentric circles and a central depression on the body of Fortuna; a Roman lead token from the Harvard Art Museums collection (2008.116.41) with a wreath and a central dot, now understood to be a result of the mould making process.

harvard side of mould top left of mould token from harvard

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

Select Bibliography:

Hirschland, N. L. and M. Hammond (1968). Stamped Potters' marks and other stamped pottery in the McDaniel Collection. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 72: 369-382.

Kroll, J. H. (unpublished manuscript). Roman Lead Tokens in Harvard Art Museums.

McDaniel, W. B. (1971). Riding a Hobby in the Classical lands. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Printing Office.

Pardini, G., M. Piacentini, A. C. Felici, M. L. Santarelli and S. Santucci (2016). Matrici per tessere plumbee dalle pendici nord-orientali del Palatino. Nota preliminare. In: Le regole del gioco tracce archeologi racconti. Studi in onore di Clementina Panella. ed. A. F. Ferrandes and G. Pardini, Edizioni Quasar: 649-667.

The intersection of imagery between tokens and coins in Hellenistic Athens remains an understudied phenomenon. It has previously been thought that tokens functioned as substitute for coinage or as an alternative currency according to a ‘functional’ approach. A more semiotic approach to these objects has underlined the obvious verisimilitude of Hellenistic tokens to the moneyer’s symbols of Athenian New Style coinage, identifying the common imagery used by a wide set of media, which included tokens, coins, weights and measures, as well as bronze allotment plates (pinakia).

goettingen token with wheart ears

Athenian lead token from Göttingen with a poppy head between two ears of wheat. (Göttingen, As-Pb-085, 13mm)

A token, shown above, struck only on one side with a poppy head between two ears of wheat and recently studied in the University Museum of Göttingen, returns to this question. The type follows closely coin types of the 70s BC. (J.H. Kroll with contributions by A.S. Walker, The Greek Coins, The Athenian Agora, vol. 26, Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1993, 118; 133-134). It is very probable that two different but closely associated workshops prepared two distinct sets of dies. The fact that dies for tokens have to date never been found, in conjunction with the evidence that indicates a continuous circle of disposing of the old tokens and recycling them, points to the fact the polis carefully controlled the production of tokens.

Tokens gave access to a broad array of state pay: for example assembly pay, misthos ekklesiastikos, from the late 5th cent. BC, juror’s pay from the late 5th century BC onwards, theatre tickets paid out on an ad hoc basis from the late 5th century BC, and regularly from the theorikon fund from the middle of the 4th century BC. Fraudulent behaviour then is likely to have been quite common. In fact it is impossible to know how many, if any, of the tokens surviving today are ancient counterfeits.

Among the tokens with ‘coin imagery’ a particular group stands apart. These are the tokens that fully copy or closely follow the imagery of Eleusinian coinage, struck in the name of Eleusis and likely connected to festivals. The ‘poppy-ear wheat token’ is one of them. But the ‘kernos’ or ‘plemochoe’, a type of vessel, is a far more popular ‘Eleusinian’ device on tokens.

goettingen token with kernos another goettingen token with kernos
Token showing a kernos.
Göttingen, AS-Pb-090, 12mm
Token showing a kernos.
Göttingen, As-Pb-091, 11mm

Two such tokens showing a kernos are also found in the University Coin Collection of Göttingen, shown above. Remarkable also is a bronze token with a kernos on the reverse, accompanied by the legend ΔΗΜΟΣ ΑΘΗΝΑΙΩΝ, ‘the demos of Athens’ (Svoronos 1898, 124). The vessel is also attested as a countermark on a lead token of the letter series (Crosby 1964, L5). The kernos appears for the first time on Athenian bronze coinage (hemiobols and chalkoi) of the period following the evacuation of the Macedonian garrisons from the forts of Attica in 229BC.

The last day of the Eleusinian Mysteries was called ‘Plemochoai’, named after these particular vases, which were used ceremonially. A. Dumont has suggested that tokens carrying these designs could have been used in the Eleusinian Festival. The circumstances could have been similar to the ones that prompted the ‘ΕΛΕΥΣΙ coinage’, the coins carrying a reference to Eleusis. Perhaps tokens were employed as credit when the appropriate money was not available. Or – more probably – tokens were issued by the Boule and the magistrates responsible for the Eleusinian Mysteries or the panegyriarch, who presided over the panegyris (assembly) related to the festival. Today ‘kernos-tokens’ have been found in and around the tholos of the Agora in Athens.

The connection of tokens to Athenian Festivals in the Hellenistic Period is also attested through another important find: all the ‘Panathenaic Amphora – tokens’ have been found very near the so-called Arsenal, on the North side of the Agora, the only building which contained sherds of Panathenaic Amphoras.

This month's entry was written by Mairi Gkikaki as part of the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean Project.


W. Bubelis, ‘Tokens and Imitation in Ancient Athens’, Marburger Beiträge zur Antiken Handels-, Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte 28, 2011, pp. 171-195.

Fr. De Callataÿ, ‘Les Plombes à type Monétaires en Grѐce Ancienne: Monnaies (officielles, votives ou contrefaites), jetons, sceax, poids, épreuves ou fantaisies?’ RN 167, 2010 pp. 219-255.

M. Crosby, ‘Lead and Clay Tokens. Part II’, in Lang, M. Crosby, M., Weights, Measures and Tokens. The Athenian Agora, vol. 10 (Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1964).

L. Deubner, Attische Feste (Berlin 1932).

A. Dumont, De Plumbeis apud Graecos Tesseris (Paris 1870).

M. Gkikaki, 'The Collection of Athenian Lead Tokens at the University Museum of Göttingen' (SchwNumRu forthcoming)

J.H. Kroll with contributions by A.S. Walker, The Greek Coins, The Athenian Agora, vol. 26 (Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1993).

C. Mann, Spent or Saved? The Circulation of Festival Coins Struck for the Eleusinian Mysteries, Unpublished MA Essay (University of Warwick 2017, RNS Parkes Weber Prize)

G.E. Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Princeton 1961).

M.P. Nilsson, Die Geschichte der Griechischen Religion (München 1941).

P.J. Rhodes, The Athenian Boule (Oxford 1972).

I.N. Svoronos, ‘Περί των Εισιτηρίων των Αρχαίων. Μέρος Α΄ Εισιτήρια του Λυκούργειου Διονυσιακού Θεάτρου και της Κλεισθενείου Εκκλησίας των Αθηναίων’. JIAN 1, 1898, pp. 37-84.

Drawing representing the concept of hospitality
Fig. 1: A drawing representing
the concept of hospitality.
(Tomasini 1670: 133).

“Hospitality” was worthy of high, valuable consideration in the Greek and Roman world. It is not a coincidence that Zeus Xenios was the powerful protector of guests. The Greek word for hospitality was xenia, while the Romans called it hospitalitas. This concept was strongly sincere and implied a true friendship between the host and the guest. The latter could be a friend or a relative, who came to his host’s house for a brief or long period of time (fig. 1). Moreover, hospitality was considered a sacred institution. It was therefore based on serious rules and rituals. First, the host had to accommodate the guest respectfully. Second, the guest had to esteem his host, being kind and gracious while he was staying at his house. Third, hospitality established a mutual exchange of favours, reciprocal esteem and a series of gifts. Among them, the host could donate a tessera hospitalis (token of hospitality) to his guest.

This ‘ad hoc’ gift was prepared and personalised every time to testify that the hospitality was successful and to strengthen the bond between the guest and the host. We even know that the tessera might be broken in two parts, one for the guest and one for the host. Considering how heart-felt and widespread the concept of hospitality was, it is quite surprising that these artefacts seem to be quite rare nowadays. Two such objects are currently preserved at the Archaeological Museum of Madrid (1st century BC) (Saquette 1997: 420, n. 238) and the Museum ‘B. Anselmi’ in Marsala (Trapani – Sicily), ancient Lilybaeum (Trapani – Sicily) (2nd-1st century BC) (Salinas 1873: 53).

A third tessera (fig. 2) found at Trasacco (Aquila) (fig. 3) in 1895, is now stored at the National Museum of Rome. Dated to the 2nd century BC, the artefact was published by Felice Barnabei (1842-1922), a well-known archaeologist and General Director of Antiquities and Fine Arts (1896-1900), who wrote a detailed paper in the Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità (Barnabei 1895: 85-93; Letta 2001: 152; Luschi 2008: 137-86). The tessera is curiously shaped as a ram’s head and carries the following Latin legend, testifying a mutual hospitality between T. Manlius and T. Staiodius:





Fig. 2: Tessera hospitalis found in Trasacco (Aquila) (Letta 2001: 152).


Fig. 3: Map showing Trasacco and Rome (Google Maps).

Antiquarians have been interested in tesserae hospitales since before the 19th century. For instance, Jacopus Philippus Tomasini (1595-1655) (fig. 4), Catholic bishop and learned historian born in Padua, even wrote even an entire book on these artefacts. Published in Amsterdam in 1670 and written in Latin, De tesseris hospitalitatis liber singularis (1670) (fig. 5) is a thorough 230-page essay that signifies Tomasini’s deep knowledge of Greek and Roman history and analyses the concept of hospitality through historical and antiquarian sources (fig. 6).

tomasini tomasinis book  
Fig. 4: Portrait of Jacopus Philippus Tomasini (1595-1655) (Wikipedia). Fig. 5: De tesseris hospitalitatis liber singularis by J. P. Tomasini (1670) (online, GoogleBooks).


Fig. 6: Drawing of a tessera from a private collection (Tomasini 1670: 107)

Why did Tomasini write this work? He began to seriously think about his essay (serio mecum cogitare coepi) when he was in Rome admiring its ruins. Although the concept of hospitality was not ‘directly’ shown by Rome’s major antiquities, a targeted study was lacking and therefore it was essential to collect all the antiquarian and historical evidence (Tomasini 1670: 1-3).

nino crisa

This blog post was written by Nino Crisa as part of the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean Project. Nino is an archaeologist, numismatist and historian. His research and published works mainly focus on numismatics and the history of Sicilian archaeology and excavations, particularly on archival records, antiquarian collecting, the history of museum collections, antiquities safeguarding and legislation on the cultural heritage between the Bourbon and post-Unification periods (1816-1918).


Barnabei, F. 1895, ‘Di una rarissima “tessera hospitalis” con iscrizione latina’, Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità: 85-93.

Letta, C. 2001, ‘Tessera hospitalis dal territorio di Trasacco’, in A. Campanelli (ed.), Il tesoro del lago. L’archeologia del Fucino e la Collezione Torlonia. Catalogo della mostra, Avezzano, 22 aprile-31 ottobre 2001. Pescara: Soprintendenza Archeologica dell’Abruzzo: 152.

Luschi, L. 2008, ‘L’ariete dei “Manlii”: note su una “tessera hospitalis” dal Fucino’, Studi Classici e Orientali, 54: 137-86.

Salinas, A. 1873, Del Real Museo di Palermo: relazione. Palermo (reported in V. Tusa (ed.) 1976, Scritti scelti, Palermo: Regione Siciliana, I: 240-86).

Saquette, J. C. 1997, ‘Tessera di ospitalità a forma di mano’, in J. Arce, S. Ensoli and E. La Rocca (eds.), Hispania Romana: da terra di conquista a provincia dell’impero. Catalogo della mostra, Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, 22 settembre-23 novembre. Milan: Electa: 420.

Tomasini, J. P. 1670, De tesseris hospitalitatis liber singularis, in quo ius hospitii universum, apud veteres potissimum, expenditur. Amestlodami: Sumptibus Andreae Frisii.