BMCR 2024.07.03

Between Roman culture and local tradition: Roman provincial coinage of Bithynia and Pontus during the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD)

, Between Roman culture and local tradition: Roman provincial coinage of Bithynia and Pontus during the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD). Archaeopress Roman archaeology, 100. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2023. Pp. 280. ISBN 9781803274652.

Open access


Between Roman Culture and Local Tradition. Roman Provincial Coinage of Bithynia and Pontus during the Reign of Trajan (98-117 AD) by Barbara Zając analyzes a chronologically and geographically well-defined numismatic corpus while touching upon broader issues of the persistence of local culture and tradition in the Roman double-province from a numismatic perspective. The corpus is essentially the RPC III catalogue, but the volume also mentions 45 Trajanic period coins (versus 338 imperial) that Zając documented in local museums (p. 125 fn. 4, 183). Most are unfortunately unprovenanced donations or purchases and did not factor much in the volume (e.g. p. 138 fn. 152, 184 fn. 42, 185). Some chapters resemble Zając’s published work on the museum collections of northern Turkey (Zając 2021), small change currency (Zając 2020), agency and chronology on the so-called pseudo-autonomous coinages (Zając 2018), coinage “without ethnics” (Zając 2019a), and the identification of imperial iconographical models (Zając 2019b).

The preface and introduction pose questions on identity and local cults and practices, in addition to numismatic topics, and readers can find some attempt to elucidate local histories. That said, readers may find the “summary” (pp. 195-197) more representative of the volume’s contributions.

Some coins in the corpus have relatively well-defined chronological markers that are found on coins of Apamea (Trajan’s consulship), Sinope and Amisus (local eras, p. 25). Less precise are the majority of coins with terminus post quem dates derived from Trajan’s titles, Germanicus (35% of all double-province issues) and Dacicus (48% of all issues) on the specimens available (pp. 25-26). Based on titulature and portrait analysis, the majority seems to have been minted after 102 CE (p. 28). The so-called “pseudo-autonomous” coins may only overlap with the Trajanic period (pp. 28, 143-150).

The cities that struck coins in Bithynia and Pontus used bronze, some mixed with lead (pp. 155-156) and brass (with zinc content between 13%-25%, pp. 155-157; similar to Perinthus, p. 154), but the ore itself is not an indicator of value (p. 161). Denominations (1/2 assarion, 1 assarion, 1 1/2 assarion, 2 assaria, 3 assaria, 4 assaria, 6 assaria, 8 assaria, Table 1a-1b) were in general determined by size and weight. The assarion was a locally issued bronze coin conceptually aligned with the Italian as; in the provinces, however, the assarion did not have a fixed tariff of 1 denarius for 16 Italian asses. Instead, assaria were likely tariffed lower, perhaps 17 assaria for 1 denarius, and 1 denarius for 18 assaria (p. 31). Zając suggests that the number of denominations issued may have positive correlations with the degree of the issuing city’s prosperity (p. 37). Prusas and Abonuteichos, for example, began striking 6-assaria coins under Trajan, perhaps for larger transactions and thesaurisation that became necessary due to increased economic activity (p. 32).

Cities employed their own engravers who followed the general style and themes of imperial coinage, but they also accommodated a wide range of choices (pp. 55-63, cf. Appendix 1). For example, there were eleven different ways to present Trajan’s name and titulature (p. 63). Unique features, such as local deity of Zeus Syrgrastes at Tium (p. 68) and the choice of Greek and Latin fonts (e.g. ΑVT for ΑΥΤ(οκράτωρ), p. 61) can be informative proxy data. Zając used various combination of traits and choices to conduct die-link studies with convincing results, including new identifications of the origins of and connections between coins, as well as the relationships between coins and cities (p. 161). One good example of the utility of assessing the combination of markers and die links is found at Nicaea. Only one coin type can be directly attributed to the city based on coin legends (p. 64; RPC III 1059). However, additional factors – such as designs found on Flavian period coinage, the legend KΤΙCTHC, and the countermark TONZOY (again Flavian) – suggest that at least six groups of coins without ethnic designations can be assigned to Nicaea (pp. 125-142; Table 3, Table 4). Zając also observed that these ethnically unmarked coins also happen to share similar motifs, legends, and coin sizes with other coin issues with ethnics, leading to the possibility that they may have been issued for the purpose of entering cooperating markets (pp. 141-142, 196).

The coins without ethnics are just one tranche of specimens implicating centralizing convergence across a number of cities during the Domitianic and Trajanic periods. For example, Iuliopolis, Amastris, and Abonuteichos began to strike coins under Trajan with a set of common motifs used by Nicaea, Prusias and Nicomedia, which in turn issued coins bearing common motifs shared with imperial issues struck at Perinthus in 80-82 CE (pp. 123, 195-196). The share of common motifs among all iconographic types issued under Domitian was 33.7%, while common motifs take up 39.5% of all iconographic types under Trajan (p. 123). To Zając, when “monetary systems” (e.g. Nicomedia and Nicaea) “could correspond at certain times to the imperial system,” centralization efforts may be at work (pp. 41-42). There were also a number of cooperation-inducing mechanisms observable. Countermarks were used to accept foreign currency into local markets (pp. 171-172), to extend usage of old coins, to confirm or adjust value, or for honorary/religious reasons. It is possible that cities under cooperative agreements issued coins with the legend homonoia with accompanying iconography to facilitate shared circulation of local coinages (pp. 115-116).

That said, there remains a significant percentage of unaligned coin types and many cities (Byzantium, Calchedon, Prusa, Heraclea, Tium, Amisus) did not adopt common motifs. Zając sees here a dynamic situation in which Domitianic and Trajanic interventions in metrology, denomination and iconography in Thrace and Bithynia and Pontus failed, leading to the apparent divergence observable during the Hadrianic period (p. 34, 124, 196). Zając sees individual cities in the double-province creating “syntheses” from the imperial and the provincial “monetary system,” with the aim of running “a single system [in that given centre] suitable for the inhabitants of [the] given centre” (p. 53).

The connection with Perinthus brings another layer of complexity. Perinthus struck the Domitianic coinage that later served as models for Bithynian coinage in terms of iconography, legends, and the use of brass (p. 34, p. 151). The so-called homonoia coinage is also found at Perinthus during the Trajanic period (p. 189). What, then, was the relationship between Perinthus and the Bithynian and Pontic cities, with all their shared traditions? Zając only mentions that they display that “various tendencies coming from the west are spreading” (p. 194). Interestingly, Zając does not engage with Rudolfo Martini’s observation (noted in the same paper she cites) that the bronze coinage of Perinthus and Asia Minor was a “military (or localized) issue,” primarily intended for “legionary users” rather than deeply connected to “the complex, multifaceted institutional framework of Roman politics and Roman society.” This stands in contrast to the “centralized” coinage, which was directly managed by Rome’s administrative apparatus (Martini 2018, p. 56). Perhaps the “legionary user” or other such perspectives may be useful in future assessments.

Zając also addresses external connections under the chapter “Circulation” (pp. 179-187) and specifically countermarks. In Zając’s figures (which she does not discuss in detail) there is a coin with the legend ΔΙΟC (fig. 31) that has a countermark TOM, likely for Tomis—a good indication of not just the mobility of persons and coins to lands far beyond the double-province, but how a city such as Tomis can address coinage deficiencies by accepting foreign coins into circulation (p. 174, p. 187). Similar dynamics likely took place in the double-province, though Zając does not clearly state this. She mentions that a bearded-head countermark used on Nicaean coinage can be found on coins of Erythrae (Ionia), Tyre (Phoenicia), Abila and Philadelphia (Syria, p. 173). But is this countermark Nicaean? Zając is also not clear on whether foreign coins tend to be countermarked. One finds cursory mentions of the coins of other provinces that have been found in cities and sites of the double-province: Asia, Thrace, Galatia-Cappadocia, Cyprus, Syria, Arabia, Judaea, Egypt (pp. 184-185). It is not clear how many received countermarks. A map would perhaps be useful, if no further analysis is possible. Of course, countermarking is complex, not just for accepting foreign coinage (pp. 171-172, 197). Zając gives three specific uses from the Trajanic corpus, changing the value of coins (Apollo, p. 172), returning coins to circulation (e.g. TRA and ΑΥΤΚ countermarks, pp. 174-175, 181), or of an honorary nature (images of people, perhaps imperial family p. 173).

On “Production” (p. 151-178), Zając’s analysis of the die-axis found that coins of the double-province tend to be struck with greater variability under Trajan (and hence likely with higher production intensity and also increased carelessness) than coins struck during Nero’s reign (pp. 162, 165, 169-170; Table 7a-b). While estimating volumes of emissions is uncertain, Zając applied the Carter test (p. 160) to coins of five mints/cities in the Trajanic period to gauge minimum output, yielding a sum of 24.225 million coins (Table 6a). The Carter test was also applied to Trajanic provincial coins without ethnics (Table 4), yielding an estimate totalling 14.895 million coins (Table 6b). The problem is of course what to make of these estimates. Zając does not say anything beyond two possibilities, that some (such as the DIOC group) may have been responding to military events, but more generally the volume in the millions make sense, because bronze coinage were the basic units for everyday transactions (p. 169). If, however, we consider the share of coins without ethnics versus coins with ethnics, then those without would take up 38% of the current estimate data. In comparison, Byzantium accounts for only 20.4%, followed by Heraclea Pontica at 14.8%. From Zając’s point of view, the 38% share should not be surprising, since Nicaea was the principal issuer of coins without ethnics (p. 171), and it was going through a particularly vibrant period in terms of economic activity. But if we also take into account Zając’s point that coins without ethnics were not only Nicaean but also cooperative coinage (pp. 141-142), would the 38% share mean something different, particularly when considering that many of its coins could have been issued for the purpose of entering cooperating markets?

In closing, I bring up two issues. The first concerns the definition of “monetary system.” Zając appears to adopt the definition from the Roman Provincial Coinage series (e.g., RPC I, pp. xvii, 23, 30), which equates “monetary system” with metrology and denominations (e.g., pp. 29-34). However, Zając’s analysis often extends beyond these aspects. In the background, for instance, is Kraft’s Das System der kaiserzeitlichen Münzprägung in Kleinasien (though only one footnote on p. 170). The notion that there was a “collaborative system of coin production”  (e.g. Watson 2020, p. 2) suggests Zając’s “monetary system” ought to be more than metrology and denominations. Furthermore, Zając deals with circulation, local monetary “policies” (on what combinations of iconography and fonts to adopt), local coin and minting traditions, etc. There seems to be a missed opportunity to put forward a clearer vision of what a “monetary system” can mean based on the results of the volume. Katsari’s approach comes to mind. In her Roman Monetary System, Katsari treated readers the following list: regulation of economic agents, the control of money supply, the identification of the specific medium of transactions, the guarantee of the value of money and the exchange of currencies, and the determination of monetary policies based on fiscal need and market demand (Katsari 2011, p. 1).

The second issue concerns the images in the publication. The volume publishes 33 images of Trajanic coins from several collections, including Der Nederlandsche Bank (Amsterdam), the Münzkabinett of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the CGT collection, and the Archaeological Museum in Izmit. Curiously, all figures of coins are not referred to directly in the main text and the footnotes. Readers can use the RPC III numbers to make connections themselves, but this clearly limits the utility of the figures.

In sum, Zając’s volume offers essential baselines in terms of metrology, denomination, iconography, and quantitative estimates that can be further deployed for a variety of research purposes. Issues concerning cooperative mechanisms, inter-city and inter-regional interactions are also raised. Readers will also likely value mentions of local cultural nuances and the varying degrees of Roman influence.



Katsari, C. 2011. The Roman Monetary System. The Eastern Provinces from the First to the Third Century AD, Cambridge.

Martini, Rodolfo. 2018. “Countermarks in the Name “Galba” on Roman Imperial and Provincial Coinages: Considerations on the Countermarks and the Circulation of Local Bronze Coins in Pannonia (?), Moesia, Thrace and Asia Minor (?),” Gephyra 16, pp. 37-73.

Watson, G. 2020a. Connections, Communities, and Coinage. The System of Coin Production in Southern Asia Minor, AD 218–276. New York.

Zając, B. 2021. “Roman provincial coins from the reign of Trajan in the museum collections of northern Turkey,” The Numismatic Chronicle 181, pp. 103-114.

Zając, B. 2020. “Small Change in the Roman Provincial World. Bronze Denominations in the Province of Asia between 96 and 138 AD,” in Pecunia Omnes Vincit V. Conference Proceedings, ed. B. Zając and S. Jellonek, Kraków, pp. 30-61.

Zając, B. 2019a. “Mysterious uncertain Bithynian coins,” in Conference Proceedings IV. International Numismatic and Economic Pecunia Omnes Vincit, ed. B. Zając, P. Koczwara and S. Jellonek, Kraków, pp. 41-56.

Zając, B. 2019b. “Roman Imperial Coinage model for some Provincial Coins of Bithynia and Pontus struck during the reign of Trajan (98–117 A.D.),” Notae Numismaticae-Zapiski Numizmatyczne 14, pp. 123-148.