1. Best Book on Ancient or Medieval Coins (pre-1500): White Gold: Studies in Early Electrum Coinage (Peter van Alfen, et al., eds.)
It is well known that numismatics is closely connected with history, archaeology, art history, and economics. However, coins can be used as evidence in many other areas as well. One of them is linguistics.
For some ancient languages, like the Iberian language of eastern Spain, coins represent a substantial (though not necessarily very informative) proportion of the surviving textual evidence.
A coin of Saiti (modern Xàtiva in eastern Spain) with legend in Iberian (ANS 2013.65.12). Coins provided important evidence for the decipherment of the Iberian writing system.
Occasionally, coins can even shed light on languages that are better documented. Although languages are constantly changing, standard literary forms are often much slower to change and do not necessarily reflect ordinary speech patterns.
Like other texts of official nature, coin legends also tend to reflect literary standards rather than current spoken language. However, coin legends are not always composed by individuals with a literary education, and in times of rapid linguistic change they can sometimes reveal developments that are obscured in other kinds of texts.
One example is the coins of Visigothic Spain. They were made at a time when the spoken Latin of the Roman Empire was evolving into the Romance languages. And they were also made at a time when training in the norms of classical Latin was decreasing; although literary figures like Isidore of Seville still wrote classical Latin, such skills were becoming rare.
Classical Latin had an elaborate system of noun cases, meaning that nouns took slightly different forms depending on their functional relationship to the main verb of the sentence. Latin had five main cases: nominative for the subject of the sentence, accusative (direct object), genitive (possessive), dative (indirect object), and ablative (for adverbial functions). There were also two functions with poorly differentiated forms: the vocative (for direct address) and locative (for specifying location).
However, this system disappeared during the early Middle Ages. By the time the earliest known Old Spanish texts were written in the late tenth century, the language had no noun cases at all (although pronouns still had cases, like in modern English). Thus, linguists have looked at earlier inscriptions to find information on when and how the change happened.
One hypothesis is that there was a transitional period in which some of the case distinctions had broken down but two or maybe three noun cases were still used. In a different Romance-language area, this can be seen in medieval Old French, which retained a two-case (nominative case for the subject and oblique case for everything else) system. As it happens, Visigothic coins provide some of the best evidence for such a transitional period in Spain.
From the last years of Leovigild (569–586) until the last Visigothic coins around 714, the predominant structure of Visigothic coin legends was to place the name and title of the king on the obverse, and on the reverse a laudatory adjective for the king plus the name of the mint.
This coin of Sisenand (631–636) from Medina Sidonia has his name SISENANDVS and title REX (king, using the cross at 12:00 as both starting punctuation and the final X in REX) on the obverse; the reverse has the king’s epithet PIVS (the pious, or holy) and the mint ASIDONA.
The name, title, and laudatory epithet for the king are all in the nominative case, as would be normal in Classical Latin. The name of the mint, however, takes a different form. Functionally, it would make sense for it to be a Latin ablative (“from …”) or locative (“at …”), but on Visigothic coins the form does not correspond to a single Latin case.
The spelling of the place names is decidedly non-Classical, and they are also clearly not in the nominative case, where this can be determined. For example, the Latin name of Medina Sidonia was Asido in the nominative, Asidonem in the accusative, Asidone in the ablative. However, the final -m of the accusative case had been a silent letter for centuries, and as Classical literary education faded, so did knowledge of when to write the silent -m.
Most of the place names could equally well be a Latin ablative or else a Latin accusative where the silent -m has been omitted. Some place names, however, are plural in form, and those would be easily distinguishable in Classical form. Some of them are clearly accusative in form; others appear to be ablative in form.
This coin of Suinthila (621–631) has the mint name NANDOLAS, which would appear to be a local tribal name in the accusative plural.
This coin of Witteric (603–610) has the mint name GEORRES, which is the name of a local tribe in the ablative plural. In Classical Latin the tribe was called the Gigurri in the nominative or Gigurris in the ablative, but the spelling on the coin reflects the likely seventh-century pronunciation.
The indifferent use of accusative or ablative forms for what would previously have been an ablative/locative function suggests that by that time the accusative and ablative cases (and possibly others) had merged together into an oblique (or objective) case. In other words, the coins provide evidence that is otherwise mostly absent for a transitional stage in the loss of the Latin case system as the spoken language evolved toward what is now Spanish.
Further reading: For more on this topic, see P. A. Gaeng, A Study of Nominal Inflection in Latin Inscriptions (Chapel Hill: Department of Romance Studies, University of North Carolina, 1977); and J. A. Correa Rodríguez, “El latín de las monedas visigodas,” in Latin vulgaire – Latin tardif VII, ed. C. Arias Abellán (Seville: Universidad de Sevilla, 2006), 219–41.
The scholarship of Dr. Nathan T. Elkins sits squarely at the intersection of art history, archaeology, and numismatics. Dr. Elkins teaches, researches, and writes actively in these subject areas, specializing in Roman imperial coinages. Recently appointed to direct the Allbritton Art Institute at Baylor University, Dr. Elkins is also a Fellow of the American Numismatic Society and edits the ancient section of the American Journal of Numismatics. In a remote interview, Dr. Elkins and curatorial assistant Austin Goodwin Andrews discussed the dynamic relationship between the fields of archaeology and numismatics.
Austin Goodwin Andrews: The aim of archaeology is to reconstruct aspects of the human past through analysis of material culture. What are some roles that ancient coins play in this process?
Nathan Elkins: Ancient coins are critical objects in the archaeology of the Mediterranean world; virtually any site will produce a number of coins. At most excavations of towns and villages, coins will be among the most commonly found man-made objects after ceramic finds. As such, ancient coins are one of the primary chronological indicators for a site and its development through time.
In addition to questions of dating, coins provide insights into economic conditions and patterns of coin circulation, the movement of populations, and so on. Study of where coins are found can also tell us about “audience targeting” in the Roman Empire, as we know that there was a differentiated supply of imperial coins to different parts of the empire and that it seems the Roman state sometimes targeted certain populations with the coins bearing relevant visual themes. For example, soldiers were sometimes specifically supplied with coins with martial imagery.
Study of coins from archaeological contexts also can tell us about how images on coins were personalized by certain individuals, such as the use of coins emphasizing Aeternitas (Eternity) in graves or a coin with Fortuna placed under the mast step of a ship. Ancient coins with known findspots greatly enhance and inform our understanding of the ancient world in myriad ways.
AGA: Over the years, you’ve been involved in a number of excavation projects. As part of a team of specialists on an archaeological excavation, what does a numismatist do?
NE: The primary job of a numismatist on an excavation is to identify, study, and ultimately publish the coins from an excavation. Numismatists often also clean and conserve the coins after they are excavated, but sometimes this requires another specialist, especially at sites where the soil is more corrosive to metal objects. I’ve never been able to do much cleaning of coin finds, since I’ve worked in Israel and Jordan where our coins have always required specialist intervention to clean them.
Once the coins are cleaned, the numismatist’s first task is to identify the coin finds as far as possible and to keep a catalog. Sometimes, coins can be fully identifiable, described, and given a very specific date, but often they are only partially attributable to the reign of a specific emperor. If nothing can be read on a coin, I can usually ascribe it to a century or part of a century based on the size, weight, and fabric of the coin. It’s important to collaborate with other specialists on site, as coins excavated from critical contexts, such as beneath the floors of buildings or in foundation trenches, will be very important in establishing the site’s chronologies, in conjunction with the ceramic finds.
After the coins are identified, I study finds from sites in the region to compare circulation patterns and look for anomalies. One of the exciting things I noticed about the coin finds from the late Roman fort at Yotvata was that we had a significant number of fourth-century coins from western European mints from before ca. 324 CE, but after that time they were almost exclusively from the nearby mints of Antioch and Alexandria, which would also have been the expected pattern for the pre-324 CE coins. I found a similar phenomenon in the circulation patterns of coins at other sites in the region, and especially at other military installations. One possibility for this phenomenon is that it represents an influx of western soldiers (and their money) after Constantine declared war on Licinius and moved eastward, and perhaps also the settlement of those soldiers at military installations along the eastern border after Licinius’s defeat. Such coins from excavations are the only evidence that points to the potential demographic shift.
AGA: I recently heard archaeologists characterized as uninterested and unknowledgeable about ancient coins. From my coursework and fieldwork in archaeology, hearing this was jarring to me and felt deeply untrue; I think, for instance, about how everything completely stops on a dig when even the dinkiest bronze is uncovered. How should we respond to that line of thinking?
NE: Such a statement is, indeed, an absolute falsehood and woefully uninformed. As archaeologists, we view every find from an excavation as significant and record everything in great detail; every object is potentially critical. I am a specialist in the study of ancient coins and an archaeologist by training. While I might not have the deep knowledge of the ceramics or zooarchaeological finds from the sites I work at, I understand that the work of the specialists on these materials, and the work of the other specialists on other materials, is deeply significant; we all contribute important pieces to the puzzle to reconstruct the past.
I’ll spend hours, off and on, trying to pull an identification from a single coin from a critical context; that coin might have no value in the modern trade because of how badly it is preserved, but it has great intellectual value and is essential to piecing together the past at an ancient site.
It’s hard to say how to respond to such comments, because those who propagate them have their own agenda at play; those minds are closed. Publication is a necessity, as is popular outreach and education, to show how invaluable and central ancient coins are to archaeology and at specific excavations. Such outreach should also promote awareness and ethical sensitivity towards the treatment of ancient coins and other ancient objects. Context provides so much more depth and dimension to all ancient objects, but not just the objects; the contexts tell us about the site, the people, the history, and how objects were used.
AGA: Globally, many active excavation sites ceased fieldwork this year due to the ongoing pandemic. Do you imagine this leading to increased unauthorized excavation and looting?
NE: I have no firsthand knowledge of this, but it is a concern. I read an article in Forbes, “Smugglers are Using Coronavirus Lockdowns to Loot Artifacts,” which indicated that there was an increase in looting and the marketing of looted artifacts on online forums after the lockdowns. This appears to make sense, for many archaeological sites were left without guards during the shutdowns. The potential, long-term economic effects are also a concern, if guards are laid off and if governments reduce funds to spend on site protections. There is also the added possibility that job loss might drive some people to seek profits in criminal activities, such as looting and antiquities trafficking.
AGA: There is something fundamentally alluring about the prospect of holding “history” in your hands. Coins represent that tangibility of the past for many people, numismatists and archaeologists alike. There’s a tension here, however, in that so much information is tied to artifacts in context. What is lost when artifacts lack context?
NE: You are absolutely right. Coins are magnificent objects. They often bear the portrait of a certain ruler and we can frequently associate them with specific events and vibrant periods of history. When holding an ancient coin, you think not only about the imagery on it and what it meant in the social and political contexts at the time it was struck, but you also think about the lives of those who handled them thousands of years ago, who they were, and what they thought about those images on the coins that are so intriguing—but foreign—to us today. I understand the allure.
The answer to those questions we like to speculate about when holding a coin can only be answered by attention to context. Archaeology tells us where the coins were found, who used them, when, and in what contexts. I mentioned in an answer to a previous question that the Romans had a penchant for personalizing the imagery they saw on coins, as with the find of a coin showing Fortuna from a mast step of ship or the selection of coins bearing Aeternitas (Eternity), or other such themes, for deposition in graves.
One very important discovery that comes to mind regards a loculus containing the burial of a Christian child in one of the catacombs in Rome. Pressed into the mortar around the grave were fourth-century CE coins bearing the youthful visage of the Deified Romulus, the son of Maxentius. Evidently, the parents of the deceased child were not concerned about the pagan connotations of the imagery on the coins, but appropriated the coins for private use because of the boy’s young age and the coins’ connection with the death of a child taken too soon. There’s a sentimentality to it. We have a record of the emotional resonance that the use of these coins represented to the parents who lost a child.
AGA: You have written quite a bit about images of monumental structures on ancient Roman coins. This is a unique and almost “meta” approach. You’ve taken the question of “what can we learn about ancient built environments,” one typical of archaeology, but pursued it through the lens of coins. Could you explain this approach further?
NE: The traditional approach to the representation of buildings on Roman coins has been to use the images as evidence for the reconstruction of ancient monuments. This is, of course, an approach fraught with a number of methodological problems. I thought it might be more productive and valuable to look at the images not from the modernizing perspective of our interest in ancient monuments but rather to ask the question of what images of monuments meant to the Romans. This meant asking questions like why the Romans were the first ancient civilization that habitually represented the built environment on their coins, relating the representations to other visual media, and looking at trends in representations through time. I also examined—to what degree I could—the geographical distribution of such representations across the empire, according to archaeological finds, and attempted to quantify the images. I found these ways of looking at things to be very fruitful and informative on many levels.
To me, one of the big takeaways was how insignificant architectural representation was in the grand scheme of things, if images on Roman coins communicated ideas and messages. During the heyday of architectural representation on the imperial coinage, the Flavian and Trajanic periods, coins bearing monuments accounted for just a few percent of what was in circulation, according to site finds and hoards, and yet the representation of the built environment on Roman coins is one of the more popular topics in the study of Roman coin iconography. What this discovery—informed by archaeology—indicates to me is the need to stay grounded and the need to be aware that our own modern interests can artificially inflate an issue or phenomenon in the past. Images bearing personifications of imperial ideals were produced in much more significant numbers and, as such, were the more important communicators, even though such images do not receive as much popular interest today. Until recently, academics have also taken more interest in rarer types instead of studying these more common and generic images that communicated powerful concepts about the rulers that produced them.
AGA: I know that you’re coordinating with the ANS to give one of our monthly Money Talks soon. What can folks expect for that?
NE: After writing about monuments on Roman coins, my second book was on the coinage of the Roman emperor Nerva, from 96 to 98 CE. There is some unusual interest in Diana/Artemis on his coins, specifically denarii that show Diana as huntress and cistophori, struck in Rome (but consigned to the province of Asia for circulation), which show the Temple of Artemis at Perge. Although I devoted several pages to this subject in my book, and rehearsed various interpretations, there was no definitive explanation for the types. But now I think I have figured it out!
The following post was written by Mary N. Lannin, who is on the Board of Trustees of the American Numismatic Society and has been a member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee since 2014, serving as its Chair from 2015–2018.
One hundred years ago today, a remarkable event occurred. The voting population of the United States doubled with the passage of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote. And now it’s time to slide open the drawers in the vault of the American Numismatic Society and see what numismatic objects we have to commemorate this anniversary.
Many of the creators or sculptors of the 800,000+ objects in our collection are anonymous because we are separated from them by hundreds or thousands of years. This badge, in silver with a gold-colored ribbon (fig. 1), was worn by an unknown suffragette and is a typical example of that which was created during the long fight for the passage of this amendment. J. Sanford Saltus, the early and important benefactor to the American Numismatic Society, donated the badge in 1919.
However, women have comprised a small but growing percentage of sculptors, coin designers and medalists and we can find numismatic evidence on coins and medals done by women for women in saluting these suffrage efforts. Wisconsin-born Leila Woodman Usher (1859–1955), for instance, studied under Augustus Saint-Gaudens and one of her most famous bas-relief portraits was this portrait of suffragist Susan B. Anthony (fig. 2). In a similar medal also designed by Usher, Anthony’s determined visage is on the obverse, and the famous quote—“Failure Is Impossible”, surrounded by oak leaves, is on the reverse (fig. 3).
Alice Stokes Paul (1885–1977) is seen on this United States Mint medal. Although Paul never married, she became part of the US Mint’s First Spouse Gold Coin series, paired with Chester A. Arthur, a widower. Born during Arthur’s administration, Paul was picketing the White House when President Wilson urged Congress to vote for the 19th amendment. Proudly wearing the banner “Votes for Women” and carrying the American flag, Stokes marches forcefully across the reverse. The coin and medal were designed by Susan Gamble and sculpted by Phebe Hemphill for the US Mint (fig. 4).
To commemorate today’s historic occasion, the United States Mint has released the Women’s Suffrage Centennial 2020 Silver Dollar. Artistic Infusion Program (AIP) designer, Christina Hess, and sculptor, Phebe Hemphill, have crafted a jaunty obverse, illustrated by three generations of women, each wearing a hat appropriate to the era, which subtly reminds us that the passage to the amendment encompassed years and generations. The inscriptions “LIBERTY,” “$1,” and “E PLURIBUS UNUM” encircle the design. The reverse design, also by Hess and Hemphill, shows “2020” being dropped into a ballot box, styled with art deco elements popular in 1920. “VOTES FOR WOMEN” is inscribed inside a circle on the front of the box. The inscriptions “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” and “IN GOD WE TRUST” are on the ballot box (fig. 5).
A special silver medal, available only in a set with the proof silver dollar and medal set, evokes the struggle women then and now face for equality. The obverse of the medal, designed by AIP artist, Beth Zaiken, and sculpted by Renata Gordon, features a child’s hand, reaching to join adult women’s hands and arms as they struggle to hold an enormous stone, with “WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE CENTENNIAL” engraved over it. AIP artist Patricia Lucas-Morris contributed the strong design for the reverse, sculpted by Renata Gordon, juxtaposing the text of the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, with the flag of the United States. The date “1920” is inscribed at the bottom (fig. 6).
On this most important day, let’s salute the women who came before us and stand strong for the women following in our footsteps.
While August means for most people weekends on the beach, long summer days, or just hanging out, numismatists look forward to their annual pilgrimage to some convention center in places such as Rosemont, right next to O’Hare Airport. I refer of course to the annual World’s Fair of Money, hosted by the American Numismatic Association, which was supposed to be in Pittsburgh this year. I have been going to this event for more than two decades, missing only a couple of shows. Over the years, one gets used to the routine: the same hotels, the same Hawaiian shirts that good friends from New York suddenly wear when they show up at the Summer ANA, visiting with numismatic friends. “Visiting with”: that wonderful American, almost untranslatable phrase into English. I really miss our annual show right now.
I got used to the fact that women are very much in the minority in this setting. There are a lot of theories why this is the case. Women do not collect, or if they do collect, one hears, they collect coins, but only to an extent, as my many years in this field have shown me to be true. Women collectors—and even a few women dealers exist—but they have to fight for their place. However, all major numismatic organizations—the American Numismatic Association, the American Numismatic Society, and the National Numismatic Collections at the Smithsonian—were all run by women until last year, when I stepped down as Executive Director. Kim Kiick at the helm of the ANA has brought some much-needed calm and stability to an institution that had seen, prior to her appointment in 2013, more turnover in the position than I can remember; all but one (Ruthann Brettell) were men. Ellen Feingold in the Smithsonian seems to have an entirely female department. The American Numismatic Society has had female curators and librarians since it very first appointment, from Agnes Baldwin Brett, Margaret Thompson, Nancy Waggoner, Rose Chan Houston, Carmen Arnold-Biucchi, Elizabeth Hahn Benge, and today Elena Stolyarik and Lucia Carbone. Over a century of women in numismatics, with research to show for it, as the many feet of publications on today’s library shelves illustrate. Coin World in its heyday was run by two formidable editors for more than 50 years: Margo Russell and Beth Deisher. Barbara Gregory just completed 32 years as editor-in-chief of The Numismatist. So, it is hard to argue that there are no women in numismatics, who can think and write, know about coins, and run institutions.
If you have read this far, you might wonder why I am writing about this now. Sadly, there is no ANA Money Show, but this is made up by a large number of virtual events that are normally held in conjunction with the World’s Fair of Money. Last week, an announcement for the first event made me raise my eyebrows when it arrived in my inbox: the Sundman Lecture Series on Women in Numismatics, run as a Webinar, has a group of lecturers, with some fascinating topics, but one lonely woman speaker, the rest all men. Really?
In addition to all this, one of the titles “Leading Ladies of Rome” has the ring of a 1940s movie, but not of a serious lecture about powerful empresses. Note to all men: the term “lady” annoys most women and is perhaps best used only when you are giving a formal speech somewhere and open with “ladies and gentlemen” or when used as a courtesy title (think First Lady of the United States) or in specific reference to fine manners (without patronizing overtones).
I was not the only woman (or man) in numismatics to notice the oddity, and perhaps irony, about a lecture series and the male group of presenters. I thought I would ignore this for now, but then a second such event was announced: this time a truly massive “manference”, no less organized by the Newman Numismatic Portal. Do not get me wrong, this is an impressive event, and I love the organization and everything it supports. But does such an all-male event send the right signal to our field, including women and younger people? Manels (“male panels” for those not familiar with the term), as such events are known nowadays, should be a thing of the past by now. When I sent a draft of this blog text to Len Augsburger, he was very understanding to reach out to women and a more diverse audience. However, he points out that the NNP only funds this event. It was organized by the firm called Numismatic Marketing, which is run by a woman. Len also told me that women could have applied as speakers and that it was widely advertised. He has a point here. Women often just do not want to participate in these events, and the question is why. Clearly things need to change.
If numismatics wants to attract a wider audience, our organizations have to try to include more women and minorities, who often feel excluded from events such as coin shows, coin clubs, and our organizations. I know how difficult it is to bring women to numismatic events. What I have always heard is that there are just too many men. So, let’s try do better next time. There are plenty of women researchers in numismatics, even if they do not shout as loud as the men. Let’s not have another numismanel.
Many coins at the American Numismatic Society illustrate human interpretations of the universe and religious beliefs regarding human destiny. Among these are various samples from the ANS Roman collection having mythical and mythological themes.
One of the great illustrations of astral imagery from the Early Roman Empire, strongly connected with Julius Caesar’s heritage, is found on a silver denarius of Augustus struck circa 19–18 BC. This coin has the Emperor’s image on the obverse and the famous Caesar’s Comet on the reverse (fig. 1). The comet, which appeared some four months after assassination of Julius Caesar, was interpreted by the Romans as a sign of his deification and became a powerful symbol in the political propaganda of Augustus, Caesar’s great-nephew and adoptive son.
Another important Augustus issue is a gold aureus from the Pergamum mint with the image of Capricorn, which had a special meaning for Augustus, who was born under this sign (fig. 2). Capricorn was associated with the planet and god Saturn. According to Roman mythology, Saturn had come to live in Italy when his son Jupiter kicked him out of heaven. The age in which Saturn ruled as king over Italy was considered a golden age of paradise on earth. Virgil took up this theme in his treatment of Augustus’s reign as a return of the Saturnian age.
The allegorical depictions of divinities associated with the planets and zodiac signs—such as Capricorn and Saturn (fig. 3);
Scorpio (scorpion) and Mars (fig. 4.);
Sagittarius and Jupiter (fig. 5);
Virgo and Mercury; Aquarius and Saturn (fig. 6.)—were shown on Antoninus Pius’s large bronze issues struck at the Alexandrian mint in Egypt around AD 144–145. A full circle of twelve zodiac signs surround Astarta’s chariot on the bronze coin of Julia Paula of Phoenician Sidon of AD 219–220 (fig. 7).
The same ring of zodiac signs encircling Zeus on a throne, with Helios’s chariot and biga of Selene in the field, can be seen on the reverse of a Maximinus I bronze coin struck in Thracian Anchialus circa AD 235–238 (fig. 8).
Among other ANS examples are a group of gemstones from the Society’s collection with the zodiacal images of Gemini (fig. 9),
Cancer, Leo, Aries and Selene riding in biga on sky (fig. 10). These small objects illustrate the popularity of astrological themes in personal adornment.
Some coins illustrate how the Romans chose to interpret the mythical past, displaying their religious beliefs through iconographic representation on objects of daily and domestic use. These include examples of the As, a bronze cast coin used in central Italy during the 3rd century BC, with the image of Janus, one of the most important gods in the Roman archaic pantheon, who was used to represent time, because he could see into the past with one face and into the future with the other. Janus was worshipped at times of planting and harvest and also at times of marriage and death (fig. 11).
Roma, a female deity representing the personification of the city of Rome is depicted famously as a she-wolf with her twins Remus and Romulus, as represented on a silver Republican denarius of the 2nd century BC (fig. 12).
Some of the allegorical depictions on the coins reinforce the importance of Roman beliefs, including the cult of Roman ancestors. One of the ANS’s beautiful gold aurei of Antoninus Pius (fig. 13) bears the images of a legendary defender of Troy, Aeneas, who fled with his father Anchises and his son Ascanius from the burning city after the Greeks destroyed it in the Trojan War.
He and Trojan survivors traveled to Italy, where Aeneas became a great hero and progenitor of Romans. The family of Julius Caesar and Augustus claimed descent from Aeneas, whose son Ascaniuis was also called Iulus.
The design of the ANS coins not only shows the the major gods of Roman Pantheon, but also helps illustrate the patronage of the Roman deities and their guardians. It encouraged personal beliefs in all aspect of every-day material life and nature. Among these are a personification of Honos, god of chivalry, honor and military justice and Virtus, deity of bravery and military strength (fig. 14);
Providentia, a goddess of forethought and representation of the ability to foresee (fig. 15);
Felicitas, a goddess of good fortune and lucky happenstance (fig. 16);
Securitas, a goddess of security and stability (fig. 17); and Concordia, one of the oldest of the Roman deities, having been worshipped since the earliest days of Rome, a goddess of agreement and harmony—harmony of the emperor (fig. 18), the army, the provinces and marriage.
These coins show not just how the Romans themselves perceived their world in terms of its mythological past, but also help us to understand how this legacy of mythology and myth-making has been received and reinterpreted within our modern and popular culture—in books, graphic novels, television, and movies—perhaps fostering an appreciation of ancient societies among a population that lacks regional access to the material culture of the ancient world.
Louis “The Coin” Colavecchio passed away in early July at the age of 78 (fig. 1). With a nickname like “The Coin,” one would think that most numismatists would have heard of him, though that’s likely not the case. As it turns out, Colavecchio might be considered one of the worst nightmares for a numismatist. He was a counterfeiter, and a good one too—the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest counterfeiter.” He had been released from Butner Federal Prison in North Carolina just weeks before he passed away in hospice care, suffering from a variety of medical conditions including dementia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension. Though sentenced to 15 months in prison for producing counterfeit $100 bills in August 2019, he had only served eight of those months. United States District Court Chief Judge John J. McConnell Jr. agreed to free him on the time he had served in May, as a last gesture of compassion before his impending death.
This time, he was easy to prosecute. He had been bragging to an informant that he could effortlessly counterfeit $100 bills and was capable of besting even the latest security features. In December 2018, the Secret Service raided his home in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and found presses able to produce counterfeit bills that accurately simulated the real deal (including their distinct reaction to ultraviolet light), as well as 2,400 counterfeit $100 bills. Having the damning conversations on recording, he had no choice but to plead guilty. But, this wasn’t the first time he was ever caught.
He earned the nickname “The Coin” from his ability to counterfeit nearly perfect slot-machine tokens for almost every casino in the country. Laboratories couldn’t even find any differences. His most notable arrest came in 1996 when he and his girlfriend were caught in Caesars Atlantic City with 800 pounds of fake tokens (fig. 2.).
It was the largest counterfeiting operation that had ever targeted an Atlantic City casino. He was sentenced to two years in federal prison. Meanwhile, he acted as a consultant for the federal government, having received $18,000 for explaining why his dies long outlasted those manufactured by the United States Mint. He was eventually banned from every casino in the country, but continued to gamble by wearing wigs and dressing as a woman. Authorities considered him an “old-time mobster.” Most of his exploits can be found in his 2015 autobiography, You Thought It Was More: Adventures of the World’s Greatest Counterfeiter.
While most numismatists identify counterfeiting with coins or paper currency, tokens and anything that had exchange value ran the risk of fraud. Unlike coins, casino tokens contain several types of anti-counterfeiting measures. These include dots that are of different sizes to separate words (fig. 3), a combination of dots and squares (fig. 4), letters that are intentionally filled in (fig. 5), or a set of tied reedings on the edges of tokens (fig. 6).
These would be known to casino employees, but not necessarily publicized in order to thwart counterfeiters. Today, the casinos no longer use metallic tokens, and most slot machines have replaced the use of tokens with printed vouchers that record the winnings which the player can redeem at the pay-out window.
As for Colavecchio, while those he cheated may not mourn his death, those who knew him are full of captivating stories—such as Andy Thibault, who befriended Colavecchio while working with him on his book and said, “I got to appreciate the good points. He was a lot of fun to be with.” A disarming, charming individual—and self-proclaimed “ladies’ man”—Rhode Island State Police Colonel Steven G. O’Donnell has said that “if he used the amount of ingenuity and knowledge he had for good, he could have been a millionaire and changed people’s lives.”