BMCR 2021.02.17

Functions and use of Roman coinage: an overview of 21st century scholarship

, Functions and use of Roman coinage: an overview of 21st century scholarship. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2019. Pp. vi, 84. ISBN 9789004413528 €70,00.

This is one of the short ‘state of the field’ pieces published as part of Brill Research Perspectives. Brill’s website advertises these works as articles within the journal Brill Research Perspectives in Ancient History rather than as stand-alone monographs, although it is also releasing them in monograph form.[1] Whether readers would be willing to pay the asking price for what is essentially a long journal article has already been addressed in BMCR reviews for other volumes.[2]

In keeping with the intention of the series, this is a volume for those already familiar with Roman numismatics; what is presented is an overview of scholarship, not an introduction to the topic itself. The reader is expected to be familiar with various coin denominations and technical terms, though Kemmers helpfully provides bibliographical suggestions for readers who may find they are less familiar with the terminology (p. 15). Given the large amount of scholarship on Roman coinage, Kemmers restricts herself to scholarship that dates to after 2000, unless it is a key work, and focuses on the Roman world from the Republic to Late Antiquity. Kemmers begins her survey with the now infamous challenge laid down by A.H.M. Jones, asking numismatists to produce more work relevant to political and economic history.[3] To what extent has Roman numismatics risen to the challenge? This question frames her discussion. The image presented is one of a discipline that has greatly developed since Jones’ day.

An overview of the major catalogues and reference works for the fields of Republican, imperial, and provincial coinage is provided, as well as for coin finds and coin hoards. The overview is detailed and will serve as an excellent starting point for researchers wishing to dive into the field. From here the work becomes more thematic in nature, providing an overview of scholarship focused on coins as a medium of communication, and coins as monetary instruments. These overviews are detailed and clear, with major works discussed. Moreover, areas where there are gaps in scholarship are noted, with possible reasons for these oversights posited (e.g. the communicative role of coinage in Late Antiquity, p. 18). The final section explores the use of coinage, which is largely focused on coinage and archaeology or ‘archaeo-numismatics’ (p. 54). Kemmers details the major works on the topic, presenting large-scale projects like the German Fundmünzen initiative as well as works of finer, micro-level analysis.

In the brief conclusion, Kemmers returns to Jones, and states that, given the current state of the field, he would likely have been satisfied with developments. The proliferation of online catalogues have made studying Roman coinage democratic; scholarship is no longer confined to those whose university libraries could afford the very expensive catalogue volumes. Kemmers concludes that the picture Roman numismatics can provide is much more detailed and nuanced than in Jones’ day, although often definitive answers can elude us. She concludes that the future of Roman numismatics ‘lies in connecting the enormously rich numismatic material to the overarching debates on the ancient world’ (p. 64).

The volume is clearly written and contains high quality colour illustrations. In a piece of such small size it is difficult to cover all scholarship in the field, but Kemmers does an admirable job in presenting a picture of Roman numismatics as it was in 2019. As demonstrated in the volume, the field has transformed enormously since Jones’ day, integrating theories from anthropology, economics and other fields, introducing scientific analyses and pioneering the presentation of data online. Given these developments, one wonders how long it will be before a new volume of this nature will be required. But for now, this essay offers a readable and detailed introduction to scholarship on a wide range of developments within Roman numismatics; scholars beginning research in the field would do well to begin their reading here.


[1] Brill Research Perspectives in Ancient History overview.

[2] See, for example, Houston on Rogers, BMCR 2018.11.42, and Kaldellis on Humphries, BMCR 2020.04.45.

[3] A.H.M. Jones, ‘Numismatics and history’, in Essays in Roman Coinage Presented to Harold Mattingly, edd. R.A.G. Carson and C.H.V. Sutherland, Oxford: 1956, pp. 13–33.