Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.05.51 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.51

Nathan T. Elkins, Monuments in Miniature: Architecture on Roman Coinage. Numismatic studies, 29.   New York:  American Numismatic Society, 2015.  Pp. ix, 230.  ISBN 9780897223447.  $100.00.  


Reviewed by David Braund, University of Exeter (d.c.braund@exeter.ac.uk)

This is a welcome study of the images of buildings (and architectural features of many kinds) on Roman coinage across much of Roman history, from the republican period through the late empire. The structures here take different forms, ranging from port installations to wells and the occasional column, but with particular structures, like temples, especially often represented. In numismatic studies, architectural depiction is an established focus of research, a sub-field in which M. J. Price and B. L. Trell’s Coins and their cities: architecture on the ancient coins of Greece, Rome and Palestine (London; Detroit, 1977) is probably the best-known work yet published. However, the category is not unproblematic. While there is coherence around the theme (especially when given the narrower focus of e.g. Price and Trell’s book), its considerable diversity can also be disquieting: how much does the depiction of part of a column on a coin have in common with, say, a range of temples on coins? Why should an ancestral achievement portrayed in material form on a coin be set apart from achievements and ideas evoked in other ways, whether on coins or otherwise? And, of course, there is the whole set of questions that surround the choice of images. These are questions of mechanism as well as fashion or ideology, with associated headaches over the distribution of new coins, the long circulation of old coins and the “audience” for coin images.

In addition to covering far more ground than Price and Trell, this study has a rather more ambitious set of objectives, together with more overt reflection on matters of methodology. In sum, it seeks to bring “architectural numismatics” together with art history, archaeology and – perhaps more surprisingly – social history. A work of considerable scope in every sense, it goes about its business also after the manner of a catalogue, offering brief comment on individual coin types as well as occasional forays into much bigger topics. There is a lot of good stuff here, and the book will undoubtedly be useful to a wide range of scholars. Unfortunately, however, the coin-illustrations are far too small and murky. (Price and Trell illustrate fewer coins, but their images are incomparably better.) In general this is a handsome volume, so that one wonders how the American Numismatic Society came to permit the inclusion of such poor images.

A thoughtful introduction sets out the considerable scope of the book, and fairly insists on the breadth of its innovative approach, while also explaining in some detail its position on previous scholarship on “architectural numismatics”. In Chapter 1 we meet the beginnings of “architecture” on coins, which emerges as a habit rare among Greeks before the Roman period, though it remains unclear why that should be. The phenomenon takes hold in Rome itself only towards the late Republic, and also becomes popular around the Greek world, where abiding localism discourages much faith in acculturation to Roman practice as a satisfactory explanation. It is argued here that the change to architectural images in the coinage of Rome itself should be viewed together with changes in Roman wall-painting, where “architecture” becomes fashionable at (very broadly) the same time. However, the association remains elusive, while it might also raise questions: what of the buildings depicted on Greek walls which did not make it onto earlier Greek coinage, for example? What of the particular importance of moneyer-related structures on Roman coins (about which Elkins has a lot else to say)? How much did those specific structures really have to do with this general style in Roman wall-painting? Meanwhile, the chapter conveniently sets out the coin types in question, with a valuable page or two on each example.

The next three chapters follow a similar path: Ch. 2 on the Principate, Ch. 3 on the later empire (from Severus Alexander to Valentinian III), and Ch. 4 on provincial coinage (a traditional grouping in numismatics, but also perhaps peculiar category in historical terms) across the centuries. While larger points are made (e.g. on the multiple evocations of a particular structure), readers will find valuable comments too in the details of this extended survey of the coins themselves, as we are taken through a series of key imperial buildings and related structures – rostral columns, Diana’s temple on the Aventine, the Curia Julia (as it seems to be), and so on.

This is much more than a routine catalogue. Some of these coins raise problems of identification and interpretation that take the scholar in all kinds of different directions. Important large points emerge, for example confirmation of the problems in expecting coins to show a “photographic” image of their buildings. By and large, all this is handled well and concisely. It is an extended story of evolution rather than revolution, with occasional shifts that accord with the Zeitgeist (notably the disappearance of the moneyer from the coinage with the advent of the Principate, or the local tendencies that run strong in the provinces in the context of subsequent weakening in control or concern from the centre). The author is very comfortable with the numismatics, though rather less precise with the literary material at times. For example, on the Temple of Olympian Zeus at Athens, he follows those scholars who have identified the building on the basis of Suetonius, Augustus 60. But this text shows only that a plan of completion was formed by friendly kings; it is no help at all in identifying the structure on the coins in question. Evidently the unknown plan came to nothing, and in all likelihood failed to gain imperial approval, leaving a major opportunity for Hadrian. This kind of knotty problem is very hard to tackle in the context of a survey-catalogue, and yet it is fundamental to the identification of the building and therefore the possible evocations of its image.

Each chapter has a short, helpful conclusion. The book closes with a general conclusion and tables of coins in four appendices, with bibliography and a user-friendly index. The general conclusion is rather brief (pp. 167-70), especially for a book which aims to do so much. This reviewer was left with the feeling that there are two principal dynamics in this book: each would make a fine book, but they sit rather awkwardly together. On the one hand, there is a desire to collect and catalogue this (rather elastic) category of coins. On the other, there is an admirable ambition to demonstrate and explain how this category of coins might be a window upon a wide range of social and political phenomena through hundreds of years of Roman history from the later second century B.C. onwards (and indeed vice versa). It seems to me that the resultant book succeeds rather well in achieving the first of these goals. However, the second requires a far larger canvas of its own, so that, while we may well agree that coinage (being part of society) should be understood in a more integrated way, in the context of social history and the rest, this book prompts further reflection without really setting out the kind of full-blown manifesto and demonstration that seem to be promised at the outset. It may well be that Elkins’ next book will do that, and perhaps for Roman coinage more generally.

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