As one of the leading international centers of numismatic research, it’s no surprise that the stories coins tell about the people who came before us are daily topics of conversation at the offices of American Numismatic Society, where its staff, trustees, fellows, members, and visitors come together in a shared passion for the study of coinage and history. A weekly ritual I enjoy at the ANS is the informal social hour on late Friday afternoons, during which casual conversation often turns to numismatic topics and ideas. Some weeks ago, Chief Curator Peter van Alfen mused about how much cumulative pain the approximately 800,000 objects in the vault have caused through the centuries, a revelation on which I have ruminated since. People made, used, earned, spent, sought after, and often suffered for the objects we study and it’s important to keep the human element in numismatics at the fore of our considerations.
While “money does not buy happiness,” having it certainly makes life easier; it is essential for shelter, food, clothing, health care, transportation—basic subsistence. Financial security gives us agency and control over our lives. Conversely, the lack of it, or an insufficient amount, traps us in compounding anxieties and limits our choices and ability to direct our own destinies. Money’s ability to offer security and to provide a life of comfort, free from concern of destitution, can cause us to go to great lengths to get it, with extreme examples including corruption, theft, murder, coercion, and the exploitation of other human beings.
Our very economic system is open to criticism, as it asserts the primacy of money in our culture, making it a prerequisite for living without hardship and destitution. The growing wealth gap occupies daily news segments that discuss the inability of families across the country to live on minimum wages. Squid Game, the 2021 sensational Netflix series, presently enjoys international popularity because of its biting allegorical critique of the brutal inhumanities and abject cruelties inflicted by late-stage capitalism and the callous hierarchies it creates, a message that transcends cultural and national boundaries and that resonates with a swathe of global audiences facing increasing financial insecurity and inequities. Beyond the constructs of our economic system, countless psychological studies are devoted to the effects money has on our behaviors and the range of emotions it stokes in us. Money programs us in so many ways.
Avarice (Fig. 1)—the emotion most associated with money—is not new, for history is rife with examples and stories of the depths to which we fall to acquire money, and the inhuman things we do to each other for it. The raw materials for a great many of the historical coins we study and collect were procured centuries ago through forced labor and slavery; examples include the Roman mines and the Spanish exploitation of the resources in the New World. Damnatio ad metallum, condemnation to the mines, was a Roman capital punishment worse than an immediate death sentence, because of the abject conditions and prolonged suffering that ultimately would lead to death under hard labor.After metal was struck into coined money and put into circulation, the pursuit of it could cause further pain and suffering.
During the reign of Trajan (98–117 CE), the satirist Juvenal wrote a fictional tale about a miserly Roman patron reluctantly doling out a pittance of 100 quadrantes to undeserving clients at the expense of those who actually needed it (1.95–146). In that anecdote, he invokes several gods with temples and altars, but tells us it is money that is worshipped supreme; greed motivates even wealthy citizens with high office to wait for the paltry payment in his story, displacing those who need it to subsist. Juvenal writes: “Of all gods it’s Wealth that compels our deepest reverence – though as yet, pernicious Cash, you lack your own temple, though we’ve raised no altars to Coins (as already to Honor and Peace, to Victory, Virtue and Concord – where storks’ wings rattle as you salute their nest)” (1.112–116). Elsewhere, I have argued that Juvenal makes subtle allusions to contemporary coin designs to heighten his satire, as people associated his theme of corruption and greed with the designs on coins in their pockets, which actually depicted Honor, Peace, Victory, Virtue, and Concord, especially as he also deploys wordplay with numen (deity) and nummus (coin). The episode concludes with the miserly patron turning away spurned clients to gorge himself on a boar, which also features on Trajan’s quadrantes, further reinforcing his theme of avarice (Fig. 2).
Perhaps the most famous tale in the ancient world of the suffering money can cause is Judas’s betrayal of Jesus in exchange for 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15; Fig. 3).
This was the immediate catalyst that led to Jesus’s brutal execution, and the savage and humiliating events of its prelude, which typified non-citizen executions in the Roman Empire. So great was Judas’s remorse that he attempted to return the blood money and hanged himself (Matthew 27:3–5). While highly improbable that the Tyrian shekels (Fig. 4) in the ANS cabinets were among those paid to Judas, we might wonder what they were witness to centuries ago, what they were used for, and what people did to get them (or any of the objects in collections across the globe for that matter), whether it be theft, assault, betrayal, murder, hard labor, prostitution, self-degradation, and so on.
In addition to the acts people commit to attain wealth, we can also discern emotional residue that people attached to coins when material contexts are preserved. Looking to developments in the field of archaeology, and specifically what is called Cognitive Archaeology, Prof. Frank Holt, an ANS member, advocates for a Cognitive Numismatics in his new book: “Numismatics therefore seems a study of elite self-absorption. For that reason, it has generally been viewed as a top-down discipline more about sovereigns than the societies they ruled . . . Cognitive numismatics firmly rejects that premise. Without abandoning all that coins can teach us as state-sponsored media, cognitive numismatics . . . seeks also in coins the lower strata of society as the next step in advancing our knowledge deeper into history’s darkest chasms” (Holt, When Money Talks: A History of Coins and Numismatics [Oxford University Press, 2021], p. 164).
Indeed, there has been a growing body of scholarship that explores the reception and use of coins by people who are anonymous in the grand narrative arc of history. By interrogating the reception and use of coins, we uncover vestiges of the way nameless people attached meaning and emotion to coins, especially in funerary contexts. For instance, late-third and fourth-century CE coins in infant burials in Roman Britain were placed consistently with the reverse side up, with images suggesting the protective roles of the parents. The grieving parents evidently chose such designs to help guide their children safely on their journeys to the afterlife.
From Rome, there is the example of a burial of a fourth-century CE Christian child from the Catacombs of Saints Peter and Marcellinus, about which Maria R.-Alföldi wrote in 1996. Around the loculus in which the child’s body was laid to rest, the family pressed ten coins of Maxentius bearing the portrait of his deceased child, Romulus, into the plaster seal (Fig. 5). One coin remains in situ, while the others have since fallen out (Figs. 6–7).
The use of the coins is witness to the parents’ sentimental adornment of their child’s grave with the likeness of a child who was about the same age when he died. That they were Christians and Maxentius was a pagan, who deified his dead son, as indicated on the coin with the phrase divo, seems to have mattered little in their choice to mark their child’s passing this way.
Numismatists have, indeed, begun to use coins in ways that help illuminate the lives, experiences, and emotions of everyday people. To examine such questions, and to complete the potential breadth of information that can be obtained from the study of coins, numismatics needs more than just the objects themselves; the deployment of literature, texts, historical context, and the physical associations archaeology provides enrich numismatics and illuminate the people who used coins. In this way, we can help to tell a more complete story of the human experience and give voice to those that the grand political narrative overlooks.