Category Archives: Roman

The Secret Chord: Harps and Lyres on Ancient and Modern Coins

Last month, on November 7, 2016, the internationally acclaimed Canadian artist Leonard Cohen died of cancer. He was regarded as a man of many talents, who painted, wrote novels, poetry, and the songs for which he was best known. He was a man of art, culture, and ideas, who appreciated the value of both Manhattan and Berlin.

Within the large oeuvre left behind by Cohen, the song Hallelujah stands out for its great popularity and the life of its own that it has taken on in the hands of the many other musicians (now more than 300 in multiple languages according to Wikipedia) who have played and modified its lyrics since it was first released in 1984. However, all versions begin with Cohen’s original lament “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord / But you don’t really care for music, do you?” and this has prompted the topic for this edition of the ANS blog. Regardless of whether a numismatist does care for music (Cohen’s or anyone else’s) or not, David’s secret chord and those of other lyric poets have made an impact on coins from antiquity up to modern times.

Fig. 1: ANS 1927.38.76

David is depicted playing his chord on the enigmatic Irish St. Patrick coinage of the seventeenth century, some of which was carried off to New Jersey to serve as halfpence in the cash-starved colony. Its production in two denominations (or one that was later reduced in weight?), date of issue, meaning of its iconography, and the circumstances of its arrival in New Jersey have captured the imagination of Colonial American numismatists for decades and even became the topic for an ANS Coinage of the Americas Conference in 2006. The famous king also plays on contemporary coins of Nuremberg and the Papal States, as well as on psalmenpfennige (medallic awards for the completion of Protestant religious education, which included the memorization of Psalms—the Biblical songs attributed to David).

Fig. 2: ANS 1954.203.63

Harps appear without players on English silver coins struck for use in Ireland in the sixteenth century, but it is not clear whether any reference to King David was intended in this heraldic emblem or whether the instrument alluded only to contemporary Irish culture, which held its native harpers in high esteem. David’s harp (indicated by the winged female column symbolizing the unearthly beauty of its music), occurs on English halfpence produced for Ireland English halfpence produced for Ireland in the eighteenth century—perhaps not coincidentally after more than 100 years of repressive policies had all but crushed the native tradition of harping in Ireland. A pointedly Celtic harp (Irish cláirseach) has been used on all Irish coins, including the current euro, since the creation of the Irish Free State (Republic of Ireland after 1948) in 1922.

Fig. 3: ANS 1944.100.63061

Although it is regularly described and depicted as a harp in medieval and modern texts and artworks, David’s stringed instrument was actually a form of lyre known in Hebrew as the kinnor. A related instrument, the nebel was regularly played as part of celebratory worship in the Jerusalem Temple. The connection of these instruments to the Temple and to David lies behind their prominent depiction on coins struck by Jewish rebels against Rome during the disastrous Bar Kokhba War (AD 132-136). This bloody conflict erupted when the emperor Hadrian sought to refound Jerusalem (already destroyed by Titus in AD 70) as a pagan city. The kinnor and nebel of the Bar Kokhba coins had a dual purpose. They evoked the longing memory of days when the Temple still stood and great Jewish kings ruled the land while casting Simon bar Kokhba, the leader of the revolt, as a Messianic figure who might lead his people to victory and restore the Temple.

Fig. 4: ANS 1944.100.41956

The chelys (Latin testudo) and kithara of the Greeks and Romans appear to have been the rough equivalents of the kinnor and nebel, respectively. The former, which included a sound box made from a tortoise shell or wood formed into the shape of a shell, was said to have been discovered by the god Hermes. While traveling along a riverbank, he was attracted by a beautiful sound and when he went to investigate he found that the wind was blowing tendons that had been stretched across a tortoise shell. From this he fashioned the first chelys to be played by gods and men. The kithara, however, was a more elevated instrument of wooden construction associated with Apollo and the Muses as patrons of culture and the arts. Indeed, music lessons on the kithara or chelys were a staple of state education programs for citizens of the ancient Greek cities. The important role of music in Greek education is underlined by coins of the Bithynian king Prusias II that depict Chiron, the centaur tutor of Herakles, playing a kithara. The instrument is the only element of the type that allows the viewer to identify the subject as the educator Chiron and not some other centaur.

Fig. 5: ANS 1967.152.280

Apollo is a ubiquitous deity on Greek coins struck in the Classical and Hellenistic periods and even under the Roman Empire, who often appears in his role as Kitharoidos—the kithara player. His kithara is also depicted on coins, often paired with the head of its divine player or by itself, as on early coins of Delos, the island of Apollo’s birth. Less commonly, even great human lyric poets or the Muses who inspired them to greatness appear on Greek and Roman coins. Sappho is shown playing a kithara on coins of Mytilene in the Roman period as a means of advertising the cultural importance of the city while Terpsichore, Kalliope, and Erato, the respective Muses of choral song, epic poetry, and love poetry appear holding a kithara (Kalliope) or chelys (Terpsichore and Kalliope) on coins of the Roman Republican moneyer Q. Pomponius Musa as an extended pun on his cognomen Musa.

Fig. 6: ANS 1944.100.2329

While Leonard Cohen attributes a single secret chord to David in his song, the numerous symbolic uses to which harps, lyres, and their players were put on coins of ancient and more modern times would seem to suggest that through the ages there were in fact many such chords aimed at pleasing the mortal as well as the divine.

Making Sense of Greco-Roman Legends on Western Kṣatrapa Coinage

1D3_8405Today’s post is written by Jeremy Simmonsa PhD candidate in the Classical Studies program at Columbia University. He has written on the topic of Indo-Roman trade, and in particular, the spice trade in antiquity.  His dissertation will look specifically at patterns of consumption in the larger Indian Ocean trade network, including the engagement between Indian monetary systems and imported Roman coinage. His project, as a participant of the the 2016 Eric P. Newman Graduate Summer Seminar, focuses on Western Kṣatrapa coins.


For my ANS Seminar Project, I decided to look at silver coins of the Western Kṣatrapas, who ruled in the modern day Indian states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh from the mid-first to early fifth centuries CE (Figure 1). These coins have been indispensable for reconstructing the chronology of the Western Kṣatrapa kings, as well as the line of succession, due to the presence of dates (in the Śaka Era) and patronymics on coins. However, the feature of these coins that drew me to this project is the obverse legend, which appears to be written in a script that mixes Greek and Roman characters at random.

Fig. 1: Rudrasiṃha I coin, minted in year 118 of the Śaka Era (c. 196 CE) [BM 1889.0105.25]
These legends have been little discussed in scholarship (as opposed to the Brāhmī legends on the reverse), and have been variously labeled “Greek,” “corrupt/pseudo/blundered Greek,” or “Greco-Roman,” without much consideration of the larger implications of these different descriptions. In fact, it is a general practice to not record the obverse legends of Kṣatrapa coins in catalogues or other publications: cataloguers justify their actions by stating that the legends become corrupt over time and cease to have any meaning; and those publishing or auctioning a single coin tend not to transcribe the obverse legend at all.

This lack of scholarly attention arises from the assumption that the obverse legends at one point communicated written language—specifically, the coins of the early kings like Nahapāna, which have Greco-Roman script transliterations of the Prakrit reverse legends (Figure 2)—but that later die-cutters, due to their lack of skill or knowledge of Greek and Latin, merely rendered corrupt versions as a form of ornamentation. I believe this narrative of decline, first suggested over a century ago, is not only based on the limited evidence of early collections, but has been perpetuated by a regrettable practice of not recording positive data.

Fig. 2: Nahapāna coin, with transliterated obverse legend ΡΑΝΝΙω ΞΑΗΑΡΑΤΑC ΝΑΗΑΠΑΝΑC (rannio ksaharatas nahapanas, “of king Nahapāna, the Kṣaharata”; mid first century CE) [CNG Auction 369, Lot 24, 24 Feb. 2016]
Fig. 2: Nahapāna coin, with transliterated obverse legend ΡΑΝΝΙω ΞΑΗΑΡΑΤΑC ΝΑΗΑΠΑΝΑC (rannio ksaharatas nahapanas, “of king Nahapāna, the Kṣaharata”; mid-first century CE) [CNG Auction 369, Lot 24, 24 Feb. 2016]
In order to correct the treatment of obverse legends on Kṣatrapa coins in scholarship, I have created a database of Greco-Roman obverse legends found on silver coins minted during the three-and-a-half centuries of Kṣatrapa rule (from Nahapāna to Rudrasiṃha III). I gathered these legends from specimens presented in various museum catalogues, auction listings, and publications. While this task involved some difficulties due to the damaged nature of most obverse legends (Figure 3) and the poor quality of photographs, I managed to assemble a large corpus of data in order to supplement existing descriptions and serve as the basis of my initial observations.

Fig. 3: Vijayasena coin, with corroded traces of obverse legend (r. 238-250 CE) [ANS 1978.51.6]
Fig. 3: Vijayasena coin, with corroded traces of obverse legend (r. 238-250 CE) [ANS 1978.51.6]
It is my hope that these observations will contribute to the following aims: 1) determining which paleographic features of the obverse script are Greek versus Roman, in order to mitigate the problem of variable terminology; 2) outlining possible sources of inspiration for these legends, whether it be local precedents (e.g., Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian, and Indo-Parthian), imported Roman coinage, or imitation Roman coinage produced in India (Figures 4 and 5); 3) uncovering any evidence of conscious design behind these legends (as opposed to mindless copying as previously suggested), indicated by similar patterns of letters, standardization of legends, etc.; 4) and, most importantly, speculating why the Kṣatrapa kings would design coins with unreadable obverse legends alongside very legible Brāhmī legends and numerals.

Fig. 4: Indo-Greek drachm of Apollodotus II, with Greek obverse legend (early first century BCE) [BM 1922.0424.120]
Fig. 4: Indo-Greek drachm of Apollodotus II, with Greek obverse legend (early first century BCE) [BM 1922.0424.120]
At the very least, it is my hope to show the merits in investigating elements of a coinage tradition that many have disregarded as “meaningless.”

Fig. 5: Imitation Roman aureus of Septimius Severus, found in India (early third century CE?) [ANS 1905.57.375; photo Klaus Vondrovec]
Fig. 5: Imitation Roman aureus of Septimius Severus, found in India (early third century CE?) [ANS 1905.57.375; photo Klaus Vondrovec]



The Imperial Family on Third Century Roman Coinage

1D3_8611[Today’s post is authored by Sam Caldis (Brown University) who is taking part in the 2016 Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics. Sam’s proposed doctoral dissertation topic is collegial rule and imperial power-sharing in the Roman Empire during the third and fourth centuries.  Aside from his seminar project, Sam is spending time at the ANS researching the coins and public image programs of fourth-century Roman emperors, studying for his preliminary exams.]

Coins played a significant role in shaping the public image of the  Roman imperial family.  The majority of the coins which left the central imperial mints featured the emperor himself and emphasized his activities and virtues, from (re)conquering Britain to his close friendship with Hercules.  However, emperors did not always appear solo on their coinage- wives, ancestors, and descendants could all be placed on coins to highlight other marks of distinction for the regime, such as proclaiming ancestry or demonstrating the security of the succession.  Although there has recently been a great deal of interest in the place of members of the imperial house on coinage, one aspect which has been largely ignored is the development of familial types – coins which display at least two members of the imperial family together on either the obverse or reverse of a coin.

RIC I Augustus 207 (ANS 1935.117.354)

These types appear early on – Augustus minted coins with his chosen successors, Gaius and Lucius Caesar, together on the reverse.  By the end of the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211), familial types had become more common.  This is in large part due to the prominence of his two potential heirs, Caracalla (198-211) and Geta (209-211), and their powerful mother, Julia Domna.

RIC IV Geta 184 (ANS 1946.7.38)

The members of this imperial household were mixed and matched to produce a variety of familial types.  The most common familial types depict Severus’s sons on the reverse, usually with a legend emphasizing concordia, or harmony.  This may have been intended to reinforce the dynasty’s stability to the people of the empire, though it may also have been an unsubtle message from the imperial court to a pair of brothers who were notoriously always at odds.

RIC V Salonina 47 (ANS 1954.203.132)

The rapid turnover of emperors in the third century led to further experimentation with familial types.  For example, Gallienus (253-268) has no familial types with his sons and co-emperors Valerian II (253-257) and Saloninus (258-260), but the latter are included in familial types on their mother Salonina’s coins.  Instead of appearing as teenage Caesars, Valerian II and Saloninus are depicted with a third child quite literally no bigger than their mother’s knee, emphasizing the fertility and youth of the dynasty.

RIC V Carus 146 (Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Münzkabinett, RÖ 32467)
RIC V Carus 146 (Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Münzkabinett, RÖ 32467)

Perhaps the most interesting shift in familial types during this period is the movement of the family portrait from its usual place on the reverse to the obverse, in some cases.  Before the third century, only Augusts and Nero ever produced coinage with an obverse familial type, and these were exceedingly rare.  By the end of the third century, the obverse became the preferred location for the family portrait on familial types. Furthermore, the emperor’s solo portrait on the reverse came to be replaced by more traditional imagery, such as deities.  A significant number of familial types now looked like “normal” coins with the single emperor on the obverse being replaced by a corporate image of two members of the imperial house.  In the rapidly changing political world of the third century CE, emperors experimented with the presentation of their public image in a variety of media as they fought to maintain their position.  Familial coin types were one of part of their toolkit, one which received significant attention and innovation.