Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.33

Christopher Howgego, Volker Heuchert, Andrew Burnett, Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2005.  Pp. xv, 228; pls. 32.  ISBN 0-9734982-0-X.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by John Aveline, University of Calgary (
Word count: 3025 words

Table of Contents

This book is "based on papers given at the Seventeenth Oxford Symposium on Coinage and Monetary History held on 19-22 September 2002 in Worcester College, Oxford" (vi). The 16 papers collected for this work address the more focused topic of how local identity in the provinces of the Roman Empire might be understood and reconstructed by a study of coinage issued by local authorities. The contributing authors were made familiar with each other's essays, which allowed them to make useful inter-references when the fruits of their research overlap and support each other. Many of the papers are an introduction to a specific aspect of identity as reflected in local coinage and often open avenues to future research. This review will briefly outline the topic of each paper and its conclusions, occasionally offering comment where it is useful and the competence of the reviewer allows.

"Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces" (Howgego)-- 4 plates, 28 coins

This paper serves as an introduction to the entire book and is quite successful as such, especially as it covers the entire Roman Empire. H. discusses various categories of local identity including religion, monumentality, myth, time, geography, and language. H. concludes by reminding the reader that the matter of whose identity is being reflected in the local coinage is not a simple or obvious one. This particular aspect of the topic is regularly revisited throughout the book. The only minor detraction in this essay is the editorial comments made about other papers: "fascinating chapter" (3), "masterly survey" (7), "brilliantly analysed" (12).

"Aspects of Identity" (Williamson)

Williamson sounds a cautionary note on the challenges and pitfalls of attempting to understand self-identity when an individual may have more than one identity and when many of the signposts that mark self-identity do not survive to be analysed. In the first instance a person may identify himself by his family, race, or occupation, in addition to his nationality. In the second instance W. notes how identity was established through practice rather than in the creation of convenient artefacts. On the other hand coinage is heavily influenced by Rome itself, since the coins have been created by a group (the local elite) who were "complicit in the continuation of the Roman system" (26). Still, coinage does reflect local identities to some degree, and the ways in which those expressions of individuality accommodated the imperial system.

"The Chronological Development of Roman Provincial Coin Iconography" (Heuchert)-- 5 plates, 45 coins, 5 tables, 6 maps

Heuchert provides a largely descriptive essay in which he offers "a brief introduction to Roman provincial coinage" and notes some of "the key developments in Roman provincial coin iconography from a chronological perspective" (29). Some useful general observations are made; the six maps show coin-issuing cities in the eastern Roman provinces during various eras. There is much in this paper which not only creates a wider perspective for other chapters in this book, but which will also lead to further work in the area. Principal conclusions are concerned with the way that changes in coin reverses occurred with increasing frequency over the first two centuries of the Roman Empire, leading to a wider variety of local themes in the form of religious, mythological and architectural images. One odd turn of phrase did occur: "In relation to mythology, Heracles discovering his son Telephos on the coinage of Pergamum" (55).

"The Cities and their Money" (Weiss)

Weiss tackles the questions of how monetary production was organized, who was responsible and how the responsibilities were allotted. He notes how the evidence has not yet been fully collated for analysis. At this point the use of the governor's name on coinage is inconsistent and seems regional and driven by whim more than anything else. Regarding euergetic coinage it is still an open question whether priests minted coins or whether these individuals merely were identifying themselves by the highest political/social rank they had achieved.

"Coinage and Identity in Pre-conquest Britain: 50 BC - 50 AD" (Williams) -- 1 plate, 8 coins

Williams' paper focuses on the coinage of pre-conquest Britain from 50 BC to 50 AD. W. makes two very important points: that a study of coinage can distort our perception of the Roman world as city-oriented, and that the construction of pre-conquest Roman Britain in terms of British kings and lines of succession, which coinage seems to support, is no longer valid. Thus coinage must be understood to offer but one small element in local cultural identity. W. points out that Roman themes, the correct use of Latin and the Latin epigraphic abbreviations on coinage are unique, and that Romanization did not particularly extend to other aspects of society and culture. In fact, coinage produced by Verica under Claudius referenced the legendary ruler Commius, creating an independence which was, in fact, evaporating. (One is tempted to suspect that messages on coinage are often likely to contradict rather than reflect reality. The standard proclamation "CONCORDIA MILITUM" on third century Roman Imperial coinage comes to mind.) W. concludes by examining how coinage use might offer some insight into local identity. Although the evidence is incomplete, there is a suggestion that ritual deposition was basically unchanged before and after the Roman conquest and that this usage was unaffected by the political change.

"Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces: Spain" (Ripollès)

Ripollès moves south for an overview of local coinage in Spain from its beginning down to the time when Spanish provincial coinage ceased, probably under Claudius. His analysis includes discussions on 'types', 'iconography', 'minting locations', 'influences' and 'evolution'. R. shows the evolution of local coinage from before the Second Punic War and touches upon certain unresolved issues in Iberian coinage. One of these issues is the extreme distribution of mints and coins, which follows neither tribal distribution nor Roman provincial boundaries. As with other provinces, local iconography and alphabets are gradually replaced by Roman images and Latin letters (as well as Roman weight standards), although local elements still remain.

"'Belonging' to Rome, 'Remaining' Greek: Coinage and Identity in Roman Macedonia" (Kremydi-Sicilianou)-- 3 plates, 35 coins

Kremydi-Sicilianou looks at how cities in Macedonia balanced their relationship to the Roman imperium with their Greek roots. She notes that this balance evolved over time. With the notable exception of Amphipolis, Macedonian cities were very much Rome-oriented early in their provincial history, in part because of their situation as a key link to the east, in part because of the Roman coloniae that were established. In the second and third centuries AD cities began to express their local cultures and identities more, as the Roman element became more acculturated to local traditions and civic rivalries began to assert themselves in the form of pride in local myths and history. Rather than being absorbed into the Roman imperium, Macedonian cities gradually allowed their local identities to become more prominent. This evolution is well documented in the coinage produced between the mid-second century BC and the third century AD.

"Religious-Cultural Identity in Thrace and Moesia Inferior" (Peter) -- 2 plates, 28 coins

Peter offers a detailed examination of local myths and imported deities as they are reflected on the civic coinage of Thrace and Moesia Inferior. He notes that local deities and traditions are found on coinage, either themselves or syncretised with more widely known deities such as Serapis. P. reminds us that the majority of coinage was still very Rome-centred, with the emperors being the focal point. He reminds us that a city's coin emission may not be targeted at its citizens and that, as a result, it is unlikely to express local identity. The example is two emissions of Nicopolis ad Mestum which were circulated north and north-east of the city. One does wonder if this might be more of an exception than the rule, given that the overwhelming majority of local coinage was only valid within a fairly small area. His conclusion, however, is that coinage can often demonstrate the preservation of local mythology, in some cases preserved "intact", in some cases identified with more widely recognized myths and deities.

"Local Mythologies in the Greek East" (Price) -- 5 plates, 15 coins, 7 diagrams

Price looks at how local mythologies (histories?) are portrayed on civic coinage in the Greek East and how this reflects local self-identification. He divides his paper into three categories: Local Mythologies in the High Empire, Mythologies and Inter-City Relationships, Mythologies and the Ruling Power. He notes that cities often identified their local heroes and gods with more widely recognized figures from the Greek world. Another phenomenon, also reflected in coinage, is for a city to have multiple foundations. Thus, Alexandria Troas has the local cult of Apollo Smintheus, its early Hellenistic foundation and its status as a Roman colonia. This leads well into a discussion of how cities used myths to relate to one another. Common ancestors or founders could be reasonably cited to create a bond and obligation. Even if the obligation were rejected, the bond was still recognized. Finally, P. discusses how the Romans fit into this use of mythology. The relationship seems to have been a symbiotic one The cities received increased status by their closer relationship to the emperor, while the emperor increased the historical aspect of Rome (and themselves) by accessing a mythology which pre-dated Roman society by centuries.

"Festivals and Games in the Cities of the East during the Roman Empire" (Klose) -- 3 plates, 55 coins, 2 diagrams

Klose discusses how city festivals and games were portrayed on civic coinage in the Roman east. The political significance of these festivals is noted as well as how their rank, bestowed by the emperor, was used to establish or continue a city's loyalty during civil or external wars. The evolution of the images on these coins seems to match the evolution of the festivals themselves as the coins proclaimed the status of the festival and any imperial connection. The depiction of the emperor seems to focus attention not on the Roman Empire and its leader, but rather the city and its privileged status, derived from its close association with the emperor. One small quibble; K. describes plate 10.3.55 as depicting Demiurgia placing a wreath on the emperor's head (132). In fact Demiurgia is handing the wreath to the emperor.

"Pergamum as Paradigm" (Weisser) -- 4 plates, 37 coins

Weisser offers a look at coinage in a more specific context, select coinage issues of Pergamum. The five issues examined illustrate the neocorate temple of Augustus, Homonoia and Caracalla's visit to the city, Aulus Iulius Quadratus and the mobility of the local elite, the Trajaneum and, finally, the games of Hadrian. W. uses issues to show the importance of examining a given city's coinage in contrast to other cities' coins as well as other possible issues which the given city might have produced. Even when a city's coinage is focussed upon an individual, this too is part of the city's identity. Finally, the mobility of the citizens of Pergamum is reflected in the influences in its coinage from Asia, Athens and Rome.

"Information, Legitimation, or Self-Legitimation? Popular and Elite Designs on the Coin Types of Syria" (Butcher) -- 1/2 plate, 10 coins, 1 Dalek stamp

Butcher's paper is the most theoretical and, although coinage from Syria is used as examples, the paper has a much broader scope. B engages the fundamental question: to what extent we can understand the symbols on coinage and their meanings. He maintains that we do not really know enough about the issuers or their intended audience. He also suggests that the civic elite were actually legitimating themselves in their own eyes. The theory of the self-legitimating nature of coinage, which is expanded to include Roman Imperial coinage, becomes rather questionable when one notes the 'praetorian' coinage produced by Claudius. The only purpose such an image and message could have was to recognize the Praetorian Guard's role in Claudius' succession. The symbols have no other value and, in fact, were rather antagonistic to other potential audiences (e.g., the Roman Senate). The paper is easily the most thought provoking, and a full engagement with it would fill this entire review. On one level B is correct about the complexity of understanding both the creator of a message and the recipients. On the other hand, there could be a danger of creating complexity where little or none exists by over-thinking the question. A modern nation's coins are primarily intended for its own citizens and its symbols decided upon relatively arbitrarily by a small group. The same seems to be the case for Roman provincial coinage.

"City Eras on Palestinian Coinage" (Kushnir-Stein)

Kushnir-Stein provides a brief analysis of the use of city eras on Palestinian coinage minted during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Many cities began by showing either Seleucid or Ptolemaic dating. Cities then dated by city eras that began when the city achieved independent autonomy. This independence was not absolute, but relative and often accompanied other granted privileges. Many cities started or re-started their civic eras in the Roman period, often reflecting an act of a conquering general or governor. Ultimately, putting the date year on coins, which was rare in the rest of the Roman world, but common under the Seleucids and Ptolemies, was a local custom rather than a Roman one and reflected an element of local identity.

"Coinage and Identity: The Jewish Evidence" (Goodman) -- 1/2 plate, 6 coins

Goodman's short contribution raises two questions. Did Roman hostility to the Jews in the mid-second century AD come solely from Roman attitudes and political difficulties, or did Jewish political and cultural self-representation contribute? What would we surmise about the Jews if our evidence for them were as scant as our evidence for peoples such as the Gauls or Dacians? The first question is not pursued to a conclusion, but the second is. G. notes that the revolt of 66-70 AD produced coins which were unusual in the Greco-Roman world for avoiding human and animal images. They were also of an exceptionally high grade of silver and had palaeo-Hebrew script. Also, no leaders' names are recorded, but "Jerusalem", "Israel" and "Zion" are proclaimed along with the by-words "independent" and "holy". The coinage of the revolt of 132-35 AD also followed similar patterns, likely imitating the previous revolt's coinage. This provides an example of coinage produced with no thought to how it would be received by the Roman Empire and provides a good point of contrast to 'loyal' provincial coinage.

"The Nome Coins of Roman Egypt" (Geissen) -- 2 plates, 24 coins

Geissen examines the iconography of the nome coins of Egypt, whose production spanned the short period between 91 AD and 144 AD. His analysis of the iconography used shows that, although all coinage was produced in Alexandria, there was considerable knowledge of the major deities in the individual nomes as well as their appropriate symbols. G. argues against the position that the ideas on the coins were incorrect and that they bore little connection to the nomes whose names they carried.

"The Roman West and the Roman East" (Burnett)

Burnett's final essay serves as a very good summation of this book. He takes the widest possible view of the topic and compares the Roman west and Roman east in terms of their local coinage. He notes the recognized difference between Roman (our) coins and 'foreign' (their) coins. His conclusion, which he acknowledges can be easily questioned on a number of criteria, if taken too far, is that the west's abandonment of local coin production in the mid-first century AD compared with the east's general maintaining of coin production well into the third century AD reflects a fundamental difference in the way the west and east related to the Roman Empire.

The book is well produced and very well laid out, with excellent plates. In addition to a solid bibliography, there is a general and a geographical index, each of which covers the entire book. A key to the plates fully details each coin illustrated. The maps on pp. 34-49 that help illustrate Heuchert's paper are also quite useful for other papers discussing areas in the Roman east, especially for the non-specialist, who is likely to be unfamiliar with the location of many of the cities mentioned. There are very few typos, none of which is a detraction. Two examples: on p.98, 'Claudius' for what must be 'Caligula'; and on p.140 n.32, an unwanted comma between 'on' and 'dating'.

As one reads through the papers, certain themes recur, which do much to reflect on the nature of the subject. Much of the raw material (coin finds) has yet to be fully catalogued and systematized, which task would greatly facilitate further discussions and research on the nature of Roman provincial coinage. It is also regularly repeated that, while Roman provincial coinage illuminates much about ancient society, caution is necessary lest the coins and their iconography be over-interpreted and conclusions about local identity be made without other supporting evidence.

Several questions seemingly relevant to the topic are not addressed, such as how coins were put into circulation, who the primary recipients were, as well as secondary and tertiary recipients, and how far down this chain the producers and issuers looked. It would seem as if cities, which issued coins, operated very much independently of each other, being influenced as much by their own established practice as by the contemporary practices of neighbouring cities. Also, where contemporary cities did influence each other, this influence seems to have remained within provincial boundaries. Finally, it seems fairly obvious that no city had an established policy regarding its coinage production (admittedly such a term as a policy is somewhat anachronistic), but rather followed a given practice that could be arbitrarily changed for reasons that are only sometimes evident.

This book is mainly targeted at the experts in Roman numismatics and social history, but individual papers could find a wider audience, especially among those studying a specific area of the Roman Empire. Its main value will be in the research and discussion it encourages by the areas of inquiry it opens for consideration.

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