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Whilst the interest in token moulds has mostly been confined to excavation reports and occasional enquiries to date, recent scholarship is increasingly focusing on the value of these objects to better understand crucial aspects related to the manufacturing techniques, production location and use of tokens in antiquity (cf. Pardini et al. 2016; Rowan 2019). Lately, token moulds are also gaining attention on the market and in auction sales.
Two unpublished token moulds are presented below, which exist as part of two museum collections from Florence, Italy. Both token moulds are discussed in a study currently being undertaken by the author.
The token mould shown on Fig. 1 is held in the Museo Archeologico of Firenze (MAF) (inv. no. 79209). It is one half of a mould made of limestone, rectangular in shape, whose size is 115 x 80 x 27 mm. It would have been used in conjunction with the other half (now lost) in order to create 8 circular tokens of about 16-17mm in diameter.
Figure 1: Roman token mould from Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Firenze (MAF) (inv. no. 79209) (Courtesy of the MAF).
Based on the designs engraved on the surface – but some of them are unfortunately in poor condition – the resulting tokens carried at least three different types of images: on the left side, two of the preserved designs show Mars, helmeted, in military dress, standing right, holding spear in right hand and resting left on shield on ground (the type is also applied to Minerva, who is generally portrayed with a longer robe); on the top, two token cavities depict Mars helmeted, in military dress, standing right, holding spear in right hand and patera in left hand; in the lower right corner, a token design shows Hercules standing right, holding scyphum in left hand and club in right hand. These images are variants of types commonly depicted on Roman lead tokens, as already known through the examples published by M. Rostowzew as well as on individual catalogues of museum collections (for some of the types in question, see e.g. Rostowzew and Prou 1900, 135, fig. 32; Arzone and Marinello 2019, nos. 108-111 and 113). It is noteworthy that the first of the two images of Mars mentioned above appears on the tokens produced at the time of Nero, and was adopted on official coinage just afterwards, occurring on the coins issued during the Civil Wars of AD 68-69 (Fig. 2). However, the designs attested on the MAF mould are closer to the variant of a Mars type largely found on coinage from the time of Trajan (Fig. 3) up to the fourth century, which allows us at least to date the token mould to this broad time frame. To support this, morphological and stylistic features, as well as the material used, are consistent with the token molds from Rome and Ostia, generally assigned to the period between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD.
Figure 2: Silver denarius, RIC 12 Civil Wars 20, AD 68-69. (UBS Gold & Numismatics, Auction 83, lot 183).
Figure 3: Bronze As of Trajan, Rome AD 99-100 (= RIC II, Trajan 410), American Numismatic Society (inv. no. 0000.999.18549)
This token mould is said to have been found in Corneto Tarquinia (Lazio), whose ancient site was one of the most important settlements of the twelve Etruscan cities (the ‘Dodecapolis’), and which was under Roman domination since the third century BC. This place does not appear among the sites documented as find spots of token moulds to date, which have been found in Rome and Ostia, except for two examples from Como and Telesia (Rowan 2019, 98-99). If one accepts as reliable the information on its place of discovery, this mould specimen might suggest that a local production of lead tokens existed in Tarquinia in the imperial period. Moreover, it has recently been assumed that a ‘distributed production’ rather than a centralized single workshop was the common ‘model’ for the manufacture of tokens over the Roman period, which would have been created ‘in multiple places by multiple individuals’ (cf. Rowan 2019, 97).
This piece was sold to the MAF on 10 May 1901 by the collector and member of the Accademia Colombaria Anton Domenico Pierrugues, who donated his collection of Greek and Roman coins to the museum after his death (1915).
Figure 4:Roman token mould from Casa Buonarroti, Florence (Lenzini Moriondo’s inventory (1964), 22/1) (Courtesy of Casa Buonarroti).
Fig. 4 illustrates one half of a token mould housed at Casa Buonarroti, whose collection was formed from the 16th to the 19th century from the bequest of Michelangelo Buonarroti and his descendants. The piece is made of limestone, quadrangular in shape, and is 83 x 76 (min. 73) x 28 mm in size. The other half of the artefact is lost also in this case. The mould would have created seven circular tokens of 14-15 mm in diameter, which were decorated with the image of the Three Graces on one side. This depiction is a popular type on Roman lead tokens. A bronze uniface Roman token (14mm, 2.90g) showing the Three Graces on one side while blank on the other side exists as part of the Casa Buonarroti collection. The iconography and size of this token perfectly match the token cavities of the mould, making it likely that the bronze tessera was cast through the mould in question (Figs. 5-6). Anyway, it is likely that this bronze token was a product of a sample casting from the mould after its discovery. This might be suggested by the absence of remains of casting sprues on the token specimen as well as by its uniface appearance, since it is highly probable that the other half of the mould containing casting branches to the cavities was also decorated (see below). However, no data is available about the place of discovery of the mould, and it is not possible to determine when precisely in modern times the tessera was cast.
Figs. 5-6: AE Roman token (14mm, 2.90g), Casa Buonarroti, Florence.
The mould has a remarkable resemblance to a token mould of palombino marble with the same designs (105 x 75 mm for 7 circular tokens of ca. 17 mm) published by Cesano (1904, 11, fig. 1), which was found in the 19th century in Rome during the Lungotevere works. Such close ties might hint that the Casa Buonarroti mould came from Rome. According to ongoing research by the author, the mould may have been part of the inheritance of the antiquarian and senator Filippo Buonarroti (1661-1733), the great-grandnephew of Michelangelo Buonarroti, who stayed in Rome over the years ca. 1684-1699 serving as secretary, conservator of collections and librarian of the influential family of Cardinal Gasparo di Carpegna. In Rome, Filippo Buonarroti led a number of archaeological explorations which allowed him not only to assemble an impressive collection of Roman and Etruscan antiquities, but also to conduct pioneering studies in ancient iconography, epigraphy, and numismatics.
Figs. 7-8: Top and bottom sides of the mould from Casa Buonarroti, Florence.
Both token moulds show morphological and technical features which are largely documented for this class of objects. The extant half of the MAF mould shows a ‘herringbone’ arrangement, with a central casting channel with branches leading to the individual token moulds. The piece from Casa Buonarroti has instead only a central casting channel and no ‘branches’; one should assume that the now lost other half of the mould contained the channels through which molten lead was poured into the token cavities. In the top right and lower left corners, both molds bear the holes of the nails which were used to fasten both halves of the mould together, but also to ensure that they were correctly aligned (cf. Rowan 2019, 95). Furthermore, all four sides of the token mould from Casa Buonarroti carry small grooves which, as has been argued, would be suggestive of the use of wire which wrapped around the molds during the casting process (cf. Pardini et al. 2016) (Figs. 7-8). Also, as with a token mould from the Harvard Art Museums discussed by Rowan, a deep central hole is found in the center of each token cavity of the Casa Buonarroti mould, being visible in the guise of a protuberance on the body of one of the Graces in the resulting token, as is attested on the extant bronze tessera from Casa Buonarroti. This depression would be a clue of the method employed for engraving the token designs, since it would have been caused by the bit of a tool used for cutting the circular depressions before the designs were engraved. Finally, the back of both mold specimens is unworked, as attested on many moulds of this type.
Further analysis and the potential discovery of new specimens could help develop future discussion on the ancient token moulds, thus providing a more complete picture about the production and use of tokens in the ancient world.
This blog was written by Cristian Mondello as part of The creation of tokens in late antiquity. Religious ‘tolerance’ and ‘intolerance’ in the fourth and fifth centuries AD project, which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 840737.
A. Arzone and A. Marinello, Museo di Castelvecchio. Lead Tokens. Tessere di piombo (Modena, 2019).
L. Cesano, ‘Matrici e tessere di piombo nel Museo Nazionale Romano’, NSc. (1904), 11-17.
G. Pardini, M. Piacentini, A.C. Felici, M.L. Santarelli, and S. Santucci, ‘Matrici per tessere plumbee dalle pendici nord-orientali del Palatino. Nota Preliminare’, in A.F. Ferrandes and G. Pardini (eds), Le regole del gioco. Tracce, archeologi, racconti. Studi in onore di Clementina Panella (Rome, 2016), 649-667.
U. Procacci, La Casa Buonarroti a Firenze (Firenze, 1965).
M. Rostowzew, Tesserarum urbis Romae et suburbi (St. Peterburg, 1903).
M. Rostowzew and M. Prou, Catalogue des plombs de l’antiquité (Paris, 1900).
C. Rowan, ‘A Roman token mould in Harvard’, Coins at Warwick Blog.
C. Rowan, ‘Lead token moulds from Rome and Ostia’, in N. Crisà, M. Gkikaki, and C. Rowan (eds), Tokens. Culture, Connections, Communities (London, 2019), 95-110.
Lead token from Rome or Ostia, now in the The Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (Rostowzew and Prou 422a). 12h, 20mm, 4.13g, TURS 1241.
Side A: HORTE SPER around in a circle.
Side B: Palm branch within a wreath.
Pictured above is a lead token, which, from the style of its design and its fabric, we can assign either to the city of Rome or to Ostia. What is remarkable about this piece is that the token carries the name of a Roman woman: Horte(nsia) Sper(ata). Her name circles around the edge of one side of the token in a way very similar to Roman coinage. The other side carries imagery commonly found on lead tokens in this region: a wreath and palm branch. These communicate to the user a festive, happy atmosphere.
This was not the only token that Hortensia issued. Another token carries her name in full: HORTENSIA SPERATA, with the same design (palm branch within wreath) on the other (TURS 1240). Two further tokens are smaller in diameter (13-15mm) and seem to carry an abbreviation of her name: HOR on one side and SPE or SP on the other (TURS 1242, 1243). Why would Hortensia have so many variant tokens? She might have wished to have two sizes of token (20mm and 13-15mm), with one perhaps worth more than the other, or with each representing different products or levels of access. An engraver could have created a mould for her tokens that cast both sizes at once, a practice known from other surviving examples.
The palombino marble mould pictured here would have been utilised to make tokens during the Roman imperial period. It was found along with several others on the Esquiline Hill in Rome in 1882. Here we can find another individual responsible for tokens, whose name has been abbreviated to LVE (a practice also commonly found in graffiti). Like the tokens of Hortensia, we can see that LVE wanted two sizes of token: a larger and a smaller piece. On the smaller piece his initials have become ligate: i.e. they have been joined together ti fit into the reduced size. In a similar way Hortensia's name was abbreviated on her smaller tokens.
We do not know anything more about Hortensia Sperata, but one presumes she had a certain amount of wealth. From the men and women named on Roman lead tokens, some were magistrates in government or colleges; others appear to be linked to bath houses. Whatever the specific use of these tokens (and it is very hard to be certain), they were likely used in an act of patronage: the provision of necessary small change, for example, the sponsoring of a banquet or other event, or a distribution. The lead tokens of Rome and Ostia reveal a world otherwise unrecorded in our sources, where both men and women utilised these objects to cement personal relationships and consolidate local communities.
This coin of the month blog was written by Clare Rowan as part of the ERC-funded Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean Project.
A lead token from the 'series de las minas'.
Obverse: a naked man walking left, a shovel marked PRVM on his shoulder, holding out a bell. P S to either side; wreath border.
Reverse: Naked man standing right pouring water from an askos onto a beribboned phallus; broom below on exergual line, Q. CO ILLI Q around and LVSO in a tablet in the exergue; wreath border.
Stannard PC 25. American Numismatic Society, New York, Richard B. Witschonke Collection. Ex CNG 31, 9 September 1994, lot 1857 Casariego 1987, p. 26, no. 1, Carbone 2018 pl. 29 no. 3.
In Spain there exist large (45-50mm) struck lead monetiform pieces whose precise function remains elusive. Many of the pieces are decorated with the design shown on the specimen above: a naked man carrying a 'shovel'. Because of this image they were traditionally believed to be monetary pieces associated with mining in the region - the naked man was interpreted as a miner. But the figure looks very different to known representations of Roman miners, and Stannard has demonstrated that this figure (and other images) are actually shared between Baetica (Spain) and central Italy, appearing on monetiform objects in both regions. It is thus not a miner - but who is it? Stannard (1995) suggested the figure might be associated with agriculture (a farmer going off to work with a shovel, shown watering his plants on the other side) or with Italian theatre, since often the figure is shown with an overly large phallus.
Close up of the 'man carrying a shovel' inscribed with PRVM
or PRVNA and carrying a bell. (Stannard et al. 2017 fig. 25).
Many other pieces connected to this series show imagery related to the baths or the palaestra, and it perhaps in this context that we should seek clues as to the identity of our individual. As briefly mentioned by Stannard et al. (2017), the figure should likely be understood as a fornacator, the individual responsible for stoking the fires in the bath house to get the water warm. These individuals can be shown as naked and ithyphallic, as seen in the mosaic shown below. Our 'naked man with shovel' also holds a bell in his right hand, a variation only found in Baetica and not in Italy. This is likely a reference to the bell or gong that was rung by bath houses to announce that the water had reached the optimum temperature - so come take your bath now! This practice is referenced by several ancient authors and a bell was found in 1548 in the baths of Diocletian in Rome bearing the inscription FIRMI BALNEATORIS. A gong, uncovered in the Palaestra of the Stabian baths of Pompeii, probably served a similar function; bells might also be rung to indicate that the baths were soon closing and now was the last opportunity for a bath (Nielsen 1990, 111). If the fornacator was responsible for making sure the water was at the right temperature, then it would make sense that he is depicted with the bell that was rung when the temperature for bathing was perfect. Having identified the individual as a stoker of fires, we might return to the legend inscribed on the man's shovel: PRVM. I wonder if the legend might actually be PRVNA, the Latin term for glowing charcoal, with the N and A ligate (joined together). The figure on the other side of this lead piece, puring water from a vessel, may be a slave attending a master in the bath complex or bath attendant.
|Mosaic from Thamugadi showing a fornacator (stoker). (Nielson 1990)||Plomo monetiforme showing an ithyphallic man with shovel. Stannard PC no. 29|
Are these pieces then bathing tokens? Stannard et al. 2017 argue they are not, since images related to bathing in this series are connected with other imagery that is not connected to the baths at all; some specimens also carry value marks, which suggests they had a monetary function. Lead tokens found in bath complexes in Italy, however, (e.g. in Fregellae and in Ostia), do not necessarily carry 'bathing' imagery; a wide variety of images may have been used in this particular sphere (just as mosaics in Roman bath houses are not all necessarily related to the activity of bathing). Those in Fregellae also appear to carry value marks. The alternative is that an image of a low-ranking bath worker should be chosen as an image for a pseudo-coinage, or a monetary series commemorating an act of euergetism related to the baths (as suggested by Stannard et al. 2017). This possibility is an intriguing one; hopefully future work will offer us further information in this regard!
This blog post was written by Clare Rowan as part of the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean project.
Carbone, L. (2018). The unpublished Iberian lead tokens in the Richard B. Witschonke collection at the American Numismatic Society. American Journal of Numismatics 30: 131-144.
Casariego, A., G. Cores and F. Pliego (1987). Catálogo de plomos monetiformes de la Hispania Antigua. Madrid.
García-Bellido, M. P. (1986). Nuevos documentos sobre minería y agricultura romanas en Hispania. Archivo español de arqueologia 59: 13-42.
Nielsen, I. (1990). Thermae et Balnea (2 vols). Aarhus, Aarhus University Press.
Spagnoli, E. (2017). Un nucleo di piombi 'monetiformi' da Ostia, Terme dei Cisiarii (II.II.3): problematiche interpretative e quadro di circolazione. Per un contributo di storia economica e di archeologia della produzione tra II e III secolo d.C. Annali dell'Instituto Italiano di Numismatica 63: 179-234.
Stannard, C. (1995). Iconographic parallels between the local coinages of central Italy and Baetica in the first century BC. Acta Numismàtica 25: 47-97.
Stannard, C., A. G. Sinner, N. Moncunill Martí and J. Ferrer i Jané (2017). A plomo monetiforme from the Iberian settlement of Cerro Lucena (Enguera, Valencia) with a north-eastern Iberian legend, and the Italo-baetican series. Journal of Archaeological Numismatics: 59-106.
Athens is the city in the Classical world that minted tokens on a scale previously unparalleled, only to be superseded by Rome. Tokens in Athens had a continuous life of about seven centuries and facilitated numerous aspects of public life: the functioning of the Council, the Courts, the Assembly, participation in the Dionysia, the Panathenaea and the other festivals.
Researchers have commented on the relations between tokens and coins and have asked to what extent coins functioned as an archetype for tokens. The answer is clearly negative. Classical tokens do not resemble coins and functioned in an altogether different manner. They were probably used for the selection procedure of citizens who would fill offices and serve as public functionaries, and consecutively for the allotment of citizens to offices and even ‘workplaces’.
1.) Agora Museum IL1463.
Alpha with countermark of winged
caduceus, 31 mm.
Tokens with letters signify the allotment, the fact that citizens would be allotted randomly to offices (fig. 1). And here is a seeming similitude to coins: there exist letter tokens which are countermarked. But contrary to coins, where countermarking meant the revalidation of the item, so that issues were put afresh into circulation, the countermarking in this case signifies the particular sector of public life and complements the token design. Flans are particularly wide, probably because the placement of the countermark was conceived from the beginning. The designs of the countermarks – the winged caduceus (fig. 1), the kernos and the amphora in an ivy-wreath – are well attested in categories of official artefacts and they qualify as designs of the state seal (sphragis demosia). The exact offices they represent can only be conjectured but they can be seen as analogous to the stamps on the juror’s allotment plates; here the ‘owl in wreath’ stamp meant that the citizen was eligible for jury allotments and the ‘Gorgoneion’ stamp meant magisterial allotments.
It seems that the solution of the countermark was short-lived because only three out of the approximately three hundred Hellenistic tokens excavated in the Athenian Agora have a countermark placed next to a letter type.
Contrary to the rarity of countermarks on tokens dated to before Sulla’s sack of the city (86 BC), which practically marks the end of the city’s independence, countermarks are far more common in Athens of the Roman Imperial Period (fig. 2). In particular more than 200 specimens demonstrate at least one countermark out of the 620 tokens that can be securely dated to the period between the first century AD and AD 268, when the destruction inflicted on the city by the Herules marked the end of token use in Athens. It is worth noting that most of the tokens in strata and deposits containing Herulian debris carry countermarks. Our attention is particularly attracted by the countermarks of ‘snail and rabbit’ and ‘stork holding lizard by the tail’, which are the most abundantly attested. In the trench containing dumped fill as a result of clean-up operations after the Herulian sack, countermarked tokens co-exist with un-countermarked specimens, albeit they are found on the same types. These mainly celebrate the cults of Asklepios, Hygieia and Telesphoros (fig. 3) or Asklepios alone, Dionysos (fig. 4), Serapis, Zeus and Nike, Athena and Nike and also Themistocles, and the Minotaur, alone or with Theseus. The latter cases may be related to the claims of Athenian elite families for status and prestigious ancestry.
2.) Selection of tokens excavated in and around the Attalos Stoa,
Athenian Agora (Archives of the American School of Classical
The same pattern is also encountered on the tokens found in piles on the floors of the Attalos Stoa and also in the immediate vicinity of the Attalos Stoa to the south.
Specimens are also quite often found to have been countermarked twice by the same stamp, such as the token with an Athena bust and two countermarks of the snail and rabbit type (fig. 5). More puzzling are the Herakles and tripod tokens, which on their reverse side bear three distinct countermarks: stork and lizard, snail and rabbit, and a third design not easily identifiable (fig. 6).
Both the designs of stork and lizard and of snail and rabbit relate to universal symbols and refer to narratives that could be easily adapted as badges and emblems. The stork in particular was very popular in medieval heraldry.
The meaning of the countermarks is not easy to decode. The countermarked tokens capture only a moment in the history of Athens, because they represent the types and specimens that were in circulation at the time of the Herulian Invasion and their preservation may be thought random. Even the hoarding of countermarked pieces together with un-countermarked specimens may have been occasioned by the circumstances that prevailed shortly after the destruction. The interpretation of the countermarks is all the more hindered by the scarcity of tokens in the centuries from the Augustan Period to the mid-third century AD, which could serve as a point of comparison.
Margaret Crosby suggested that the same countermark on varying types might help to identify the same authority behind the issuing of the tokens. The purpose of these tokens would have been admissions to games and festivals, such as those referred to in inscriptions of the third century AD. In fact the legend on two of the types reads ‘of the Gerusia’, the council formed by notable Athenians and instituted by the emperor Commodus in the year AD 178/9, which had the agonothesia of festivals. The Attalos Stoa was thought to provide an advantageous view of spectacles and processions going along the Panathenaic Way and in view of this function, tokens excavated there seem to come as no surprise.
It is well known that the holding of offices in the Hellenistic and increasingly in the Imperial period involved considerable private expense. The iconography of the countermarks and even some of the token types might then be related to wealthy gerusiastai and office-holders in general, who competed for the recognition of the people, an idea already advocated by Margaret Crosby.
Along these lines, the countermarking a second or even a third time of tickets is to be considered as a renewal of their otherwise short lifetime. Roman period tokens were literary ‘time stamped’ and given out for a second or a third use since all the festivals were naturally recurring events. The registration of singular events constitutes the very essence of tokens across time, not unlike the modern-day block chain and its digital database or ledger.
This month's entry was written by Mairi Gkikaki as part of the Marie-Sklodovska-Curie Project, Horizon 2020-MSCA-IF-2017, Project ID: 794080. It is based on a chapter from an upcoming monograph on the Tokens of Athens.
W. Bubelis, ‘Tokens and imitation in ancient Athens’, Marburger Beiträge zur Antiken Handels-, Wirtschafts-, und Sozialgeschichte 28 (2010), 171-195.
E. Curtius, Über Wappenstil und Wappengebrauch im klassischen Altertum (Berlin, 1874).
M. Crosby, ‘Lead and Clay Tokens’, in M. Lang and M. Crosby, Weights, Measures and Tokens. The Athenian Agora, vol. 10 (Princeton, 1964), 69-146.
D.J. Gaegan, The Athenian Constitution after Sulla, Hesperia Supplements 12 (Princeton, 1967).
M. Gkikaki, 'Tokens in the Athenian Agora in the Third Century AD: Adverstising Prestige and Civic Identity in Roman Athens', in A. Crisà, M. Gkikaki, and C. Rowan, Tokens: Cultures, Connections, Communities (London: Royal Numismatic Society, forthcoming)
S. Killen, Parasema. Offizielle Symbole griechischer Poleis und Bundesstaaten (Wiesbaden, 2017).
J.H. Kroll, Athenian Bronze Allotment Plates (Cambridge, 1972).
J.H. Kroll, ‘The Athenian imperials: results of recent study’, in J. Nollé, B. Overbeck and P. Weiss (eds), Internationales Kolloquium zur Kaiserzeitlichen Münzprägung Kleinasiens. 27-30 April 1994 in der Staatlichen Münzsammlung (München, 1997). 61-9.
M. Lang, ‘Allotment by tokens’, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 8, 1959, 80-9.
B. Maurer, ‘The Politics of Token Economics’, in. A. Crisà, M. Gkikaki, and C. Rowan, Tokens: Cultures, Connections, Communities (London: Royal Numismatic Society, forthcoming).
K.D. Mylonas, ‘Αττικά Μολύβδινα Σύμβολα’, ArchEph 40, 1901, 119-22.
J.H. Oliver, The Sacred Gerusia. The American Excavations in the Athenian Agora. Hesperia Suppl. 6 (Princeton, 1941).
P.J. Rhodes, A Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (Oxford, 1981).
G.C. Rothery, Concise Encyclopedia of Heraldry (London ,1994, reprint of the book first published in 1914).
H.A. Thompson and R.E. Wycherley, The Agora of Athens: The History, Shape and Uses of an Ancient City Centre, The Agora of Athens, volume 14 (Princeton, 1972).
P. Tselekas, ‘Countermarks on the Hellenistic Coinages of Lesbos’, in P. Tselekas (ed), Coins in the Aegean Islands. Proceedings of the Fifth Scientific Meeting 16-19 September 2010, (Athens, 2010), 127-153
O. Van Nijf and R. Alston (eds), Political Culture in the Greek City after the Classical Age (Leuven, 2011)
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.