Review: The Three Graces and their Numismatic Mythology

Mark A. Staal, The Three Graces and their Numismatic Mythology. Santa Clara: No Publisher, 2004. Pb. 181pp., 24 b/w pls., 10 color pls., ISBN 0-9747616-0-5. $35.00.

In 1908 the celebrated Swiss numismatist Friedrich Imhoof-Blumer, published an important monograph on the subject of Die Nymphen und Chariten auf Griechischen Münzen, detailing the complexities of the iconography of the Nymphs and the three Graces (Charites) on Greek and Roman Provincial coinage. For almost a century, it has been a key source for numismatists and students of iconography seeking to delve into the world of these minor deities. However, in part because Imhoof-Blumer’s erudition is lost to those without a reading knowledge of German, and because many more coin types are now known, Mark Staal has produced a new book dealing with The Three Graces and their Numismatic Mythology.

Before launching into the catalogue of coin types depicting the three Graces, Staal offers several introductory sections on the mythology and representation of these goddesses in numismatics. A collection of brief historical sketches for every provincial mint city known to have issued coinage with a three Graces type and discussion of the rarity of the series is also included. The latter is complemented by a study of the appearances of three Grace types at auction between 1970 and 2004 and the prices realized.

One of the more important questions raised in the opening material is how to tell the difference between the Graces and Nymphs or other deities who come in groups of three. Staal subscribes to the opinion that whenever we find a group of three nude female figures in a standard arm in arm pose with the central figure turned from the viewer and the flanking figures facing, we are always intended to understand them as the three Graces (p. 49), whether we prefer them as Aglaea, Euphrosyne and Thalia, or Auxo, Hegemone and Peitho. In an effort to contrast the Graces with numismatic depictions of three Nymphs, Staal provides a list and plate illustrations of eighteen coin types depicting the latter. While the desire to clearly differentiate the two groups has obvious appeal, it fails to recognize the fluidity of meaning in the iconography of the Charites. By the Hellenistic period it was not uncommon for other Nymphs to take on the characteristics that Staal would associate with the Graces (Lexicon iconographicum mythologiae classicae, s.v. Charites). Thus, when the three Graces appear as a mintmark on Syro-Phoenician tetradrachms of Gadara, they almost certainly represent the Nymphs who presided over the city’s famous hot springs, while the Charites depicted in a mosaic (illustrated on p. 154) from a Roman bath complex near Seleucia on the Calycadnus are most likely intended as the Nymphs of its healing waters. Considering this syncretic tendency, in the absence of clear epigraphic, iconographic, or contextual indicators, it becomes difficult to be certain whether the viewer is always intended to recognize the Graces qua Graces or as local water spirits.

It is no doubt safe to interpret the triad as the Charites in cases where the deities carry flowers and sheaves of grain, or wreaths, perhaps identifying Thalia (“Flowering”) and Aglaea (“Triumph”), or when they are clearly associated with Aphrodite (i.e. the issues of Aphrodisias, nos. 10, 13, 23, 25 and 34). However, one becomes suspicious when their main attributes are jars, often shown with water pouring out of them (nos. 18-20, 28 and 57), the standard attribute of Nymphs (Lexicon iconographicum mythologiae classicae, s.v. Nymphai). The fact that the cities of Pautalia and Augusta Traiana struck coins in the same period with three clothed jar bearers, often in a virtually identical pose to that associated with the Graces seems to suggest that the typology of the nude Charites in Thrace was an aesthetic choice in the depicting the local river deities. In this case, when the groups are almost exactly the same, with the exception of clothing, it is difficult to agree with Staal that one represents the Graces while the other represents the river Nymphs. Indeed, in her work on the coinages of Augusta Traiana and Traianopolis (Griechisches Münzwerk: Die Münzpragung von Augusta Traiana und Traianopolis (Berlin, 1991), Edith Schönert-Geiss explicitly identifies all female triads (nude or clothed) holding water jars as Nymphs of the local rivers in contrast to the descriptions of earlier scholars, who also mistook them for Charites. In light of this situation it would probably be prudent for nos. 8 (Marcianopolis), 18 (Pautalia), 19 (Augusta Traiana), 20 (Pautalia), 26 (Marcianopolis) and 57 (Serdica) to be removed from Staal’s catalogue of three Graces types to the list of Nymph types.

Unfortunately, the introductory sections, as well as the historical introductions to the emperors included in the catalogue, are often deeply troubled by errors of fact and form. These range from the description of the archaic and classical periods of Greek history running from the fifth to the eighth century BC, rather than from the eighth to the fifth century, and the dating of the travel writer Pausanias (fl. AD 150) to the second century BC, to the perplexing inclusion of B.V. Head’s Historia Numorum in Staal’s list of works of “Greek poets and writers of the Classical and Hellenistic periods” that mention the Graces. Although admittedly a classic numismatic reference, the first edition was only published in 1887, hardly qualifying Head as a classical author. Readers should note that very few scholars currently believe that Homer (blind in Greek tradition) “wrote” the Iliad or the Odyssey. Instead, the poems thought to have been composed orally and only later committed to writing. Furthermore, Delphi and Delos are not the same place, Thessaly is not in Illyria, and Aglaea cannot be translated into English as “the one who harvests” (p. 14). The present reviewer would also be interested to know the source of the remarkable claim on page 11 that the English word “charisma” is a “derivative of “macharisma,” an ancient invocation of the tri-goddess: ma (birth) charis (grace) and ma (death).” The Oxford English Dictionary seems to think that it comes from the regular Greek word charisma. It should probably go without saying that the mythological, literary and historical background supplied by Staal should be treated with some caution.

The text is rife with a variety of spelling errors, including among others, “Perinthis” for “Perinthus”, “Cercrops” for “Cecrops”, “Illiad” for “Iliad”, and “Müenzen” for “Münzen”. However, the most distracting is probably Staal’s general tendency, when attempting to call the Graces by their Greek name, Charites, to refer to them as “Charities”, conjuring in the mind of the reader a triad of the Salvation Army, the March of Dimes and the United Way, rather than the intended daughters of Zeus and Eurynome. Readers may be further disturbed by the misuse of several English words, such as the verbal use of “patron” (p. 27), the widespread verbal use of “image” when meaning “illustrate” or “depict”, and the bizarre use of “annex” as a synonym for “exile” in a description of the fate of the Empress Plautilla (p. 110).

It is regrettable that the potential usefulness and interest of the introductory material is so frequently marred by error and the poor use of language, particularly when diligent editing could have caught and salvaged many of the problems.

Nevertheless, those interested in the numismatic iconography of the three Graces and Roman Provincial coinage in general are still likely to appreciate the catalogue (pp. 92-147), although caution is again necessary when accepting some of the descriptions. For example, the thymiaterion said to appear as an attribute on some issues, is in reality the standing sealed jar that frequently appears beside the Charites in art as an emblem of their virginity, while the so-called tripod is just a fold of drapery. The symbol, “occasionally described as appearing above the heads of the goddesses” is merely a feature of their hairstyle.

Some fifty-seven individual coin series depicting the three Graces as the main subject of the reverse type are listed, including thirty types unrecorded by Imhoof-Blumer in 1908. These additional coins are mainly Thracian and Moesian issues (several are actually water Nymphs), but specimens from Magnesia on the Maeander, Nicaea, Lydian Philadelphia, Phrygian Laodicea, Docimeium, Iconium, Perga, Side, Tarsus, and Gadara are also described. A few even appear to be unpublished, such as an issue of Diadumenian from Marcianopolis (no. 26), an anonymous coin of Docimeium under Macrinus (no. 28), and a Tarsian bronze of Pupienus (no. 39). In addition to building up the type corpus, Staal correctly reattributes a coin of Faustina II (no. 4) from the mint of Traianopolis to that of Augusta Traiana. He may also be right to suspect that a bronze of Tranquillina normally attributed to Iconium was really issued at Cremna. The heavily worn letters COL CR… of Col[onia] Cremensium seem to be present in the left part of the reverse inscription. One other noteworthy feature of the catalogue is the attempt by the author to list all the known inscription variants, including word breaks.

A supplementary section (pp. 141-147) describes fourteen coin types, including Hellenistic and Roman Imperial issues as well as Roman Provincial coins, that employ small images of the three Graces or Nymphs as subsidiary symbols or attributes of other deities. The bulk of this section is made up of Syro-Phoenician tetradrachms of the Decapolitan city of Gadara and bronzes of Thracian Pautalia (one of which is apparently unpublished), but Athenian New Style silver and Roman silver and bronze issues are present as well. Of some special interest is an unpublished Alexandrian bronze hemidrachm of Trajan (ANS inv. 1944.100.56260) that seems to depict the triad to the left of Demeter. These figures might be more correctly described as the three Horae (Seasons) than Nymphs or Graces, as they appear to wear kalathoi on their heads and are somewhat more logical companions for Demeter, a goddess who included Horephoros (Season-bringer) among her cult titles.

Twenty-four good black and white plates illustrate the coins in the catalogue as well as those in the supplemental sections on depictions of the Nymphs and the Graces in miniature. Ten full-color plates are also included to illustrate coins of Commodus, Julia Domna and other rulers from various mints, Cilician issues of Maximinus I, Gordian III, Balbinus and Pupienus, emissions from the mint of Deultum, and examples of the three Nymphs type. Connoisseurs of the Charites will no doubt enjoy seeing the enhancement that comes to an inherently beautiful type through an attractive patina, whether one prefers lime green, a deep chocolate brown, or desert sand.

Although the severe problems of the text mean that serious discussion must still be sought in the pages of Die Nymphen und Chariten auf Griechischen Münzen, Staal’s type catalogue, which takes into account the various discoveries and publications of the last hundred years, will probably make The Three Graces and their Numismatic Mythology a necessary reference for students of this rare coin series.

—Oliver D. Hoover