Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.05.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.05.11

William E. Metcalf, The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. xviii, 688.  ISBN 9780195305746.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Andrew Meadows, The American Numismatic Society ( )


As Metcalf notes (xvii), it is over 100 years since the last single volume guide to Greek coinage was produced, and there has never been an equivalent work for Rome. This new handbook is, therefore, long overdue and hugely welcome. All involved are to be congratulated and, while in a project as broad as this there are inevitably some omissions, we now have something where there was nothing, and for that we should be very grateful.

The structure is straightforward. A brief introduction by Metcalf describes the production method of ancient coinage, the circumstances of its modern discovery and the consequences of both of these for its study. He then very briefly surveys what can be done with coinage as historical, art historical, and economic evidence. There follows a single chapter on one aspect of the study of ancient coins, the scientific analysis of their chemical composition. The bulk of the book consists of a series of chapters, written by some of the foremost scholars in the field, devoted to specific periods and geographical areas, from the beginning of coinage in seventh-century Asia Minor to the arrival of the penny in 8th-century Western Europe. The stated aim is ‘to provide a systematic overview of the raw material as well as annotated discussion to support the arguments and to facilitate further inquiry… useful to an academic and a lay audience… written in accessible fashion, making no assumptions of prior knowledge….’ (xviii). The contributors have stuck to their task with success. The essays are lucid and largely free of unnecessary jargon.

The volume begins with Ponting’s chapter on the role of scientific analysis. This is a fast-changing field, and it is helpful to have a clear account of the tensions between destructive vs. non-destructive analysis, surface vs. core, original composition vs. current composition. It is a pity that there are not similar chapters dealing other methods of analysis of numismatic material. Quantitative analysis, metrological analysis, hoard analysis, site-find analysis, stylistic analysis all have significant bibliographies of their own, and offer possibilities for the absorption of numismatic material into other fields of study. A ‘lay’ readership would have benefitted from clear accounts of recent work in these fields, no less than that of chemical analysis.

The section on the Greek world opens with Kroll (Chapter 2) on the monetary background of early coinage. He stresses the evidence for pre-coin monetary use of bullion in Greece and Asia Minor, and sets the first coins in this context. ‘The key factor… was the involvement of the state’. So the advent of coin came out of the need to make acceptable payments (38-9). With the switch to coinage in silver, which would become the standard monetary metal in the Greek world, the motivation moved in part from the fiscal to the utilitarian, with a desire on the part of the state to standardize and protect currency.

Konuk (Chapter 3) provides an overview of the earliest electrum coinage, and his geographic survey of the earliest silver coinage of the Greek cities, but also in Caria and Lycia, serve to illustrate that the diffusion of this outward from the Lydian and Persian administration was far from a distinctively Greek phenomenon.

Alram’s survey of the ‘Coinage of the Persian Empire’ (Chapter 4) begins with the development of Achaemenid silver from Lydian predecessors, followed by a survey of the satrapal and karanic issues. Absent from this chapter is any discussion of the coinages of the cities within the Persian Empire. This sadly leads to an enormous gap in the coverage of the Handbook as a whole: nowhere is there a treatment of the coinages of the Greek cities of Asia Minor of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Absent too are the major coinages of Hecatomnid Caria and the Lycian dynasts, the gold and silver of Cyprus and the substantial coinages of Phoenicia. On the book’s own terms the absence of a description of coinage of the entire Classical period from the Hellespont to the Levant is a serious omission. But this also illustrates the weakness in organization of discussion by administrative entity rather than, say, by imperial space. This is a problem not just for Persia. The student looking (as many will) for a discussion of the Athenian Empire and the famous ‘Standards Decree’ will find just an Athenocentric paragraph (p. 94) in van Alfen’s thorough survey of the coinage of Athens.

These criticisms aside, the remainder of the Archaic and Classical Greek world is covered in a series of fine surveys by Sheedy (the Islands), Rutter (Italy) and Fischer-Bossert (Sicily), whose contributions all push down to the Hellenistic period. Of similar quality is Psoma’s ‘Greece and the Balkans to 360 BC’. The only criticism of this chapter can be of the limit of 12 pages assigned to it. This is Archaic and Classical Greece, and thus covers the period and region most heavily taught to students of Greek history.

The Hellenistic world starts with ‘Royal Hellenistic Coinages: from Alexander to Mithridates’ by De Callataÿ. This chapter (10) in fact begins with the coinage of Philip II, and gives just two pages to Alexander (178-9). There follows a section on the Diadochs dealing with Monophthalmus, Poliorcetes and Lysimachus, before jumping to the Attalids and then again to the last kings of Bithynia, Cappadocia and Pontus. This is in fact a chapter clearing up the rump of what is left after Lorber’s ‘Ptolemies’ and Houghton’s ‘Seleucids’. A mopping-up chapter of this sort is desirable, but the result is that the coinage of the kingdom of Macedonia is butchered. Cassander, Antigonus Gonatas, Demetrius II, Doson, Philip V and Perseus in fact go completely unnoticed. By contrast, civic coinage from 323-31 BC in Greece and Asia Minor is treated as a whole by Ashton in Chapter 11. This is a model of concise deployment of a complex story, which carries us into an account of monetary behavior after the establishment of the provinces of Macedonia, Achaea and Asia.

Lorber’s ‘Ptolemies’ (Chapter 12) provides a reliable survey of Ptolemaic coinage from beginning to end. Organized by reign, it charts the development of coinage at the mint of Alexandria and subsidiary mints in the ‘core territories’, and, in outline, in the provinces. Houghton’s ‘Seleucids’ (Chapter 13) takes a different approach by providing an overview of the complex, flexible, often reactive nature of the monetary administration of the Seleucid land empire thematically. The ‘Greek coinages of Palestine’ receive lavish treatment from Tal (Chapter 14), who considers the coinages of Philistia, Judaea, Samaria and Edom, and the Alexander coinage of Akko (probably in fact to be attributed to Tyre). Thereafter, the Ptolemaic and Seleucid coinages feature again.

The Greek section of the book concludes with Sinisi on the Parthian kingdom (Chapter 15), who provides a useful account of the development both of the difficult Parthian coinage and of the coinages of the subordinate kingdoms of Persis, Elymais and Characene.

The fourteen chapters devoted to the Greek world are outbalanced by the eighteen given to the ‘Roman World’. In part, this results from the longer time period covered, but it is also because the Roman World encompasses much of what had been Greek: for numismatists, the designation ‘Greek Imperials’ has given way to ‘Roman Provincials’. Discussion of the coinage of the Roman world, for the first 600 years of its history, can thus be divided into two parts, reflecting a bipartite Roman monetary policy and modern numismatic study. On the one hand we have the mint of Rome itself, and occasional subsidiary mints. On the other we have coin produced in the provinces by cities, kings and in certain cases by the Roman administration itself for use locally within these provinces. This dichotomy defines the structure of Chapters 16-30.

Burnett (Chapter 16) takes us from the beginning of Roman coinage around 300 BC to the Second Punic War; the chapter works neatly as a transition from Greece to Rome, and an introduction to the entire period of Roman coinage. Fourth-century Italy had seen an increase in volume of coinage produced, and extension of geographic use of coinage and a growth in smaller denominations: ‘While a growth in the money supply and the expansion of the monetary economy to include smaller transactions would have been the consequences of the changes, there is no suggestion that there was any such “modernist” motivation that led to their creation. One suggestion is to seek an explanation in the increase in warfare…. It was against this background that Rome made its first, very tentative steps in the production of coined money’ (298). So we are introduced to the relationship between coinage and war that still dominates discussion of Roman coinage.

Of the chapters dealing with Rome and its subsidary mints, the first, by Woytek (Chapter 17), takes the Republican period to its conclusion. His title suggests that the account is confined to the denarius, but it pays proper attention to the bronze and gold coinage too. This is followed by accounts of the Julio-Claudians (Wolters, Chapter 18), the Flavians (Carradice, Chapter 20), Trajan and Hadrian (Beckmann, Chapter 22) and the Severans (Abdy, Chapter 27). Two chapters (28 and 29) by Bland and Estiot then carry us from Gordian III into the third century and introduce the devolution of imperial coin production across the Empire. The full story of this new monetary system from the House of Constantine into the 4th century is laid out in Chapters 31 and 32 by Abdy and Moorhead, while Stahl carries us deep into the Early Medieval period in Chapter 33.

Interlaced with this narrative are the chapters dealing with the provinces. Four have a geographical focus—Spain (Ripollès, Chapter 19), Syria (Butcher, Chapter 25), Palestine (Gitler, Chapter 26) and Egypt (Geissen, Chapter 30)—while two attempt an overview of the entire coinage within specific periods: Augustus to Hadrian (Amandry, Chapter 21) and Commodus to the end of provincial minting in the 260s (Johnston, Chapter 24). Sandwiched between these parallel discourses is a bold chapter (the longest) by Yarrow (Chapter 23), which covers both Roman and provincial production in the Antonine period.

In this section the Handbook is clearly at its most comfortable. Linear structure ensures thorough coverage, and the provincial system guarantees that the majority of the empire is covered too. (It is shame, however, that North Africa and the Sasanians are omitted.) The treatment offered by the Roman chapters is far from mechanical or rigidly numismatic, however. All repay reading either for important observations on the nature of coinage within the overall construct of Roman imperial power, or for the methodology of studying coinage, and the history that can be written from it. Compare Johnston and Bland on civic provincial coinage and the imperial coinage of the third century:

‘The great diversity of the third-century provincial bronzes and their sporadic minting show that the individual cities were free to choose what coins they issued and when. Very few cities, even among the most important ones, appear to have struck coins regularly, suggesting that ensuring an adequate supply of small change was not a priority.’ (Johnston, 464-5)

‘Die studies also confirm the evidence of the coin finds for a great increase in coin production at this period…. Victorinus may have used 15,850 obverse dies, an extremely high number. If a figure of 30,000 coins per obverse die is adopted for these coins, this would suggest a mintage of 476 million radiates over the course of the reign, or perhaps 48 million a week.’ (Bland, 521)

Few could read either of the chapters from which these quotations derive without appreciating the capacity of coinage to talk to us about the social, political and economic realities of the ancient world in a way that few other sources can. It is much to be hoped that students of the history of all periods will find their way to this rich new resource.

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