Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.03.11

Ragnar Hedlund, "...Achieved Nothing Worthy of Memory". Coinage and Authority in the Roman Empire c. AD 260-295. Studia Numismatica Upsaliensia 5.   Uppsala:  Uppsala Universitet, 2008.  Pp. ix, 267.  ISBN 9789155471200.  $89.50.  

Reviewed by Clare Rowan, Macquarie University (
Word count: 2174 words

[Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

This book is available online for free download.

Hedlund's book is a published form of his doctoral thesis, submitted at Uppsala University in 2008. Taking the interregnum of AD 275 as a starting point, Hedlund explores the relationship between the emperor, the Senate and the army in the period AD 260-295, which he labels 'the age of the later soldier emperors'. Given the paucity of literary evidence, Hedlund's main source material is coinage, and his aim is to provide a numismatic study of the period aimed at the non-numismatist. The great strength of the work lies in its discussion of the portraiture of the emperor; Hedlund suggests the elaborate way in which the emperor was represented on coinage reflects the fact that focus increasingly centered on the role of the emperor, rather than on his person (p. 35).1 Here Hedlund provides a service similar to that of Bastien's work on imperial portraiture,2 but with the advantage that the discussion is focused on a specific time period and context.

The first chapter provides a theoretical and methodological framework for the study. Hedlund adopts the now prevailing view that the third century did not experience a 'great crisis', but rather a series of them. He focuses on one crisis in particular, the alleged crisis of imperial authority, and sets out to explore how emperors in this period emphasized their legitimacy. This was done through the communication of shared values, which Hedlund connects to 'the military' and 'the city of Rome'. His vision of Roman society in this period is heavily influenced by Winterling3: a triangle-like structure with the emperor at the top, and his court (the army) and the senate as the two lower corners (p.20). The relationship of the emperor to these foundations of power forms the focus of Hedlund's study. The approach is influenced by the works of Hölscher4 and Zanker5, but given the paucity of other evidence, Hedlund's analysis is restricted to the imagery that survives on coinage. His 'language of images' stresses the use of simplicity, abstraction, ambiguity and repetition (p. 23-24). The chapter includes a useful overview of current ideas about the use and interpretation of coinage, and modern scholarship on the third century. Unfortunately this chapter, and the introduction, are riddled with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, too numerous to reiterate here (e.g. p. 2 'which was the relationship between the emperor, the army and the senate during this age?', p.12 'somewhat more difficult to asses', p. 13 'seems to have been seems remarkably prosperous', p. 13 'prosophographical').

The second chapter proceeds to examine the military image of the emperor. Hedlund argues that, in the absence of such larger monuments as arches and statuary, coins were adapted to function as 'monuments in miniature' (p.51). Numismatic imagery in this period was modified to express ideas normally contained in more 'traditional' monuments. Hedlund's perspective provides a useful approach to the evidence, but his argument implies that coins had not functioned in this manner previously. Recent scholarship on the Republican and earlier imperial period has illustrated that coins did operate as 'monuments in miniature', and it is this scholarship that has influenced Hedlund's approach.6 Though perhaps fewer in quantity than previous periods, statuary and other large scale monuments are known for emperors of late third century: an arch of Augustus was rededicated to Gallienus and his wife, and Aurelian built a temple to Sol in Rome.7 The building activities of the tetrarchy also illustrate that the mentality of monumentality in this period had not changed: if the later soldier emperors could have built monuments (unencumbered by the brevity of their reigns), they would have. It is difficult to envision that the imagery on coinage was actively altered as an intended replacement for other monumental forms. The portraits of the emperor certainly became more elaborate on coinages in this period, but it is not certain whether this was the direct result of a decline in other avenues of imperial expression.

This aside, Hedlund provides a useful summary of the imperial portraits and their variations, as well as reverse types of military significance, making this information accessible to the non-numismatist. Hedlund chooses not to use Roman Imperial Coinage as his main reference work, but the studies of Bastien, Estiot and Göbl among others.8 This decision may affect the ability of those without access to a specialist numismatic library to approach the material for themselves. Hedlund stresses the significance of combining 'campaign portraits' of the emperor with reverse types of military significance, but does not account for the fact that 'campaign' portraits were also paired with reverses that did not have overt military connotations,9 and that reverse types containing military imagery could be combined with a variety of obverse portraits.10 Nonetheless, Hedlund's presentation of the coins as a total 'monument' (considering obverse and reverse together) avoids the trap of only considering reverse types. His suggestion that the multi-layered nature of the imagery in this period meant that one image could function as a visual shorthand for a whole campaign, or triumph, is thought-provoking.

In the third chapter, Hedlund connects the developments in imperial portraiture to the increasing importance of the army, and the need of the emperor to be seen as 'one of the men'. Hedlund particularly focuses on the rise of the cavalry, and the innovations to imperial portraiture that resulted. His detailed discussion of the additions and changes to obverse portraiture, and the significance of these alterations to particular groups in the late third century, is extremely useful and should prove of assistance to the historian not trained in numismatics.

The fourth chapter focuses on the public connection between the emperor and the city of Rome. In a period when the emperor was often absent from the city, Hedlund suggests that coin imagery let these rulers cling to the legitimizing image of Rome when no other means of communicating this connection was available. Once again the strength of the work lies in Hedlund's analysis of the obverse portraiture, which came to depict the emperor explicitly as consul. Hedlund's consideration of the imagery of Roma Aeterna, and its use in the mints outside Rome, underlines the importance of the concept in this period. This exploration encompasses the imperial mints in the provinces as well as the mints used by usurpers in Gaul and Britain. The adoption and manipulation of Rome and her culture in the provinces (notably with a coin of Carausius which may bear a quote from Virgil) highlights the decentralization of the Empire in this period from a numismatic perspective.

The fifth chapter focuses on religion and in particular the association of the emperor with a variety of deities. Hedlund joins the growing number of scholars who believe that the significance of the cult of Sol has been exaggerated, and contextualizes the god's appearance to a specific timeframe: Aurelian's campaign against Palmyra. Hedlund also considers the continuing importance of the emperor's pietas in this period, particularly within the ritual of consecratio. An overview of the Jovian iconography is also provided, as well as a discussion of other deities. Hedlund then turns to the appropriation of divine iconography by the emperors. Here he is influenced by Bergmann's conclusion that this iconography signals that the emperor is like the gods, not one of them.11 A variety of portrait types are discussed, but easily the most interesting is the iconography of Gallienus, accompanied by the legend GALLIENAE AVGVSTAE. Hedlund interprets the type as signaling an association between Gallienus and Ceres, and contextualizes it with the recently discovered coin type showing Gallienus with a Janiform portrait, and another that shows the emperor in the guise of Mercury. The acclamation of Aurelian as deus et dominus is also discussed, and Hedlund follows Estiot12 in downplaying the significance of the legend, which is only known from three coins struck for the emperor at the mint at Serdica.

In the final chapter, Hedlund provides a summary of his conclusions and returns to the thorny question of who actually chose and directed coin types. Rather than seeing the products of imperial mints outside Rome as empty mimicry, Hedlund suggests that the imperial provincial mints actively shaped imperial propaganda and adapted it to local needs. Distancing himself from Pink,13 Hedlund suggests that the mints employed creative imagery in the absence of the emperor, in what Hedlund describes as 'a virtual panegyric environment' (p. 240). Employing Hölscher's ideas about transgression in art,14 Hedlund suggests that much of the more extreme imagery in this period (for instance, Aurelian's acclamation as deus et dominus) is created at the instigation of the provincial mints, which used iconography that contravened the norm in competition for the attention of the emperor. This may provide a better avenue for interpreting the increasingly complex imperial portraiture of this period than the suggestion that coins had to function in lieu of larger monuments. If these mints were competing for the attention of the emperor, then one would imagine the imperial image would become as overloaded as Aurelian's proclamation as lord and god.

Hedlund's book supplies a numismatic perspective to studies of the late third century. He concludes that the coin imagery points to a continuity of empire, not to military anarchy. And yet some might see the continued and repeated emphasis on the military valor of the emperor, his connection to Rome and the gods, as symbolic of a crisis of power, where the emperor felt a greater need to justify his position. (In much the same way as on Severan coinage the concordia of Caracalla and Geta was greatly emphasized just prior Geta's murder). This alternative perspective is never addressed by Hedlund. This is not to suggest that Hedlund's vision of coinage as a repeated and necessary demonstration of legitimacy is not a valid interpretation; indeed it provides a lively avenue for investigation and further research.

The book contains detailed summaries of the coin types of this period, which will prove useful to the non-specialist. Excellent color images are included to illustrate significant coin types, but these are not to scale, and no indication of their original size is provided. For the non-numismatist, this may have been a useful addition. A map of the imperial mints and a short chronology are also included. Overall, Hedlund achieves his purpose, by producing a study of numismatics, written for non-numismatists, and a discussion of recent theories of interpretation, aimed at the non-historian (p 4). He provides a solid overview of imperial portraiture and its developments, tying it closely to contemporary contexts. Hedlund's book also offers several avenues of interpretation for coinage in this period, drawing on influential modern works in Roman art and history, which will, one hopes, influence future numismatic research in the area.

Table of Contents

1.1. "By the weakness of the emperors"
1.2. The crises of the third century: departure points
1.3. Remnants of a narrative--written sources (or, the lack thereof)
1.4. Communication and legitimacy: towards a theoretical framework
1.5. Introducing a 'language of images'
1.6. Imperial coinage as a visual medium
1.7. Grammar and syntax of a 'language of coin-images'
1.8. Crossing boundaries: chronological scope of the thesis
1.9. Patchwork: research on third century coinages
2.1. The year 260: year zero in the Roman empire
2.2. The image of military power
2.3. The virtus of a soldier-emperor
2.4. ...that leads to victory
2.5. The importance of being invictus
2.6. 'Waging peace'
2.7. A promise of order
2.8. Restoring the world
2.9. War as ritual and monuments of war
3.1. "Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers..."
3.2. Being one of the men
3.3. The legions: an armed society?
3.4. 'From the curule seat to the horseback'
3.5. Conceiving a 'military court'
3.6. Colleagues in arms?
4.1. All roads lead
4.2. The gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples: searching for the soldier-emperors in the city of Rome
4.3. Providentia Augusti: coins for the city of Rome
4.4. Paying tribute to Roma Aeterna
4.5. "...the place, to which each emperor had come..."
4.6. The revolt of the moneyers: a counter-reaction?
4.7. Salus provinciarum - imperial coinage in Gaul
4.8. Maintaining Roman order in Britain
5.1. A death in the family...
5.2. A god in death: consecratio and pietas
5.3. (Attempts at) founding new dynasties
5.4. The 'cult of Sol Invictus'
5.5. Receiving the world from Jupiter
5.6. The other gods
5.7. Being like the gods...
5.8. ...and being a god.
6.1. 'Neque quicque dignum memoria egit'?
6.2. Summary: coinage and authority
6.3. The creation of a language of empire


1.   Hedlund here acknowledges his debt to C.E. King (1999), 'Roman Portraiture: Images of Power?', Roman Coins and Public Life under the Empire, ed. G.M. Paul and M. Ierardi, (Ann Arbor) pp. 123-136. King linked the number and complexity of bust types in the third century to the fact that the effectiveness of imperial power in this period must have struck many as minimal.
2.   P. Bastien (1992-1994), Le buste monétaire des empereurs romains, (Wetteren)
3.   A. Winterling ed. (1997), Zwischen 'Haus' und 'Staat' : antike Höfe im Vergleich, München ; A. Winterling (2001), 'Staat, Gesellschaft und politische Integration in der römischen Kaiserzeit', Klio 83 : 93-112
4.   T. Hölscher (1987), Römische Bildsprache als semantisches System, Heidelberg
5.   P. Zanker, Augustus und die Macht der Bilder, München
6.   A. Chueng (1998), 'The Political Significance of Roman Imperial Coin Types', SM 191:53-61, and A. Meadows and J. Williams (2001), 'Moneta and the Monuments: Coinage and Politics in Republican Rome', JRS 91:27-49
7.   For a brief overview see J. Huskinson (2005), 'Art and Architecture, AD 193-337', CAH XII2, ed. A.K. Bowman, P. Garnsey and A. Cameron, (Cambridge) pp. 672-703
8.   P. Bastien (1967), Le monnayage de bronze de Postume, Wetteren; P. Bastien (1976), Le monnayage de l'atelier de Lyon:de la récouverte de l'atelier par Aurélien à la mort de Carin (fin 274-285), Wetteren; S. Estiot (2004), Catalogue des monnaies de l'Empire romain, 12:1 D'Aurélien à Florien (270-276 après J.-C.), Paris; R. Göbl (1993), Die Münzprägung der Kaisers Aurelianus, Wien; R. Göbl, Die Münzprägung der Kaiser Valerianus I., Gallienus, Saloninus (253/268), Regalianus (260) und Macrianus, Quietus (260/262), Wien; B. Schulte (1983), Die Goldprägung der gallischen Kaiser von Postumus bis Tetricus, Aarau
9.   For instance, RIC V.1 Gallienus 54, displays a 'campaign' portrait with a reverse alluding to laetitia. RIC V.1 Gallienus 136 is a silver medallion with a 'campaign' portrait and a reverse displaying Moneta.
10.   For example, RIC V.1 Gallienus 361-362 displays a laureate portrait of Gallienus, combined with a reverse of Victory. RIC V.1 Gallienus 325 is a virtus type (associated with military valor), combined with four different portrait types.
11.   M. Bergmann (1998), Die Strahlen der Herrscher: theomorphes Herrscherbild und politische Symbolik im Hellenismus und in der römischen Kaiserzeit, Mainz
12.   S. Estiot (2004), Catalogue des monnaies de l'Empire romain, 12:1 D'Aurélien à Florien (270-276 après J.-C.), Paris, p. 102ff
13.   K. Pink (1949), 'Der Aufbau der römischen Münzprägung in der Kaiserzeit, VI.1. Probus', NZ 73:13-74; K. Pink (1963), 'Der Aufbau der römischen Münzprägung in der Kaiserzeit, VI.2. Carus und Söhne', NZ 80:5-68
14.   T. Hölscher, 'Provokation und Transgression als politischer Habitus in der späten römischen Republik', RM 111:83-104

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