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ΤΥΠΟΙ: Greek and Roman Coins Seen Through Their Images: “Noble” Issuers, “Humble” Users? Proceedings of the International Conference Organized by the Belgian and French Schools at Athens, 26–28 September 2012

April 2019 (123.2)

Book Review

ΤΥΠΟΙ: Greek and Roman Coins Seen Through Their Images: “Noble” Issuers, “Humble” Users? Proceedings of the International Conference Organized by the Belgian and French Schools at Athens, 26–28 September 2012

Edited by Panagiotis Iossif, François de Callataÿ, and Richard Veymiers (Série histoire 3). Pp. 600. Presses Universitaires de Liège, Liège 2018. €40. ISBN 978-2-87562-157-3 (paper).

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The modern study of ancient coinage has a history extending back more than half a millennium. From the very beginning, what has captivated most scholars are the designs, or “types.” Indeed, even today the images are of prime concern, as we seek to unpack their meaning, identify the agents of their formulation and their significance, and discern their intelligibility among ancient viewers. Evidence of the continuing importance of the topic are three international conferences coincidentally organized around the theme in 2012, all now published: the volume edited by Travaini and Arrigoni, Polis, urbs, civitas: Moneta e identità. Atti del covegno di studio del Lexicon Iconographicum Numismaticae (Rome 2013); that edited by Elkins and Krmnicek, “Art in the Round”: New Approaches to Ancient Coin Iconography (Tübinger Archäologische Forschungen 16 [Rahden, Westphalia, 2014]); and this volume from the conference at Athens.

The present publication is the most substantial in terms of page count and number of core chapters (23), which follow a preface and an obituary for Léon Lacroix. The contributions cohere well around the stated aim of exploring the “relation between ‘issuer’ and ‘user’” of numismatic images (11). Unlike in the two books mentioned above, most contributions to this volume engage with coins and images from the Greek world, which is significant in that the study of coins as communicative media and interrogation of issuer and user have historically been more prominent in Roman numismatics, as Roman designs were generally more immediate and varied than Greek ones, especially of the Archaic and Classical periods.

It is impossible to evaluate substantively each chapter within the limitations of this review, and so I select some highlights. After the introduction and a chapter on the KIKPE Numismatic Collection, chapters are organized thematically into the following sections: “Images on Coins and Methodological Approaches: A Broader Perspective,” “The World of the Greek Cities: Toward a City of Images,” “The World of the Hellenistic Kingdoms: Toward a Kingdom of Images,” “The Transition from Hellenistic to Roman: Punic Coinage and Alexander’s Image,” “The World of Rome: Toward a Republic of Images,” “The World of Imperial Rome: Toward an Empire of Images,” and “Coins and Gems: A Fertile Dialogue.” The utility of the book is enhanced through detailed indices and color plates at the end.

The introduction, “L’iconographie des monnaies grecques: Brève historiographie et presentation des principales problématiques” (de Callataÿ), is an important contribution that should be widely cited in the future. Throughout, de Callataÿ refers to methodological developments in Roman numismatics and addresses questions of identity, issuer, type selection, style, intelligibility, and portraiture; he also grounds the study of images by quantifying them through finds and hoards (37). The latter point is noteworthy, since so much is written about rare or unique coin types that few people in antiquity would have encountered, and because some scholars persist in unhelpful methods of quantification such as prominence in collections or assuming that different catalogue entries represent roughly equal ratios of what was produced.

Another stimulating contribution is “The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Imitation and Counterfeit Coins in the Seleucid Empire” (Hoover). Ancient coins dubbed “imitations” or “counterfeits” are rather common, although they do not attract the same level of study as “official” coins; instead, they are usually dismissed as the products of moonlighting mint workers who sought extra profit or other nefarious actors gaming the system. Hoover poses questions that prompt us to reexamine our own assumptions and models regarding so-called counterfeits and imitations and their significance. The chapter begins with a discussion of plated silver coins, which he interprets as emergency issues of the state rather than products of opportunistic employees. He understands imitations of solid silver coins as fulfilling a need for currency in regions where there was a shortage of official coins; the designs on such coins imitated the preferred designs of official and “good” coinage. Here, the deployment of evidence from hoards highlights potential pitfalls of looking at images—official or unofficial—without attention to material context.

Iossif’s “Divine Attributes on Hellenistic Coinages: From Noble to Humble and Back” deals with the popular topic of the portrayal of Hellenistic monarchs as divine or semi-divine, but with special attention to the use of divine attributes associated with royals (especially on bronze coins). While scholars often interpret such images as the king portrayed as a specific god, or as possessing the qualities of certain gods, Iossif builds a provocative case that the attributes are instead gifts from the gods to the king, with reference to the reciprocal nature of Greek religion, and he substantiates his argument with comparative evidence. His work deals with all Hellenistic dynasties and quantifies the prevalence of the imagery. The appearance of the imagery on bronze coinage suggests that viewers of the designs were common people or soldiers.

“The Depth of Knowledge and the Speed of Thought: The Imagery of Roman Republican Coins and the Contemporary Audience” (Woytek) examines messages on coins and the end user. By “depth of knowledge” Woytek means political knowledge or literacy of the viewer, and by “speed of thought” he refers to how much time a viewer would consider thinking about a coin being handled. The chapter is well researched and rich in bibliography, and it includes an important section on the shift in Roman coin iconography in the 130s B.C.E. Throughout, the author notes that the agents behind republican coin design were not only junior moneyers but also other officials and imperators. The most novel part of the chapter is the last half, which deals with users and begins with an evaluation of textual references to republican coin designs. Using theoretical work by Hölscher and Morstein-Marx (R. Morstein-Marx, Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic [Cambridge, 2004]; (Hölscher, “Die Bedeutung der Münzen für das Verständis der politischen Repräsentationkunst der späten römischen Republik, in T. Hackens, R. Weiller (eds.), Actes du 9e Congrès international de numismatique, Berne, Septembre 1979, vol. 1 [Louvain-la-Neuve, 1982] Pp. 269-282.), Woytek explores opposing views of the literacy and political knowledge of plebeians. After introducing the concept of “audience targeting,” which has been more of a trend in the study of imperial coins than in republican numismatics, he finds much more nuance in Caesar’s coinage than in Antony’s legionary types; this corrects Hölscher’s suggestion that types made for military audiences had to be simple and uncomplicated, and it implies that common soldiers also possessed a great deal of visual literacy and political knowledge. The conclusion of the chapter rightly contests the common idea that the insertion of the princeps causes a break with republican coin typology and asserts that there is indeed a great deal of continuity in design and cultural memory into the Imperial period.

Van Heesch’s “Coin Images in Imperial Rome: The Case of the Emperor Nero” explores audience targeting with the designs on bronze coinage in the reign of Nero, pointing out that the mints at Rome and Lyons both struck bronze coins at that time. The types from Lyons are more prominent in finds outside Italy, while in Italy, types from Rome are dominant. New images first appeared at Rome and then were copied by the mint at Lyons. The reign of Nero saw innovation in imperial coin design and the introduction of reverse types on sestertii that carried very specific messages most relevant to the urban audience of Rome: adlocutio to the Praetorians, the Temple of Janus, the Arch of Nero, a congiarium for the urban plebs, the harbor at Ostia, to name a few. The prominence of such Rome-themed designs on finds outside of Rome suggests to the author that Rome’s greatness was actively preached to provincial inhabitants as part of a process of assimilation. On this point, I think, the author overstates the case for intent. The mint at Lyons produced coins for provincial circulation and modeled all of its types on precedents struck at Rome. Indeed, uniformity was necessary for a branch of the imperial mint. Thus, it is natural that Rome-themed types on the sestertii appear with regularity in the provinces on coinage from Lyons. It is telling, too, that in the northern provinces more generic images are common—for example, Annona, Roma, Decursio—rather than specific types that were most relevant to an urban audience (Janus, harbor, arch, adlocutio, congiarium), and this trend  has surfaced also in other studies on audience targeting. The added example of the rare Flavian Colosseum sestertii in German finds, cited as evidence for advertisement of Rome’s greatness, is instead part of a broader anomaly of coin circulation in the region caused by Domitian’s war against the Chatti in the early 80s C.E.; the designs were not deliberately targeted to a provincial audience by the state.

The editors are to be commended for preparing a coherent volume that any student grappling with ancient coin designs, and the authorities and viewers thereof, will inevitably consult. Specialists in numismatics will probably have most need for this volume, although it will no doubt be of interest to other scholars pursuing questions of the efficacy and communicative potential of imagery.

Nathan T. Elkins
Department of Art and Art History
Baylor University

Book Review of ΤΥΠΟΙ: Greek and Roman Coins Seen Through Their Images: “Noble” Issuers, “Humble” Users? Proceedings of the International Conference Organized by the Belgian and French Schools at Athens, 26–28 September 2012 , edited by Panagiotis Iossif, François de Callataÿ, and Richard Veymiers

Reviewed by Nathan T. Elkins

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 2 (April 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1232.elkins

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