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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.
The conversion of Roman coins into coin-like objects is a practice documented during the imperial period. Although it is not always easy to date and determine the value of countermarks, incisions and other types of intervention on coins after their production, full academic awareness has not yet been acquired on the complexity of the reuse of coins in antiquity, which lost their previous economic function in order to acquire new meanings and purposes. In addition to pierced specimens – which were hung on the neck by a cord (funiculum) to be reused as amulets or jewels – official Roman coins were also transformed into tesserae by erasing their reverses and engraving Roman numerals on the surface instead.
Figures 1-2: Late Antique coins with numerals scratched on the reverse. Both are bronze coins, BnF Paris.
The specimens shown above (Figs. 1-2), both held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), bear on their obverses respectively the draped, cuirassed, and diademed bust of Julian the Apostate (on the left) and Theodosius I (DN THEODO-SIVS PF AVG) right (on the right). The reverses of both specimens were erased and smoothed, with the Roman numerals IIII and XII incised respectively. This phenomenon also appears to be attested on some earlier fourth-century bronze coins, e.g. those carrying the portrait of Maxentius and Constantius II (Alföldi 1975, Taf. 7, nos. 9-10) on the obverses. However, their conversion into tesserae may have occurred before, at the same time or even after that of the two pieces mentioned above.
Figure 3: Bronze coin (Münzkabinett, Staatlichen Museen Berlin).
A specimen kept at the Münzkabinett in Berlin (Fig. 3) bears the bust of Julian the Apostate left on the obverse, while the image originally depicted on the reverse was erased and replaced with two engraved symbols, namely a palm branch and the monogram PE (“palma emerita”, “praemia emerita”?) whose meaning is controversial. Both motifs frequently occur on contorniates as well as on late Roman material culture, and they could allude to games and competitions or may have been used just as propitious and favourable symbols. Nevertheless, it is unclear how these motifs on contorniates were interpreted by their recipients, and even less clear how they connected with the function of the contorniates.
Figure 4: Vota Publica brass token (“Festival of Isis coinage”) (Collection H. Hoffmann, Médailles grecques et romaines, françaises et etrangers. Auktionskatalog Delestre-Rollin-Feuardent, 2-11 Mai 1898, Lot 2168).
Fig. 5 Fig. 5: Vota Publica brass token (“Festival of Isis coinage”): Numismatica Ars Classica NAC AG, 23.05.2016, Auction 92, Lot 781. 2.75 g
Roman numerals could be engraved not only coins but even on tokens themselves, again converting them from one purpose to another. The two pieces shown above (Figs. 4-5) belong to the so-called “Vota Publica issues” (or “Festival of Isis coinage”) and, in particular, they have to be ascribed to the so-called “Anonymous series”, generically dated to the fourth century. A specimen carrys the radiate and draped bust of Serapis right, while the number V is incised on the reverse. Another piece, repeatedly published in auction catalogues since 1950, bears the crowned and draped busts of Isis and Serapis right, while the number XVI is engraved on the smoothed surface of the reverse. The obverse types of these two brass tokens show the same iconographies depicted on some Vota Publica specimens published by Alföldi (see Alföldi 1937, Taf. 7,31; Taf. 14).
Undoubtedly, the Roman numerals incised on the reverse of these coins and tokens evoke the Roman tesserae with numerals belonging to the Julio-Claudian period (27 BC – AD 68), which show the busts of members of the imperial dynasty or other depictions on the obverses, and Roman numbers generally within a laurel wreath – sometimes with the additional letters A or AVG – on the reverses. Also the so-called spintriae, characterized by erotic images (symplegma) on the obverses, carry Roman numerals on the reverses, at times connected by scholars to a ludic function (game counters) or an erotic context (“brothel tokens”). In addition to these two categories of tesserae, bone and ivory tokens also bear numbers written in both Latin and Greek on one side, and they were regarded as gaming counters on the basis of their findspots.
How should we interpret the coins as well as the Vota Publica specimens that were converted into tokens by engraving Roman numerals on their reverses? This kind of transformation of late Roman coins into tesserae suggests that they probably imitated earlier tokens carrying Roman numerals, and this presupposes a demand for this type of object also in the following centuries. The interpretation of these special “tesserae” is therefore closely related to the unknown function of earlier Roman tokens with Roman numerals, suggesting a continuity between the tokens of the earlier and later Roman period in terms of imagery and reception. New evidence could help to clarify the meaning of Roman numerals as well as the purpose and effects of these objects within Roman society across a longer term perspective.
This blog was written by Cristian Mondello, a British Academy Visiting Fellow at Warwick. This research is supported by the British Academy’s Visiting Fellowships Programme under the UK Government's Rutherford Fund.
Alföldi A., A Festival of Isis in Rome under the Christian Emperors of the IVth Century (Budapest 1937).
Alföldi A., ‘Heiden und Christen am Spieltisch’, JAC 18, 1975, pp. 19-21.
Bianchi C., ‘«Pedine alessandrine»: testimoni illustri di un gioco ignoto’, in Lambrugo C. & Slavazzi F. (eds.), I materiali della Collezione Archeologica “Giulio Sambon” di Milano (Milano, 2015), pp. 53-65.
Buttrey Th., ‘Spintriae as a Historical Source’, NC 13, 1973, pp. 52-62.
Campana A., ‘Le Spintriae: tessere romane con raffigurazioni erotiche’, in Morello A. (ed.), La donna romana. Immagini e vita quotidiana. Atti del convegno, Atina, 7 marzo 2009 (Cassino, 2009), pp. 43-96.
Küter A., ‘Roman tesserae with numerals – Some thoughts on iconography and purpose, in Rowan C., Crisà N. & Gkikaki M. (eds), Tokens: Culture, Connections, Communities, ed. by (London: Royal Numismatic Society, forthcoming).
Mittag P.F., Alte Köpfe in neuen Händen: Urheber und Funktion der Kontorniaten (Bonn 1999).
Perassi C., ‘Monete amuleto e monete talismano. Fonti scritte, indizi, realia per l’età romana’, Numismatica e Antichità Classiche. Quaderni Ticinesi 40 (2011), pp. 223-74.
In the two centuries following the tetrarchic reform of Diocletian (AD 293-305), tokens continued to be regularly produced in the Roman West for a variety of purposes. Given their religious and social-cultural value, the evidence of late antique tokens and coin-like objects helps us to understand the gradual religious transformation within the Roman Empire of the fourth and fifth centuries AD, allowing us to trace wider patterns in the shift from a pagan to a Christian culture. Nevertheless, the connection between tokens and late Roman religious communities remains a relatively unexplored or inadequately understood phenomenon.
Fig. 1: 1 Bronze token from Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques (BnF), Paris. 20 mm, 3.05 g
Remarkable is the bronze token shown above (Fig. 1), described in 1719 by B. de Montfaucon and held at the Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques (at the BnF) in Paris. It was part of the collection of the Roman antiquarian Marcantonio Sabatini and was purchased by Abbé Le Blond, who brought it to France. This token carries on the obverse the bust of Alexander the Great left, wearing lion’s skin, with the legend ALEXSΔ-DRI; on the reverse is a donkey suckling a foal with a scorpion above, accompanied by the Christian legend D N IHV XPS DEI FILI-VS (“Dominus Noster Jesus Christus Dei Filius”).
This specimen is one of the so-called “Asina coins”, perhaps struck in Rome during the reign of Honorius (AD 395-423). They are a small group of very rare bronze tokens, on whose obverses are portraits of Alexander the Great or the Roman emperor, while the reverses carry Graeco-Roman images, including Hercules-Minerva, a centaur fighting a hero and even an erotic scene.
Fig. 2a: Bronze token with Honorius (obv.) and the donkey/foal (rev.), from British Museum. 15 mm, 0.8 g
Fig. 2b: Bronze token with female bust/Providentia (obv.) and the donkey/foal (rev.), from British Museum. 14 mm, 2.04 g.
These Asina tokens named for the donkey suckling a foal, which appears depicted on 4 other pieces. On the two specimens shown above, both housed at the British Museum, the donkey type on the reverse is accompanied by the legend ASINA (Latin for a donkey) (Fig. 2a), or the legend ROMA in the exergue (Fig. 2b). On the obverse of Fig. 2a is the portrait of the Roman emperor Honorius with the Urbs Roma Felix style, while in Fig. 2b the obverse carries a female bust with a crown ending in a crescent shape (Isis?) right, with the legend PROVI–DENTIA and R M below the bust.
Although the donkey was generally considered in the ancient world to be a symbol of fertility, a sacred animal, and an attribute of deities (e.g. Seth, Dionysus, Silenus, Vesta, Priapus), the image of the donkey suckling a foal is an unicum (unique) and has no comparanda in the material and visual culture of the Greek and Roman periods. According to some scholars, the Asina type might be an indirect satirical allusion to Jesus, who was mocked by pagans as a god with a donkey’s head (H. Tanini 1791; A. Alföldi 1951) (Fig. 3). By this hypothesis the “Asina coins” might be considered anti-Christian medals, part of a covert pagan propaganda against the oppressive policy of the emperor Honorius towards polytheistic cults.
Fig. 3. Fig. 3 The Alexamenos graffito (3rd century AD?) from Palatine Hill Museum, Rome.
However, historical and numismatic considerations oppose this interpretation. Other late antique tokens, like the so-called “Festival of Isis coinage” and the “contorniates”, carry pagan iconography and were used in the late Roman world despite repressive measures by the Christian empire. Although they too were interpreted by the early twentieth century scholarship as instruments of pagan propaganda, more recent hermeneutical approaches suggest instead that these coin-like objects had to be multifunctional. They were produced by a complex religious world, in which the categories of ‘Christian’ and ‘pagan’ are neither as homogeneous nor as mutually exclusive as is often assumed. Moreover, the contorniates often show Christian symbols (the cross, the Chi Rho monogram), portraits of Christian Roman emperors (e.g. Honorius, Theodosius II, Valentinian III, Majorian, Anthemius), and even Christian graffiti engraved on the surface of the pieces after their manufacture (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4. Fig. 4 Contorniate with Trajan and an engraved Chi Rho monogram in l. field (obv.) and a charioteer driving quadriga right (rev.), from Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence. Photo: S. Bani-M. Benci-A. Vanni 2012).
In light of the above, should the “Asina coins” be considered as an expression of satire or religious koine? The combination of Graeco-Roman and Christian features on the Asina tokens suggests how complex the relations between pagans and Christians were in late antiquity. At this moment in history religious groups interacted along a variety of axes, which at times lead to conflict, and at times competition, but which, above all, was a form of coexistence.
This blog was written by Cristian Mondello, a British Academy Visiting Fellow at Warwick.
This research is supported by the British Academy’s Visiting Fellowships Programme under the UK Government's Rutherford Fund.
A. Alföldi, A Festival of Isis in Rome under the Christian Emperors of the IVth Century (Budapest 1937).
A. Alföldi, ‘Asina. Eine dritte Gruppe heidnischer Neujahrsmünzen im spätantiken Rom’, GNS 2 (7), 1951, 57-66.
A. Alföldi, ‘Asina II. Weitere heidnische Neujahrsmünzen aus dem spätantiken Rom’, GNS 2 (8), 1951, 92-96.
A. Alföldi, E. Alföldi, Die Kontorniat-Medaillons. Teil 1: Katalog (Berlin 1976)
A. Alföldi, E. Alföldi, Die Kontorniat-Medaillons. Teil 2: Text (Berlin-New York 1990).
S. Bani, M. Benci, A. Vanni (eds), I medaglioni romani provinciali e contorniati nelle raccolte del Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze. Vol. II (Massa Marittima-Follonica-Firenze, 2012).
C. Cavedoni, ‘Médailles du temps d’Honorius portant des signes chrétiens mêlés à des types païens’, RN 1857, pp. 309-314.
B. de Montfaucon, L’antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures (Paris 1719), II, 2, pp. 372-373, Pl. 168.
J.H. Echkel, Doctrina numorum veterum (Vindobonae 1798), t. VIII, p. 174; 289.
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