Review: Greece and the Balkans Before the End of Antiquity

Iannis P. Touratsoglou. Η Ελλας και τα Βαλκανια πριν απο τα Τελη της Αρχαιοτητος / Greece and the Balkans Before the End of Antiquity. Bibliotheca of the Hellenic Numismatic Society 8. Athens: Hellenic Numismatic Society, 2006. Greek and English text. Pb. 238 pp., 23 b/w illus., 13 pull-out charts, 5 color pull-out maps. ISBN 978-960-87457-2-8. €55.00.

The present volume is an extended essay contextualizing the phenomenon of hoarding in the Balkan provinces of the Roman Empire within the historical milieu of the Crisis of the Third Century. Iannis Touratsoglou’s previous local and regional studies of hoards found in the Roman provinces of Macedonia and Crete-Cyrenaica are well known, but Greece and the Balkans Before the End of Antiquity represents a new attempt to develop an integrated picture of hoarding and the economies of all the Balkan provinces. The text is written in modern Greek but is made fully accessible to those lacking reading ability in this language by a complete English translation by Marion J. A. Tzamali.

The inspiration for this study came from the discovery of the Larisa 1992 hoard, which was composed primarily of Thessalian Koinon bronzes ending in the reign of Maximinus Thrax (AD 235-238), but also included denarii, sestertii, and an entirely unexpected component of gold jewelry and engraved rings. Thus, before launching into the main discussion, the author takes the opportunity to present the contents of the hoard and to suggest that it was probably buried out of fear of the emperor’s policy of wealth confiscation.

All of the jewelry and the imperial coins as well as selections of the provincial issues of the Thessalian Koinon are illustrated on fifteen black-and-white plates (104-118) following the Greek text. The photographs are all of very good quality, although in a few cases, they might have been better arranged on the plates. The upper edges of the top rows of coins on pages 108 and 114 almost fall off the page. While it could be argued that numbers are unnecessary for the author’s primary numismatic purpose—exposing the specific military causes of hoarding episodes in the Balkan provinces—the plates might have been made more useful for future research if each coin had been numbered, especially considering that this is the detailed editio princeps of the hoard.

The basis for suggesting that the engraved rings all probably came from the workshops of Antioch or from elsewhere in western Syria is somewhat unclear. While it is true that Antioch was a cosmopolitan center with gem engravers and a role in international trade, the styles of the bezels are disparate and the subjects are mostly generic representations of Graeco-Roman divinities, making it difficult to pin down their place(s) of origin. The apparent depiction of the Tyche of Antioch and the river Orontes on ring D is hardly a guarantee of Antiochene manufacture, since the famous Tyche of the Syrian capital had become a widely copied image by the Roman period. The numismatic evidence alone reveals the unequivocal use or adaptation of her image by cities in Roman Phrygia, Pamphylia, Cilicia, Phoenicia, and Mesopotamia (on the wide influence of the Tyche of Antioch, see M. Meyer, Die Personifikation der Stadt Antiocheia. Ein neues Bild für eine neue Gottheit [Berlin, 2006]).

Having presented the hoard that first piqued his interest in the question of hoarding and the economy in the third-century Balkans, the author provides a useful and heavily annotated overview of the crisis-wracked history of the region from the accession of Maximinus Thrax in AD 235 to the supremacy of Diocletian in 285. The Greek and English prose occasionally borders on the purple (e.g., “the invincible conqueror of lands…collector of nations and states under the umbrella of an iron-fisted, self-sufficient Pax Romana” [137], etc.) and is frequently interrupted by additional commentary (marked by double square brackets) that would have been more appropriate relegated to the footnotes. Nevertheless, Touratsoglou’s historical sketch of barbarian invasion, Roman military response, civil war, and related upheavals in the Balkans is dramatic if slightly depressing reading, while its synthesis of historical, archaeological, epigraphic, and numismatic source material make it a welcome introduction to the period. It should be noted that although the hastily erected fortifications of Macedonia and Achaea are mentioned only briefly here (24-25, 28-29, 142-143, and 146), excellent photographs of the spolia defense-works erected at Athens, Beroea, Dion, Edessa, Thessalonica, and Sparta appear on pages 119-126. Curiously, they are never referred to directly in either the Greek or the English text.

The author then moves on to look at hoarding in this period by region. Based on the frequent presence of gold and silver issues as well as jewelry in the hoards of the northern Balkan provinces (Thrace, Dalmatia, Dacia, the two Pannoniae, and the two Moesiae), the author reinforces the general view that vibrant economies developed along the border regions of the Empire by trade across the limes and the presence of the army. In contrast, the hoards of the southern Balkan provinces (Macedonia, Epirus, and Achaea) tend to be dominated by civic bronzes, imperial aes and debased antoniniani, indicating the “glorious poverty of the descendants of Alexander and Alkibiades” (166).

Breaking somewhat with the trends of recent scholarship, the author attempts to associate the majority of the Balkan hoards with specific barbarian incursions and the Roman defensive campaigns against the invaders. In this endeavor he is often convincing in large part thanks to the impressive table of hoards appended to the text (see below), which shows relationships between hoard closure dates in the various regions and barbarian attacks. Still, it must be remembered that other factors also must have driven people to hoard in this period, such as the insecurity concomitant upon the death of one military emperor and the accession of the next, and the relentless debasement of the antoninianus.

Of some special interest is the claim that the wealth of the northern Balkan provinces in the form of gold coins and jewelry was largely stripped away by the Gothic and Carpic invasions that took place under Gordian III, Philip I, and Trajan Decius (166), leaving dwindling numbers of denarii and increasingly debased antoniniani in the region’s later precious-metal hoards. However, this is somewhat of an overstatement. A review of the table of hoards reveals that while many hoards of the Gordian III-Trajan Decius period involved gold or jewelry (nos. 114, 139, 196, 198, 244-245, 259, 275, and 279), the invasions under these emperors seem not to have drained the wealth of the region as thoroughly as the author implies. Jewelry continued to be hoarded in Pannonia Superior and both Moesiae under Trebonianus Gallus (no. 349), Aemilian (no. 356), Valerian I (no. 362), Gallienus (nos. 418, 420, 427, and 436), Probus (no. 513), and Diocletian (no. 540), which may indicate the survival of some shadow of the earlier economic vibrancy of the region, despite frequent attack. The late aurei hoards deposited under Probus (no. 516), Carinus (no. 536), and Diocletian (no. 540) are almost certainly related to military donatives rather than to wealth accumulated through trade. Thus the true watershed for the impoverishment of the northern Balkans may actually fall during the reign of Gallienus—about a decade later than Touratsoglou suggests. This secondary peak in the hoarding of jewelry and coins under Gallienus actually matches rather than contrasts with the hoarding patterns in provinces along the western limes of modern Germany, Switzerland, and France mentioned in footnote 157.

Conversely, the hoards from the southern Balkan provinces, which had previously been dominated by civic and imperial bronze coins, change their character following the devastating Herulian and Gothic invasions of 268 and become primarily antoniniani hoards. However, one must be careful about overemphasizing the military impetus for this change. While there can be little doubt that much of this coinage entered the southern Balkans with the army, the change in hoard content was also dictated by the total collapse of civic coin production in the Balkans during the reign of Gallienus.

The hoard evidence is also used to map the primary invasion routes taken by the Goths and other barbarians into Moesia Inferior and Dacia, but this should be treated with a little caution. There is no way to know which hoards were deposited out of fear of marauders from the Barbaricum and which out of fear of the Roman armies sent to crush them. As the author rightly points out, legionaries could have an equally devastating effect on the inhabitants of the settlements through which they passed.

While the author’s review of regional differences in hoarding patterns is instructive and the association of hoarding with particular military events very interesting, the claim that foreign coins of Asia Minor (primarily from Bithynia) were “brought in by professional people from the east who had settled there [i.e., in the northern Balkan provinces] for one reason or another” (158) requires some qualification. There is certainly epigraphic evidence for the movement of some skilled workers from Asia Minor to the Balkans, but it seems at least as likely that eastern coins moved west as a result of trade. Many cities of Moesia Inferior and Thrace had ports and engaged in interprovincial trade. Indeed, Bithynia was an obvious trade partner for cities such as Tomis, Odessus, Anchialus, and Deultum, all of which had ports on the Black Sea littoral (for Deultum and foreign maritime trade, see D. Draganov, The Coinage of Deultum [Sofia, 2007], 34, 149-151).

Touratsoglou concludes with a discussion of the general collapse of monetized urban and agricultural economies in the Balkans (and elsewhere) as the Roman mints continued to produce high-value coins for payment to the armies and increasingly debased money for quotidian use that was difficult to spend easily. The reversion to barter and payment in kind as well as the creation of numerous landless peasants that the failure of the economy entailed helped to establish the power of great landowners and sow the seeds of the socio-economic relationships of the late antique and medieval periods.

The thirty-eight-page table listing some 546 third-century Balkan hoards is a monumental achievement and will certainly be a valuable tool for future studies. However, its arrangement is a little peculiar considering that the author’s interest is in showing the relationship between regional hoarding patterns and military events. For example, it is not at all clear why certain hoards with closure dates before and after 242 seem to be associated in the table with the Gothic campaign of Timistheus in 242. Surely those dated between AD 238 and 241 are more likely to have some connection to the wars of Maximinus Thrax and the barbarian invasions of the period while those dated c. 244 and primarily found in Moesia Inferior most probably have something to do with the Gothic invasion of that province in 244. Likewise, it is strange that the “Slovenia” 1925 hoard (no. 398) with a closure date of AD 260 is preceded by the Bakovici 1901 hoard (no. 397), buried in 268, and both follow the rubric “263 AD: Gallienus moves between Rome, Mediolanum and Siscia.” It would make much more sense for the “Slovenia” 1925 hoard to be related to the invasion of Pannonia Superior by the Rhoxolani and the defeat of Regalianus in AD 259-260, while the date of the Bakovici 1901 hoard tends to associate it with the great Gothic and Herulian incursions of 268. These are single examples of a problem that afflicts the entire table and makes it difficult to use in support of the author’s arguments, although all of the relevant data are actually present. Nevertheless, with some work it becomes very clear from the closure dates and findspots that Touratsoglou is right to associate the bulk of the hoarding episodes with barbarian invasions and defensive campaigns known from the historical record.

The table is supplemented by thirteen pull-out charts that graphically show the contents of each hoard by emperor. The presence or absence of Roman Republican issues is also indicated. There can be little doubt that these too will be of much use for further research, but they are also marred by the same eclectic arrangement as the table.

Five excellent full-color pull-out maps with the find locations marked for each hoard complete the volume. When the documented findspots are dubious or generalized, the hoard numbers are given in square brackets.

Despite our criticisms and some organizational shortcomings, Greece and the Balkans Before the End of Antiquity represents an important new synthesis of the historical, epigraphic, and numismatic evidence for the Crisis of the Third Century. It will surely be of great interest both to specialists in the regional economies of the later Roman Empire and those seeking the early roots of the medieval economy.

—Oliver D. Hoover