Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.09.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.34

William E. Metcalf, The Later Republican Cistophori. Numismatic notes and monographs, 170.   New York:  American Numismatic Society, 2017.  Pp. 184.  ISBN 9780897223478.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by David Schwei, Episcopal School of Jacksonville (

With this book, William E. Metcalf returns to his earlier work on the cistophoric coinage.1 The present monograph is, at its core, a well-executed die study of the cistophori struck in the 50s and 40s BCE. As such, it joins earlier die studies of cistophori from other periods to make the cistophori one of the most carefully and thoroughly studied coinages of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Like many die studies, the monograph is primarily written for specialists, and Metcalf addresses larger debates among numismatists and historians.

The cistophori under consideration are often called “proconsular cistophori” because they feature the names of Roman proconsuls in the Latin alphabet. Alongside these names are the names of other men in the Greek alphabet and, usually, the traditional images of cistophori: a snake emerging from a chest on the obverse and the reverse showing snakes on either side of a bow-case and a monogram identifying the location of the mint that produced each coin. The coins were struck in a few major cities within the provinces of Asia and Cilicia—Ephesus, Pergamum, Tralles, Apameia, Laodicea—and at a few uncertain mints.

The work begins with a brief introduction to earlier studies of the proconsular cistophori—most notably Gerd R. Stumpf’s monograph on the proconsuls of Asia, whose partial catalog and opinions are often respectfully discussed.2 Metcalf then provides a brief historical sketch of the term of each governor of Asia and of Cilicia whose names appear on the cistophori. In the next chapter, Metcalf discusses the Greek names recorded on the coins. Metcalf calls these men “the signers” in order to avoid the implications of other terms commonly used by numismatists, such as “mintmaster” or “mint magistrate.” Unlike the situation in Rome, no magistracy in charge of minting is known for the province of Asia. Furthermore, the men’s names are not always accompanied by a title or even the same title. Some even appear to be relatives. Metcalf, then, prefers to consider these signers to be wealthy citizens of the cities where the coins were struck. The coins may even represent their benefactions to the city. While these ideas are briefly sketched out in two pages (pp. 9-10), the subsequent, recurring discussion of the signers makes it a convincing argument.

Chapter Four, “The Catalogue,” is the longest. Since a die study seeks to understand the number of dies used to strike the coins and the order in which the coins were produced, a large sample of materials must be assembled. For this work, Metcalf is indebted to the late Charles Hersh, who collected and analyzed the cistophori themselves, as well as plaster casts and images of these coins, and to the late Richard B. Witschonke, who also purchased a large quantity of cistophori. Both men’s opinions about the cistophori survive only in preliminary notes, which Metcalf faithfully reports and discusses throughout the monograph.

The catalogue lists each pair of dies by city and then by governor, in chronological order. Within each governor’s term, the die pairs are also arranged chronologically as much as possible. These chronologies are determined by governors’ titles, signers’ names, obverse dies, the quality of engraving, and/or the wear on the dies. Metcalf is also careful to acknowledge that there is some uncertainty behind his chronology for some mints’ coins. In several instances, Metcalf offers a new, better reading of the coins’ inscriptions. For example, he corrects the reading of an Ephesian signer’s name from ΚΑΙCΤΡΟC to …ΜΙCΤΙΟC (pp. 13-14). After each city’s catalogue, Metcalf explains his chronology and comments on features unique to each mint, such as the symbols on Ephesian coins or the bronze coinage from Apameia that bears the names of two signers.

Among the uncertain mints, one produced a large number of cistophori featuring the abbreviation Q above a monograph of the letters ATRA. No signer is inscribed in Greek. Metcalf demonstrates that these all emanate from a single mint, but it is unclear which mint or magistrate is named by the monogram. Despite this uncertainty, Metcalf suggests that they can be dated between 41 and 39 BCE. Metcalf’s date relies on the a fortiori hypothesis that large issues of coins should appear in larger numbers among the coins in general circulation and therefore be more numerous in coin hoards. Since very small issues struck with one obverse die are present in hoards, and since the ATRA coins are largely absent from hoards even though they were struck with 34 obverse dies, the ATRA cistophori ought to be dated after the latest known Republican hoard (41 BCE). Metcalf’s terminus ante quem is provided by the cistophori of Mark Antony because those coin types depart further from tradition, their legend is purely Latin, and there is no evidence to indicate which mint produced them. This convincing argument about the coins’ date is presented in just two pages (pp. 59-60), partly because it summarizes an earlier article about this mint.3 Nevertheless, a more thorough explication of the evidence would have benefited many readers, especially those who are less familiar with the common numismatic assumptions explained here. A more detailed argument would also strengthen the conclusions.

In the “Summary and Conclusion,” Metcalf places the proconsular cistophori in their economic as well as cultural contexts. These coins were struck over approximately a decade and their consistent traits, including the governors’ names, indicate that their production was coordinated to some extent. The number of obverse dies counted in the die study means that the proconsular cistophori were small issues, so they did not have a large economic impact. Indeed, they likely simply replenished the silver coin supply within the provinces of Asia and Cilicia where these coins circulated. Additionally, if one accepts Metcalf’s date for the ATRA cistophori, they represent a growing Romanization of these provinces’ coins. The proconsular cistophori were produced at several mints, and their legends mix the Greek and Latin alphabets. The ATRA cistophori come from one mint, and their legend and monogram can be resolved using only Latin letters. The cistophori struck under Mark Antony also only feature Latin legends, depart further from the traditional coin types, and are struck at one or two mints. While Metcalf does not mention the Augustan and later imperial cistophori, they too only feature Latin inscriptions and wholly new types, but they are often produced at multiple mints. According to Metcalf, the cistophori become “Roman” under Antony, so the proconsular cistophori in this die study are the last true cistophori.

Three appendices discuss the weights of the coins, the names inscribed on the coins, the orthography of the legends, and the hoards containing proconsular cistophori. These appendices are followed by a bibliography, indices of names, offices, and symbols, and plates featuring images of each pairing of obverse and reverse dies.

Overall, the book contains strong arguments and Metcalf guides the reader through the relevant scholarship for each of his points about the cistophori themselves. Sometimes though, Metcalf’s deep and wide-ranging knowledge of these cistophori, numismatics, and scholarship results in rather compact arguments. Indeed, the two-page chapter on the signers moves beyond a preoccupation with the magistracies themselves and provides a model for an evidence-based discussion of who was responsible for producing coins. While the conclusions about Romanization and the limited economic role of the proconsular cistophori may have a broader appeal, the monograph is primarily for numismatists or specialists on the province of Asia. Indeed, the book can serve as a model for future publications of die studies. Epigraphers, economic historians, and scholars of ancient literacy may also be interested in the appendices.

The book is well written, produced, and printed. There are a few typos. Most, such as a missing period on page 1, are largely inconsequential; but others, such as the “1” for “O1” in the catalogue for Pergamum, can result in momentary confusion (p. 23). In the plates, a few images are more pixelated than others, since high resolution images are not always easy to obtain for die studies. Most images are printed very clearly, and the American Numismatic Society should be commended for aiding numismatists by printing images of each die pair.


1.   Metcalf, W. E., Cistophori of Hadrian, Numismatic Studies 15 (New York: American Numismatic Society, 1980). Digital Edition:
2.   Stumpf, G. R., Numismatische Studien zur Chronologie der römischen Statthalter in Kleinasien (122 v. Chr. – 163 n. Chr.), Saarbrücker Studien zur Archäologie und Alten Geschicht 4 (Sarrbrücken: Saarbrücker Druckerei und Verlag, 1991).
3.   Metcalf, W. E., “A Note on the Later Republican Cistophori”, Schweizerische Numismatische Rundschau 88 (2009): 205-210.

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