Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.06.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.06.17

Frédérique Duyrat, Wealth and Warfare: The Archaeology of Money in Ancient Syria. Numismatic studies, 34.   New York:  American Numismatic Society, 2016.  Pp. xxvii, 596.  ISBN 9780897223461.  $200.00.  


Reviewed by Rebecca Dodd, Independent Scholar, University of Glasgow (rebecca.dodd.1@gmail.com)

This substantial and ambitious volume covers the full range of hoards and site finds of ancient Syrian coins from areas which today comprise modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey, and brings together these sometimes disparate finds with detailed and coherent discussion of coins as historical sources. While the main focus of this work is the Hellenistic period, the author gives attention to the pre-Hellenistic Phoenician issues and to the coins of Alexander, while acknowledging that future studies should include the Roman period (p. 23). Indeed, one of the most significant contributions that this work makes to our knowledge of Hellenistic coins is that it clearly demonstrates throughout that ancient Syria was ruled and occupied by many different peoples, whereas much modern scholarship has focused on the Seleucids. Categorising this book is challenging; its sheer size and the amount of material covered make it an excellent reference source for any and all of the topics covered, especially in terms of its detailed catalogue and tables. In addition, the discussion chapters are written in a lively and accessible style that will appeal to students and professionals alike.

The catalogue occupies just under half of this volume and is placed at the beginning rather than being relegated to a final appendix as is often the case. This novel structure serves to underscore the importance of the coins and hoards as the foundation on which the study’s evidence is built. Each hoard or archaeological excavation is discussed in turn, and each entry contains its own bibliography in chronological order by publication date. This has the double effect of giving a clear demonstration of the current state of scholarship and of illustrating a frequent problem with numismatic research, namely that academic studies can be scattered across rare numismatic journals and more obscure publications. Moreover, this chapter is a useful reference on its own merits thanks to its efficient and thorough review of both archaeological and scholarly evidence.

Chapter 3, “A Source to be Reconstituted”, begins with a detailed discussion of the problems of assigning hoard provenance where this is uncertain, whether as a result of difficulties with publication methods or of new discoveries. This is followed by a discussion of the problems presented by the antiquities trade, underlining the fact that many and indeed most ancient coins find themselves in the commercial antiquities market, legally or illegally. Moreover, issues relating to the antiquities trade and the law are discussed throughout this section, as are archaeological programmes and conventions across different countries and regions. The effect of modern conflicts on the collection of coins and hoards is also treated here. Perhaps unusual for a scholarly publication, the author incorporates lively correspondence between archaeologists, scholars, and others, which breathes much needed excitement and vitality into the often-dry field of ancient numismatics, and consequently this chapter may be especially interesting to students. Moreover, for the same reasons, these texts are likely to appeal to anyone teaching numismatics. The chapter finishes with a discussion of why hoards were formed and buried, which, again, provides a rigorous but accessible discussion suitable for beginners and experts alike.

Chapter 4, “Before Alexander”, is a wide-ranging treatment of pre-Hellenistic coin hoards beginning with Persian hoards. Early sections of the chapter discuss non-denominated coinages, including weighted silver and Hacksilber, which serves as an excellent reminder of the early development of coinage. Detailed tables in this chapter give a full rundown of all of the archaeological finds in each coin hoard including jewellery, ingots, and figurines, which serve as clear evidence of the author’s argument that one of the functions of coin hoards was as a collection of an individual’s personal valuables, or “buried treasure”, as described throughout the work. The bulk of this chapter, however, is dedicated to the influx, imitation, and local minting of Athenian owl coins from the fifth through fourth centuries. The author uses comprehensive evidence from several relevant coin hoards to make the solid argument that while owl tetradrachms were used internationally, smaller denominations featuring the iconic owl seem only to have circulated locally. This section could easily stand alone as a self-contained study, but it also serves to place Hellenistic coins within their historical context.

Chapter, 5, “Alexander and the Successors”, is a short treatment of the gradual displacement of Persian coinage with Alexander’s silver coinage in Syria and the Near East. Persian and owl-type Athenian coins seem to have circulated alongside Alexander’s coinages until around 325, which the author argues came about as a result of the initial usage of Alexander’s coinage by Macedonian soldiers, and they were not fully displaced by Alexander’s coins until 320. As before, mixed coin hoards are the main source of evidence for this assertion. The issue of Alexander’s gold coinage also receives treatment in this chapter, with a full analysis of why gold coins were produced in an area with no local gold mines.

Chapter 6, “The Two Syrias”, covers the challenging issue of the partition of Syria between Ptolemy Soter and Seleucus I. Few written sources exist for this time period, and archaeological sources give few indications of who was in control of what territory at any given time. The author demonstrates that there are no instances of coin hoards with mixed Seleucid and Ptolemaic coinage, indicating clearly that the currencies were not used interchangeably. The maps contained within the book’s appendix provide a visualisation of the demarcation between Ptolemaic and Seleucid Syria. These maps would perhaps have been more helpful if they had been placed within the text.

Chapter 7, “From Kings to Cities”, is a lengthy and detailed study of the development of local coin types, particularly in the years following the reign of Antiochus III. This is evidenced by the increase in local silver types and wreathed tetradrachms. Hasmonean bronze coinages are treated here, as well as other civic issues, which circulated alongside Seleucid silver. This chapter is especially important for its treatment of bronze coinages and their local circulation, which serves as valuable evidence for the increasing local fragmentation of the Seleucid empire.

Chapter 8, “Wealth and Coinage”, is a brief treatment of the relationship between the container within which a hoard was stored and the contents of the hoard itself. To briefly sum up, there does not seem to have been any relationship between the two.

Chapter 9, “Coin Use and Monetization”, covers the evolving nature of the everyday usage of coins for economic purposes. It establishes that the use of gold coins was quite rare and that silver coins were the main medium for exchange. This chapter also discusses the extent to which the economy was not monetized and systems of barter remained in place. One of the more interesting conclusions of this chapter is that the numismatic evidence that we have available seems to indicate that not enough coins were/could have been minted in order to ensure a fully monetized economy. The flow of silver coins throughout Syria, as evidenced by hoards, supports the thesis that silver was widely interchangeable. The challenging problem of whether or not civic bronzes were interchangeable between cities continues the detailed treatment introduced in Chapter 7.

Few criticisms can be offered. The author does use quotations from and references to modern, and especially French, literature and popular culture on occasion throughout the book, which some may find distracting from the main arguments. That said, these references may prove welcome in a teaching setting, for which this book is well-suited. The grayscale charts and diagrams contained within the text can occasionally prove difficult to read and are sometimes less visually compelling than could be desired. The legends within the charts, however, are clear and consistent, and the accompanying text more than compensates for any confusion created by the charts themselves. As noted above, there are places where the maps could have been better placed within the text.

This short review cannot really do justice to this important work. It is full and complete and not only stimulates further interest in the subjects the book specifically covers but also sets the stage for study in other cognate areas. The detailed catalogue is central to the arguments contained within the discussions and is well-referenced throughout. The author makes a well-founded case for coin hoards and their value as historical evidence, while acknowledging the gaps in our knowledge. Many of the chapters and the sections within could serve as standalone studies, but they are all brought together admirably to create a full picture of coins and coin circulation (or the lack of same) in ancient Syria. While it is likely that some of the specifics of this work will become outdated in the light of the welcome addition of new archaeological finds, nevertheless the overall methodologies and concepts will doubtlessly always have value. This work is more than a scholarly monograph in that it can serve as a valuable resource with materials which will be useful for researchers, students, and teachers alike.

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