Review: Ancient Numismatics and Its History

Ernest Babelon. Ancient Numismatics and Its History Including a Critical Review of the Literature. Elizabeth Saville, trans. Studies in the History of Numismatic Literature No. 2. Crestline / London: George Frederick Kolbe Publications / Spink, 2004. Hb. 248 pp. ISBN 0-934352-07-0 (Kolbe) / ISBN 1-902040-52-X (Spink). $68.50 / £ 70.00.

In 2001 the well-known American and British numismatic book publishers and distributors George Frederick Kolbe and Spink & Son Ltd. joined forces to produce the first volume in a projected series on Studies in the History of Numismatic Literature. This timely series is intended to make accessible to an English-speaking audience important works devoted to numismatic literature written in other languages as well as to publish new books on the subject. The first volume in the series was an excellent revised and updated edition of Ferdinando Bassoli’s Monete e medaglie nel libro antico dal XV al XIX secolo (Florence, 1985) translated into English as Antiquarian Books on Coins and Medals from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century (Crestline/London, 2001) by Elizabeth Saville. In the present work, representing the second in the series, Saville translates the first part (“Introduction générale à l’étude des monnaies de l’antiquité”) of the introductory volume of Ernest Babelon’s monumental Traité des monnaies grecques et romains (Paris, 1901-1932), one of the great classics of numismatic literature and a key stone in the foundation of modern methodological thought on the study of ancient coinage.

While the first chapter (pp. 13-26) of Ancient Numismatics and Its History serves to introduce the reader to the modern definition of numismatics as well as to identify the regions and time periods that fall under the branch concerned with the coinage of antiquity, the second (pp. 27-50) is a spirited defense of numismatics as the tool of the historian, archaeologist, classicist, and art historian. The latter is well worth the reading not only for Babelon’s entertaining and illustrative analysis of an 1878 cinq-francs coin in the guise of a numismatist of the far future, but for his detailed survey of the evidence that numismatics can offer for the better understanding of ancient political and economic history, philology, epigraphy, iconography, chronology, mythology, architecture, religion, and even sport. Although written over a century ago, Babelon’s words still profoundly inspire the student of ancient numismatics, even in an age when some might be tempted to question the legitimacy of the coin cabinet and its evidentiary value.

In the five chapters that follow, Babelon describes the marvelous pageant of colorful characters and new ideas responsible for developing the study of ancient numismatics into a humanistic science capable of the types of revelation discussed in chapter II. We are introduced to the very origin of numismatics in chapter III (pp. 51-54), where Babelon recounts the few surviving anecdotes of ancient coin collectors and the coins that found their way into the reliquaries of medieval churches as well as into the hands of the early antiquarians of the Renaissance. The next three chapters continue the story of numismatic study and publication from its birth as a serious pursuit in the sixteenth century (pp. 65-94) to its infancy and childhood in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (pp. 95-126), and to its adolescence and early adulthood in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (pp.127-140). Chapter VII (pp. 141-214) describes the mature state of numismatics from 1836 to 1900 by the geographical regions of Europe. Here the reader will find biographical and bibliographical snapshots of the great luminaries of the eighteenth century, many of whose treatises and catalogues are still indispensable on the shelf of the numismatist today. Some will probably notice that North America, including the American Numismatic Society, has been left out. This is not overly surprising, since the Society had only resurrected itself in the 1870s after years of dissolution and did not make its European debut until the Paris Exposition of 1900, the final year of Babelon’s survey.

A final chapter (pp. 215-236) comprises a list of some 224 sale catalogues of major collections of ancient coins sold in the nineteenth century, with the caveat that only catalogues with accurate descriptions have been included.

Unlike the earlier Bassoli volume, which included revisions and additions to the original 1985 publication, this translation of Babelon is very Spartan in terms of added material. In some cases additional footnotes have been included to translate Greek and Latin text and technical terms that would have been easily understandable to educated individuals of Babelon’s day, but which may seem arcane in our own time of the twilight of classical education. Notes also translate several French academic and political titles that might be unfamiliar to an English-speaking audience. Very rarely are footnotes used to update the text, as on page 136 where it is remarked that the volumes of Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum now supplement and expand T.E. Mionnet’s Description de médailles antiques (Paris, 1806) described by Babelon as, “the furthest reaching and most exact compendium of Greek coins ever published.” It is a little unfortunate that more notes were not included to indicate when scholarship of the nineteenth century has been superseded by more recent work as, for example, in the case of the Jewish coinage once attributed to Simon the Maccabee (p. 143) now known to have been struck much later by Simon Bar-Kochba. Such additional material would have further enriched Ancient Numismatics and Its History for numismatic neophytes of the twenty-first century. It also would have enhanced the book’s already great potential as an introduction to numismatics for inclusion in reading lists for college courses on the materials and methodologies of ancient history.

The quality of Elizabeth Saville’s English translation is generally high, however, a few errors have crept in, mainly with respect to technical terms and the treatment of classical proper names. In Babelon’s discussion of what the military historian can learn from coinage (p. 43), the Balearic Islanders who accompanied Hannibal in his war against Rome are mistakenly described as rebels, when in fact they were slingers. This mistake stems from the fact that the French word frondeur (“slinger”) became a descriptive term for participants in a series of uprisings (the Fronde) during the minority of Louis XIV (1648-1653) and from then on developed into a general term for any opponent of established government. While the Romans may have considered the Balearic Islanders to be rebels against their authority, there can be little doubt that, in the context of a discussion of ancient troop types depicted on coins, Babelon intended us to understand the original meaning of frondeur when describing them.

At times Saville also seems unsure about how to correctly translate some classical proper names from French to English. Thus, some may be confused to see French Eaque (p. 33) for English Ajax, both of which transliterate Latin Aiax for Greek Aias, the tragic hero of the Trojan cycle. Ligeia, the Siren depicted on coins of Terina, appears under her French name Licee, while Sicilian Messana receives the odd form “Messans” (p. 33). Considering the closeness of the letter “s” to “a” on the keyboard, the latter is probably just a typographical error, rather than a conscious mistranslation. Elsewhere, when the attempt is made to translate classical proper names from French to English the result is not always fully satisfying. For example, on page 190, Marinianus, the third son of Gallienus, has been transformed into an unknown “Marian”, while the wonderfully archaic sounding, but ultimately incorrect, adjectival form “Epirotian” (p. 187) is employed when “Epirot”, “Epirote”, or even the much less popular “Epirotic” is intended. Although when they occur, these kinds of error may give the reader some pause concerning the translator’s familiarity with classical names and their forms in different modern languages, they are thankfully not very common.

There can be no question that in producing this new translation of the first part of Babelon’s masterwork Kolbe and Spink & Son have done an important service to the English speaking numismatic community and especially to those of its members lacking a reading knowledge of French. Our only serious complaint, and it is admittedly an unfair one considering that the mandate of the series is specifically historiographical, is that Elizabeth Saville only translates the very first part of the first volume of Traité des monnaies grecques et romain. If we are very fortunate, perhaps one day some other brave soul will take on the Herculean task of translating the remaining three and a half volumes, the real meat of Babelon’s discussion, to which Ancient Numismatics and Its History serves as a flavourful appetizer, whetting the appetite for what is to follow.

—Oliver D. Hoover