Geto-Dacian Imitations of Roman Republican Denarii: Proto-Dacian State or Slave Trade?
The coin pictured in Figure 1 is only one of the 290 Geto-Dacian imitations of Roman Republican denarii included in the Richard B. Witschonke Collection at the American Numismatic Society (ANS 2015.20.2271–2560). No other private collection in the world could vaunt such a high number of Geto-Dacian imitations, with the only possible exception of the one once owned by Phillip Davis, which was partly sold in a Gemini Auction in 2012 (lots 583–767). The specimen presented here is a hybrid, as it reproduces the obverse type of L. Rustius (RRC 389/1, Fig. 2) and the reverse type of P. Satrienus (RRC 388/1, Fig. 3).
This specimen was part of a large hoard of Roman Republican denarii found in Romania between 2001 and 2002, which consisted of approximately 5,000 Roman Republican denarii, a few Alexander the Great drachms (perhaps local imitations?), and nearly 100 Dacian imitations of Republican denarii (Figs. 4–5). The latest official coin was an issue of Octavian, RRC 540/2, struck in 36 BC.
The Republican imitations—including the one presented here—were removed from the hoard prior to its dispersal and were published by Phillip Davis. These imitations are usually referred to as Geto-Dacian because most hoards of imitations of Republican denarii, and all mixed hoards of imitative and official pieces, have been found in Romania or in neighboring countries also within the Dacian sphere of influence. There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as the imitative coinage struck by the Pannonian tribe of the Eravisci. However, the Eraviscan style is quite distinctive, as made evident by the pictures (Figs. 6–7).
The question of the production and circulation of Republican denarii (and their imitations) in Dacia was the subject of a very heated scholarly discussion in Eastern Europe, especially Romania, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, in connection to the Romanian nationalist claims put forward by the Communist Party after the 1960s.
Very briefly, the consensus among Romanian numismatists was (and is) that most of the Republican denarii found in Romania, (roughly, ancient Dacia,) had in fact been produced there. According to this theory, Dacian mints would have produced not only imitations, but also many specimens that seem to be official Roman products. Most famously, the Romanian scholar Maria Chitescu, author of the groundbreaking Numismatic Aspects of the History of the Dacian State (originally published in Rumenian in 1981) advanced various stylistic and statistical arguments in support of this position, especially based on her study of the Poroschia Hoard (RRCH 436). Building upon the 49 coins that appear to be locally made copies of Roman prototypes, she created a distinction between faithful “copies” (Fig. 8), barely distinguishable from their Republican prototypes, and plus or minus barbarous interpretations of the Roman original, which she defines as “imitations” (Figs. 9–10).
This classification is usefully reproduced by P. Davis in his website and in subsequent publications, but has been quite recently criticized by B. Woytek, because “although clear at the extremes, this distinction becomes somewhat blurred in the middle and hence, it can be difficult to apply.”
Going back to the function of these coins, it becomes evident that they were not counterfeits. A definitive proof of the non-fraudulent nature of the Geto-Dacian imitations is offered by the fact that they often contain more silver by weight than their Republican models. Their production and circulation in Dacia was intended to balance a shortfall, real or perceived, in the supply of circulating coinage in Dacia, much as the Spanish imitations of Roman asses in the second and first century BC or the production of small change by the so-called Italian pseudo-mints in the first century BC. Their production would have been therefore connected to the monetary needs of a region that—while not subject to Rome—was already integrated in its monetary system.
In Chitescu’s view, faithful “copies” of Roman Republican denarii could be considered as “official” issues of the proto-Dacian state, whose uncertain historical origins were usually connected to king Burebista, a mysterious historical figure mentioned by Strabo (Geographica 7.3.5, 7.3.11, and 16.2.39), Jordanes (Getica 67) and in one inscription concerning an emissary of this king sent to Dionysopolis (modern Balcic in Bulgaria) in 48 BC, where Burebista is described as the “first and the greatest king of Thrace” (Fig. 11). In more nuanced tones, the existence of a proto-Dacian state in the first century BC connected to the king Burebista is still championed in Rumenian academia (Fig. 12).
While the hypothesis of a proto-Dacian state could seem a convincing explanation for the massive production and circulation of Roman Republican imitations, it did not provide an answer for the massive presence of Roman official denarii in the region, which were circulating together with local “copies” and “imitations.” Because of this integrated circulation, Michael Crawford rejected Chitescu’s hypothesis of local “copies” of Roman official coinage as currency of the proto-Dacian state, arguing instead that the official-appearing denarii were just that, coins struck in Rome and exported to Dacia, perhaps mostly in conjunction with the slave trade. The absence of hoards including Roman denarii—whether official or imitations—convinced Crawford that the import of Roman coinage and its subsequent imitations were related to a specific historical moment. According to him, the territory of Dacia—precisely because it was not yet incorporated in the Roman Empire—represented an alternative source of slave supply for Rome and Italy after 67 BC, when Pompey’s victory over the pirates put an end to the slave-raiding organized by them. Roman official denarii were then used as means of payment for slaves, possibly sold by local aristocrats. The high rate of wear of the Roman denarii prior to the 70s BC in Romanian hoards could thus be explained by the fact that they were imported to the Dacian region en masse between the 60s and the 50s BC.
In 2008 Kris Lockyear subjected a large sampling of Republican coin hoards to sophisticated statistical analyses that led to the conclusion that Roman Republican denarii were systematically imported to Dacia between 75 and 65 BC, possibly with a second peak in the 40s BC. He also found substantial differences in composition between the coins found in Romanian hoards and those from elsewhere in Europe, which seem to hint at a local production of the Romanian copies and imitations. To the same conclusions arrived in 2012 the team lead by Woytek, whose metallurgical analyses show that there is distinct similarity in the bullion used in the Geto-Dacian imitation of denarii. In sum, the results of the metallurgical analyses pursued in autonomous ways and with different methodologies by K. Lockyear and B. Woytek play well with the idea that Geto-Dacian imitations were produced locally, as once suggested by M. Chitescu.
However, M. Chitescu argued for a centralized production of Dacian denarii (i.e., copies of official Roman denarii), which would represent the currency in use in Burebista’s state. If this were the case, we should expect a relevant number of die-links, as for the official Roman production. However, no significant die-links have been identified in Geto-Dacian imitations up to this moment, with the partial exception (which actually proves the rule) of a short die-linked sequence published by P. Davis (Figs. 13–14).
At first sight, the absence of die-linked sequences—even for the more faithful copies—and the heterogeneity in styles suggest a high degree of decentralization in the production that seem irreconcilable with the role of these coins as official currency of Burebista’s state. However, further numismatic discoveries could radically change the picture.
In sum, the present state of studies suggest that Daco-Getan imitations of Roman Republican official coinage were indeed produced in Dacia and were related to the steady influx of official Roman Republican denarii which took place in the course of the first half of the first century BC.
This influx was probably related to slave trade and could have happened under the auspices of the Dacian proto-state, but no final conclusion could be drawn on this. However, the widespread and integrated circulation of official and non-official Roman Republican denarii in a region that was not part of the Roman Empire is yet another sign of far-fetching power of Roman coinage in the first century BC.