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Based upon the work of J. G. Milne, lead tokens in Roman Egypt are thought to be an unofficial coinage. Milne came to this conclusion because, when he analysed the Roman coins from Oxyrhynchus’ rubbish dumps, he noticed that there were fewer bronze coins present for the period AD 180 – 260 (Milne 1908; Milne 1922). He thought that the lead tokens replaced the lower denomination bronze. The Oxyrhynchite tokens depicting Athena are not, however, standardised as would be expected for even a pseudo-coinage. It is also apparent that lead tokens were in use in Roman Egypt before the period AD 180 – 260, as evidenced by an example bearing the image and name of Messalina, and a series of tokens found at Abydos dating to the first century BC. Despite his awareness of these examples, Milne still took a broad-brush approach to his interpretation that tokens were low denomination coins. It is therefore worth exploring other possibilities for the ways in which tokens could have functioned in the province.
Milne’s theory regarding the use of tokens as a low denominational coinage is not totally unfounded, as there are a small quantity of tokens that indicate a denomination. These include those with the legend ‘OBOΛOI B’ (‘two obols’, see figure 2) from Tebtunis and the Serapeum at Saqqara, as well as a specimen in the Ashmolean collection with the legend ‘ΔIOB’ (‘diob[ol]’, see figure 1. It is also possible that the I is instead a Φ that has become worn. If this is the case, then the inscription cannot refer to a diobol). These are, however, in the minority in comparison to hundreds of other specimens that do not bear a denominational mark, which suggests that this was not an extensive issue of tokens. The thin flans of the examples from Tebtunis also suggest that they were impractical for everyday use, and so may not have been intended for quotidian circulation.
Figure 1: Token possibly naming the denomination diobol. Obverse: Wreath, within which ΔIOB(?); solid line border. Reverse: Egyptian style altar(?); solid line border. Metal: Lead. Diameter: 26mm. Weight: 7.12g. Die axis: 12. Ashmolean Museum, Milne 5441. Image: Ashmolean Museum.
The paucity of tokens bearing a denomination, alongside the impracticality of the Tebtunis issues, suggests that another possibility is worth exploring. It is feasible that these tokens were intended to represent the given amount, without actually holding this worth or circulating as a coin. A lead token series from Rome refers to 1000 sestertii, but it seems unlikely it would have been worth that amount (TURS 1460). A modern parallel is the ‘Hell money’ used today in Asia, which while having the appearance of a banknote, exhibit denominations running into the millions. It is offered to the ancestors and not accepted as legal tender (Scott 2007, 26-28). Although these examples have a much higher denominations than on those found on the tokens from Roman Egypt, they demonstrate that a denomination does not necessarily indicate an all-purpose coin. This point is particularly pertinent as a token of the ‘OBOΛOI B’ type was found at the Serapeum of Saqqara at Memphis. When this token, and others bearing the ethnic ‘MEMΦΙC’ (Memphis), were studied by Longperier in the nineteenth century he posited that they could be religious coins used exclusively at Memphis (Longperier 1861, 411). He states that Pausanias references the use of a ‘local coin’ as a votive offering at Memphis (Pausanias Description of Greece 7.22, 3-4; Longperier 1861, 412). Pausanius implies that the coins were copper, which does obviously not fit the description of the lead tokens. The nome coinage of Roman Egypt displays imagery relevant to each of the nome districts and could perhaps fit this description, however, this was struck at Alexandria and so was ‘local’ to a questionable extent. The fact that ‘local coins’ were important for votive offering at Memphis does, however, leave open the possibility that the lead tokens fulfilled this need. A ‘coin’ created specifically as a votive offering can feasibly be encompassed within the term ‘token’.
Figure 2: : Token from Tebtunis. Obverse: Apis bull facing right, with solar disc between horns, to left Isis(?) standing right wearing solar disc and to right janiform figure(?) standing left and holding uraeus serpent. Crescent and garland above in field; border of dots. Reverse: Nilus sitting left, holding cornucopia in left hand and reeds in right, Alexandria-Euthenia standing before him holding ear of corn aloft in right hand; border of dots; OBOΛOI B. Metal: Lead. Diameter: 30mm. Die axis: 12. Image: Milne 1900, pl XXVI, fig 1.
Others have posited that some of the lead tokens were tax receipts (Rostovtzeff and Prou 1900, 151-152; Mitchiner 1984). Some tokens bear the legend ΕΠ ΑΓΑΘW, which has been translated to mean ‘interest payable upon wealth’ (Mitchiner 1984, 113). However, tax receipts are known from papyrological evidence in Roman Egypt, so it seems unlikely they would take the form of tokens as well. There are also many instances in the ancient world where the phrase means ‘good fortune’, such as this inscription on a marble column drum from Lepcis Magna. The phrase is also found on rings in the Roman period (Le Blant 1896, 90; Ogden 1990, 109). Given that tokens in the ancient world are likely to have been used for euergetic distributions, this phrase would not be out of place on such tokens.
A group of tokens that are unprovenanced within Egypt can also offer an alternative function. They depict Athena on one side (unconnected to the Athena tokens from Oxyrhynchus) and have the legend ΑΓΟ (‘AGO…’, see figure 3) on the other face. It is likely that the legend refers to the agoranomoi, who oversaw markets in the Greek world. Tokens with similar legends – ΑΓ (AG…), ΑΓΟΡ (AGOR…) and ΑΓΟΡΟΝΟΜΩΝ (AGORANOMON) - have also been discovered in the Athenian agora. A possibility for their use that they were issued as proof of payment to sacrificial banquets organised by the agoranomoi (Bubelis 2013, 125). This is also plausible for Roman Egypt, as a papyrus from Karanis dating to the early third century AD also provides a link between religious banquets and their organisation by the agoranomoi (P.Mich. 8511).
Figure 3: Token possibly referring to the agoranomoi. Obverse: Athena standing left, wearing Corinthian helmet, left hand resting on shield at feet to right, outstretched left hand holding Nike with wreath and palm; solid line border. Reverse: AΓO; solid line border. Metal: Lead. Diameter: 24mm. Weight: 9.98g. Die axis: 12. Köln, Institut für Altertumskunde accession no. AL_3560. Image: Köln, Institut für Altertumskunde.
The instances highlighted above are only a minority of the tokens found in Roman Egypt, however, they provide alternative suggestions for utilisation other than a low denomination coinage, and emphasise how tokens could have a variety of functions within the province.
This blog is written by Denise Wilding. The content of this blog is adapted from: Wilding, D. 2020. Tokens and Communities in the Roman Provinces: An Exploration of Egypt, Gaul and Britain. Unpublished PhD thesis, The University of Warwick.
With thanks to the Humanities Research Fund, University of Warwick for their support.
Blant, E. Le. 1986. 750 Inscriptions de pierres gravées inédites ou peu connues. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale.
Bubelis, W. 2013. “The Agorastikon of Hellenistic Athens: Not a Market-Tax.” Zeitschrift für papyrologie und epigraphik 185: 122–26.
Longperier, A. 1861. “Monnaies du Sérapéum de Memphis. Trouvaille de Myt-Rahinch.” Revue Numismatique VI: 1–24.
Milne, J. G. 1908. “The Leaden Token Coinage of Egypt under the Romans.” The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society 8: 287–310.
Milne, J. G. 1922. “The Coins from Oxyrhynchus.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 8: 158–63.
Mitchiner, M. 1984. “Imperial Portrait Tesserae from the City of Rome and Imperial Tax Tokens from the Province of Egypt.” The Numismatic Chronicle 144: 95–114.
Ogden, J. M. 1990. “Gold Jewellery in Ptolemaic, Roman and Byzantine Egypt.” Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Durham. http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/1457/.
Pausanias, Description of Greece, trans. W. H. S. Jones. 1918. London: Heinemann.
Rostovtzeff, M., and M. Prou. 1900. Catalogue Des Plombs de l’antiquité, Du Moyen Age et Des Temps Modernes Conservés Au Département Des Médailles et Antiques de La Bibliothèque Nationale. Paris: Rollin et Feuardent.
Scott, J. L. 2007. For Gods, Ghosts and Ancestors: The Chinese Tradition of Paper Offerings. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
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.
Frederick Parkes Weber,
Interesting Cases and Pathological
Amongst the papers of the famous dermatologist Frederick Parkes Weber now housed in the department of Coins and Medals in the British Museum is a book rather intriguingly entitled Interesting Cases and Pathological Considerations and a Numismatic Suggestion. While most of the book will not interest the student of coinage, the ‘numismatic suggestion’ appended at the end provides a great insight into Weber’s knowledge of ancient coinage (he was an avid coin collector) and the Royal Numismatic Society’s Parkes Weber Prize, currently awarded to the best essay ‘of not more than 5,000 words on any subject relating to coins, medals, medallions, tokens or paper money’ written by someone under 30.
The numismatic suggestion (photographs of the text available to read here and here) records that originally Parkes Weber proposed to the Royal Numismatic Society (RNS) an annual ‘bowl of coins’ prize. The idea came to him since, as a collector, he had to frequently quickly assess bowls of coins from various dealers across the world. The council found the suggestion impractical, and so instead implemented the prize in its current form. But it appears that Parkes Weber was not happy with the solution, and so published his original letter of 1st October 1953 to the President of the Royal Numismatic Society ‘in the hope that at some future time my suggestion will be carried out by a society of private donor. I believe that a small analogous prize is being offered to postage stamp enthusiasts with considerable success.’
Reading the letter, Parkes Weber originally proposed to the RNS an annual prize of 10 guineas to young collectors for ‘the best written diagnosis (with half an hour) of the contents of a bowl of miscellaneous coins and coin-like objects (twenty pieces in the bowl) under the supervision of a delegate of the Society in question’. He suggests they should all be good or moderately good specimens, as well as one or two imitations. He then goes on to offer detailed advice on what this ‘bowl of coins’ should contain.
Parkes Weber suggested the bowl should contain two or three counters or admission tickets (e.g. the Nürnberg Rechenpfennige, the card counters struck on the accession of Queen Victoria with the Duke of Cumberland on horseback on the reverse). He also suggests the inclusion of Greek and Roman tokens, including the so-called spintriae. These tokens carry sexual imagery on one side and a number on the other: Parkes-Weber includes the now discounted idea they were used as brothel admission tickets. He then notes that a fellow collector gave him two spintriae because the collector ‘did not like having them in his collection, when he was showing it to ladies’. Two bronze Roman tokens from the Parkes Weber collection are now in the British Museum, although only one shows an erotic scene.
'Spintria' in the British Museum once owned by Parkes Weber.
The obverse shows a scene of sexual intercourse and the reverse
carries the number III within a wreath. © The Trustees of
the British Museum, 1906,1103.2927.
Parkes Weber writes that only five of the twenty coins in the bowl should be of very rare or obscure types, and suggests specific coin types for ‘occasional admission to the bowl’. These include a copper coin of the Seljukian Turks with types copied from Byzantine Christian pieces, a coin of Edessa ‘preferably a coin of Count Baldwin II with the slashing horseman reminding one of the Norman knights on the Bayeux tapestry’, a coin weight of Charles I struck by Briot, school tokens of the seventeenth century, the ‘dolphin coins’ of Olbia, medieval and modern badges, and Russian beard tokens and prison tokens. Reading the list, one is struck by the interest and knowledge Parkes Weber had of tokens from all ages.
There is, despite the publication of the letter (admittedly in a venue which may not be frequently read by numismatists) still no ‘bowl of coins’ prize. But it does make one think about what types of coins and money might make up the bowl today!
This blog was written by Clare Rowan as part of the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean project.
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.