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Among the Roman tokens now in the Heberden Coin Room in the Ashmolean Museum is a silver token made of silver issued by Julian (AD 361-363), the last descendant of the Constantinian dynasty (Fig. 1). On the obverse of the token we find a pearl-diademed, draped, and cuirassed bust of the ruler left, holding Victory on a globe in his right hand and a shield decorated with a she-wolf and twins motif over his left shoulder; although the specimen has a segment broken away from both top and top left hand sides, the obverse legend can confidently be restored as D N FL [CL IVLI-ANVS P F AVG] based on comparison with other known similar token pieces, as will be shown below. On the other side is an image of Anubis standing left, wearing a tunic, a mantle over his shoulders and boots, holding a branch in his right hand and a caduceus in his left, which is accompanied by the legend VOTA [PVB]LICA.
Fig. 1: AR, ‘Vota Publica’ token, Rome, AD 361-363 (24mm, 3.45g). Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, inv. HCR71367. © Ashmolean Museum.
The imagery and the reverse legend allow us to connect this specimen with a late Roman series, the ‘Vota Publica’ tokens, which were struck by the mint of Rome from the first Tetrarchy (AD 294–305) through at least the first two generations of the Valentinian dynasty (AD 364–378). These tokens display portraits of Roman emperors or Egyptian deities (Serapis, Isis, Hermanubis, or the jugate busts of Serapis and Isis) on the obverse, in conjunction with a variety of depictions referring to different aspects of Egyptian and Isiac cults on the reverse. Although auction catalogues and occasional academic contributions have mostly connected these artefacts to the Navigium Isidis, the renowned festival of Isis which was annually held on the 5th of March, the regular presence of the ‘Vota Publica’ legend as well as the dates of accession and death of imperial rulers that are portrayed on the obverses support instead the idea that these pieces were produced on the occasion of the annual vows (‘vota publica’) collectively pronounced for the health of the Roman emperor on the 3rd of January against the backdrop of New Year celebrations.
The token housed in Oxford, formerly in Prince of Waldeck’s collection (XVIII century), is of great interest not only for the high quality of its designs and workmanship, but also for the metal of which it is made, namely silver. Indeed, the use of silver does deviates from the common patterns seen for the ‘Vota Publica’ tokens, which were normally produced in brass and bronze. This raises questions about manufacturing methods and relevant changes that took place within token production during Julian’s reign.
Fig. 2: a. AE, ‘Vota Publica’ token, Rome, AD 361-363 (24mm, 4.05g). Numismatica Ars Classica 92, 23-24.05.2016, lot 766. b. AE, ‘Vota Publica’ token, Rome, AD 361-363 (25mm, 6.30g). Courtesy of the Museo Arqueológico Nacional (MAN) of Madrid, inv. 2014/66/67. © Museo Arqueológico Nacional (MAN) of Madrid.
A closer look at the imagery of the token and its relationship to other surviving tokens of Julian from the same series allows us to make some remarks on its chronology and production context. Based on a recent classification of the available material (Bricault & Mondello, forthcoming), Julian’s ‘Vota Publica’ tokens can be sorted into five major groups consisting of die-linked specimens, which were struck in either bronze or brass in three modules, AE1-AE2 (c. 21-27mm) (Julian, Group 1) and AE4 (c. 12–15mm) (Julian, Groups 2–5). Interestingly, Julian’s effigy is shown here according to three variants. Of them, the obverse portrait displayed on the Oxford token is shared by some of the clusters from Group 1 showing different Egyptian images on the reverse (Fig. 2a). Moreover, die analysis shows that the Oxford silver token was issued with the same obverse and reverse dies that were used to strike a specimen made of bronze, now in Madrid (Fig. 2b). The imperial portrait found on these specimens is unparalleled within the official coinage, and was probably an original creation by the Roman mint expressly for the ‘Vota Publica’ series. Two other portraits attested on these tokens instead reproduce or imitate the imperial portraiture found on regular Roman coins: a left–facing and helmeted bust of Julian, holding a shield over his left shoulder (Julian, Group 2) (Fig. 3a), as found on the VOT X MVLT XX silver and bronze coin issues issued at most of the major mints in anticipation of Julian’s decennalia (Fig. 3b); and the common type of the imperial bust right, with cuirass and paludamentum, short or long–bearded (Julian, Groups 1–5) (Fig. 4a), as seen on the small VIRT EXERC ROMANOR bronzes by the Roman mint (RIC VIII, Rome, 327) (Fig. 4b) and, more generally, on solidi and large bronzes issued by other mints in AD 362–363.
Fig. 3 a. AE, ‘Vota Publica’ token, Rome, AD 361-363 (15mm, 1.74g). Courtesy of the Museo Civico di Bologna, inv. 47046. © Museo Civico di Bologna. b. AE, VOT X MVLT XX coin, Rome, AD 363 (18.8mm, 3.17g) (RIC VIII, Rome, 329). Courtesy of the Münzkabinett der Universität Göttingen, inv. AS-04485 © Münzkabinett der Universität Göttingen.
Fig. 4 a. AE, ‘Vota Publica’ token, Rome, AD 361-363 (14mm, 1.57g). Courtesy of the Museo Arqueológico Nacional (MAN) of Madrid, inv. 2014/66/203. © Museo Arqueológico Nacional (MAN) of Madrid. b. AE, VIRT EXERC ROMANOR coin, Rome, AD 362-363 (14mm, 1.32g) (RIC VIII, Rome, 327). From a private collection.
The imperial titulature, which reads D N FL CL IVLIANVS P F AVG (Group 1) or FL CL IVLIANVS P F [or P P] AVG (Groups 2–5), along with the comparison with coin imagery allow for a more precise chronology of these token issues. According to Kent, the title D(ominus) N(oster) seems not to have entered general use within Julian’s coinage until after the start of 363 (Kent 1959, p. 114; RIC VIII, pp. 46, 54). Following Kent’s suggestion, the silver token held in Oxford, as well as the large–sized ‘Vota Publica’ tokens from Group 1 bearing a long imperial legend including D N, might date back to the celebrations of the vota publica of the 3rd January 363, as also pointed out by the style of the imperial effigy with a long beard, which clearly refers to Julian’s later coinage. The same dating can be applied to tokens from Group 2, the obverses of which are similar to dies from the VOT X MVLT XX issues apparently struck by the Roman mint in AD 363 (RIC VIII, Rome, 328–330), although the former retained a short imperial titulature not found on the latter. Less clear is instead the chronology of the specimens from Groups 3-5. The portrait and the short imperial legend on the obverse of these pieces, as well as their size - matching the pre–reform VIRT EXERC ROMANOR issues (= AE4) - may date them to the previous year, that is the 3rd January 362, although one cannot completely rule out the idea that they were also part of the AD 363 token issue.
The existence of a ‘Vota Publica’ token made of silver clearly suggests that a small cluster was produced in precious metal within this late Roman series during the reign of Julian, in addition to the more common bronze and brass issues. While the actual purpose of these tokens remains debated (= devices issued as a means of pagan propaganda? Auspicious gifts distributed during New Year celebrations?), it is possible that the choice of manufacturing silver tokens resulted from a more general ‘revival’ of the ‘Vota Publica’ series which took place under Julian. Indeed, the evidence shows that the production of these specimens during the reign of the last Constantinian emperor saw a relative iconographic renewal of the reverse repertoire via the use of a new set of Egyptian types, as well as a reintroduction of the large-module denominations (AE1-AE2), which were earlier only struck for the first ‘Vota Publica’ issues at the time of the first two Tetrarchies (AD 294-305) and then replaced by mostly small-sized denominations (AE4) from Constantine I (AD 313-330/331). Such a ‘revival’ of this token series showing Egyptian religious iconography is not surprising in light of Julian’s religious reform and his (short-lived) attempt to restore Hellenistic polytheism as the state religion. However, this production pattern, based on a trimetallic system (silver, orichalcum, and bronze) for the ‘Vota Publica’ tokens, apparently did not succeed and was not followed by Julian’s successors (Jovian and the Valentinian emperors up to Gratian), who only resumed manufacturing these tokens in brass and bronze – or at least there is no evidence to demonstrate otherwise. Whatever the purpose of these tokens, it may be argued that the use of silver to strike some of Julian’s token issues may have been matched by a higher exchange value compared to that of brass and bronze specimens, which also had the effect of providing a more valuable appearance to the object and the same level of aesthetic quality as found on silver coins and medallions.
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). The project is hosted at the University of Messina, Italy.
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 Rome. Volume 1: Catalogue, London (forthcoming).
Kent, J.P.C., ‘An Introduction to the Coinage of Julian the Apostate’ (A.D. 360–3), The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society, 6.19 (1959), pp. 109–117.
RIC VIII = Kent, J.P.C., The Roman Imperial Coinage. The family of Constantine I. A.D. 337–364, Vol. VIII, London 1981.
Since the sixteenth century, a special and enigmatic late Roman token emission, the ‘Vota Publica’ series, has received attention from antiquarians, dealers and collectors. These tokens, produced in either bronze or brass by the Roman mint, depict the effigies of Roman emperors from Diocletian (AD 284-305) to Valentinian II (AD 375-392) on the obverse (called the ‘imperial’ series). Instead of an imperial image they might also carry the busts of Serapis, Isis, or Hermanubis (or the jugate busts of Serapis and Isis) (called the ‘anonymous’ series). A number of ritual scenes and images referring to different aspects of Egyptian and Isiac cults are shown on the reverses, which are mostly accompanied by the legend ‘Vota Publica’ (= ‘public vows’). Due to the distinctive Egyptian religious iconography of these artefacts, a number of drawings or engravings of the ‘Vota Publica’ tokens appeared in several books, catalogues, and other contributions from the sixteenth to the early twenty centuries. These drawings reproduce, sometimes with a good degree of accuracy, some of the types found in the existing material, although the precise identification of the depicted specimens remains debated in most cases.
Two drawings reproducing ‘Vota Publica’ specimens are known to this author as showing an otherwise unattested obverse-reverse type combination. These designs were included by Girolamo (Hieronymus) Tanini in the plates of his ‘Supplementum’ to Banduri’s volume ‘Numismata Imperatorum Romanorum a Trajano Decio ad Palaelogos Augustos’ (Lutetiae, 1718), which was published in Rome in 1791 (Fig. 1)(Numismatum Imperatorum Romanorum a Trajano Decio ad Constantinum Draconem ab Anselmo Bandurio editorum Supplementum, Romae 1791). In this volume, Tanini catalogued hundreds of gold, silver and bronze coins from the reign of Trajan (AD 98-117) up to until that of Constantine XI Palaiologos (1149-1453). Most of the specimens recorded by Tanini existed as part his own collection, but others came from other collections or were taken from different books and catalogues. Girolamo Tanini was a priest and erudite greatly interested in numismatics, who served in Florence for the Rinuccini family as educator of Marquis Folco Rinuccini’s children Giovanni and Alessandro, as well as curator of the library housed in Palazzo Rinuccini. In this role, Tanini was also in charge of the numismatic collection of the Rinuccini family, which was initiated by Folco’s father, Marquis Carlo Rinuccini (1679-1748).
Fig. 1. Frontispiece of the ‘Supplementum’ by G. Tanini (1791).
In his ‘Supplementum’, Tanini described around seventy ‘Vota Publica’ tokens from both the ‘imperial’ and ‘anonymous’ series, most of which were part of his own collection. However, he only illustrated six of these specimens. Two of them, belonging to the ‘anonymous’ issue, came from Cardinal Stefano Borgia’s collection (1731-1804), and were later acquired by the Vatican. The other four were part of Tanini’s collection.
Of these, two display the pearl-diademed bust of the emperor Jovian facing right on the obverse, accompanied by the legend D N IOVIANVS P F AVG COS, while on the reverse is the type of Isis seated facing on high-backed throne, suckling Horus-Harpocrates (Fig. 2), or the type of Serapis-Agathodaemon and Isis-Thermouthis facing one another, carrying a sacred vase between them from which a serpent emerges (Fig. 3). The tokens depicted in these two drawings, labelled as AE2 (‘secundae formae’), might be identified with two rare specimens bearing the same obverse and reverse type and legend and with the same diameter, which are currently housed in the Vatican collection. The other two drawings provided by Tanini depict the draped bust of Isis facing left on the obverse, wearing a basileion and holding a sistrum in her right hand, while on the reverse is the image of Isis standing right on a galley with oars sailing right. Although these images are widely attested in the available material, none of the surviving specimens show a combination of these two types.
|Figure 2: Tanini 1791, p. 324, pl. VI.||Figure 3: Tanini 1791, p. 324, pl. VI.|
In the ‘Supplementum’, Tanini placed these two tokens under the coinage of Helena, the emperor Julian’s wife (died AD 360). As was common in his time, Tanini considered the busts of Serapis and Isis displayed on these tokens as disguised representations of Julian (AD 361-363) and Helena, following the idea that the production of some of these token issues was connected to Julian’s “pagan renaissance”. Tanini’s description of the two considered specimens is as follows:
1) TANINI 1791, p. 321, pl. VI:
Obverse: ‘VOTA PVBLICA (sic). Protome Isidis, vel Helenae, absque velo, cum flore loti, dextrorsum, d. sistrum, s. ad pectus gemmatum composita’.
Reverse: ‘VOTA PVBLICA. Isis sinistrorsum, stans in triremi, utraque manu velum regit’.
The first of the two specimens (Fig. 4) was labelled as AE3 (‘tertiae formae’) by Tanini. While the combination of the illustrated obverse and reverse types, with the legend VOTA PVBLICA occurring on both sides of the token, is not found in any of the known specimens today, it is worth paying attention to a similar specimen from the Vatican collection - Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV) inv. no. Mt. Rom. Imp. Helena Iuliani 32. Although in a poor condition, this piece bears the same obverse type and legend as Tanini’s token, and the reverse also looks extremely similar with only one small difference: Isis has turned her head and is looking backwards (left), while on Tanini’s drawing Isis faces forward. It is tempting to assume that the specimen once owned by Tanini matches the Vatican piece, presuming that he misread the reverse type due to the poor condition of the token. However, no data on the acquisition of the piece by the Vatican collection is available. Moreover, the presence of a hole on the Vatican piece, which is not shown in Tanini’s drawing, may make this idea unlikely. If genuine, the piece described and figured in Tanini’s ‘Supplementum’ could provide evidence of an unrecorded ‘Vota Publica’ specimen.
|Figure 4: Tanini 1791, p. 321, pl. VI.||Figure 5: Tanini 1791, p. 322, pl. VI.|
2)TANINI 1791, p. 322, pl. VI:
Obverse: ‘DEA ISIS FARIA. Caput Isidis margaritis diadematum, collo duplici margaritarum monili ornato, humeris stolatis, d. sistrum’.
Reverse: ‘VOTA PVBLICA. Isis in triremi, sinistrorsum stans, velum tenet’.
The other specimen illustrated by Tanini (Fig. 5), labelled as A4 (‘quartae formae’), shows the same type combination of the previous piece, but it bears the obverse legend DEA ISIS FARIA instead of VOTA PVBLICA. As the available token specimens show, this legend was never used in the ‘Vota Publica’ series. Moreover, the obverse legend shown in Tanini’s drawing seems to incorporate two of the obverse legends found on the existing pieces with the bust of Isis, namely DE(ae) ISIDI (in the dative case) (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV) (inv. no. Mt. Rom. Imp. Helena Iuliani 30)) and ISIS FARIA (in the nominative case) (Fig. 6). If the piece drawn by Tanini was genuine, the legend DEA ISIS FARIA would be unique (an unicum). Actually, it is likely that the legend transcribed by Tanini was the result of a wrong interpretation. This is despite the fact that Tanini was aware that the legend ISIS FARIA, as well as the less common legend DE ISIDI, occurred on the obverse of the token specimens from the ‘anonymous’ series, as the specimens catalogued in his ‘Supplementum’ demonstrate.
Figure 6: AE, ‘Vota Publica’ token (19mm, 2.30g, 5h). Rome, IV century AD. Bertolami Fine Arts 24, 23.06.2016, lot 955, once part of the Archaeological Museum of Florence’s collection (MAF).
Sadly, the ‘Supplementum’ by Tanini is the only available source for the discussed specimens which, like much of the material published in his volume, are no longer traceable. Indeed, the Tanini collection is currently dispersed. This numismatic collection was incorporated at some point into the Ranuccini collection, which came in 1850 into the Medagliere Granducale of the Reale Galleria in Florence. In turn, the Medagliere Granducale was moved to the Archaeological Museum of Florence (MAF) since 1895. Regrettably, there is no trace of the ‘Vota Publica’ tokens described by Tanini either in the MAF collection or in their registers. As seen above, some of Tanini’s tokens may have been acquired by the Vatican collection at some point in the twentieth century, but the lack of data does not allow us to br certain on this point. Further archival research may hopefully shed light on the fate of the tokens that were once part of Girolamo Tanini’s collection.
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. Alföldi, 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.
- G. Capecchi et al., Palazzo Peruzzi. Palazzo Rinuccini, Rome 1980.
- H. Tanini, Numismatum Imperatorum Romanorum a Trajano Decio ad Constantinum Draconem ab Anselmo Bandurio editorum Supplementum, Romae 1791.
Writing about web page https://coins.warwick.ac.uk/token-specimens/id/hunterian.RLT24
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 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.
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.
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.
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Pausanias, Description of Greece, trans. W. H. S. Jones. 1918. London: Heinemann.
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The result of our excavations showed that I had been so far right in that the rubbish mounds were nothing but rubbish mounds; and the miscellaneous small anticas which we found are of little interest…
Grenfell 1896-1897, 3.
Oxyrhynchus, the ‘city of the sharp-nosed fish’, is situated in the Fayum of Egypt. Originally an Egyptian city that was colonised by the Greeks, it continued to thrive under the Romans. Today is best known for the reams of Ptolemaic and Roman papyri discovered in its rubbish heaps by Grenfell and Hunt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There is, however, more to Oxyrhynchus than its papyri, and after more than a hundred years some of the so-called ‘miscellaneous small anticas’ deserve reassessment.
Amongst the artefacts of which Grenfell was so disparaging, are around three hundred lead tokens, dating to the Roman period (Milne 1922, 159). These small, unassuming objects, often worn and with traces of their designs barely discernible, are largely ignored in modern scholarship. A series of papers published in the early 20th century by J. G. Milne focused on identifying the types, and posited that they functioned as a low-denomination token coinage. How tokens were used in Roman Egypt still remains uncertain, but analysis of their iconography can move beyond identification of types.
Milne rightly noted that different series of tokens were present at Oxyrhynchus (Milne 1908, 297). Some have imagery similar to the Alexandrian coinage, depicting for instance deities such as Serapis or Nilus. Like Alexandrian coins, tokens often have a date in regnal years which is signified by an ‘L’ before the numerals in Greek. Unlike coins, tokens in Roman Egypt don’t bear the portrait of the emperor, and so it is usually unclear to whose reign this date refers. Tokens of this series are found on other sites in Egypt, such as Antinoopolis, Karanis and elsewhere in the Fayum, as well as just outside of Egypt at Qasr Ibrim and in a shipwreck off Israel’s Carmel coast.
In contrast, another series of tokens appears to have local significance to Oxyrhynchus. These all feature the goddess Athena on one face. Most frequently it is her bust that is depicted (Figure 1) but she also appears fighting a serpent (Figure 2), and sometimes her cult statue features within a temple. Most tokens pair her with Nike on the reverse, aside from a small subset on which Zeus is depicted seated (Figure 2).
Figure 1: Token depicting Athena with labrys. Obverse: Bust of Athena-Thoeris right, wearing Corinthian helmet, labrys to front. Solid line border. Reverse: Nike advancing left, holding wreath in right hand and palm in left hand; ΟΞ. Solid line border. Metal: Lead. Diameter: 20mm. Weight: 3.34g. Die axis: 11. Ashmolean Museum, Milne 5302. Image: Ashmolean Museum.
Despite the variation in the manner of her depiction, there is clearly a preference for tokens featuring Athena at Oxyrhynchus; Milne identified the goddess on 184 tokens out of a total of 271. This frequency is further emphasised by the fact that the Oxyrhynchite Athena types are not found anywhere else in Egypt (Milne 1908, 297. This still holds true based on the data available today, which includes discoveries made after Milne’s study.). The presence of the Greek legend ‘ΟΞ’ (OX) on some of the Athena tokens also clearly refers to the first two letters of Oxyrhynchus. This legend works alongside the imagery to emphasise the distinct local character of this type of token.
The uniqueness of these tokens to Oxyrhynchus is further exemplified by the choice of attribute for Athena on the tokens: the labrys, or double-headed axe. It is present on types where she is depicted attacking a serpent and also alongside her bust. The labrys is an unusual attribute for Athena. It does not feature alongside her on many depictions from antiquity, aside from one representation from Mycenae, the nome coinage of Οxyrhynchus, possibly on a terracotta lamp from Οxyrhynchus, and perhaps as part of a statue of Athena found at Οxyrhynchus (LIMC II, Athena no. 2; LIMC II, Athena no. 27; RPC III 6355-6358; British Museum OA.11020;Mathiopoulos 2001, 202-217 for the statue, who posists that the statue’s missing attribute is a cornucopia. However, a labrys is also a possibility, given the association of Athena with this attribute at Oxrhynchus).
Figure 2: Token depicting Athena fighting serpent. Obverse: Athena-Thoeris advancing right, holding labrys in right hand and shield in left, attacking serpent before her. Reverse: Zeus seated left, in right hand holding Nike right with wreath, and in left hand holding sceptre. Metal: Lead. Diameter: 23mm. Weight: 7.88g. Die axis: 11. Ashmolean Museum, Milne 5304. Image: Ashmolean Museum.
In terms of the significance of the labrys to the town, current scholarship does not appear to have reached a definitive conclusion. In her study of the double-headed axe, Kouremenos states in reference to the nome coinage of Οxyrhynchus that it might be associated with workmen in the city that used the double axe as a woodworking tool (Kouremenos 2016, 47). Others have interpreted the presence of the labrys on the nome coinage as an ‘Egyptian’ emblem, due to the fact that in art it was often depicted with the Egyptian god Tutu, in which context it has been interpreted as an apotropaic symbol (Weber and Geissen 2013, 168). Its association with Athena at Οxyrhynchus might be viewed as acknowledging her role as a protective guardian goddess of the town, while also amalgamating Egyptian and Greek elements (Weber and Geissen 2013, 168). The labrys is, however, found frequently in Greek and Roman art (Kouremenos 2016, 43-50 for overview). In this regard, it appears in many places in different contexts, similar to the manner in which the imagery of Athena is common. It is, however, only when Athena and the labrys appear together in the specific context of the material culture of Οxyrhynchus that they are able to transform into a new image which becomes associated with the locality.
Figure 3: Coin of Hadrian (nome coinage). Obverse: laureate bust of Hadrian, right; border of dots; ΑΥΤ ΚΑΙ ΤΡΑΙ ΑΔΡΙΑ CΕΒ. Reverse: Athena standing facing, head left, wearing Corinthian helmet, holding labrys in left hand and Nike in extended right hand; border of dots; ΟΞΥΡ/ LΙΑ. Metal: Bronze. Weight: 4.70g. Mint: Alexandria. Date: AD 117-138. RPC III 6357. Ashmolean Museum Accession no. HCR34309. Image: Ashmolean Museum.
The unusual pairing of Athena with the labrys at Οxyrhynchus was not her sole distinction from the ubiquitous Athena of the classical world. From numerous references in the town’s papyri, it is evident that Athena was equated with, or given the epithet of, the goddess Thoeris. There are references to ‘worshippers of the cult of Athena-Thoeris’, the ‘temple of Athena-Thoeris’ and the ‘place of the temple of Athena-Thoeris’, amongst others (P.Oxy. 3.579; P.Rein. 2.93; P.Oxy. 34.2722; P.Oxy. 50.3567). To some extent perhaps the goddesses were perceived as separate: one document refers to ‘the temple of Athena and Thoeris’ (P.Oxy. 10.1268).
Thoeris is the Greek name for the Egyptian goddess Taweret. She took the form of a hippopotamus, and her worship had become prominent at Οxyrhynchus from the late Ptolemaic period (Whitehorne 1995, 3080-82). The reason for the connection of Athena to Thoeris/Taweret in not clear, but it is perhaps because each goddess was associated with childbirth and fertility (Whitehorne 1995, 3080-82). In ancient Egypt Taweret was associated with the protection of women and children. Inscribed magical knives from the Middle Kingdom period bear apotropaic figures and texts indicating that they were for the protection of women and children, and most frequently feature Taweret as the apotropaic figure (Weingarten 1991, 4: 45 out of the 58 published knives feature Taweret). From the New Kingdom, jugs in the form of Taweret were used for the pouring of libations from a hole in one of the jug’s breasts, indicating an association with childbirth and breastfeeding mothers (Bruyère 1939, 104-107). Athena’s link to women and motherhood is less explicit, but it is perhaps her capacity as a protector that syncretises her with Taweret.
Figure 4: A faience amulet depicting the Egyptian goddess Taweret. 332-30 BC. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession no. 26.7.888. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Despite the outwardly classical style of Athena on these tokens, these syncretisms should be taken into account. The Athena depicted on these tokens’ had associations with Thoeris, and her Egyptian counterpart Taweret, which lent a particular local context to the way in which the imagery may have been viewed and read by the community of Οxyrhynchus. Veronique Dasen has also reached similar conclusions in her analysis of a gem depicting Athena attacking a serpent with a labrys, which bears the inscription ‘Thoeris’ (Dasen 2019). She considers how the imagery of the gem could have been read on both Greek and Egyptian terms due to the iconography evoking all three goddesses.
The choice to depict Athena in classical form underlines the creation of tokens in a Graeco-Roman milieu, especially as Taweret was concurrently worshipped independently at local shrines and certain populations would have recognised her Egyptian guise. This does not, however, discount the possibility that those who used and viewed tokens interpreted the image on their own terms and read different combinations of Athena, Thoeris and Taweret.
Blog written by Denise Wilding, The University of Warwick.
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.
Bruyère, B. 1939. Rapport Sur Les Fouilles de Deir-El-Médineh, 1934-35. Cairo: l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale.
Dasen, V. 2019. “One God May Hide Another. Magical Gems in a Cross-Cultural Context.” In Magical Gems in Their Context, Proceedings of the International Workshop Held at the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest 16–18 February 2012, edited by K. Endreffy, Á.M. Nagy, and J. Spier, 47–58. Rome: L’Erma Di Bretschneider.
Grenfell, B. P. 1896-1897. “Oxyrhynchus and Its Papyri.” Archaeological Report (Egypt Exploration Fund) 1896-1897: 1–12.
Kouremenos, A. 2016. “The Double Axe (Λάβρυς) in Roman Crete and beyond: The Iconography of a Multi-Faceted Symbol.” In Roman Crete: New Perspectives, edited by J. E. Francis and A. Kouremenos, 43–58. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
Mathiopoulos, E. 2001. “On the Transformation of the Athena Velletri Type in Hellenistic Alexandria.” In Athena in the Classical World, edited by S Deacy and A. Villing, 197–218. Leiden: Brill.
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.
Weber, M., and A. Geissen. 2013. Die Alexandrinischen Gaumünzen Der Römischen Kaiserzeit. Die Ägyptischen Gaue Und Ihre Ortsgötter Im Spiegel Der Numismatischen Quellen. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
Weingarten, J. 1991. The Transformation of the Egyptian Taweret into the Minoan Genius: A Study in Cultural Transmission in the Bronze Age. Partille: Aström Forlag.
Whitehorne, J. 1995. “The Pagan Cults of Roman Oxyrhynchus.” Aufsteig Und Neidergang Der Romischen Welt II (18.5): 3050–91.