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Sunday, March 1, 2015

"From the Local and Aesthetic to the Brutal and Bureaucratic: Dramatic and Theatrical Representations of Roman and Greek Statehood on Coins."

Originally Published June 22, 2011. Ancientcoincollectors.com. (Please acknowledge web-reprints and contact for print. "Some rigts reserved")

"From the Local and Aesthetic to the Brutal and Bureaucratic: Dramatic and Theatrical Representations of Roman and Greek Statehood on Coins."

Coins are clearly not merely instrumental, fungible monetary lumps of metal. They may have begun that way (in Lydia, perhaps around 700 BC), but quickly acquired symbolic significance. First there was the snarling head of a lion on electrum (a naturally-occurring alloy of gold and silver) coinage from the 7th century BC—full of motion and emotion. Within the century the lion head had found a ram into whose shoulders and throat to tear—a ram seemingly quite capable of putting up a good fight.

That they were struck with imagery at all is of interest in its own right. They were tokens – even totems – not only in a literal but also a figurative sense. Moreover, the imagery itself was an important phenomenon to the people of the time, so it should also be so to us. It took many hours to craft a single die, which had a lifetime of maybe 100 strikes before it dulled or cracked.

Indeed, the symbolic imagery often has an overtly dramatic character. Even as static metal tokens, many numismatic items are, indeed, narrative depictions of battle scenes or historic events. One might say they are slices of theater. Thin slices, to be sure, like Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story[1] — but theater nonetheless. Those warriors confronted one another, for some reason; one horse had fallen somehow; now one of them has victory within his reach. (Because he is Roman!)

The Greek coins were individualistic and artistically- and even sensually-inclined. Each city-state had its local favorite icon (sometimes an animal, sometimes a deity, sometimes both, sometimes multiple). The coins emphasized artistry over standardization, in contrast to the culture 500 years-to-come (to an extent the Macedonian Kings, from Phillip II to Kassander, deviated ever so slightly from that trend, but not nearly so far as the Romans). Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a classicist and do not claim the Greeks lived peaceful lives. Indeed, current anthropological evidence shows that even recently the territorial shepherds use their staffs against other humans more than against their sheep. At that time it is safe to assume the bloodshed was greater in daily encounters.


The island of Aegina (Aigina) had its sea turtles. It used the stater as the standard weigh (roughly 12 grams). In the 5th century Attica (Athens) – the center of power in mainland Greece after defeating Sparta – had its famous owls on the reverse and the goddess Athena on the obverse of its archetypal 16 gram tetradrachm (using the 4g/drachm standard).

Even three hundred years later the more nuanced and evolved “New Style” Athenian tetradrachm depicted the owl and Athena, and it also weighed 16 grams. Miletos had its own standard. Its preferred its lions with incuse geometric patterns on the reverse.

Corinth used a widely shared standard 12g stater that was used and copied across the region, and depicted its classic local hero Pegasus. Often these coins bore no inscriptions whatsoever, or, if they did, minimalist ones such ΛΦΣ in Attica/Athens (in front of the owl, as you can see).

"Happy Days Are Here Again."

The late Roman Imperialists, by contrast, emphasized standardization and relished in brutality. Their sense of "glorious violence" was very different from ours today (and indeed, the Greeks' before them, who depicted boxers, wrestlers, and fights--not murders). Today we tend to root for the underdog. The Romans? Not so much. (Note: This is happening well after Constantine halted the slaughter of Christian martyrs for entertainment; only that single class of targets was spared a particular punishment, though the populace was less scrupulous, fighting among themselves, at least, until Constantine convened the Council at Nicaea in the province of Bythinia.)

The most striking piece of evidence may be the so-called "fallen horseman" series. An armor-clad Roman soldier on horseback drives a spear into the gut of a fallen “barbarian” combatant (trapped beneath his own “fallen horse,” holding his arms up in a gesture mercy, and usually looking away or making an expression of agony). The “victims” (as we would see them 1680 years later) are almost always smaller in stature (true also of another series with the same legend, in which a gigantic soldier leads a tiny barbarian out of his grass hut, either toward “civilization” or slavery, depending on one’s interpretation). Sometimes, judging from hairstyle, facial hair, and battle gear, they “victims” appear to be Gallic or Germanic boys, young and shirtless, often with dreadlocks, and sometimes they appeared distinctly Persian (magnification helps). Never mind that it would be Arabs and Persians who preserved this culture during Europe’s dark ages (even re-issuing its coins, though less skillfully, not having had a millennium to practice. Then again, the very later Roman celators [minters/engravers] also seemed to forget the first lessons of the Greeks: depict faces sideways so the features don’t rub off, make your coins as round or flat as possible, and use proper alloys so they don’t shatter when you drop them). The same dynamic is visible in Byzantine Art and Coinage: It is as if they forget how to depict three-dimensions (although, they there reasons.  

Issued by Julian II, Constantius II, and Constantius Gallus (and, rumor has, perhaps a few by Constans), the “horseman” series’ reverse legend reads “FEL TEMP REPARATIO.” If your Latin is a bit rusty, that translates to “Happy Times Restored.” Think Franklin Delano Roosevelt—his country was in a great Depression, both saved by World War II. (Click to listen there or any other youtube video.)  Compare the portrayals of glorious violence only 1600 years apart – almost diametrically opposed.

Many series bore that legend, almost invariably showing a Roman kidnapping a barbarian, holding slaves bound by the wrists, killing them, tying them to trees, or stepping on their heads. The proudest previous series may have been the many “IVDAEA CAPTA” issues, in which the Roman ravaged a tiny kingdom that defended itself to the very end and then committed what today we would consider honorable mass suicide on Mt. Moussad to prevent certain slavery, torture, rape, and murder. Then, they probably experienced only despair.

It is somewhat ironic, from a 20th century perspective, who the Roman considered the Barbarians to be.  Let us try to be historicist, not presentist, however unpalatable it might fell. (Note: The French and other Europeans were still have public torture-execution rituals as late as the 1800s, to which entire families came to watch the entertainment—infant to aged. Ancient Romans had no monopoly on downright cruelty for cruelty’s sake.)


Even more remarkable than the content, is the form. By the 4th century, Rome, unlike Greece, had become an empire proper. Like their successors 1000+ years later, they sought to “make the world Rome.” Even Alexander the Great had no such ambitions. Alexander III sought to conquer, to be sure. But he allowed the cultures of imperial Greek states to remain as they were, albeit paying tribute for the cultural “enrichment” he provided. The Romans, by contrast, sought to dominate, as expressed in the imagery of spearing of soldiers, or their “Ivdaea Capta” series, in which Judaean princesses and slaves were depicted bound to trees or seated and crying.

And, to dominate was, for Rome, to make the world Rome. More importantly, to dominate was to manage, to keep accounts, to develop a system of common tax, trade, and administration – in a word, bureaucracy. Bureaucracy and domination so towering that the world had never seen the scope or likes of before and wouldn’t again for a century (save, possibly, China).

Early in the life of a conquered Roman province (formerly a Greek imperial state), the coinage still depicted local symbols and legends were written in local vernacular Koiné Greek – a sort of lingua franca spoken by multilingual Mediterraneans, from about the time of Attica’s emergence as the major power among the city-states, until the 4th century, when the Roman Empire had eradicated it.

The new style of coinage – reflecting a modern, administrative state – formed the foundation for numismatic representation that persists worldwide, even today. Imagery on the obverse was the bust of an important, valorized individual. (Then, Constantine the Great, now George Washington). Around the perimeter of the coin was an honorific legend. This legend was typically very specific in form. It began with either the name of the ruler depicted or a series of titles.

Fittingly enough, the standardization of obverse legends began in rudimentary form with Julius Caesar (ca. 47 BC – 17 BC) himself, and was fully enshrined with Rome’s first Emperor (ca. 39 BC – 14 AD), that is, Rome’s first “Augustus” (formerly Octavian). The obverse legend on a coin of Augustus might read, running clockwise, the top of each character close to the perimeter, something like “CAESAR AVGVSTVS” (Sear RSC 347), i.e. Augustus the Caesar, or head of the Senate.

Romans were big on titles, so the coins came to frequent included strings of abbreviations – especially characteristic of later Imperial issues – but notable in the early years as well. “IMP. CAESAR AVGVS. TR. POT. IIX” (Sear RSC 343) on reads for Imperator Caesar Augustus (as he had named and entitled himself), the Tribunate of Power, Year 8 of his rule (Historia Numorum, Barclay Head, 1887, Oxford University Press).

Later inscriptions became increasingly complex (as did the names/titles of the rulers and other administrators of the empire). This form continued for some time into what we now think of Byzantium, or Romaion coinage (members of which society might have thought of themselves as Romans or Greeks or simply local “peoples” being taxed by the former). There was no sharp break between these states, as we now define them. But, to be rather arbitrary (accepting Sear, King, and Cohen’s RSC Volume 5, London: Seaby), the final obverse legend attributed to any Roman silver coin was DN ROMVL PF AVG: Dominus Nostur, Romulus, Pius Felix, Augustus (“Our Ruler, Romulus, Pius and Faithful, Augustus”).

While obverse legends extolled the titles, powers, and accomplishments (e.g., GERM[ANICVS] for leader who had been victorious over Germania—or Germanicus, himself)[2], reverses often made inspirational statements glorifying the empire (GLORIA EXERCITVS; Glory to the Army), referring to victory (VICTORIAE P; Perpetual Victory), or making promises (VOT V MVLT X; Vows of Five, Maybe Ten Years of Good Rule, presumably before being killed by a usurper or ambitious family member, or by one’s gurard after going insane, as in Caligula/Cauis’ case. He was replaced by his own Praetorian Guard by a “feeble” –we know not mentally or physically—uncle, Claudius). The major difference between American coinage and Roman on this point is that living figures are not engraved; however, through Europe, especially its monarchies, and the rest of the world, this practice is utterly ordinary.

In most cases there was an “exergue,” or space for a mintmark (as in modern American coinage). At the bottom of the reverse one might read ANT for the Antioch mint, or PLN or PLON for Londres (London). In the United State, today, the exergue is on the front and indicates minting in Philadeplia, San Francisco, or Denver. (The silver and gold coinage of the American 19th century placed the mintmark in the exact location as Roman coinage: bottom center. For instance, think “Carson City”/CC on American Liberty Dollars.)

Thus, one potential contributor, aside from low prices, to the popularity of collecting and cleaning/restoring Imperial Roman bronze coins, unearthed using metal detectors in the Middle East and throughout Europe and Great Britain. They are easy to understand. We recognize the continuity in Western culture and bureaucratic nature, even if some humanitarianism has bullied its way in.

[1] Reportedly, “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
[2] The formal Roman names of the aristocracy are so foreign to our own that entire essays and volumes have been written; one acquired such name-titles over one’s lifetime. Germanicus (Germanicus Julius Caesar) was originally named Nero Claudius Drusus after his father. When his father, a conqueror of Germania, died, the name Germanicus was posthumously endowed as an honorific name-title.


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