Online Review: Book

The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage

William E. Metcalf, ed.


Reviewed by Spencer Pope

Pp. xviii + 688, figs. 920, tables 15. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2012. $150. ISBN 978-0-19-530574-6 (cloth).

The grand numismatic catalogues of the 18th century moved the field beyond shadowing literary references and set it on its development. It has since moved on its own to the point that its intricacies and internal development at times limit its integration into classics so that numismatics is often undervalued as a contributor to history, art history, and the ancient economy. The result is that highly specialized numismatic scholarship is all too seldom directed at a broader audience. The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage presents an extensive introduction to ancient coinage that is meant to bring the material to an academic community less familiar with the field.

Following an introduction by Metcalf and a contribution on scientific analyses by Ponting, 32 chapters are divided into three sections: "Archaic and Classical Greek Coinage" (eight chapters), "The Hellenistic World" (six chapters), and "The Roman World" (18 chapters). Two appendices (covering marks of value on Late Roman coins from Aurelian onward and the earliest Christian symbols on Roman coins starting in 315 C.E.), a glossary, four indices (persons, mints, hoards and finds, general), and numerous (more than 900) illustrations fill out the rest of the volume. The book is arranged chronologically, with chapters divided according to geography; the work ranges from the invention of coinage in the seventh century B.C.E. to its adoption in the Greek world, development across the Classical and Hellenistic periods, and implementation by the Romans through the reforms of 498 C.E. Each chapter presents the principal coin types of the respective authority, a discussion of weight standards and denominations, and their context within the nature of the issuing authority. Most present possible motives for both the existence of the coinage and the selection of its types along with alterations, including devaluation and changes in weight standards, along with the introduction of fractions. Most discussions include considerations on patterns of circulation and relative size of the issues as a method of indicating the use and role of the coin type.

The greatest utility of the book may be the succinct summaries of key developments in coinage in the ancient world. In this light, the volume fulfills a need for concise and updated discussions on nodal points of coinage useful to nonspecialists. "The Monetary Background of Early Coinage" (Kroll) neatly presents a number of the significant developments in early coinage and sets parameters for the ensuing discussion. For example, references to ancient authors and ancient texts reveal that the concept of intrinsic value—weighing rather than counting out precious metals for fines—lasted significantly beyond the introduction of coinage and demonstrates that the ancient economy did not rely on coinage to operate, but that coinage facilitated many transactions. Likewise, even prior to the introduction of silver coinage, issuing authorities elevated the fiduciary value over the intrinsic worth of Lydian lion and bull types: it becomes clear that politics and the power of the issuing authority would dictate the path of coinage moving forward. Closely themed chapters on Asia Minor (Konuk) and the Persian empire (Alram) address the critical question of the date of the introduction of silver coinage. Here the best indicator is archaeological evidence from the foundation deposit of the Artemision at Ephesos, which is now dated to ca. 560 B.C.E. by the architecture of the "central basis," but the olpe of the pot hoard provides a terminus post quem of the third quarter of the seventh century B.C.E. for electrum coinage. The discussion shifts to the Greek world, with "The Coinage of Athens, Sixth to First Century BC" (Van Alfen). The author emphasizes that the vast circulation of the owls, which extended as far as Afghanistan, made them the most significant coinage of the Archaic period. Athens, too, holds particular insights into early coinage, with the Wappenmunzen and possibility of different types—sourced from different origins—circulated together. Sourcing is also relevant to Sheedy's chapter, "Aegina, the Cyclades and Crete," and in particular the Siphnian issues, but remains less well understood for Aegina, recognized as the first Greek polis to mint: reverse punches indicate their chronological priority and are dated to 555–550 B.C.E. Corinth, another important early mint, is treated in Psoma's "Greece and the Balkans to 360 BC." Rutter and Fischer-Bossert cover southern Italy and Sicily, respectively, and they both address the influence of preexisting traditions as significant factors in the development of western Greek coinage. While space considerations are understandable, an acknowledgment of the Early Classical issues of Aitna, one of the most celebrated coins from antiquity, could have been a linchpin for discussions of the influence of Syracuse.

Discussion of Hellenistic coinage focuses on the adoption of Alexander's image and the circulation of Macedonian coinage. De Callatay's "Royal Hellenistic Coinages: From Alexander to Mithradates," describes the tipping point in which Alexander's coinage superseded the Athenian owl as international Greek currency, assisted by accessing the Persian treasuries and converting them to coinage. Alexander's portrait appears on the coinage of his successors, and this marks a critical moment, as the imagery on coinage shifts from the realm of the public and mythoreligious to the entirely political. Other chapters on the Hellenistic world effectively present the transformations in this period, including "Coinage of the Ptolemies" (Lorber), "The Seleucids" (Houghton), "Greek Coinage of Palestine" (Tal), and "The Coinage of the Parthians" (Sinisi).

Another nodal point is addressed by Burnett's "Early Roman Coinage and Its Italian Context," which pulls together traditions in cast bronze, coined bronze, and coined silver that formed Rome's early monetary output. A useful chart (306–7) is most welcome and could have been a model for other chapters. "The Denarius Coinage of the Roman Republic" (Woytek) marks another turning point in ancient numismatics—the introduction of the Denarius in 211 B.C.E., the date of which is confirmed by archaeological evidence from Morgantina.

Major changes in coinage came about in the Imperial period, when coins ceased to function as identifiers beyond the empire's borders, and instead featured portraits of emperors, promoting programs within the empire. The Julio-Claudians (Wolters), Flavians (Carradice), Trajan and Hadrian (Beckmann), Antonines (Yarrow), Severans (Abdy), Gordian III (Bland), Tetrarchy and House of Constantine (Abdy), the later Roman empire (Moorhead), and "The Transformation of the West" (Stahl) complete the chronological discussions, while regional treatments of the Iberian peninsula (Ripollès), Roman provinces through Hadrian (Amandry), provinces after Commodus (Johnston), Syria (Butcher), Palestine (Gitler), and Roman Egypt (Geissen) round out the volume.

Some topics, which transcend individual periods and regions, would be welcome as discrete discussions, such as metal sourcing, relative scales of output, mercenary payments and crisis coinage, circulation and the role of political authority, and the nature of the introduction of new coinage. Wolters (346–47) addresses this last point, indicating that new coins in the Imperial period did not so much replace worn or heavily circulated coins as added to the economy with new currency. The greatest challenge to a work of this nature is ensuring its internal coherence and thematic unity across time and space, especially with such interdisciplinary and multifaceted material. In this respect, the handbook is true to its title of "coinage" rather than numismatics: little space is allotted for discussions of concepts such as die links, hoard evidence, archaeological and stratigraphic contexts, or metallurgical studies. Metcalf's introduction addresses this focus (8). Certainly, works that more fully integrate and valorize numismatics as an essential subfield will be facilitated in no small part by this exemplary and extensive contribution.

Spencer Pope
Department of Classics
McMaster University
Hamilton, Ontario L8S 4M2


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