Review: Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces

C. Howgego, V. Heuchert, and A. Burnett, eds. Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Hb. 228 pp., 32 b/w pls. $150.00. ISBN 0-19-926526-7.

The present volume collects sixteen papers that were originally presented at the Seventeenth Oxford Symposium on Coinage and Monetary History held at Worcester College on September 19-22, 2002. Within its pages can be found some of the best new thought about Roman provincial coinage’s role as sociocultural evidence, which has received heightened attention since the inception of the Roman Provincial Coinage project in 1992. The first four essays serve as introductory chapters that deal with important themes in grappling with the problem of identity as presented on the coinage. These are followed by eleven studies focusing on specific regions of the empire and a concluding paper by Andrew Burnett.

The first paper, “Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces,” by Christopher Howgego, serves as an introduction to the entire book and looks at various forms of identity depicted on coinages struck throughout the empire. He touches on identity as expressed through religion, monuments, myth-history, time, geography, language, and “Romanness,” but points out that it is often difficult to determine precisely whose identity is being reflected in the types and legends of the coinage. Many of these areas are treated in greater detail in the papers that follow.

“Aspects of Identity,” by George Williamson, is a general and largely non-numismatic essay on the problems of interpreting identity in the Roman Empire, since the vast majority of individuals recognized themselves as having multiple identities (ethnic/tribal, civic, regional, provincial, Roman), though the evidence for these different identities has not always survived. While cautioning that Roman provincial coinage is heavily influenced by Roman values, the author argues that it also provides a wealth of otherwise unavailable evidence for local identities.

Volker Heuchert provides a survey of “The Chronological Development of Roman Provincial Coin Iconography” largely based on the data published in RPC I and II, as well as on the Antonine material for the forthcoming RPC IV. Notable themes discussed include the expansion in the size of coins and the increasing diversity of types over time, as well as the transmission of imperial images to the coinage (normally dominated by local images) through the vehicles of the imperial cult, important citizens with Roman connections, and centralized production facilities. Thanks to the breadth of the treatment and great accessibility of the discussion even to the nonspecialist, it would not be surprising if this paper became one of the classic introductory texts on Roman provincial coin iconography.

In “The Cities and Their Money,” Peter Weiss uses the evidence of honorific lapidary inscriptions and inscribed market weights (unfortunately not illustrated in the plates) to good effect as comparanda for the naming of city officials on the coinage and in support of the argument that there was no distinct magistracy in charge of coinage. Instead, individuals holding a variety of different offices took the responsibility of overseeing the city’s money supply as a means of self-promotion through euergetism. Thus the typology of the coinage should be considered to reflect the identity of the city elite. Also interesting here is the conclusion that the local coinages of the east were permitted to continue into the third century AD because they helped advertise and stabilize the friendly relationship between the cities and the emperor (for this theme, see also the paper by Price).

The regional studies are arranged following the traditional geographic order from west to east, moving clockwise around the Mediterranean Sea. Thus we begin with Jonathan Williams’s “Coinage and Identity in Pre-Conquest Britain: 50 BC-AD 50,” which attempts to find a place for coin evidence in the new strict archaeological approach to British prehistory. While the use of Latin inscriptions and Roman (most are actually Greek) derived types has often been taken as a sign of Romanization before the conquest, the author is rightly suspicious of this view and instead argues that despite these features, British coinage actually served to develop native dynastic identities. Williams cites the British coinages of Verica, Tincomarus, and Eppillus produced in the reign of Claudius, all of which advertise filiation from Commius, the famous king of the Belgic Atrebates. He suggests that any mention of Claudius was purposely omitted and that Commius appears out of a desire to return to an increasingly distant pre-Roman past. This is an interesting idea, but one wonders whether too much is being read into the filiation here. The COM FILI (and variants) legends seem to be part of the same phenomenon as the legends of Cunobelin and Epaticcus, which claim filiation from the obscure Tasciovanus (apparently their biological father) and employ imperial portrait types. The view of Roman forms adopted for local use is also supported by the archaeological evidence for ritual coin deposits, which seems to suggest that this old Celtic practice was unchanged after the Roman conquest and the introduction of Roman monetary ways.

While the editors should be applauded for their decision to include a paper that largely deals with numismatic identity in the west before the Roman conquest (Ripollès’ paper also touches on pre-Roman Spain), we might have expected to see another devoted to constructions of identity in the pre-Roman East, since the vast majority (nine) of the area studies in the present volume actually deal with the provincial coinages produced in the eastern provinces. For example, the development of local identities on the so-called quasi-municipal coinages of the Seleucid empire (mentioned very briefly by Heuchert) offer a variety of close parallels to what we find on some provincial coinages under the Romans (e.g., shared and local types, inscriptions naming both ruler and the city, legends expressing intercity rivalry).

“Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces: Spain” by Pere Pau Ripollès provides a general overview of the development of coinage in the Iberian Peninsula and the islands from before the arrival of the Romans during the Second Punic War until the closure of the last local mint during the reign of Claudius. He shows that despite the Roman presence, it was not until the mid-first century BC that the influence of Roman coinage had a significant impact on the appearance of Spanish money. However, by the first century AD, the native coinages (and peoples) of Spain had been extensively Romanized through the replacement of legends in Iberian scripts with Latin legends and the frequent adoption of Roman typology.

Sophia Kremydi-Sicilianou engages with the difficulties involved with dual identity in “‘Belonging’ to Rome, ‘Remaining’ Greek: Coinage and Identity in Roman Macedonia.” She shows that early provincial coinages of the old Macedonian cities (with the exception of Amphipolis) generally tended to repress local identity in deference to imperial or culturally neutral themes, in part because of the influence exerted by new Roman colonial foundations. However, by the mid-first century local identity began to be reasserted on the coinage of the reconstituted Macedonian Koinon, and it became widespread in the second century, thanks to the encouragement of Hadrian’s Panhellenion—an institution that prompted even non-Greek cities to “discover” their Hellenic roots. In contrast, the coinages produced by the coloniae of Macedonia generally continued to advertise their Roman origins.

The interpretation of numismatic depictions of local gods and foreign deities forms the basis for “Religious-Cultural Identity in Thrace and Moesia Inferior,” by Ulrike Peter. She argues that the coinage illustrates the preservation of some local religious traditions, whereas syncretism also served to associate local deities with the universally recognized pantheon of the imperial oikoumene. Thus the deities depicted on the coinages of Thrace and Moesia Inferior (as elsewhere) had a dual purpose in expressing local identities as well as relationships between cities and the Emperor. Peter’s paper is punctuated by a cry for the assembly of new corpora of the city coins of the region, so that more thorough studies can be conducted on religious acculturation as reflected on the coinage. Some response to her plea may be found in the recent publication of SNG Bulgaria. Ruse, Bobokov Brothers Collection 1: Deultum (Ruse, 2005). A second volume is forthcoming.

Simon Price’s “Local Mythologies in the Greek East” looks at the invention and reinvention of local myth-histories as a tool used by the cities for developing political relationships among themselves and with the central authority of the Roman Empire. Thus cities depicted multiple foundation myths on their coins as a means of creating pseudoconnections to other cities claiming the same founder (e.g., Heracles, Alexander the Great, Aphrodite/Venus) and employed religious syncretism in part to establish pseudorelationships with other cities where other supposed avatars of the same god were worshipped. This sort of political mythologizing was already well established in the intercity politics of the Hellenistic period, but Price points out that in the imperial period Rome also benefited from the practice, for at the same time that it legitimized the requests of the cities, it also lent legitimacy to the Roman imperial construct by clothing it in a venerable Greek mythological past.

In “Festivals and Games in the Cities of the Roman East During the Roman Empire,” Dietrich O. A. Klose discusses the development of agonistic depictions on Roman provincial coinages and the meaning of these depictions and the events they celebrated to the individual cities. Particularly notable here is the author’s illustration of the clear evolution of the wreath of the Actian games of Nicopolis into a large barrel-shaped prize-crown (the erroneous but ubiquitous “agonistic urn” of many catalogues) and his view that imperial references on the agonistic issues were primarily intended to advertise city status, which ultimately derived from the favor of the emperor, rather than to showcase the emperor in his own right.

“Pergamum as Paradigm,” by Bernhard Weisser, uses individual issues struck by the city of Pergamum as a means of discussing five major themes related to questions of identity that frequently recur on the Roman provincial coins of many cities: homonoia, imperial visits, elite mobility, neocorates, and games as a focus of intercity rivalry. In several of these areas, Weisser uses the examples of Pergamum’s favorite sons, M. Caerelius Attalus and especially Aulus Iulius Quadratus, to showcase the strong influence exerted on the coinage by powerful individuals drawn from the city elite. Thus the coinage serves to illustrate the relationship between city and (leading) citizen as well as between city and city or city and Emperor. However, it is argued that the influence of individuals does not undermine the view of city coinage as a vehicle for civic identity, since as citizens the elite individuals merely chose their types from an established repertoire of civic imagery. La citée, c’est moi.

Kevin Butcher wrestles with the thorny problem of getting at the meaning of images and legends in “Information, Legitimation, or Self-Legitimation? Popular and Elite Designs on the Coin Types of Syria.” The bulk of the paper, which raises problematic questions about the audience for and intention(s) underlying Syrian coin types, borders on the morose in its stark exposure of our inability to properly interpret the images and legends, because we do not really know enough about the issuers or the target audience. However, rather than wallowing in the apparent hopelessness of the situation, Butcher invokes Umberto Eco’s theory of intentio operis as a potential means of bypassing our ignorance and the risk of overinterpretation that comes from it, while allowing for productive discussion of typological choices and what they can reveal about the sociocultural milieu in which they were made. This proposed semiotic approach to interpreting coin types makes Butcher’s essay an important contribution not only to the study of the Syrian material in particular but also to both the world of Roman provincial coinage at large as well as to the study of the Hellenistic and Classical coinages that came before. Even if the paper were not nearly as provocative as it is, we would still be compelled to admire it as the rare example of a theory-driven essay on ancient identity that can skillfully use the British science-fiction pop-culture icon of the Dalek as its point of departure.

In “City Eras on Palestinian Coinage,” Alla Kushnir-Stein reviews the dated coinages of the region, making the convincing argument that the eras from which the dates count were based on events of local importance and were usually connected to grants of autonomy or restoration. Thus it is incorrect to use the customary terms “Pompeian” and “Caesarean” to denote eras inaugurated in the second half of the 60s and the first half of the 40s BC respectively. She makes the further point that the eras of the early Roman period simply follow a pattern that was already established in the waning years of the Seleucid empire and that dating by local “eras of autonomy” was a feature of civic identity in Palestine rather than a symptom of Romanization. We would add that the author is supported in her view by two notable instances in which cities found it necessary to abandon their civic eras. When Antioch on the Orontes (admittedly outside of Palestine but still germane here) briefly became subject to Q. Labienus and the Parthians in 41/0 BC, the civic-era date was dropped from the coinage and replaced by a date based on the old Seleucid era (K. Butcher, Coinage in Roman Syria: Northern Syria, 64 BC-AD 253 [London, 2004], 307). Likewise, Gaza appears to have abandoned its era and returned to Seleucid dating in the obscure period between the destruction of the city by Alexander Jannaeus in c. 95/4 and its restoration by Aulus Gabinius in 61/0 BC (O. Hoover, “A Late Hellenistic Lead Coinage at Gaza,” Israel Numismatic Research 1 [2006]: 25-36). In both cases, the cities lost a part of their identities as autonomous political entities (although Antioch was still described as “autonomous” in the reverse legends) and therefore gave up the dating eras that had previously identified them as such.

Briefly stepping away from Roman provincial coinage in its strictest sense, Martin Goodman deals with “Coinage and Identity: The Jewish Evidence.” Here he argues that even if we lacked all other sources for the First Jewish Revolt, the complete iconographic and epigraphic break of the rebel coinage with contemporary provincial coins would allow us to deduce the importance of separateness from the Roman Empire to the coin issuers. They are in fact a link in a longer chain of a separate Jewish numismatic identity, which goes back to the Hasmonaean bronze coinage. It too was inscribed in paleo-Hebrew script and eschewed the depiction of living things. Likewise, when coins were later produced for the Bar Kochba Revolt (AD 132-135), the new generation of Jewish rebels looked back to the issues of the First Revolt as their model.

“The Nome Coins of Roman Egypt,” by Angelo Giessen, completes the regional studies with a concise review of the cultic types found on issues produced for the Heracleopolite and Hermopolite nomes as well as the city of Thebes. Because of the minute knowledge of the local cults, some of which were imported from outside of the country (as in the case of Thracian Heron at Thebes), it is suggested that no less a figure than the High Priest of Alexandria and Egypt might have been involved in the choice of appropriate types.

Andrew Burnett concludes the collection with an important summation on “The Roman West and the Roman East,” which makes broad comparisons between both ends of the empire in terms of local coinage. Here it is cogently argued that the complete cessation of provincial coinage in the West during the reign of Claudius, while the cities of the Greek East continued to produce it well into the third century, should be attributed to basic differences in cultural outlooks and aspirations between the two regions.

The thirty-two black-and-white plates that serve to illustrate the text are very well produced and accompanied by a detailed key that describes the types and the location of each coin. An extensive bibliography and two indices (geographical and general) are also provided.

In many ways, the present volume can be counted among the first intellectual fruits to be harvested from the tree of the Roman Provincial Coinage project, originally planted by Andrew Burnett, Michel Amandry, and Pere Pau Ripollès in 1992 (RPC I) and which grew additional limbs in 1999, 2005, and 2006 under the care of Burnett, Amandry, and Ian Carradice (RPC II), Christopher Howgego and Volker Heuchert (RPC IV [see]), and Marguerrite Spoerri Butcher (RPC VII.1). We hope that as the project grows in the years ahead, it will continue to yield the high caliber of scholarly fruit that is found within the pages of Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces.

—Oliver D. Hoover