Monday, May 18, 2009

Week 3: "Picture Language on Roman Coins: Approaches and Interpretations"

After a couple of scheduling conflicts and delays, we finally gathered last week to discuss our third theme, "Greek Art and the Nature of Images on Greek Coins," in the course (download handout, Deutsch - English).

We began by discussing some nineteenth century scholarship and the way that images on Greek coins were understood at the time. We read articles by both E. Curtius and T. Burgon (full citations in the handout) which argued that both the selection of Greek coin types and the invention of coins were governed by religion. We considered the factors that led such scholars to come to these conclusions and the flaws in such a regimented view on the motives of selection. Although the reading was not required, we also discussed the dismissal of these viewpoints by later nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars such as Head and MacDonald, who offered a slightly more complex accounting for the choice of Greek coin types. The citation to head in the handout can be said to summarize, in a very abbreviated fashion, the current understanding of Greek coin images.

The last part of the course was spent discussing sections from S. Ritter's Bildkontakte. Götter und Heroen in der Bildsprache griechischer Münzen des 4. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. (Berlin, 2002). While following the modern understanding of ancient Greek coin images, as sketched out by Head, MacDonald, and others, Ritter discusses Greek coin images further in terms of Bildsprache (picture language). His themes examine the emergence and evolution of specific images through time and contextualizes them in terms of comparative representations in the coins of other Greek states. The subtleties of pictorial elements or style could play a significant role in the meaning of a Greek coin image and it is clear that states were expressing different and competing ideals in subtle ways via coin images (e.g. the section "Polarisierung: Die Athena-Bilder Athens und Korinths im 5. Jahrhundert").

This excursus into Greek numismatic images was limited to one meeting since studies of Roman coin images are more prolific and is the main subject of the course. I would also argue that, from a methodological perspective, there is more systematization (or at least developing methods) for the critical study of Roman coin images. In our next meeting, which must be postponed until next week, we will return to Roman coinage with the theme "Traditional Methods and the Historical Context: Roman Coin Images as 'Propaganda'" (download handout, Deutsch - English). We will read and discuss some essays by text-based historians that developed or perpetuated the understanding of Roman coin images as "propaganda," and term which is sometimes still used today in discussing Roman coin designs. We will discuss the problems of the label "propaganda" as applied to Roman art and coin designs and subsequent meetings will develop their understanding not as instruments of mass propaganda per se, but rather as part and parcel of a visually complex semantic system. Ultimately, we will address the interdisciplinary methodologies (i.e. historical, art historical, and archaeological) that provide the most potential for understanding the function, meaning, and reception of coin images in the Roman world.


Fleur Kemmers said...

Hi Nathan,

Very interesting to follow your course over the internet.
There's one paper on Greek (well, more Magna Graecia, but still) coin imagery that uses a 'roman' methodology, so to say (meaning, studying the semantic system and all that). Maybe you know it already, but if not:
J. Papadopoulos,2002: Minting identity: coinage, ideology and the economics of colonization in Akhaian Magna Graecia. Cambridge Journal of Archaeology 12:1, 21-55.

All best, see you on Wednesday (if you're there),



Hello Fleur,

Thank you for the reference, I was unaware of this one. I'll see you in a few days.