Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.08.67

Marguerite Spoerri Butcher, Roman Provincial Coinage, Volume VII: de Gordien Ier à Gordien III (238-244 après J.-C.), 1. Province d'Asie.   Paris - London:  Bibliothèque nationale de France - British Museum Press, 2006.  Pp. 395.  ISBN 978-2-7177-2303-8.  ISBN 978-0-7141-1813-0.  €150.00.  



Reviewed by Thomas Corsten, University of Heidelberg and University of Oxford (thomas.corsten@urz.uni-heidelberg.de)
Word count: 2390 words

Roman Provincial Coinage is a highly ambitious international project under the direction of M. Amandry (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris) and A. Burnett (British Museum, London) that aims to present the entire provincial coinage of the Roman Empire so far published in numerous publications of coin collections and sales catalogues in chronological order, and, within each chronological period, in geographical order. This immense undertaking, when completed, will be of the greatest value, but until then patience is required from the editors and the authors as well as from the scholarly public. The pattern of publication is somewhat unusual in that the published volumes do not come out in the order set by the plan of the overall work. Thus, volume I appeared in 1992,1 volume II in 1999;2 in 1998, addenda to volume I were published in print,3 while addenda to the same volume and to volume II are now available on the web.4 With these parts, the period from 44 BC to 96 AD has been covered, so that the appearance of volume VII leaves a gap of 142 years. This is, however, justified since it is preferable to have and be able to use what is available.

Volume VII comprises the coins of the cities of provincia Asiae during the rule of the three Gordiani, Pupienus, and Balbinus. This limited chronological scope allows for a synchronic comparison between the cities of the province, and thus for thorough and very interesting historical studies of the material. The bulk of the coinage comes, not surprisingly, from the period of Gordian III who is the only one of these emperors to rule longer than a few months; no coins are known from his uncle, Gordian II. The restriction to a single province (other volumes present all the coinage of the empire for the period covered) stems from the fact that the book is based on the author's doctoral thesis. Nevertheless, the material is rich, with 73 minting cities, and includes the pseudo-autonomous coins, i.e. those that bear no image of the emperor but can with reasonable certainty be attributed to this period.

The book is divided into two main parts: a historical study (21-97) examines and interprets the coins collected in the following numismatic study (99-286). The first part is in turn subdivided into chapters giving the geographic and historical framework for the book, an examination of the iconographic types and legends of the coins, a study of coin production and metrology, and finally a brief chapter on the historical interpretation of the material. The second main part is basically a catalogue, but it advances somewhat beyond that by providing useful introductions to each city. Two annexes with a list of emperors mentioned in the text and a table of cities minting in the period 238-244 AD follow. The book closes with indices, maps, bibliography, and 67 plates.

The first chapter (21-28) offers an introduction to the creation, development, and administration of the province of Asia. It is mainly devoted to an examination of the different subdivisions of the province, i.e. the so-called conventus or διοικήσεις, which form the basis of the coin catalogue (illustrated on map 2), and the provincial and local κοινά, which also minted coins at rare times. In addition, the author gives a summary of the events of 238-244 AD; those for which the examination of the coinage leads to new points of view are treated in more detail on 91-95.

Chapter 2 (29-36) looks at the iconography and legends of the obverses, first of those with imperial portraits, then of those without (i.e. the so-called pseudo-autonomous coins). From an examination of the many different forms of imperial titulature, the author draws the conclusion that the die-cutters (or the workshops) were not obliged to follow specific models imposed by the central government. The independence from Rome is especially obvious in the case of the coinage of Roman colonies where the titulature of Gordian III follows those on provincial rather than on imperial coins. Pseudo-autonomous coinage is known from 23 cities in Asia. The coins bear, instead of an imperial portrait, the image either of political personifications, such as the Roman Senate, the city council etc., or of gods or heroes connected with the minting city, e.g. by foundation myths.

The reverses are the subject of chapter 3 (37-56). The length of this chapter in comparison to the preceding one already shows the greater variety in terms of iconography and legends. Thus, the author treats ethnics, the cities' titles, the coinage mentioning homonoia between cities, dates, magistrates, countermarks, and iconography. The examination of these subjects makes clear how many uncertainties of interpretation remain despite the wealth of research having been undertaken in this regard. At the same time, it testifies to the cautious approach the author has chosen: she never allows herself to favor simplistic or generalizing explanations. In this sense, she objects to attributing a single reason to the comparatively large homonoia coinage in that she doubts the theory, proposed by U. Kampmann,5 that homonoia between two cities should have been caused by the relevant communities being located on the routes taken by the imperial army on its way to the war against the Persians. She prefers instead to assume political, military, or cultural relations between these cities or a combination of them, which are in most cases unknown to us due to the lack of other sources pertaining to this phenomenon. In addition, map 3 illustrates in a clear manner the homonoia-connections with cities of the province of Asia. As to the titles of magistrates mentioned on coins, map 4 underlines the results arrived at on 44-52, namely that the different titles are each concentrated in specific areas.

Statistics are a very important subject which can, however, be rather tricky in the historical sciences as the author demonstrates in chapter 4 (57-70) which covers the period of Alexander Severus through Claudius II (222-270 AD). There have been several attempts at drawing conclusions from statistical analyses of coin production over the last decades but the results should be used with precaution (if at all). [Incidentally, the same is true for the production of inscriptions, especially in the case of milestones.] For the picture is often blurred by tabulating the number of minting cities or the extent of coin production per emperor without regard to the differences between the rulers in length of reign. When the latter is taken into consideration, the peaks of minting activity are distributed in a completely different way: while under the rules of Gordian III and Valerian/Gallienus, the number of minting cities is the highest (graph 1 on p. 58), the number per year of reign are highest under the emperors Maximinus and Trajan Decius (graph 2 on p. 58). And if one considers each conventus separately, as the author does, the picture changes even more in that the pattern is very irregular (table 4 on p. 59).

Due to the lack of comparable analyses from the reigns of other emperors, the author restricts her own statistical study to the coin production of each single city during the reign of Gordian III in the province of Asia. The results, arrived at by a rather complicated calculation of coin production on the basis of the presumable numbers of dies and emissions, are in some ways unexpected. There is, e.g., no relationship between the importance of a city and its coin production: the insignificant city of Germe in Mysia, for example, is among the three communities with the highest number of obverse dies, the other two being Ephesos and Kyzikos. The highest concentration of cities with a large coin production under Gordian III is found on the coast between Smyrna and Samos and, in addition to this area, there are Germe and Kyzikos; the Maeander valley follows second, Phrygia around Synnada third. These results are illustrated on map 5. An explanation for this pattern is not given -- one has to agree with the author that this would result either in a series of wild guesses or in undue generalization.

Another controversial subject is metrology which is treated in chapter 5 (71-90). Since ancient coins bear no direct indication of their value, one is obliged to differentiate between them by metal, size, and weight (the first criterion plays no role in this case as only bronze was used). It is, thus, obvious that a bigger and heavier coin had a higher value; in addition, each denomination was indicated by a specific motif. In the cases of the obverses, this system mirrored the hierarchy of the images represented, e.g., from highest to lowest value: Gordian III - Tranquillina - Senate, Demos, Boule, or similar (on pseudo-autonomous coins). However, certainty ends there and leaves ample room for a number of difficulties. There is, e.g., no uniformity between the cities as far as size, weight, and images are concerned, not even between those belonging to the same conventus. Moreover, size and weight do not always correspond between different cities, i.e. coins of the same size could in different cities have different weights. Nevertheless, through a comparison of the coinage, which takes these differences and similarities into consideration, the author tentatively recognizes two systems in the province of Asia, one for its western and another for its eastern part.

So much for the relative value of coins. The difference between the ancient user and us is that the former knew the absolute value of a given coin, whereas the latter does not. Attempts at determining the absolute value, i.e. the denominations, have started from the countermarks which came into use in several cities with the advent of the inflation of the 3rd century AD (a useful overview on 87-90 table 9). In this way, the coin denominations of many of the cities using countermarks have been convincingly established. However, these results cannot easily be transferred to other communities because of the above mentioned differences in size and weight of the coins. And given the comparatively small number of countermarks and of cities using them, many questions must remain unanswered.

The brief last chapter (91-95) shows the value of the examination of coins and coinage in the province of Asia for the reconstruction of historical events in the period of 238-244 AD, but also the danger of over-interpretation. The fact that three cities in Asia (Hadrianopolis, Miletus, and Prymnessos) struck coins for Pupienus, Balbinus, and Gordian III Caesar (and Gordian I in the case of Prymnessos) can be taken as an indication that the entire province recognized the new rulers and thus joined the uprising against Maximinus Thrax. For the absence of coins of these emperors on the part of other cities in the province is not, on the other hand, a sign of support for Maximinus Thrax since cities did not mint on a regular basis. Caution is also necessary when one tries to use coinage to reconstruct the route Gordian III used on his way to the eastern front. The author argues that neither the motifs on coins, nor the volume and rhythm of coinage, nor homonoia-coins are indicators of the route taken by the emperor and his army. She accepts only the adventus-motif on coins of Lysias (no. 723) and Nakoleia (no. 770) as a sign for the (expected or actual) presence of Gordian in this context (on map 6, which illustrates the possible route to the East and indicates several of the cities whose coinage can be connected in some way to the campaign, Dokimeion instead of Lysias is given as having the adventus-motif). As a rule, local motifs are preferred to those referring to events which are important for the whole empire.

The results are finally summarized briefly, but very conveniently in the Conclusion (96-97).

The largest part of the book is occupied by a catalogue of the coins minted in the province of Asia between 238 and 244 BC (99-286); a list of the collections and sales catalogues, from which the material is compiled, is given on 100-102. The catalogue is arranged according to the conventus in a geographical order and within these by cities in alphabetical order. The section of each city is preceded by a brief introduction which includes, among others, a mention of the most important historical events, a history of numismatic and other research, and studies of special topics such as the denominations used, legends, and iconography. Within the cities, the different obverse dies for each emperor (or, on pseudo-autonomous coins, each image) are briefly described and numbered (AV 1 etc.) in descending order of denominations (i.e., size of coins). Then follow, again in descending order of denominations, the motifs of the reverse dies, each of which is also further subdivided (RV 1 etc.); in this case, the variants are usually restricted to the legends. The running catalogue numbers are based on these reverse motifs. The actual coins with their different combinations of reverse and obverse dies are finally listed and numbered under the running number with indication of the collection, weight, size, position of reverse die, and, if applicable, a countermark. This seems, at first sight, a rather complicated system, but it serves its purpose very well, especially since it shows clearly the relationship between motif and denomination. A specimen each of almost all motifs is illustrated on the plates at the end of the book.

In conclusion, this is a thorough and very useful study not only of the coinage but also of the history of a brief but important period of the Roman Empire in the midst of the troublesome 3rd century. The author has not shrunk away from a series of complicated issues such as the calculation of the number of dies and emissions or the controversial question of coin denominations, which goes far beyond the chronological and geographical scope of her subject. In all that, she has taken a cautious route so as not to mislead her colleagues and in particular those with less knowledge of the sometimes seemingly arcane discipline of ancient numismatics and to induce them to draw unfounded conclusions. Through this approach, RPC VII demonstrates clearly the importance of the study of coins as well as the dangers and limits of their interpretation. This book can thus be recommended without reservation not only to numismatists but also to historians of the Roman Empire.


Notes:


1.   RPC I: From the death of Caesar to the death of Vitellius (44 BC-AD 69) by A. Burnett, M. Amandry, and P. P. Ripollès.
2.   RPC II: From Vespasian to Domitian (AD 69-96) by A. Burnett, M. Amandry, and I. Carradice.
3.   RPC Supplement I by A. Burnett, M. Amandry, and P. P. Ripollès.
4.   RPC Supplement II by A. Burnett, M. Amandry, P. P. Ripollès, and I. Carradice (Roman Provincial Coinage Online).
5.   U. Kampmann, Die Homonoia-Verbindungen der Stadt Pergamon, Saarbrücken 1996.

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