Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.38
Rasiel Suarez, The Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins, 2nd Edition. Tumwater, WA: Dirty Old Books, 2010. Pp. xx, 1455. ISBN 9780976466413. $149.95.
Reviewed by Michael ‘Maxx’ Schmitz, University of New England (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The second edition of The Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins (ERIC II) is clearly targeted at the collector who is not a Roman history or numismatics expert and wishes to determine when and where a coin was made and how much that coin might be worth. Suarez himself accurately describes this work as a ‘back-to-basics reference tool for dealers and collectors’ (p. i). The author is to this extent largely successful. This work is certainly not going to compete with Roman Imperial Coinage (RIC) in any meaningful way for those who require an academic approach to ancient numismatics, being more than anything else a book filled with lists of coins. The work covers a very lengthy time period in one massive tome, listing coins from the period of Augustus to Constantine XI (approximately 1500 years). Compressing this into one volume ensures that with a single, reasonably priced purchase the collector can possess a significant reference work illustrating the numismatics of a substantial historical period. This does result in the work being a massive volume weighing in at approximately five kg and totalling over 1400 pages. Unfortunately the strength of this book, the shorthand identification system that allows for the coverage of such a large time period in one volume, is also its major weakness as it seems that errors have crept into the lists, which clearly reduce the value of this work.
First impressions of this book were of how beautifully presented it was; a quick scan of the pages leaves a lasting impression because of the thousands of fantastic coin images on high quality paper, something that should not be undervalued in a numismatic work, as clear images of coins and inscriptions are not always easy to find in printed works. The printing and paper quality of this volume is for the most part very high. The gloss paper highlights the coins pictured and makes reading the inscriptions on the coins possible wherever the quality of the pictured coin permits. Some of the coins pictured throughout ERIC II are worn, corroded, or otherwise of poor quality but the pictures are not meant to show the inscriptions on the coins, just the imagery.
Rather than illustrations and descriptions of each coin, ERIC II is essentially a list of coins. Even though it contains thousands of images of coins, these do not include both the obverse and reverse of each individual coin, but rather only obverse or reverse to illustrate specific imperial busts and reverse types, although not all busts and types listed in this volume are pictured. Additionally, the bust or type illustrated may be pictured on a different denomination of coin than those described, and all coins pictured are reproduced at the same size (approximately 28 mm in diameter). The advantage of this approach is that otherwise small coins can be seen more easily.
Suarez should be praised for the shorthand coin identification system he has developed and that is utilised for identifying coins throughout ERIC II. This system divides the coin into four parts; the bust, the obverse inscription, the reverse inscription, and the reverse type (i.e. the image depicted on the reverse of the coin). The system, which is described in a little over two pages in the introductory section of the book, works well once one comes to grips with it, but it would have been better served by a more thorough explanation and clearer examples at the beginning of the book.
The eBay and auction average values listed in ERIC II are a potentially useful addition for a collector but are limited insofar as the grade of the coins used to create the average is unknown. There is, at least, a rather general statement that the coins sold at auction were probably of higher quality than those sold on eBay. The values given by Suarez are only for a coin denomination attributed to the reign of a particular emperor. So, for example, the average eBay price for an Augustan denarius is listed as $167 whilst at auction the average price achieved was $1,355. These values, although a reasonable indication of value, do not account for the grades of the coins sold nor the types of the individual coins, as some coin types are certainly rarer or more sought after than others. However, the fact that the author has included an indication of the number of examples sold provides a good indication of the rareness of a given coin type.
Based on the massive size of this book I will focus on the coinage of a single emperor as a case study for the purpose of this review. The subject is the emperor Trajan because of a readily accessible collection of Trajanic denarii which could be used to test the functionality of ERIC II in identifying Roman coins. The beginning of each emperor’s section contains a short historical introduction, with the section devoted to Trajan totalling approximately half a page of text. Disappointingly, the introduction is written in a very colloquial manner and the content contributes significantly to our understanding neither of the emperor’s reign nor of the coinage issued during the reign of Trajan, other than the author’s statement that many of the coins struck reflect Trajan’s numerous victories.
Of the eighteen Trajanic bust varieties listed and described by Suarez in ERIC II only nine are actually depicted in the plates, and of the 202 types described 132 are depicted. Although it could be argued that the space necessary to include all these images would be significant, the page containing the bust images is more than half blank and after the depiction of the types there is three-quarters of a page of rather disappointingly generic historical commentary about Roman roads that does not contribute to the focus of the book in any meaningful way. The remainder of the Trajanic section consists of nine pages of shorthand notations for the Trajanic coinage and approximately three and a half pages containing colour plates depicting the busts and types.
The five coins chosen for this case study were RIC 65, RIC 98, RIC 147, RIC 188, and RIC 190a. It is in the identification of these sample coins that problems with this work became apparent. Of the five coins, the obverse inscriptions of three were incorrectly identified by the list in ERIC II (RIC 98, RIC 147, RIC 190a), the fourth coin was identified correctly but was missing a depiction of the reverse in the colour plates making identification more difficult (RIC 65), and a fifth coin (RIC 188) was not listed. The closest variant (RIC 187), which has a different bust but is otherwise identical to RIC 188, was likewise listed with the wrong obverse inscription.
RIC 98 is listed in Suarez’s shorthand as ‘B05 O41 R14 T016 exe: DAC CAP’, meaning Bust: laureate head right; Obverse inscription: IMP NERVA TRAIANVS AVG GER DACICVS; Reverse inscription: COS V PP SPQR OPTIMO PRINC; Reverse type: Captive seated on weapons, resting head on hand, with DAC CAP in the exergue. What is immediately apparent from this example is the utility of the shorthand utilised in this work and the space saved by using this very clear system created by Suarez. Unfortunately in the case of this coin the details are incorrect: the obverse inscription should read IMP TRAIANO AVG GER DAC PM TR P as is readily confirmed by a visit to the author’s own website where the coin and its inscriptions are depicted,1 demonstrating that this coin should have been listed as ‘B05 O45 R14 T016 exe: DAC CAP’. This is clearly a typographical error, but an important one for a work that seeks to help the collector identify coins. This error is further compounded by the fact that the listings for RIC 147, RIC 190a, and RIC 187 suffer from the identical error. To make matters worse Suarez has built in a mechanism by which he identifies which RIC listings he has personally confirmed (black type) as opposed to ones he has garnered from other works (grey type) and of the four incorrectly identified coins three are identified as personally confirmed.
For all its faults this is a unique book and the author has clearly put in an incredible amount of effort into it. Suarez has deliberately steered away from what he calls the ‘academically weighted paradigm’ (p. i) prevalent in the RIC for a paradigm more consistent with the desires of the non-expert collector. It is with this purpose in mind that this work needs to be judged. As a reference for collectors to identify coins this had the potential to be an excellent work, but for the student or academic seeking to understand the numismatic history of imperial Roman coinage the RIC is still unsurpassed. Unfortunately the work does not live up to its great potential. The errors discovered make it very difficult to recommend this book for anything more than a cursory search to be confirmed by more rigorously edited volumes such as the RIC.2 If not for the errors it would have easy to argue that ERIC II would be of great value to the collector and a very helpful work for students and academics using it in conjunction with the RIC. Editing and correcting these lists would amount to an immense effort but one that would make this a much more valuable volume for its prospective audience.
1. See Dirty Old Coins. See also Wild Winds.
2. This review has limited the assessment of accuracy for Suarez’s work to a selection of five Trajanic denarii and the problems discovered here may not be as prevalent throughout the remainder of the work. [The BMCR editor of this review can confirm that there are similar problems with fifth-century coinage].