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‘Art in the Round’: New Approaches to Ancient Coin Iconography

‘Art in the Round’: New Approaches to Ancient Coin Iconography

Edited by Nathan T. Elkins and Stefan Krmnicek (Tübinger Archäologische Forschungen 16). Pp. 183, figs. 178, tables 2. Marie Leidorf, Rahden 2014. €53.50. ISBN 978-3-89646-996-0 (cloth).

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This book is a product of a conference that was intended to bring numismatists together with classicists, historians, art historians, and archaeologists to (according to the original call for papers) “explore new directions in the study of iconography on Graeco‐Roman coinage” ( Almost all the contributions discuss Roman coinage from the Late Republic to the Late Imperial period. The contributors are mostly scholars who publish primarily on numismatics, but a self-described non-numismatist and art historian (Hölscher) shares the pages with historians and an archaeologist. After an introduction, the book is broken up into three sections: “Coins, Literature, and the Visual Arts,” “Coin Iconography in Type-Specific and Series Studies,” and “Method, Theory, and Material Culture in Studies on Coin Iconography.”

The editors note that the iconography of coin types is limited by the inconsistent “integration of archaeological evidence,” a casual “deployment of comparative textual and visual evidence,” a focus on particular (and heavily reproduced) specimens, and the “intended meaning [of a coin type] rather than the living body of images” from which it is derived (6). Some of the authors briefly speak to the problem of who ordered the images (or even who was perceived to have ordered the images) to be placed on the coins, but that argument is never fleshed out or even consistently addressed, except by Hölscher (24–5).

Hölscher’s article (“Historical Representation of the Roman Republic”), about the use of history in Roman visual arts, is a subject about which he has written extensively. He argues that imperial public monuments and coins “represent and glorify the emperor’s ideal public roles and exemplary virtues” through a stable set of images used throughout the Imperial period (25). These images resulted from experiments in the Republican period, especially the Late Republic. The movement of these images to the imperial repertoire sees the shedding of some types of images as no longer used and the promotion of others that become beneficial to the emperor; even the upper classes are seen commissioning their own monuments.

Beckmann (“The Relationship Between Numismatic Portraits and Marble Busts”) scrutinizes the gold coins minted for Faustina the Younger in a traditional manner by examining her hairstyles to construct different portrait types and discussing the reason for the introduction of those types. He brings a new aspect to this argument by building a die study to understand better the chronology of the changing hairstyles. Differences between portrait types in the round and numismatic types are the result of the die cutters wishing to represent “actual differences in Faustina’s appearance” (e.g., 43), changes that are not always apparent in surviving portraits in the round. Only some of these changes can be ascribed to the birth of children. I remain a little skeptical as to how many times the die cutters would be able to study changes in their empress’ hairstyle in order to depict those changes in real time.

Steinbock’s “Coin Types and Latin Panegyrics as Means of Imperial Communication” ties two panegyrics delivered in the court of Trier ca. 290 C.E. with the coins coming from the Lyon mint between 286 and 292 C.E. Other scholars have looked at the link (as the author notes), but his contribution looks specifically at coins from the Lyon mint to gauge the sensitivity of antoniniani types as indicators of imperial concerns. (His language could be confusing to the non-numismatist here, as he consistently refers to “extant antoniniani” when he means “types”). The sensitivity of the mint to imperial concerns might well be argued from these panegyrics, but the “living body of images” mentioned in the introduction would surely mean that all these types, in actual practice, circulated simultaneously, and possibly only the mint officials were privy to such targeted messages.

The second section includes an announcement of the forthcoming coin database Digital Iconographic Atlas of Numismatics in Antiquity (DIANA), along with a small case study of Greek coin iconography (Puglisi). I do not know how DIANA will interface with other databases that are currently being developed, but it appears that at some point we may be released from citations of the valuable old British Museum collections.

Molinari (“The Two Roman Types with Two-Faced Gods on Third-Century BC Coinage”) continues this section with a short entry looking at Janus, using sources ranging from the fifth(?) century B.C.E. through 1724. Erickson (“Zeus to Apollo and Back Again”) approaches the use of Zeus and Apollo on late Seleucid coins by looking at the much-studied coins of Antiochus IV, proposing a new chronology for some coins based on the reverse of Zeus.

Four mints in Macedonia are the focus of Daubner’s entry (“On the Coin Iconography of Roman Colonies in Macedonia”) to analyze individual city responses to Roman authority in light of their own histories. He distinguishes between the “descendants of the Italic settlers from the indigenous Greeks of their surroundings” to find the “identity of the city elites” as opposed to the “identity of the colonists” (115). More interesting is the complex interweaving of new types, references to the cities’ past, and new language on legends to form an expression of a “Romano-Macedonian” culture, one of many cultures that comprise “the” Roman empire.

Cuyler (“Portus Augusti”) examines the splendid Neronian sestertii depicting the harbor at Ostia to reevaluate them in conjunction with archaeological evidence. The author is forced to depend on a 16th-century print to reconstruct the harbor; the engraver may have used the coin, at least in part, to form the print (Cuyler conflates the word “die” with “type” and uses “inscription” for “legend”). In doing so, the author tries to remind the reader that Nero was not just a lyre player but also an emperor with an interest in infrastructure, especially harbors.

Wigg-Wolf (“Constantine’s Silver Multiple from Ticinum [RIC 36]”) reconsiders the appearance of the chi-rho on a silver coin of Constantine. This coin has long been interesting to religious historians, as it is the first time a Christian symbol is found on a coin. The author, I believe correctly, argues that the Christian message is much overvalued by moderns.

Rowan returns us to Late Republican Greece with “Iconography in Colonial Contexts.” Building on a postcolonial model, Rowan wants to show the “diversity of the Roman colonial process,” especially as the Romans grapple with new “conceptions of power as the Roman world moved towards the principate” (147). This is a well-reasoned case study with wider implications in Roman provincial coinage.

Biedermann and Dumke (“Case Studies in Late Republican Coinage in the East”) also provide case studies, which begin in the late Seleucid and extend to the Augustan period. The posthumous coins of Philip I Epiphanes Philadelphos and the aurei and denarii of Labienus are meant to be contrasts in the “broad range of meanings that could be expressed in ancient coin designs” (167). In both cases, the coins in question have been widely discussed; the authors hope by placing them in wider contexts to find a solution to two intractable problems.

Barbato (“Flavian Typology”) offers a much-compressed version of her dissertation, a study that tries to determine if different types were sent to different provinces in the Roman West as the emperors appealed to different audiences, although she does not make use of Hobley’s An Examination of Roman Bronze Coin Distribution in the Western Empire AD 81–192 (Oxford 1989). I wonder about her sample size, which ranges from 23 to 476 coins, with no corrective or exploration of whether the differences she found in the sample were significant.

The volume is pitched to graduate students and scholars, as it assumes the ability to read text in German, French, Latin, and Greek, as least in small parts. There are some vexing editorial slips, including typographical mistakes in the references, incomplete references or missing bibliographic entries, and misnumbered figures. The book certainly attained its goal in having a wide variety of scholars tackle both old and new problems and providing new answers or new evidence for those answers. The authors employed a wide range of evidence and a variety of approaches in discussing the iconography of the coins. I would suggest that the best scholarship in the field has been attempting to do this, but access to more evidence helps to inform historians, archaeologists, and art historians in the use of coin iconography. Therefore, these essays are welcome additions to the problem of what users of the coins may have perceived as they looked at the types on the coins.

Jane DeRose Evans
Departments of Art History and Greek and Latin Classics
Temple University

Book Review of Art in the Round: New Approaches to Ancient Coin Iconography, edited by Nathan T. Elkins and Stefan Krmnicek

Reviewed by Jane DeRose Evans

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 1 (January 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1201.Evans

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