Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.06.31

C. Howgego, V. Heuchert, A. Burnett, Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2005.  Pp. 280.  ISBN 978-0-19-926526-8.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Philipp Fondermann, Klassisch-Philologisches Seminar der Universität Zürich (
Word count: 1003 words

Since the beginning of the 1990s, the Roman Provincial Coinage Project (RPC) has undertaken the systematic publication of the provincial mintages from the world's ten most extensive collections. This initiative has re-awakened international interest in the Roman provincial coin issues and, through a new presentation and edition of the material, opened new perspectives for classical studies. In September 2002, the 17th Oxford Symposium on Coinage and Monetary History, held under the auspices of the RPC project, had as its theme 'Coinage and Identity'. The present volume, which appeared in 2005, documents the results of the conference. It addresses the question to what extent the provincial mintages can provide insight into changing identities in the provinces of the Roman empire and so deals with a subject which can contribute much to our understanding of the process which we call 'Romanisation'. The provincial mintages have until now not been systematically evaluated from this perspective.

The sixteen papers are usefully arranged. Following an introduction to the subject (C. Howgego), which already anticipates many conclusions of the discussion, three 'foundation articles' concern themselves with central aspects. G. Williamson examines the often tense relationship between local and imperial identity within a 'globalised' Roman world; V. Heuchert provides an overview of the quantitative and motif developments of the issues of coins across the entire empire, with the aid of many maps and tables; P. Weiss addresses the question of the organisation of mints and those who were responsible for them. The remaining papers are then arranged according to geographical areas and focus on the development of individual provinces: England (J. Williams), Spain (P.P. Ripollès), Makedonia (S. Kremydi-Sicilianou), Thrace and Moesia Inferior (U. Peter), the Greek East (S. Price), Syria (K. Butcher), Egypt (A. Geissen), and Pergamum (B. Weisser). Studies of the history of motifs (D.O.A. Klose, A. Kushnier-Stein), the Jewish evidence (M. Goodman), and the differences between Roman East and Roman West (A. Burnett) round out the picture.

On the most important questions there is agreement among the contributors. Each argues convincingly for his own sphere (a) that identity was not passively received, but rather was repeatedly constructed and expressed anew by particular groups with specific interests, for example, through the symbolism of the coins' images; (b) that in this representation of constructed identity directed outwards, it is a matter above all of the identity of local, provincial elites in whose hands the organisation of mintages and choice of lotifs lay; (c) that their identity is complex and multiple, as is shown particularly by Williamson, because it concerns that of a mobile elite, which on the one hand sees its roots in local regions, while on the other hand perceiving itself as part of an imperial Roman governing class; (d) that these have used the coin imagery in order to present themselves and the communities in whose name the coins were issued as loyal to the emperor, and at the same time, on a secondary level, to articulate local self-consciousness and to engage in internal provincial rivalry; and (e) that the provincial issues in most cases show a portrait of the current ruler on the obverse, a member of his family, or -- more rarely -- a provincial governor, but on the reverse they depict local protective deities, temple buildings, festivals or foundation myths, and thereby construct and express both an imperial identity and a provincial identity. In this connection, Howgego points out certain typological constants and emphasizes that "the types of most coinage may be characterized by obverse and reverse as imperial/local, local/local, or imperial/imperial. The imperial/local mode -- emperor, wife, or Caesar on the obverse, local image on the reverse -- is the norm" (15).

The most extensive methodological reflections on the aims of the editors to situate provincial identity within a globalised Roman world on the basis of the coin images are offered by K. Butcher in his contribution on the issues in Syria. On the one hand, he points out a hermeneutical problem: "[O]ften all we have are the symbols (the types), not their meanings to members of the community. The symbols are seen as objective (or can be objectively described [ . . . ]), and we might be able to agree on what they denote to us [ . . . ], but the meanings given to them by members of the community were subjective and the product of individual experience. [ . . . ] The meanings are not inherent in the symbol (otherwise the symbol would be superfluous); people give meanings to it." On the other hand, Butcher emphasizes, we can -- assuming that it is possible to reconstruct the context of the production and reception of a motif -- at best depict the identity of the elites on the basis of their self-representation but not the identity of those who are excluded from this means of projection. Striking is Butcher's reference to A.H.M. Jones' criticism, who compared the evidence of historical coin images and legends with modern series of postage stamps: "They throw a sidelight on the history of the period, but they mainly reflect the mentality of the post-office officials" (144).

One might have wished that more of the papers had displayed a similar awareness of methodological and terminological problems. A detailed engagement with modern symbol and communications theory, such as the concept of collective and cultural memory according to Hölkeskamp, would also certainly have been instructive. Nonetheless, the volume is on the whole exceptionally convincing. The careful arrangement of the contributions according to their general or more specific approach allows a clear and coherent picture to emerge -- which is by no means inevitable with conference volumes -- and attests to the sensible planning of the editors. Besides the single, comprehensive bibliography, the general and place-name indices, the many maps and the photos of the coins are particularly helpful. We may hope that the Roman Provincial Coinage Project -- which has to date published only a modest fragment of the available material -- produces more fruit of this quality.

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