While perusing the ever-surprising Richard B. Witchonke Collection at the ANS for its forthcoming published catalogue, I had the great luck to study a few overstruck coins with fairly unique features. This post represents a succinct attempt at describing at least part of the importance of these specimens.
In his Overstruck Greek Coins, David MacDonald defines overstruck coins as “coins that have been ‘recoined’ by striking them with new and different dies, whether by the original minting authority or by a different one, without having the original design completely removed beforehand.” Overstriking was usually preferred to recoining when limits in time or in the size of the coinage that needed to be produced made the expenses and the labor to melt and produce new flans unfeasible. Overstriking was done for a variety of reasons, ranging from eminently economic ones to (possibly) ideological. Overstruck coins are thus a powerful to investigate the complexities of coin circulation and production in the antiquity. Their historical importance has not escaped the attention of the scientific community and the necessity of a more systematic cataloging has lead to the creation of Greek Overstrikes Database (GOD), a still ongoing project under the scientific direction of the aforementioned D. MacDonald and François de Callataÿ. Of course, overstriking was not limited to the Greek world. Roman overstrikes have been studied as early as the mid- nineteenth century by the likes of Pierre Philippe Bourlier d’Ailly, Max Bahrfeldt, Ettore Gabrici, Charles Hersch, Rudi Thomsen, and Michael Crawford. Much more recently, Clive Stannard and Suzanne Frey-Kupper used overstrikes to study the circulation and production patterns of Central Italian mints and Andrew McCabe analyzed the Roman over Roman overstrikes on bronze and silver coins of the second and first century BC.
While several factors are usually at play, the necessity of altering the area of circulation of a certain coinage could be the main factor leading to overstriking in some cases, as shown by the Y. Touratsoglou and by the same MacDonald for the bronze civic coinage of Macedonia in the course of the second century BC. The necessity of broadening the circulation area and relieving local shortages of small change could also be the explanation for Fig. 1, an apparently Roman sextans struck over a Neapolitan bronze coin. In a forthcoming paper, Stannard convincingly attributes this coin to the newly discovered Second Punic War mint of Minturnae. Through overstrikes like the one presented in Fig. 1 the mint of Minturnae was “adapting” Neapolitan coinage to a larger circulation radius by adding on it Roman types. While the weight of these pseudo-Roman issues differed from the official Roman production, the types on them made them their value immediately recognizable to users.
Another factor leading to overstriking was wear. In same cases unofficial coins could be overstruck on obsolete coins, as in the case of a Dacian imitation of a denarius struck over a drachm from Apollonia (SNG Cop. 387) (Figs. 2–3) This coin, an imitation from Dacia of a denarius issued by L. Flaminius Chilo in 109/8 BC, shows on the obverse part of the legend [API] ΣΤΩΝ of the undertype. The vestigia of the name of the magistrate allow for the dating of the overstruck Apollonian drachm, which is dated to the early second century BC. The reverse of the coin clearly shows part of the undertype ΝΟΣ. A combination of all the factors mentioned above (wear, scantiness of local coinages, and thus alteration of the original circulation area) could explain the massive presence of foreign and obsolete coins as undertypes for the bronze coins produced in the Roman world, as shown by Stannard and Frey-Kupper in a recent article.
A change in the weight standard adopted by the issuing mint was also another reason leading to overstrikes, as illustrated by Fig. 4. This coin, a triental sextans (RRC 41/9) struck over a semilibral uncia (RRC 38/6) is dated to the years 215–212 BC and shows how the sudden decreases in weight standard that took place in the course of the Second Punic War could produce overstruck coins in massive amounts. Also, silver coins were likely to be overstruck if they differed from the weight standard adopted in the area they were circulating. Coins of similar weight standards were easier to overstrike, but there also was less need to do so. On the other hand, coins of heavier weight standard were reduced to a lighter weight standard by trimming the flan and then overstruck.
This is the case of Fig. 5. This coin, a cistophorus from Ephesus dated to 140–139 BC, has been struck over a Macedonian tetradrachm of First Meris (Fig. 6), issued after 168 BC, as suggested by the thunderbolt still visible on the reverse. This specimen has been included in a 2011 AJN article by de Callataÿ. Since the introduction of the reduced standard cistophoric tetradrachm under the king Eumenes II, the Attalid kingdom became a closed currency area (on substantiated objections to this point of view see this article by Andrew Meadows). Silver coins on different standards thus needed to be trimmed and overstruck in order to circulate freely. This overstruck coin opens a window over the complex monetary and political interactions in the Mediterranean in the second half of the second century BC. In de Callataÿ’s words, “at the end of the Attalid dominion, tetradrachms coming from the Northern Aegean area were chosen intentionally to issue some specific batches of cistophoric tetradrachms. This was not a random process, since there is no reason to believe that coins from the First Macedonian Meris or Thasos were particularly common at the border of the Asian Province. […] The question is: which power organized this movement of coinage? To my mind, the answer points in the Roman direction, even with Asia Minor still technically under Attalid rule.”
The convergence of Eastern Mediterranean monetary systems under Roman dominion is also shown by other two very interesting overstrikes. In Fig. 7, a silver tetradrachm from Thasus, dated to 90–75 BC, is struck over a Macedonian tetradrachm issued under the Roman quaestor Aesillas. Conversely, in Fig. 8 a Macedonian tetradrachm of Aesillas is struck over a Thasian one. The mutual overstrikes of Thasian and Macedonian tetradrachms shows that these two coinages were roughly ontemporary, but also that in the course of the first century BC the monetary systems of the Eastern provinces of Roman Empire became increasingly integrated.
Another very interesting case of overstrike is represented by Figs. 9–10. The first of these coins, issued by the Roman quaestor Gaius Publilius either after 168 BC either after 148 BC, is clearly struck over a Silenus/ D ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΩΝ issue. Given the high number of similarly overstruck coins, D. Macdonald suggested that the Silenus/ D ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΩΝ issues, characterized by the absence of the head of Rome on the obverse were issued after 148 BC, twenty years after the ones issued under Gaius Publilius, to highlight the independence of Macedonia, a Roman province by then. However, the overstruck coins presented in Fig. 10 suggest otherwise. While the undertype is not clearly recognizable, the letters still visible on the reverse suggest that this Silenus/ D ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΩΝ coin was struck over a specimen issued by the Roman quaestors, even if it not clear whether Fulcinnius or Publilius. This overstruck coin this invalidates the chronology proposed by Macdonald and suggests that the coinages issued by the Roman quaestors and the Silenus/ D ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΩΝ one were most likely contemporary, even if it is not clear whether they should be dated to 168 or 148 BC.
Lastly, overstrikes could shed some light on the financing of armies. The ones presented here (Figs. 11–12), Roman quadrantes struck respectively over Iero II’s and Carthage bronze coins, are a clear indication of the hasted production of Roman coinage in Sicily in the course of the Second Punic War. The most probable explanation for such haste was of course the necessity of paying the armies fighting at the time in the island.
In conclusion, the overstruck coins are important heuristic tools to better understand ancient monetary systems. In the specific, the ones included in the Richard B. Witschonke Collection at the American Numismatic Society present in same cases unique characteristics which make them even more valuable to the historian and the numismatist.