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New perspectives for the interpretation

of coin finds
Colloquium Frankfurt a. M., October 25–27, 2007

edited by







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das Hessische Ministerium für Wissenschaft und Kunst, Wiesbaden.

Redaktionelle Betreuung: Nathan T. Elkins, Stefan Krmnicek, David Wigg-Wolf

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Coins, contexts, and an iconographic approach
for the 21st century
Nathan Thomas Elkins∗

1. Introduction
Images on Archaic and Classical Greek coinage were typically static over long
periods of time and the obverses and reverses were of a civic nature, often naming
the issuing state and referring to it by means of various symbols associated with
that state. They frequently depicted the chief god or goddess of the city and/or their
attributes (e.g. Athens), a local nymph or hero (Syracuse), commodities for which
the city was famous (Metapontum), some reference to local mythology (Corinth),
or even a pun that alluded to the city's name (Rhodes and Zancle). Symbols of the
issuing state guaranteed the coin as a monetary instrument, often in conjunction
with legends identifying the issuing state, magistrate, or potentate; in fact, some
Greek coin types even depicted local types of pre-monetary barter instruments,
such as the axes which appeared on coins from Tenedos. A distinguishing feature
of Hellenistic coinages was the predominance of royal portraits1; Hellenistic rulers
frequently represented themselves on coins, sometimes as divine figures as is the
case with the Ptolemies, or depicted their divine predecessors such as Alexander
the Great.
Of all ancient coinages, the designs on the coins of the later Roman Republic
and Roman Empire were the most varied and politically charged, often directly
relating to the ideological programs of the ruling potentates. The character of
images on early Roman coinage was heavily influenced by the coinage of its Greek
neighbors. For instance, the head of Mars on early Roman didrachms and bronze
fractions was based on an earlier Syracusan type; the personification of Roma
which dominated the obverses of many denarii followed a general characteristic of
Greek coinage. This changed in the 130s BC when coin designs became more
varied and their content more political. Several scholars have associated the
fundamental changes in the character of the coinage with the Lex Gabinia of 139
BC, which allowed for a secret ballot in elections. It has been argued that from this
point onwards, moneyers (junior offices in the Republican cursus honorum) began
taking the liberty of overtly advertising their family's prestige and hence
themselves, in essence campaigning for future grander positions in the cursus

∗ I would like to thank Hans-Markus von Kaenel, Fleur Kemmers, and Kathleen Warner Slane
whose substantive comments improved the content of this contribution.
1 On the nature of Greek coin types see R. Göbl, Antike Numismatik I (Munich 1978) 62 et passim
and C. Howgego, Ancient History from Coins (London-New York 1995) 63-67 for discussion of
royal portraits as well. For broader treatments of images on Greek coins see, for example, P.R.
Franke/ M. Hirmer, Die griechische Münze (Munich 1964) and, more recently, S. Ritter,
Bildkontakte. Götter und Heroen in der Bildsprache des 4. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. (Berlin 2002).
26 Nathan T. Elkins

honorum2. More recently it has been argued that broader social and cultural shifts
were responsible for changes in the nature of Republican coin design3.
Whatever caused the changes, social and cultural trends or political exploitation,
Republican coinage became something unique and developed its own character
from the 130s BC onwards4. During the imperial period, many Roman coins
referenced immediately relevant historical events such as wars, conquests, the
construction or reconstruction of public monuments, civic policies, and occasions
for public festivals and largess. Roman coins can help the ancient historian
understand aspects of Roman political policy, even in the absence of ancient texts.
However, a fuller and deeper understanding of the role that coin images played in
Roman life is afforded by the application of contextual study. This contribution
examines the iconographic approach in Roman numismatics and the advantages of
applying recent developments in art historical theory and contextual numismatics
to the critical study of images on Roman coins, thereby suggesting an agenda for
the future study of iconography on Roman coinage. I begin with a brief
examination of the iconographic approach over the centuries and then proceed to
an analysis of the scholarly benefit provided by serious attention to art historical
and archaeological contexts.

2. A brief synopsis of the iconographic approach in numismatics from the

Renaissance through the 20th century
The images on ancient coins have been of primary interest since collecting was
popularized among Renaissance élites. Books on the subject and catalogues of
various collections were filled with speculation as to the meaning of their designs.
Guillame Rouille's Promptuaire des médailles des plus renommées personnes qui
ont esté depuis le commencement du monde (Lyon 1553), and many books from
this time period, contained several engravings of imaginary coin types with
important religious and mythological figures and offered fanciful interpretations
along with embellished representations of authentic coin types5. In the following

2 T.P. Wiseman, New Men in the Roman Senate (Oxford 1971) 148-149; M.H. Crawford, Roman
Republican Coinage (Cambridge 1974) 728.
3 A. Meadows/J. Williams, Moneta and the Monuments: Coinage and Politics in Republican Rome.
Journal Roman Stud. 91, 2001, 27-49, esp. 39-49. The authors assert that the period witnessed a
growing culture of monumentality and commemoration, traceable in art, architecture, literature,
and coinage.
4 For example, a political or commemorative quality can be seen on the coins struck by C. Minucius
Augurinus (135 BC) and T. Minucius Augurinus (134 BC) which have an image of the Columna
Minucia on the reverse, a monument which was erected for the moneyers' ancestor L. Minucius
Augurinus in the 5th century BC, or also on coins of Brutus, produced in 54 BC when he was a
moneyer, highlighting his family's role in founding the Republic by depicting Libertas on the
obverse and L. Junius Brutus (founder of the Republic) escorted by lictors on the reverse.
5 E.E. Clain-Stefanelli, Numismatics: An Ancient Science (Washington 1965) 17; cf. M. R.-Alföldi,
Die Forschungsmethoden der antiken Numismatik. In: M. R.-Alföldi (ed.), Methoden der Antiken
Numismatik (Darmstadt 1989) 6-7. Two more good historiographical discussions include
J. Helmrath, Bildfunktionen der antiken Kaisermünze in der Renaissance oder Die Entsehung der
Numismatik aus der Faszination der Serie. In: K. Schade/D. Rössler/A. Schäfer (eds.), Zentren und
Coins, contexts, and an iconographic approach 27

centuries large museum collections were formed – often based on royal or

aristocratic collections – and were increasingly available for study and publication.
Joseph Hilarius Eckhel (1737-1798), who published his monumental work,
Doctrina nummorum veterum (Vienna 1792-1798), when he was the director of the
Viennese Imperial Coin Cabinet, provided numismatics with some of its most
significant systematic methodological foundations6. Eckhel was the first to attempt
to order and catalogue coin types in a systematic way. The production of
numismatic corpora and the work of lexicographers, such as Johann Cristoph
Rasche7, provided the groundwork for academic numismatic study.
Theodor Mommsen made the next great scientific contributions to numismatics,
especially Roman numismatics, to which he applied critical interdisciplinary
methodologies (e.g. textual and epigraphic evidence as well as intensive hoard
analysis) to better understand coins and ancient history as in his seminal work
Geschichte des römischen Münzwesens (Berlin 1860)8. With the exception of some
studies on imperial portraiture, much of the literature of the 19th and early 20th
centuries on iconographic numismatic topics, however, lacked a critical approach
or isolated itself from multidisciplinary applications. For example, T.L.
Donaldson's book on the phenomenon of buildings on ancient coins was little more
than catalogue of select monuments on coins, hand drawn and frequently
embellished, with simple commentary on standing remains or textual references to
the structures they represented; minimal concern was paid to the numismatic
evidence in its own right or related depictions in other media9. Some did attempt to
address more crucial questions. In the 19th century, the "motive" for coin designs
and the authority by which coin types were "chosen" were central themes. Thomas
Burgon reacted against Eckhel and those who had suggested Greek types were
"chosen" based on characteristic and local identifying features such as regional
commodities, myths, etc., and instead he argued that there was a religious motive

Wirkungsräume der Antikerezeption. Zur Bedeutung von Raum und Kommunikation für die
neuzeitliche Transformation der griechisch-römischen Antike (Münster 2007) 77-97 and J.-B.
Giard, La numismatique, source de l'histoire de l'art et de l'histoire des idées. Num. e. Ant. Class.
10, 1981, 21-29.
6 In general see Clain-Stefanelli (note 5), 22-34. On Eckhel the author remarks: "A merciless critical
faculty which weeded out faulty interpretations and apocryphal data, a brilliant capacity for
synthesis which visualized the general outlines of ancient coinage in its magnitude, a methodical
mind which established the basic principles on which to build a flawless scientific arrangement –
these are Eckhel's outstanding characteristics. With him began a new era in the study of ancient
numismatics: rigid scientific methods entered the field of research, supplanting the casual
approach of the amateur with his haphazard search for answers" (pp. 23-29); F. Kenner, Eckhel.
In: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie V (Leipzig 1877) 633-635.
7 J.C. Rasche, Lexicon universae rei nummariae veterum et praecipue Graecorum ac Romanorum:
cum observationibus antiquariis, geographicis, chronologicis, historicis, criticis et passim cum
explicatione monogrammatum. 6 vols. (Leipzig 1785-1795).
8 Clain-Stefanelli (note 5), 46-47 et passim; H.-M von Kaenel/M. R.-Alföldi/U. Peter/H. Komnick
(eds.), Geldgeschichte vs. Numismatik. Theodor Mommsen und die antike Münze (Berlin 2004) is
a collection of essays which critically analyze Mommen's many scientific contributions to
9 T.L. Donaldson, Architectura Numismatica (London 1859).
28 Nathan T. Elkins

and authority behind the selection of all types10. Head, MacDonald, and Ridgeway
ultimately quashed Burgon's arguments with more thorough examination of the
material and by realizing that "selection" could be made under many different
interrelated or unrelated circumstances11. Critical questions of numismatic
iconography were most often posed purely from an historical perspective, but the
19th and early 20th centuries also witnessed an increased amount of literature on
ancient coins in the larger context of ancient art, contrasting the simplistic aesthetic
appreciation or their potential visual "confirmation" of historical events and myths
for which they had been regarded in previous centuries (see further discussion in
Sec. 3.2). In the 20th century, Andreas Alföldi, Konrad Kraft, Harold Mattingly,
and C.H.V. Sutherland, among many others, advanced the study of coin
representations in relation to ancient history and texts.
It is also worth noting that there are several differences between numismatic
traditions of different language groups. English-speaking numismatists have tended
to approach coins from the perspectives of ancient historians. In the production of
corpora, the German and French schools have sometimes been at odds, and
scholars from all language traditions have frequently either studied particular
collections or selections from different collections ("the corpus vs. collection
issue"), though the growth of market activity has added a third dimension to
numismatic study12. Die studies have also played a larger role in British, American,
and Germanic numismatic scholarship than in other traditions13.
Scholars returned to the question of intent and motive in the formulation of coin
designs in the 20th century. By the middle part of the century the iconographic

10 T. Burgon, Inquiry into the Motive which Influenced the Ancients in their Choice of the Various
Representations which we Find Stamped on their Money. Num. Journal 2, 1837, 97-131. E.
Curtius, Über den religiösen Charakter der griechischen Münzen. Monatsber. Königlich-Preuss.
Akad. Wiss. zu Berlin 50, 10 June, 1869, 465-481 builds on Burgon's arguments. C.H.V.
Sutherland, The Intelligibility of Roman Imperial Coin Types. Journal Roman Stud. 49, 1959, 46-
55, 47-48 summarizes the argument and its subsequent dismissal over the next few decades.
11 B.V. Head, Historia Numorum: A Manual of Greek Numismatics. Revised from the 1887 edn.
(Oxford 1911) lv-lx; W. Ridgeway, Origin of Metallic Currency and Weight Standards
(Cambridge 1892); G. MacDonald, Coin Types: their Origin and Development (Glasgow 1905).
12 On differences between the French and German schools see A. Burnett/M. Amandry/P.P. Ripollès,
Roman Provincial Coinage I: From the Death of Caesar to the Death of Vitellius (Paris and
London 1992) xiii-xvii, and also the review by H.-M. von Kaenel in Schweizer. Num. Rundschau
73, 1994, 209-216. Important historiographic discussions on the development of Greek
numismatics, with critical attention to regional developments, can be found in O. Mørkholm, A
History of the Study of Greek Numismatics I-II. Nordisk Num. Årsskrift 1979/80, 5-21; id., A
History of the Study of Greek Numismatics III. Nordisk Num. Årsskrift 1982, 8-26. Also relevant
to the wider methodological discussion, see W.E. Metcalf, Mommsen and Numismatics in the 21st
Century. In: H.-M. von Kaenel/Maria R.-Alföldi/U. Peter/H. Komnick (eds.) (note 8), 295-302. On
the problem of growing market activity and the rise in looting associated with it, see N.T. Elkins,
A Survey of the Material and Intellectual Consequences of Trading in Undocumented Ancient
Coins: a Case Study on the North American Trade. Frankfurter elektronische Rundschau z. Altkde.
7, 2008, 1-13. (retrieved 29 August 2008); H.-M. von Kaenel, Die
antike Numismatik und ihr Material. Schweizer Münzbl. 44, 1994, 1-12.
13 On the relevance of die studies, see W.E. Metcalf, Roman Dies in Modern Studies. In: Italiam fato
profugi: Hesperinaque venerunt litora: Numismatic Studies Dedicated to Vladimir and Elvira Eliza
Clain-Stefanelli (Louvain-la-Neuve 1996) 253-258, with further references.
Coins, contexts, and an iconographic approach 29

avenue of inquiry was so common that the very notion that we should use coin
images to examine ancient history and related political themes such as authority,
intent/motive, and reception was challenged. As Andrew Burnett has noted, the
divergent viewpoints on the value of numismatic iconography could sometimes be
rather extreme14.
A.H.M. Jones stimulated a methodological review of iconographic studies in
numismatics when he published his controversial essay, "Numismatics and
History", in 1956 in which he argued that numismatists often overemphasize the
importance of images on ancient coins and instead suggested that coins had a very
minor role in the conveyance of political ideology ("propaganda") to the people15.
Writing from the point of view of an ancient historian in the mid-20th century, he
approached numismatics with the notion that texts were more reliable historical
sources than any iconographic or material evidence. Although Jones' negative
skepticism of the iconographic approach in numismatics has been almost
universally rejected by modern scholars, one ought to recognize that he did bring
certain methodological problems to the fore inasmuch as he questioned how one
could interpret coin designs in the absence of comparative textual evidence, raising
the question of who chose coin types and who would have ever paid them any
It is possible that Jones' essay was the impetus for some numismatists to
abandon research pertaining to iconography16, but even so the iconographic
approach persists today. Shortly after Jones' publication, C.H.V. Sutherland
acknowledged many of the problems he raised, but refuted the idea that texts are
supreme historical sources trumping numismatic and material evidence17. Since
that time, numerous other books and articles have underscored the contributions
that the study of numismatic images can bring to our understanding of the ancient
world; a key theme among these methodological discourses on iconographic
inquiry is critical study of numismatic images.
We can gain fresh insights into Republican and imperial communication and the
study of ancient images by the application of contextual methods that are being
developed by archaeologists and art historians actively working with coins. To
fully understand and appreciate the role that images on coins played in Roman
society, one must examine many other contexts in addition to the textual

14 A. Burnett, Coinage in the Roman World (London 1987) 66.

15 A.H.M. Jones, Numismatics and History. In: R.A.G. Carson/C.H.V. Sutherland (eds.), Essays in
Roman Coinage Presented to Harold Mattingly (Oxford 1956) 13-33.
16 G. Crump, Coinage and Imperial Thought. In: J.W. Eadie/J. Ober (eds.), The Craft of the Ancient
Historian (Lanham 1985) 425-441, 425 observed that "most English-speaking scholars have shown
markedly less interest in the interpretation of types and legends…Jones' argument has had less
impact on the Continent, where research into the numismatic message continues", qtd. in R.D.
Weigel, Roman Coins: An Iconographical Approach. Ann. Inst. Num. 42, 1995, 241-253, 242.
17 Sutherland (note 10).
18 cf. Weigel (note 16), 242: "I would argue that iconographical studies are equally valid and
important to the historian. They must of course be used critically and not in isolation from literary,
epigraphical, art historical, or other numismatic evidence."
30 Nathan T. Elkins

3. Contexts
When asking questions of any aspect of the ancient world, it is essential that we
are critical of our sources and their nature, whether they be numismatic,
epigraphic, textual, or modern. A command of Quellenkritik is essential for any
sound research and is particularly necessary when conducting strong
interdisciplinary numismatic research, making use of evidence and methods from
different fields19.
Ancient coins are unique historical artifacts in the sense that few objects from
the ancient world had so many dimensions: economic, political, personal, and so
on20. The physical nature of coins allowed for designs to be placed on them which
were highly varied during the Roman period, but frequently referenced government
policy and current events. As products of the societies which produced them,
images on ancient coins can be contextualized within the framework of other forms
of state-sanctioned art and reflect the ideals of the authorities and societies for
which they were struck. Paid in coin, individuals used them on a daily basis and
sometimes deliberately altered coins, used them as prototypes for other artworks,
deposited them in various contexts for private, historical, or ritual reasons, or
simply lost them by accident.

3.1 The wider numismatic context

In the Roman period, and especially during the rule of the emperors, thousands
of distinct reverse types were struck. Unlike ancient Greek coinage and our own
modern coinages, the designs on Roman coins were changing continuously.
Naturally, the coinages of some emperors were more or less varied than others, but
the introduction of new designs – even in the midst of a reign – was commonplace
as current events or a change in policy might necessitate some new coin type to be
struck. Sutherland and others remarked extensively on the historical immediacy of
types in the Roman period and one can reasonably assume that many Romans did
pay attention to the ever-changing designs on their coins. It may be logical to
suppose that the constant introduction of new and dynamic coin types would have
naturally sparked at least some interest from the public that handled them on a
daily basis21, especially since literacy rates among certain populations in the
empire would have been quite low.

19 For example, see M.I. Finley, The Use and Abuse of History (New York 1975).
20 On the interpretation of ancient objects in general and the multifarious dimensions of an object,
see H.P. Hahn, Materielle Kultur. Eine Einführung (Berlin 2005), especially his chapter on
"Bedeutungen der Dinge", 113-161.
21 It is interesting to note that since the introduction of the 50 State Quarter Program in the United
States, it is now estimated that nearly half of the U.S. population is actively collecting the new
types. See H.M. Paulson, Jr., Remarks at the Idaho Quarter Celebration. United States Department
of the Treasury, Press Release. 3 Aug. 2007. HP-528.
hp528.htm (retrieved 20 Feb. 2008). Based on this observation, one could not argue that the
Romans "collected" different coin types based on the images, but it may reflect a natural tendency
Coins, contexts, and an iconographic approach 31

In fact we can be sure that a few ancient viewers did take an active interest in
the designs on their coinage as testified by textual evidence. Cassius Dio (47.25.3),
writing in the Severan period, expressly described the famous EID MAR denarii
that Brutus struck to commemorate the assassination of Caesar: "In addition to
these activities Brutus stamped upon the coins which were being minted his own
likeness and a cap and two daggers, indicating by this and by the inscription that he
and Cassius had liberated the fatherland22." Socrates Scholasticus' Ecclesiastical
History (3.17) discussed Christians in Antioch who were angered by Julian's visit
and his extortion of them by lowering the prices of commodities; they denounced
the emperor and pointed to the pagan bull on his coinage as evidence of the
devastation his rule had brought to the world.
Such texts mention a few individual coins which served the writer's purpose or
were relevant to his theme. Similarly, numismatists have a tendency to classify
coins by types and narrow our studies. An example of such a problem can be found
in studies of buildings on ancient coins, which are examined almost exclusively in
their own right with little attention to other coins in circulation at the same time or
even the other side of the coin with which an architectural design was paired23. One
must recognize that the notion of "coin types" is a modern construct. One may
study more generalized coin types such as those with buildings, militaristic themes,
ships, plants, animals, gods and goddesses, and so on, but there is absolutely no
textual or material evidence that suggests the ancients would have viewed coin
images in such a categorical fashion.
While certain individual coin types, such as Julian's with the bull, might have
elicited various responses from the ancient viewer, one must also keep in mind that
a single coin type circulated alongside many other types and that it was part of a
much wider coinage and ideological program. For instance, Nero's dupondii with
the Macellum Magnum and his sestertii with the harbor at Ostia celebrate the
construction of monuments, but they can also be associated with other coin types
he struck that reference his concern with the grain supply and the well-being of the
people such as the bronze coins bearing images of Annona and Ceres or Nero
presiding over a congiarium24.
The first context we must consider then is the numismatic context, especially the
context of the emission from the mint. The best sources for one to examine
emissions and consider what coin types were struck together are the Roman

for humans to take note of that which is new and changing in their environment. Another parallel
may be found in the collecting of euro coins.
22 The translation is from the Loeb edition. For further discussion on texts referencing Roman coins,
see Burnett (note 14), 66-70.
23 For a survey of methodological problems with traditional approaches to buildings on coins, and
further references, see A. Burnett, Buildings and Monuments on Roman Coins. In: G.M. Paul/M.
Ierardi (eds.), Roman Coins and Public Life under the Empire, E. Togo Salmon Papers II (Ann
Arbor 1999) 137-164. M. R.-Alföldi, Die Bildersprache der römischen Kaiser und die Bauten
Roms im Münzbild. Num. e Ant. Class. 30, 2001, 209-227, discusses the value and meaning of
architectural representations in the context of imperial Bildsprache.
24 RIC I² (pp. 156-157), types 18, 19, 2, 8, and 9, respectively; pp. 138-140 contain discussion of the
relevant emissions.
32 Nathan T. Elkins

Imperial Coinage (RIC) catalogues and monographs from the Moneta Imperii
Romani (MIR) series addressing the coinage of specific emperors. Many studies
associate coins with certain emissions based on legends and dates, but die studies
can provide a more detailed picture of specific emissions. A die study of Claudius'
coins indicate that the emperor's first precious metal emission of AD 41/42
consisted of aurei and denarii showing him within the walls of the praetorian
barracks or standing before a praetorian signifer, with the legends IMPER
RECEPT and PRAETOR RECEPT, respectively, aurei and denarii with a
representation of Pax Augusta and the accompanying legend PACI AVGVSTAE,
and gold quinarii with a flying Victory holding an oak wreath and a shield
inscribed OB C S. Independently, these types could be interpreted in various ways,
but taken together in the context of the emission there is a unifying theme: the
circumstances surrounding Claudius' accession. The first two types reference the
role the praetorian guard played in his acclamation and were used as donativa to
pay them, the quinarii honor his receipt of the corona civica and the clupeus
virtutis in service to the citizens of Rome, and the PACI AVGVSTAE types
reference a peaceful transition of power to the new princeps25.
The deployment of traditional numismatic tools such as the die study provides a
more nuanced understanding of the emission and – in particular regard to the study
of images on coins – die studies also allow one to establish a chronology of dies
and examine the evolution or transformation of a specific image over time. Today
one can peruse dozens of museum publications and private collection catalogues
and sift through thousands of auction catalogues in order to find numerous
examples of individual specimens, but numismatics as a discipline is in dire need
of more die studies, which provide more detailed insights into the minting
activities, chronology of types, and the transformation of images through
Some of the most useful studies of numismatic images have incorporated die
studies. If we return to the theme of buildings on coins, one can see how relevant
and necessary a die study can be. In his book on the Arch of Nero, Fred Kleiner an
art historian and numismatist, sought to offer a reconstruction of the lost arch based
on coin representations and contextualized Neronian arch design in the broader
history of Roman triumphal arches. In order to posit a hypothetical reconstruction
of the arch, Kleiner examined contemporary arches and studied the Neronian coins
through an exhaustive die study that encompassed over 400 individual specimens27.
Kleiner noted that the earliest coins from the mint at Rome tended to be the most

25 H.-M. von Kaenel, Münzprägung und Münzbildnis des Claudius. Antike Münzen und geschnittene
Steine 9 (Berlin 1986) 7, 233-235, and 243-245.
26 Metcalf (note 13); H.M. von Kaenel, Stempelkatalog versus Sammlungskatalog. Die Diskussion
um das Konzept des Corpus Nummorum 1885/86. In: B. Kluge/B. Weisser (eds.), Proceedings of
the 12th International Numismatic Congress, Berlin 1997 (Berlin 2000) 104-108; id., 'Die
Wissenschaft braucht den Stempel, nicht das Exemplar.' Th. Mommsen, F. Imhoof-Blumer und die
Edition antiker Münzen. Schweizer Münzbl. 54, 2004, 85-92.
27 F.S. Kleiner, The Arch of Nero in Rome. A Study of the Roman Honorary Arch before and under
Nero (Rome 1985) 75, 99-138.
Coins, contexts, and an iconographic approach 33

detailed and ornate and, presumably, resembled the original arch more closely;
later coins which were probably copied from earlier examples, and those from
Lugdunum, were the most varied and showed the least amount of detail28. A die
study by Sarah Cox on the Tiberian sestertii with the Temple of Concord came to a
similar conclusion, finding that coins from the earliest dies showed the temple's
porch – the area most affected by Tiberius' reconstruction – most accurately, while
coins from later dies contained more variation29. By contrast, James Packer, a
classical archaeologist, has attempted to base reconstructions of the Forum of
Trajan on numismatic evidence, but employed no systematic die study, relying
instead on what most coins show; he also tried to read coin representations literally
without comparing Trajanic coins and their conventions to other series of coins30.
His monograph on the Forum of Trajan is a monumental work of scholarship in its
own right, but a lack of a coherent and systematic application of numismatic
methodology leads one to question the reliability of conclusions drawn from the
haphazard use of numismatic material.
Die studies can also help one understand the occasion for which certain coin
types were minted. A study by H.-M. von Kaenel examines the annual count of
obverse dies of precious metal coins from the Augustan period to Claudius and
associates peaks in production with contemporary events. He cogently argued that

28 Ibid., 75-77, 99-100, see also the die study catalogue and commentary on 100-138.
29 S.E. Cox, The Temple of Concord on Tiberian Sestertii. In: T. Hackens/G. Moucharte (eds.),
Proceedings of the 11th International Numismatic Congress, Brussels, September 8th – 13th, 1991
(Louvaine-la-Neuve 1993) 259-264. A recent lecture by Martin Beckmann discussed the
phenomenon of prototypal and archetypal dies in relation to the study of buildings on coins.
Focusing on Trajanic coinage, he demonstrated that the earliest dies in a series were the most
detailed and suggested they were most likely produced by a master engraver. M. Beckmann,
Coins, Architecture, and Archetypal Dies: Some Methodological Considerations of Die Production
Relevant to Architectura Numismatica. Lecture at the 2008 AIA/APA Meeting, January 4-6,
Chicago, IL. Clearly the phenomenon has implications for other studies as well.
30 J.E. Packer, Numismatic Evidence for the Southeast (Forum) Façade of the Basilica Ulpia. In:
L. Casson/M. Price (eds.), Coins, Culture and History in the Ancient World: Numismatic and
Other Studies in Honor of Bluma L. Trell (Detroit 1981) 57-67; id., The Forum of Trajan in Rome:
A Study of the Monuments. 3 vols. (Berkeley-Los Angeles-Oxford 1997). For the lack of critical
attention to numismatic conventions governing his conclusions see, for example, his dismissal of
the identification of the Temple of Jupiter Victor on Trajanic sestertii bearing an image of an
octostyle temple based on the simple fact that 3rd century coins show that temple as hexastyle (p.
467). Instead, Packer favors the identification of the octostyle building as that of the Temple of the
Deified Trajan, following a tradition dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Of all conventions
employed on architectural coin types the reduction of columns is the best known. So many authors
comment on it that it would be impossible to list them all here, but see for example T. Drew-Bear,
Representations of Temples on the Greek Imperial Coinage. Am. Num. Soc. Mus. Notes 19, 1974,
27-63, 29-30 who lists some examples. Although his work is not frequently cited, Fuchs's chapter
"Das Problem der Wirklichkeitstreue" (92-129) and especially the section on
"Rekonstruktionsprobleme" (116-129) is a particularly useful analysis on the conventions
employed on architectural coin types and the various perils involved in attempting to reconstruct
monuments from them. See G. Fuchs, Architekturdarstellungen auf römischen Münzen. Antike
Münzen und geschnittene Steine 1 (Berlin 1969).
34 Nathan T. Elkins

there was a strong correspondence between a higher number of obverse dies per
year and periods of extensive building in the capital31.
Since not all coin types were as common as others with which they circulated
one must avoid the tendency to overstate the importance of a coin type. Certain
representations will undoubtedly have played a more dominant role in imperial
Bildsprache than others. But how does one estimate or attempt to reconstruct the
relative frequency of coin types in Roman antiquity? The RIC catalogues contain
rough frequency values, but these are based on the frequency of material in
collections and therefore may reflect the preferences of the collectors rather than
ancient reality. A better method of determining the frequency of types is the
examination of hoards; this method of determining frequency has been
incorporated in the very recent revision of RIC 2.132. Previously, Carlos Noreña
employed this methodology in a study of imperial virtues and their importance on
Roman coinage and Georges Depeyrot examined the contents of the very large and
well-known Reká-Devnia hoard in order to examine the relative abundance of one
type to another and assess their "propagandistic" value33. Another way of
determining the relative frequency of types in relation to one another may be found
in counting finds from archaeological sites, which would represent random loss in
most cases. This task has been made easier in parts of the former western Roman
Empire with the publication of series such as Fundmünzen der römischen Zeit in
Deutschland (FMRD) and similar series in Croatia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands,
Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, and the Italian region of Veneto, and
there is an online database for the study of coin finds from Wales34; apart from
FMRD, most other series are rather new and only provide information from certain
regions within these countries. A die study of an emperor's entire coinage may also
help one determine how common certain types were in relation to one another, but
there are problems with using die studies alone to reconstruct the size of a coinage,
as T.V. Buttrey has pointed out, since so many unknown variables could affect the
productivity of an ancient die35. Certainly, scholars such as Buttrey are right to

31 H.-M. von Kaenel, Zur "Prägepolitik" des Kaisers Claudius. Überlegungen zur Funktion von frisch
geprägtem Edelmetall in der frühen Kaiserzeit. In: V.M. Strocka (ed.), Die Regierungszeit des
Kaisers Claudius (41-54 n. Chr.). Umbruch oder Episode? (Mainz 1994) 45-68, 60-64 and Abb. 4
and 5. For his chart on work units, the data comes from M.K. and R.L Thornton, Julio-Claudian
Building Programs: a Quantitative Study in Political Management (Wauconda 1989) 15-29 and
32 I.A. Carradice/T.V. Buttrey, The Roman Imperial Coinage II. Part 1: From AD 69 to AD 96, The
Flavians (London 2007); I.A. Carradice, Towards a New Introduction to Flavian Coinage. In:
M.Austin/J. Harries/C. Smith (eds.), Modus Operandi: Essays in Honour of Geoffrey Rickman
(London 1998) 93-117, 97.
33 C.F. Noreña, The Communication of the Emperor's Virtues. Journal Roman Stud. 91, 2001, 146-
168, 146-152 for an explanation of his methodology; G. Depeyrot, La propaganda monétaire (64-
235) et le trésor de Marcianopolis (251) (Wetteren 2004).
34 (retrieved 26 Feb.
2008); the FMRD database is being placed online:
(retrieved 26. Feb. 2008).
35 Some comprehensive studies of an emperor's coinage include C.M. Kraay, The Aes Coinage of
Galba. Am. Num. Soc. Notes and Monogr. 133 (New York 1956) and von Kaenel (note 25). On
Coins, contexts, and an iconographic approach 35

caution us about the perils of overusing die studies in statistical studies, but
perhaps counts from hoards, archaeological sites, and die studies can be used in
conjunction to reconstruct the relative frequency of types, especially as the corpus
of knowledge continues to grow36.
We cannot restrict our studies of coin types to individual depictions or certain
categories without being aware of both the political and cultural history of the
period and the other coins that were struck together and in circulation at the same
time. A command of historical/textual evidence and a strong grasp of numismatic
contexts and methodologies – especially regarding emissions, die studies, and
frequencies – are essential for anyone who approaches the question of numismatic
iconography. Coins are more than historical documents and economic tools: they
are products of the societies that produced and used them. The images they bear
were not produced in isolation of contemporary art historical trends and the state
clearly used them as a medium for communication. In order to have a fuller
appreciation of how representations on ancient coins can inform us about the
ancient world, one must also examine the material in both art historical and
archaeological contexts.

3.2 Ancient coins in art historical contexts

In contrast to the antiquarian use of coins to illustrate history and myth or the
connoisseur's aestheticism for which coins were used in previous centuries, ancient
coins became the subject of critical and interdisciplinary art historical inquiries in
the 19th and 20th centuries. In the mid-1800s Karl Otfried Müller was treating
ancient coins alongside other examples of ancient art and comparing the
similarities of style37. Numerous other articles and books similarly treated coins,
especially Greek coins, in this vein. Seemingly inspired by Müller, to whom he
often referred, Reginald Poole published an article in which he attempted to define
"their place as documents in the history of art38." He tried to classify and
characterize regional styles from 450 to 350 BC through coinage and comparative
sculptural works, ultimately defining five regional schools: "We may distinguish
these schools by assigning to each its most marked characteristic. The school of
Greece is sculpture-like; the school of Ionia picture-like; the school of Sicily and
Italy gem-like; the school of Crete realistic; and the school of Asia architectural"

the dangers of using die studies to estimate the size of coinage see T.V. Buttrey, Calculating
Ancient Coin Production: Facts and Fantasies. Num. Chronicle 153, 1993, 335-351; id.,
Calculating Ancient Coin Production II: Why it cannot be Done. Num. Chronicle 154, 1994, 341-
352. F. de Callataÿ, Calculating Ancient Coin Production: Seeking a Balance. Num. Chronicle
155, 1995, 289-311; S.E. Buttrey and T.V. Buttrey, Review Article: Calculating Ancient Coin
Production Again. Am. Journal Num. 9 (second series), 1997, 113-135.
36 See also the discussion on "Dies and volume" in Metcalf (note 13), 257-258 and de Callataÿ (note
37 K.O. Müller, Handbuch der Archäologie der Kunst (Breslau 1848).
38 R.S. Poole, On Greek Coins as Illustrating Greek Art. Num. Chronicle (N.S.) 4, 1864, 236-247,
36 Nathan T. Elkins

[i.e. straight and linear]39. Poole's assessment was of course overly simplistic and
laden with modern value judgments which were commonly imposed on ancient art
and pervaded the literature of the period, but his contribution lay in the recognition
that coins and other artistic media (sculpture, painting, gem-engraving, etc.) are
intrinsically related and share demonstrable common stylistic features.
The fact that numismatics, art history, and archaeology were rarely integrated in
any coherent manner was remarked upon in the preface of Percy Gardner's famous
work, The Types of Greek Coins (Cambridge 1883), in which he addressed the
multidisciplinary nature of numismatics. He sought to bring together perspectives
and methodologies from different disciplines; the third and largest section of his
book was entirely devoted to the subject of "Art and Mythology of Coin Types"
(76-212). That section was arranged chronologically from the Early Archaic period
through the "late period of decline", i.e. essentially the Middle Hellenistic period
(280-146 BC as he defined it), and different regions were explored within each
separate period. While his text also imposed some value judgments in assessing
ancient Greek numismatic art, his was perhaps the most critical to date. It was
certainly more thorough in approach than Poole's and compared multiple examples
from the plastic arts with coins. He examined artistic conventions, the die
engraver's art, copying, cross-cultural contacts, spheres of political influence, and
even touched on the concept of cultural memory. Throughout his third section,
Gardner made numerous references to Johann Overbeck's Griechische
Kunstmythologie I and II (Leipzig 1871 and 1873-1878), which was an exhaustive
study of available representations of certain mythological figures from all artistic
media with sections on myths and history. In addition to art historical treatment
and stylistic analysis, Gardner, like Overbeck, was conscious of a need to apply
textual and material evidence critically. Friedrich Imhoof-Blumer, an eminent
Swiss numismatist, was also an important figure who advised and collaborated
with Overbeck, Gardner, Bernoulli, Mommsen, and many others40. He also wrote A
Numismatic Commentary on Pausanias (London 1887) with Percy Gardner, in
which extant Greek coins were used to illustrate and confirm the existence of
artworks and local myths described by Pausanias. Imhoof-Blumer's assistance and
collaboration colored many scholarly studies produced by non-numismatists and
anchored their use of numismatic material, thereby avoiding some of the
methodological pitfalls one observes in studies where numismatic evidence is
extensively deployed but examined without the aid or the eye of a numismatist
(e.g. Packer).
In 1924 Kurt Regling published Die antike Münze als Kunstwerk (Berlin).
Perhaps more so than anyone before him, and through the use of comparative
media, Regling's primary aim was to demonstrate that ancient coins reflect general

39 Ibid., 240; for his explanations of the schools and their characteristics see 239-247.
40 Imhoof-Blumer collaborated with Overbeck on the chapters relevant to coin depictions and with
J.J. Bernoulli for his series Römische Ikonographie. 4 vols. (Stuttgart-Berlin-Leipzig 1882-1894)
and Griechische Ikonographie. 2 vols. (Munich 1901). H.-M. von Kaenel, in collaboration with H.
Schubert, is preparing a book on the extensive correspondence between F. Imhoof-Blumer and
Theodor Mommsen.
Coins, contexts, and an iconographic approach 37

trends in the development of ancient art and cannot be divorced from the study of
ancient art history. Although most of his attention was absorbed by Greek coinage,
he also was one of the first to examine Roman Republican and imperial coinages in
the context of art history. Regling differentiated the perceived "motive" behind
type selection on Greek coins and Republican coins and commented on the
"propagandistic" nature of coins issued by the Machthaber of the Late Republic.
He also compared imperial portraits to surviving sculptural remains and related the
representations on large imperial sestertii, bronze medallions, and large provincial
bronzes to similar depictions on wall paintings, state relief sculpture, and even the
painted panels that were carried in triumphal processions described by ancient
authors (112-117). Work continued in this vein and was advanced in the mid-20th
century by scholars such as Ashmole and Sutherland in the search for
commonalities between coins and other media, with growing attention being paid
to the inventiveness of individual artisans, die engravers, and their copyists, which
was no doubt influenced by the enterprising work of John Beazley who had been
using Morellian analysis to attribute Greek vases to individual artisans and
workshops since his article in 191041. Regling was already very much interested in
the individual artistic potential and creativity of die cutters as discussed in his
section on "Selbständigkeit und Unselbständigkeit der Münzbilder" (89-91), in
which he briefly discussed Sicilian coins with dies signed by artisans.
While there were several stylistic treatments of ancient Greek coinage in the
wider context of art, fewer numismatic studies, and indeed even art historical
studies, sought to examine Roman material in a critical fashion in the 19th and early
20th centuries, with the exception of a few works like Regling's where a cursory
treatment was provided. Without a doubt this had much to do with the popular
notion that Roman art was merely a derivative and degenerate form of Greek art –
a notion developed by scholars such as Winckelmann and propagated by influential
art historians42. Regling too equated what he considered an improvement of artistic
style in Republican coinage from the period of Sulla with an influx of Greek
artisans (113).
An exception to this general trend was in the realm of studies on portraiture,
where important contributions were being made by numismatists and other
scholars working with Roman coins. Johann Jakob Bernoulli published four
volumes on Roman portraiture between 1882 and 189443. His analyses combined
various media such as statues, busts, reliefs, engraved gems, and coin portraits. His
discussion of the portraiture of later emperors relied more heavily on the coins than

41 See, for example, B. Ashmole, The Relation Between Coins and Sculpture. In: J. Allan/H.
Mattingly/E.S.G. Robinson (eds.), Transactions of the International Numismatic Congress,
London, June 30 – July 3, 1936 (London 1938) 17-22 and C.H.V. Sutherland, What is Meant by
"Style" in Coinage? Am. Num. Soc. Mus. Notes 4, 1950, 1-12. Beazley's first article isolating a
particular artist using Morellian techniques: J.D. Beazley, Kleophrades. Journal Hellenic Stud. 30,
1910, 38-68.
42 For a fuller historiographic discussion and further bibliography see R. Brilliant, Forwards and
Backwards in the Historiography of Roman Art. Journal Roman Arch. 20, 2007, 7-24, 14-16.
43 Bernoulli, Römische Ikonographie (note 40).
38 Nathan T. Elkins

earlier volumes, which is a result of the nature of the surviving evidence for the 3rd
century AD44. It is clear from his plates that Bernoulli was selecting the best
preserved coins that he could find for his study. Imhoof-Blumer, who had
collaborated with Bernoulli on his use of numismatic evidence, published a
catalogue of high quality Roman portraits on coins and medallions in 1904 for use
in secondary education45. The modern series, Das römische Herrscherbild, follows
a similar tradition to that of Bernoulli in collating quality portraits from a vast array
of media in the study of Roman imperial portraiture. In this series numismatic
evidence has not always been as rigorously applied owing to the fact that many
different authors with different backgrounds have contributed to the series. The
volume on Augustus focuses primarily on portraits in the round with only casual
references to coin portraits; by contrast, the volume on Caligula's portraits contains
a contribution by H.-M. von Kaenel on numismatic representations, and volumes
addressing later emperors, such as that on Maximinus to Carinus, tend to rely more
extensively on coin portraits46. The best preserved coins and those from the earliest
dies, and comparison to other media, provide the best evidence for image-specific
study; an example of search work can be found in the interpretation of the seated
figure on the reverses of dupondii of Caligula for Divus Augustus (RIC I² 56). The
seated figure was long interpreted as Divus Augustus, the figure who is also on the
obverse, but a comparative study between high quality specimens and portrait busts
of Caligula showed it to be that of the reigning emperor47. In any case, apart from
emerging studies on portraiture, images on Roman coins were rarely the subject of
highly detailed and interdisciplinary studies until Roman art began to be viewed as
something more than merely a derivative form of Greek art.
Alois Riegl laid the first critical theoretical and methodological foundations for
the study of Roman art when he published his formalistic treatment of Late Roman
art, Spätrömische Kunstindustrie, in 1901 (Vienna, reprinted and revised in
1927)48. Indeed, Riegl's contribution impacted the whole of art history and not just

44 Compare, for example, the amount of numismatic material discussed between J.J. Bernoulli, Die
Bildnisse der römischen Kaiser und ihrer Angehörigen, part 2. Von Galba bis Commodus.
Römische Ikonographie II (Stuttgart-Berlin-Leipzig 1891) and id., Die Bildnisse der römischen
Kaiser und ihrer Angehörigen, part 3. Von Pertinax bis Theodosius. Römische Ikonographie II
(Stuttgart-Berlin-Leipzig 1894). His first volume contained a good amount of numismatic material
as necessitated by the available material, but again not as much as later volumes: id., Die Bildnisse
berühmter Römer mit Ausschluss der Kaiser und ihrer Angehörigen. Römische Ikonographie I
(Stuttgart 1882).
45 F. Imhoof-Blumer, Porträtköpfe auf römischen Münzen der Republik und der Kaiserzeit (Leipzig
46 D. Boschung, Die Bildnisse des Augustus, vol. 2. Das römische Herrscherbild I (Berlin 1993); D.
Boschung/H.-M. von Kaenel, Die Bildnisse des Caligula, vol. 4. Das römische Herrscherbild I
(Berlin 1989); R. Delbrueck, Die Münzbildnisse von Maximinus bis Carinus, vol. 2. Das römische
Herrscherbild III (Berlin 1940). P. Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Trans.:
A. Shapiro (Ann Arbor 1988) tends to make more use of Augustan numismatic evidence than
Boschung's volume.
47 H.-M. von Kaenel, Augustus, Caligula oder Claudius. Schweizer Münzbl. 28, 1978, 39-44.
48 For the latest edition, with an afterword by Wolfang Kemp, see A. Riegl, Spätrömische
Kunstindustrie (Berlin 2000). There is also an English translation: id., Late Roman Art Industry.
Trans.: R. Winkes (Rome 1985). A good general reference on Riegl's contributions to a more
Coins, contexts, and an iconographic approach 39

Roman art; for the first time art was viewed as a tool for understanding the society
that produced it and drew the study of art away from simple aestheticism49. Riegl
understood that human society does not just experience art but actively produces
art, and through this simple – but profound – methodological realization he coined
the term Kunstwollen, expressing the notion that the form or style of art was
dictated by a collective "will", "intent", or "habit" that also drove contemporary
social, political, and intellectual trends50. While coins were not specifically treated
in Spätrömische Kunstindustrie, Riegl's work set the study of art history on a new
course, influencing the way that Roman art, and ultimately also Roman coins,
would be viewed and approached by later scholars51.
Two other prominent figures attempted to define Roman art further. In his
"Prolegomena to a Book on Roman Art", (Mem. Am. Acad. Rome 21, 1953, 8-73),
Otto Brendel discussed the multiplicitous nature of Roman art: many factors led to
its creation and its varied appearance and no singular definition for it was
satisfactory. Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli's Marxist monographs on Roman art
argued that two different groups, the patricians and the plebeians, drove the
development of Roman art; therefore, he also equated patrician art with hellenizing
styles and plebian art with a more Italic style52. Roman art in general was the topic
with which these scholars concerned themselves and, understandably, turned to
numismatic images only periodically, although Bianchi Bandinelli made extensive
use of coin portraits in his second book on later Roman art.
Tonio Hölscher is currently one of the most influential authorities on Roman art
and has made extensive use of numismatic evidence, which is perhaps an effect of
his prevailing theory that despite the multifaceted nature of Roman art as a whole,
it is best understood and approached as a semantic system and that certain stylistic

cerebral approach to the study of art history and the development of art historical method and
theory at the Vienna School is C.S. Wood (ed.), The Vienna School Reader: Politics and Art
Historical Method in the 1930s (New York 2000).
49 Wood (note 48), 9-10: "The work of art in Riegl's analyses was stripped of its pretensions to
universal truth or value and recast as the material trace of a historical subject's experience of space,
time, and matter." For the most recent treatment on Riegl's impact on the history of art see J.
Elsner, From Empirical Evidence to the Big Picture: Some Reflections on Riegl's Concept of
Kunstwollen. Critical Inquiry 32, 2006, 741-766. On the development of art history after Riegl, it
is worth reading H. Sedlmayr, Zu einer strengen Kunstwissenschaft. Kunstwiss. Forsch. 1, 1931,
7-32. It is now available in English translation: id., Toward a Rigorous Study of Art (1931). Trans.
M. Fineman. In: Wood (note 48), 133-179.
50 In addition to R. Winkes' translation (note 48), an English translation of Riegl's thesis is provided
in Elsner (note 48), 752 and Wood (note 48), 95. The original German text can be found on page
401 of the 1927 and later editions.
51 A contemporary of Riegl, who is worthy of note, is Franz Wickhoff, who first argued that Roman
art was independent of Greek and Hellenistic art: F. Wickhoff, Römische Kunst (Berlin 1912); id.,
Roman Art. Trans.: E. Strong (New York 1900), but Brilliant (note 42), 18 n. 33 notes that he
"emphasized Roman impressionistic pictorial composition, as in the historical reliefs on the Arch
of Titus, which he characterized as both illusionistic and naturalist. Although an early champion of
the independent artistic merit of Roman imperial art and much influenced by late 19th-c.
Impressionism, his understanding of Roman visual culture was incomplete and untheorized."
52 R. Bianchi Bandinelli, Rome: The Center of Power. Roman Art to AD 200. Trans.: P. Green (New
York 1970); id., Rome: The Late Empire, Roman Art AD 200-400. Trans.: P. Green (New York
1971). For a book review on the two volumes see R. Brilliant, Art. Bull. 55, 2, 1973, 282-285.
40 Nathan T. Elkins

(e.g. hellenizing, Italic, etc.) and pictorial elements were deliberately chosen as part
of that system53. He has speculated on the reception of state art and determined that
various monuments, art works, and coins were intended to communicate with
certain strata of society; Paul Zanker has similarly investigated the reception of art
by the viewer54. Hölscher's numismatic contributions are not divorced from his
examination of other artistic media; coins, architectural complexes, relief sculpture,
and most any state-sponsored monument had a semantic value. For example, coins
and other monuments, coupled with historical evidence, suggest that the Middle
Republic was the period when Roman art became "official" as a consequence of
the rise of the nobilitas; in regards to coinage and Bildsprache specifically,
Hölscher examined both the "denotative" and "connotative" qualities of Republican
coin designs and the value of personifications55. In his widely read textbook on
numismatics and ancient history, Christopher Howgego has commented on the
value of Hölscher's semantic approach to Roman coins and the highly concentrated
picture language that exists on certain coin types: "Of particular significance was
the use of personifications and the abstract symbols which came to denote them.
The multiplication of such symbols might allow the essence of a political
programme to be conveyed on a single small coin. Thus a Caesarian type with
rods, a caduceus, a globe, an axe, and clasped hands was able to allude to
Republican office, Felicitas, world rule, Pietas, and Concordia56." In an approach
strongly rooted in the reading of ancient texts, Maria R.-Alföldi has extensively
surveyed imperial Bildsprache in Roman art and further defined its communicative
properties on Roman coinage in particular57. Marianne Bergmann also provides an

53 T. Hölscher, Römische Bildsprache als semantisches System (Heidelberg 1987). For a recent
English translation see id., The Language of Images in Roman Art. Trans.: A. Snodgrass/A.
Künzl-Snodgrass (Cambridge 2004). For theoretical discussions on Bildsprache and the semantic
system of art see: id., Bilderwelt, Formensystem, Lebenskultur. Zur Methode archäologischer
Kulturanalyse. Stud. Ital. Filol. Class. 10 (third series), 1992, 460-484; L. Schneider/B. Fehr/K.-H.
Meyer, Zeichen, Kommunikation, Interaktion. Zur Bedeutung von Zeichen-, Kommunikations-
und Interaktionstheorie für die Klassiche Archäologie. Hephaistos 1, 1979, 7-41. For more
introductory texts see: T. Hölscher, Bildwerke: Darstellungen, Funktionen, Botschaften. In.: A.H.
Borbein/T. Hölscher/P. Zanker, Klassiche Archäologie. Eine Einführung (Berlin 2000) 147-165
and, in the same volume, M. Bergmann, Repräsentation, 166-188.
54 T. Hölscher, Staatsdenkmal und Publikum. Vom Untergang der Republik bis zur Festigung des
Kaisertums in Rom (Konstanz 1984). Reception was a key theme in Zanker (note 46) and id., In
Search of the Roman Viewer. In: D. Buitron-Oliver (ed.), The Interpretation of Architectural
Sculpture in Greece and Rome. Stud. Hist. Art 49 (Washington 1997) 179-191. Howgego (note 1),
73-77 examines "audience and reception" and "imagery and language".
55 T. Hölscher, Die Geschichtsauffassung in der römischen Repräsentationskunst. Jahrb. DAI 95,
1980, 265-321; id., Die Bedeutung der Münzen für das Verständnis der politischen Repräsen-
tationskunst der späten römischen Republik. In: T. Hackens/R. Weiller (eds.), Proceedings of the
9th International Numismatic Congress of Numismatics, Berne, September 1979 (Louvain-la-
Neuve 1982) 269-282.
56 Howgego (note 1), 75-77 in his section "Imagery and Language".
57 M. R.-Alföldi, Bild und Bildersprache der römischen Kaiser. Beispiele und Analysen (Mainz
1999); see also id. (note 23).
Coins, contexts, and an iconographic approach 41

important commentary on the semantic value of coins in her study of Hellenistic

and Roman radiate portraits58.
In the context of Roman art, coins are best viewed and studied as an important
medium of communication which used certain images and symbols to denote or
connotate messages to various segments of the population. In a recent essay,
Richard Brilliant commented that coherence in the study of Roman art can be
found in its visually rhetorical or communicative nature59. In this context, he
highlights the insights that study of the coinage can yield:

"The ancient Roman world was vast, its population highly

diverse, adhering to distinctions of class, local tradition, religious
practice, and ethnic membership. Variety within the boundaries of
programmatic consistency seems to have been a subtle and effective
mechanism for manifesting the Roman presence everywhere. In
order to ensure the diffusion of that unifying message, Romans
resorted to burdening the coinage with an immense, proclamatory
iconography, consisting of recognizable identified portraits on one
side accompanied, on the other, by detailed types of representation,
concisely rendered in miniature and evidently intended to be taken
into account by the possessor. Numismatic imagery, being a prime
medium for communication in the Roman world because of its wide
diffusion, is an excellent example of efficient packaging, of putting
multum in parvo like the modern 'sound bite', which, however
concentrated, is never taken by itself but, necessarily, implies an
expansive context familiar to the recipient. Furthermore, reduction
without the loss of legibility – a fundamental principle of Roman
numismatic design – proves the importance of the coinage as a
purveyor of messages."

The study of Roman art is inseparable from the study of numismatic

iconography and vice-a-versa. Art historical inquiry has proven the value of the
study of images on coins and has highlighted their functional value as semantic
devices in the Roman world. We can readily accept Brilliant's high valuation of the
coins in the context of communicative media and Hölscher's unceasing
employment of them in art historical studies, but we gain an even more nuanced
understanding of the semantic system by examining coin types from archaeological

58 M. Bergmann, Die Strahlen der Herrscher. Theomorphes Herrscherbild und politische Symbolik
im Hellenismus und in der römischen Kaiserzeit (Mainz 1998) 91-99.
59 Brilliant (note 42), 8-9.
42 Nathan T. Elkins

3.3 Archaeological contexts and the iconographic approach

The circumstances regarding an object's find context are of paramount
importance and this remains true with coins which are among the most common
finds from Roman period excavations, but there are problems with reconstructing
frequencies of specific coin types based on excavation finds alone60. Lower
denominations are frequently overrepresented compared to contemporary
circulation and finds in general might be underrepresented from sites that were less
scientifically excavated. Some other determining factors include the areas
excavated and the methods used on site: sieving allows for the recovery of more
coins, particularly smaller coins and fragments. A number of other aspects such as
monetary reforms and economic crises could affect the types or frequencies found
from any given site or hoard; additionally, one might study private or public
collections from a particular area or region, but collections often contain a mix of
material from several different sources and may not be good indicators for local
finds. In the study of hoards, one must also be sensitive to factors which might
have contributed to the "selection" of types as well: particular denominations or
earlier coins which contained a higher gold or silver content may have been
Noreña and Depeyrot have used hoard evidence to examine the frequency and
thus the value of certain images in the overall visual program of a coinage and
have made valuable contributions to the study of numismatics. But for those who
approach coins with questions about their communicative value in mind, attention
to archaeological context can do much more than help one reconstruct a relative
frequency and paint a general picture of a particular emperor's
ideological/communicative program through the coinage. What can the study of
coins from particular sites or regions compared with other sites or regions tell us
about coin designs and their communicative value?
Archaeological excavation can and has yielded information about the personal
selection of types at site-specific levels, particularly in funerary and ritual contexts.
At Avenches, an analysis of coins left in inhumation graves and burial urns shows
that certain reverse types, such as Pax, Salus, Felicitas, and Roma were preferred
for deposition62. Excavation also provides material to make comparisons between
different types of sites and regions.

60 For a discussion of factors that affect the representation of coin finds from excavations see: H.-
Chr. Noeske, Bemerkungen zur Problematik der Siedlungsfund. In: M. R.-Alföldi (ed.),
Ergebnisse des FMRD-Colloquiums vom 8.-13. Februar 1976 in Frankfurt am Main und Bad
Homburg v.d.H. Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike 1 (Berlin 1979) 157-165; M. Peter,
Untersuchungen zu den Fundmünzen aus Augst und Kaiseraugst. Studien zu Fundmünzen der
Antike 17 (Berlin 2001) 18-25.
61 Boris Kaczynski's and Michael Nüsse's contribution to the present volume discusses some of the
external factors that could affect type selection from hoards and single finds from excavations.
62 F.E. Koenig, Les monnaies. In: D. Castella/Ch.M. Pruvot/H. Amrein/A. Duvanchelle/F.E. Koenig
(eds.), La nécropole gallo-romaine d'Avenches "En Chaplix". Fouilles 1987-1992, 2. Étude du
mobilier. Aventicum X. Cahiers Arch. Romande 78 (Lausanne 1999) 427-462, esp. 456-458 and
fig. 371. Further important literature on coins and coin types in tombs include J. Gorecki, Studien
zur Sitte der Münzbeigabe in römerzeitlichen Körpergräbern zwischen Rhein, Mosel und Somme.
Coins, contexts, and an iconographic approach 43

Scholars have a tendency to study coins from the point of view of the issuing
authority, and ask questions about "intent" and "motive" in the selection of coin
designs, but coins from archaeological contexts can also tell us who the intended
audience was. In 2006 Fleur Kemmers published her doctoral dissertation on the
coin finds from the legionary fortress at Nijmegen63. This book has had little time
to be digested by the wider scholarly community, but certainly one of its most
important achievements is the realization that certain coin types were selected to
supply the soldiers stationed at Nijmegen during the Flavian period; Kemmers
compared the finds to neighboring civilian settlements and other regions and found
a remarkably high concentration of militaristically-themed coins from the
fortress64. If anything one would expect that this would settle the debate as to
whether or not the issuing authority put any stock into the potential power of the
images that they put on coins and, at the very least, demonstrates coins were
clearly used as a means of communication. Kemmers commented on her
comparative local and regional studies: "Types that were not immediately relevant
were not sent to the legions in the west, or only in small numbers. These
observations show that an analysis of the distribution of aes coins across the
empire in a specific period reveals more about the use of coins as a medium of
communication than the traditional numismatic debate on propaganda65."
Where Hölscher expounded the semantic nature and system of Roman coinage,
and where scholars such as Noreña and Depeyrot have quantified and applied
hierarchical semantic "value" to individual types, Kemmers compared finds from a
particular site to local and regional finds and discovered that the semantic system
was more nuanced than we had previously thought and that a certain population
was supplied – deliberately – with certain coin types relevant to its station in
Roman society66.

Ber. RGK 56, 1975, 179-467 and two collections of essays: Caronte – un obolo per l'aldilà, which
is a supplement appended to La Parola del Passato 50, 1995 and O.F. Dubuis/S. Frey-Kupper/G.
Perret (eds.), Trouvailles monétaires de tombes. Actes du deuxième colloque international du
Groupe suisse pour l'étude des trouvailles monétaires (Neuchâtel, 3-4 mars 1995) (Lausanne
63 F. Kemmers, Coins for a Legion: An Analysis of the Coin Finds from the Augustan Legionary
Fortress and Flavian canabae legionis at Nijmegen. Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike 21 (Mainz
64 Ibid., 189-244, esp. 219-244.
65 Ibid., 241.
66 M. Peter, Bemerkungen zur Kleingeldversorgung der westlichen Provinzen im 2. Jahrhundert. In:
C.E. King/D.G. Wigg (eds.), Coin Finds and Coin Use in the Roman World. The Thirteenth
Oxford Symposium on Coinage and Monetary History, 25.-27.3.1993. Studien zu Fundmünzen der
Antike 10 (Berlin 1996) 309-318, may be viewed as a precursor to Kemmers' work in some
respects in that it sought to examine the differences in coin types circulating in different regions.
44 Nathan T. Elkins

4. An agenda for future iconographic studies in numismatics

Numismatists first used coins to illustrate or confirm written texts and
appreciated them as aesthetic objects. Coins were then used as documentary
sources in their own right. Later, it was demonstrated that the study of images on
Roman coins is essentially the study of a complex and concentrated semantic
system. Now one can better understand that communicative system through the
critical application of historical, numismatic, and art historical methods, with the
addition of archaeological data. It is not enough that we examine the historical
event to which a coin design relates or the symbolism and meaning or intent behind
a particular type. We have the data to examine the populations to which certain
coin types were sent and ought to explore it. First of all we must consider coin
types in the context of their emissions to best interpret how they at one time were
incorporated into a wider ideological program. Secondly, we may unpack the
subtleties of the concentrated symbolism of various coin types by attending to the
interpretation and understanding of them as highly concentrated vehicles of Roman
picture language. Finally, we can begin quantifying coin types from archaeological
contexts and comparing the different regions and types of populations to which
certain coin types were supplied; this will undoubtedly provide further insight on
the intricacies and nuances of the Roman semantic system and the role that coinage
played in it.
Certainly there are some limitations to this avenue of inquiry, the first being the
haphazard publication of coin inventories and the overwhelming abundance of
decontextualized material in museums, dealer inventories, and private collections
in comparison to scientifically excavated coins. Nevertheless, a useful book for the
frequency and geographical distribution of coin types is Andrew Hobley's An
Examination of Roman Bronze Coin Distribution in the Western Empire, AD 81-
192 (British Arch. Reports 688. Oxford 1998). It catalogued coins from all over the
western empire and divided them by RIC number and geographical region. He used
a number of methods, however, which limit the application of his data and so it
should only be used as a starting point67. In Germany and Central Europe, he used
published inventories such as FMRD, but in other areas where there were not
comprehensive lists or many documented hoards, he turned to national museum
collections, the holdings of which may not represent local finds. The study is also
now 10 years out of date, and much of the data was collated a decade or more
before publication, and so its figures for Central Europe are particularly dated. A
more time-consuming but worthwhile method is to consult inventories and
individual publications of coin finds. There is a very good corpus of coin finds for

67 For example, M. Grunow-Sobocinski, Visualizing Ceremony: The Design and Audience of the
Ludi Saeculares Coinage of Domitian. Am. Journal Arch. 110, 2006, 581-602 is an excellent and
authoritative treatment of the Ludi Saeculares coins of Domitian and their semantic value. On pp.
597-599, however, she perhaps goes a bit far in the application of Hobley's data to argue that a
particularly common Domitianic type was designed for general audience and found more widely in
the provinces, in contrast to other coins, which she argues were intended for a more informed
Italian audience. Pp. 1-2 of Hobley's monograph contains a discussion of his methodology.
Coins, contexts, and an iconographic approach 45

Germany and the area of the northwestern provinces of the former Roman Empire,
which have been published in inventories such as FMRD, and a large amount of
hoard evidence is available for parts of the continent, Great Britain, and Wales.
Hans-Christoph Noeske's multi-volumed work contains inventories of coin finds
from Egypt and much of Cyprus, Syria, and Palestine68. In some parts of the former
Roman Empire, the data have not been made so easily available in comprehensive
registers. Here we should examine excavation reports and individual publications
of coins from archaeological sites. For finds from Rome, there is limited
information, but one can consult the finds from the Tiber River for Caligula and
Claudius, the sottosuolo finds, and there are a number of unpublished finds that
remain in the cabinets of the Museo Nazionale Romano (Palazzo Massimo alle
Terme) and in the Capitoline Museums69. Without a doubt, the study of types from
hoards will remain an important avenue of inquiry, but where the find data are
available one should make use of it and examine the regional distribution of coin
types in order to better understand the way that coinage was used as a medium of
communication and to determine for whom certain coin types were intended70.
Careful attention to multiple contexts – numismatic, historical, art historical, and
archaeological – will allow scholars to deconstruct and interpret the highly
nuanced semantic system deployed by the Roman state on its coinage. From
literary evidence it is clear that some Romans did notice and respond to certain
coin types in various ways. The material record confirms this, as in the case of
grave deposits in which coins with certain images were selected and deemed more
appropriate for deposition with the deceased. In antiquity coins were also made
into jewelry, incorporated into metal vessels, attached to furniture, and there are
even objects whose designs were inspired by coins. We also see negative responses
to certain coin designs manifested in graffiti, defacement, or the erasure of
portraits, which perhaps reflect an individual's response to an official damnatio
memoriae or their personal feelings regarding the individual depicted on the coin.
Unfortunately, like the bulk of the numismatic corpus, most of this material has no
recorded context and we can only speculate as to the circumstances regarding their

68 H.-Chr. Noeske, Münzfunde aus Ägypten I. Die Münzfunde des ägyptischen Pilgerzentrums Abu
Mina und die Vergleichsfunde aus den Diocesen Aegyptus und Oriens vom 4.-8. Jh. n. Chr.
Prolegemona zu einer Geschichte des spätrömischen Münzumlaufs in Ägypten und Syrien. 3 vols.
Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike 12 (Mainz 2000); id., Münzfunde aus Ägypten II. Die
griechisch-römischen Münzfunde aus dem Fayum. Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike 22 (Mainz
69 For coins of Caligula from the Tiber see F. Koenig, Roma – Monete dal Tevere. L'imperatore
Gaio. Boll. Num. 10, 1988, 21-186. For the Claudian Tiber finds see H.-M. von Kaenel, Roma –
Monete del Tevere. L'imperatore Claudio I. Boll. Num. 2-3, 1984, 85-325. The sottosuolo finds
await comprehensive publication, until that time refer to S. Balbi de Caro/D. Backendorf/H.
Komnick et al., Geld aus dem antiken Rom. "Assem habeas, assem valeas – Hast Du was, bist Du
was". Ausstellungskatalog Frankfurt a. M. 1991 (Frankfurt 1991).
70 Regional distribution patterns of types have been explored before, see for example R.P. Duncan-
Jones, The Monetization of the Roman Empire: Regional Variations in the Supply of Coin Types.
In: G.M. Paul/M. Ierardi (eds.), Roman Coins and Public Life under the Empire, E. Togo Salmon
Papers II (Ann Arbor 1999) 61-82, but study of the distribution of types from a semantic
perspective is very new indeed.
46 Nathan T. Elkins

original function or use. Therefore, when material such as this is found in

excavated contexts, it should be examined using the methodologies explored here.
The Fundmünzen inventories for the northwestern provinces frequently remark on
altered specimens in the notes and could serve as a starting point for a
comprehensive study on such material71.
Roman coins are multifarious objects that served a number of functions during
their "lifetimes" millennia ago. As with the study of any other category of ancient
art, the understanding of an ancient coin is broadened by the number of contexts to
which we can relate it and, when this is done properly and critically, our
knowledge of the ancient world is enhanced. For the historical and cultural
contexts in which to place a Roman coin, one might turn to ancient texts and
modern historical discourses. Traditional numismatic methods such as die studies,
associating certain types with emissions, and quantifying the frequency of a
particular type provide the numismatic context; these may allow one to "rate" the
semantic value of types in relation to one another and understand them in
conjunction with wider ideological programs. The art historical context, namely
approaching images on Roman coins as part of a semantic system, allows one to
unpack the meaning of an image. Not the least of the contexts to consider is the
material or archaeological context, which may allow researchers to define the
audience to whom certain types were directed on regional and site-specific levels.
It is no longer sufficient that iconographic studies of Roman coins be relegated
purely to historical, art historical, or numismatic perspectives. The nature of the
objects themselves demands a more comprehensive and multi-disciplinary
approach. Only in this manner, can one hope to use the source material to its
greatest potential and fully appreciate the role numismatic imagery played in the
Roman world.

71 A very recent study examines the use of physically altered coins and coin-jewelry in northeastern
Germany using the FMRD inventories: H. Komnick, Römerzeitliche Münzfunde in Nordost-
deutschland zwischen Elbe und Oder. In: A. Bursche/R. Ciołek/R. Wolters (eds.), Roman Coins
Outside the Empire. Ways and Phases, Contexts and Functions. Proceedings of the ESF/SCH
Exploratory Workshop Radziwiłł Palace, Nieborów (Poland), 3-6 September 2005. Collect.
Moneta 82 (Wetteren 2008) 113-133.

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