Monday, June 22, 2009

Coins in Context I: N.T. Elkins, "Coins, contexts, and an iconographic approach for the 21st century"

The second contribution in H.-M. von Kaenel and F. Kemmers (eds.). 2009. Coins in Context I: New Perspectives for the Interpretation of Coin Finds. Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike 23 (Mainz: von Zabern) is my article "Coins, contexts, and an iconographic approach for the 21st century" (pp. 25-46).

To provide some background, this article grows out of the methodology I developed for my dissertation, "Architectural Coin Types: Reflections of Roman Society," but which should have relevance to other studies on Roman coin images in light of recent developments in Roman numismatics.

After a short introduction that briefly compares and contrasts the general characteristics of Greek and Roman coin images, the article surveys the iconographic approach to ancient coins from the Renaissance to the 20th century in the context of wider developments in numismatic science. The study of coin images became more systematic after the 18th century with the development of corpora and type catalogues. Many studies in the Renaissance fancifully invented coin types that would depict certain mythological and religious figures and so the work of Eckhel in the 18th century, among others, helped weed out fact from fantasy and order our knowledge of what the ancients produced. Multidisciplinary approaches to ancient coin images were not very common until the mid- to late 19th and early 20th centuries when Greek coin images were commonly studied in comparison with relief sculpture and statuary. But the study of Roman coin images was less developed – a likely consequence of the prevailing view at the time that Roman art was merely a derivative and degenerate form of Greek art. In the early and mid 20th century, as Roman art was given more attention (see below), so too were Roman coin images by scholars such as Harold Mattingly, Andreas Alfoldi, Konrad Kraft, C.H.V. Sutherland, and many others. The study of Roman coin images at this time was rooted in the traditional study of ancient history and the reading of ancient texts. Common 20th century interpretations of Roman coins were as instruments of "propaganda," a term less frequently used because of its problematic and false connotations. The use of the term "propaganda" as ascribed to Roman art and coins corresponds with historical events in Europe leading up to, during, and after the Second World War.

By the mid 20th century, the study of Roman coin images was a beloved topic in numismatic research, but some scholars felt the methodology used was weak and felt that "fantastical" histories were being built on iconographic evidence alone. This sentiment prompted A.H.M. Jones to criticize the iconographic approach in his contribution to the Festschrift for Harold Mattingly in 1956. While few today would accept the notion that the iconographic study of coins is a fruitless exercise, credit must be given to Jones who prompted a methodological reevaluation within the discipline. A few years later Sutherland published a response to Jones which highlighted promising ways that Roman coin images could be studied in conjunction with other forms of evidence and the sorts of questions that scholars should ask of Roman coin images. Since the publication of Jones' and Sutherland's respective articles, several methodological treatises on the study of numismatic images have been published and have underscored the need for interdisciplinary study and a critical approach to the source material.

In light of recent researches on coin images, I then propose an interdisciplinary methodology for the study of coin images introducing three crucial themes that provide answer to different questions relevant to Roman coin images: "numismatic context," "art historical context," and "archaeological context." Together these three perspectives give us the broadest understanding of the way coin images functioned Roman society.

In the section on "numismatic context," I discuss the importance of attention to emissions and the role of die studies. All too often, images on Roman coin images are studied in isolation and sometimes even apart from the image on the other side of the coin. In order to understand the overall visual program of an emperor via the coinage it is therefore necessary to attend to the emission from which a coin comes. I draw an example from Neronian coinage: his sestertii showing the Claudian harbor at Ostia and the dupondii showing the Macellum Magnum are often featured in individual texts and especially books on architectura numismatica, discussed in terms of how these coins celebrate the construction of the respective monuments. However, if we look at the other coin types Nero was striking contemporaneously we also see bronze coins bearing images of Annona and Ceres or a congiarium. The overall visual program gives a fuller understanding of these architectural images: they comprise a group of types which emphasize the emperor's concern with the grain supply and the well-being of the people. In addition to the discernment of emissions based on titulature, die studies can also nuance our understanding of ancient emissions further. An example is provided by the first emission in Claudius' reign:
"A die study of Claudius' coins indicate that the emperor's first precious metal emission of AD 41/42 consisted of aurei and denarii showing him within the walls of the praetorian barracks or standing before a praetorian signifer, with the legends IMPER RECEPT and PRAETOR RECEPT, respectively, aurei and denarii with a representation of Pax Augusta and the accompanying legend PACI AVGVSTAE, and gold quinarii with a flying Victory holding an oak wreath and a shield inscribed OB C S. Independently, these types could be interpreted in various ways, but taken together in the context of the emission there is a unifying theme: the circumstances surrounding Claudius' accession. The first two types reference the role the praetorian guard played in his acclamation and were used as donativa to pay them, the quinarii honor his receipt of the corona civica and the clupeus virtutis in service to the citizens of Rome, and the PACI AVGVSTAE types reference a peaceful transition of power to the new princeps" (p. 32).

The article continues in surveying other potential applications for die studies with respect to iconographic questions. Die studies by Sarah Cox on the Temple of Concord sestertii of Tiberius and by Fred Kleiner on the Arch of Nero on Neronian sestertii show that the most detailed – and presumably the most "faithful" representations of these monuments – were those that were struck earliest and that later strikes were more abstract or less detailed, probably as a result of copying. All too often, scholars approach ancient coin images without a well developed numismatic methodology. An example is provided by a study in which Trajanic coins were employed in reconstructions of the Forum of Trajan. Here the reconstructions based on numismatic evidence were somewhat haphazard since the arguments revolved around what "most" coins show rather than a comprehensive die study. The reconstructions also did not take account of the conventions used by die engravers who produced architectural coin images and so the author read some depictions too literally, such as the number of columns on the coin representation of a temple. Any scholar who approaches Roman coin images must have some firm grounding in numismatic methods and an understanding of the die engraver's conventions.

Die studies may also have the potential to discern the occasions that necessitated the striking of coins, which may in turn have some bearing on the meaning of the images themselves. A study by H.-M. von Kaenel on Early Imperial coinage has suggested that peaks in the number of obverse dies occur in the same years that large building projects were underway in the city of Rome.

I conclude the section on numismatic context with a discussion of frequency. Certainly not all Roman coin types were equal in the sense that some are more common than others and it stands to reason that those that were produced more abundantly would have played a more dominant role in a visual program. Die studies have been used to calculate the frequencies of coin types in ancient reality, but this methodology has been critiqued by numismatists such as T.V. Buttrey since a number of factors could have affected the productivity of ancient die. Another method of determining frequency of types is through hoard analysis which has provided promising results. For example, Carlos Noreña employed this methodology in a study in which he "ranked" the imperial virtues and their importance through their frequency in precious metal hoards.

The section ends and introduces the next section on "art historical contexts":
"We cannot restrict our studies of coin types to individual depictions or certain categories without being aware of both the political and cultural history of the period and the other coins that were struck together and in circulation at the same time. A command of historical/textual evidence and a strong grasp of numismatic contexts and methodologies – especially regarding emissions, die studies, and frequencies – are essential for anyone who approaches the question of numismatic iconography. Coins are more than historical documents and economic tools: they are products of the societies that produced and used them. The images they bear were not produced in isolation of contemporary art historical trends and the state clearly used them as a medium for communication. In order to have a fuller appreciation of how representations on ancient coins can inform us about the ancient world, one must also examine the material in both art historical and archaeological contexts" (p. 35).

Centuries ago, images on ancient coins were used by antiquarians to illustrate history or myth, but in the 19th and 20th centuries the study of coin images became more critical and interdisciplinary in terms of the wider study of art history. Several scholars in the 19th century such as Karl Otfried Müller included coins along with other objects in their classification and definitions of style. Other examples are treated in some detail. Much of the literature of the 19th century in particular focused almost exclusively on Greek coin images and, as I have said, was an effect of the way Roman art was perceived at the time. An exception to this general trend, however, was in the study of Roman portraiture which was greatly advanced in the 19th century by attention to Roman coin images as in the monographs published by Johann Jakob Bernoulli between 1882 and 1894. Roman coin images gained much more attention in the 20th century:
"Alois Reigl laid the first critical theoretical and methodological foundations for the study of Roman art when he published his formalistic treatment of Late Roman art, Spätrömische Kunstindustrie, in 1901 (Vienna, reprinted and revised in 1927). Indeed, Riegl's contribution impacted the whole of art history and not just Roman art; for the first time art was viewed as a tool for understanding the society that produced it and drew the study of art away from simple aestheticism. Riegl understood that human society does not just experience art but actively produces art, and through this simple – but profound – methodological realization he coined the term Kunstwollen, expressing the notion that the form or style of art was dictated by a collective 'will', 'intent', or 'habit' that also drove contemporary social, political, and intellectual trends. While coins were not specifically treated in Spätrömische Kunstindustrie, Riegl's work set the study of art history on a new course, influencing the way that Roman art, and ultimately also Roman coins, would be viewed and approached by later scholars" (pp. 38-39).

After a quick look at some other developments in Roman art history in the mid 20th century, I move onto the current understanding of Roman art as a semantic system. In this theoretical framework, Roman coins play a significant role as communicative instruments and have been given much attention by pioneering theoreticians and scholars such as Tonio Hölscher and Paul Zanker. The section concludes after a few more pages of discussion on the semantic system in Roman art and the concentrated picture language (Bildsprache) on coins.

The next section addresses the importance of archaeological contexts in the study of Roman coin iconography. It focuses on some very recent and significant revelations yielded by an intensive study of the coin finds from the legionary fortress at Nijmegen, published by Fleur Kemmers in 2006. Among other things, her work demonstrated that that the Flavian legionaries at Nijmegen were regularly supplied with coins that bore militaristically-themed images. Her comparative analysis of finds from neighboring civilian settlements and from Rome clearly showed a much higher concentration of militaristic types in the fortress at Nijmegen in contrast to these other sample areas. The supply of these militaristically-themed types to Nijmegen was connected to the soldiers' payment. The section ends:
"Where Hölscher expounded the semantic nature and system of Roman coinage, and where scholars such as Noreña and Depeyrot have quantified and applied hierarchical semantic 'value' to individual types, Kemmers compared finds from a particular site to local and regional finds and discovered that the semantic system was more nuanced than we had previously thought and that a certain population was supplied – deliberately – with certain coin types relevant to its station in Roman society" (p. 43).

It is then argued that we can further advance the study of Roman coin images by studying the distribution of coins at a regional level in order to discern the specific audiences to which certain types may have been directed. Several resources are outlined in the article. For example, we have a strong corpus of coin finds from the Northwestern provinces and there are some important finds from Rome which have been published and also the large corpus of c. 70,000 coins from Rome that awaits publication, but which has already been frequently made available to scholars studying coin finds. The essay concludes:

"Roman coins are multifarious objects that served a number of functions during their 'lifetimes' millennia ago. As with the study of any other category of ancient art, the understanding of an ancient coin is broadened by the number of contexts to which we can relate it and, when this is done properly and critically, our knowledge of the ancient world is enhanced. For the historical and cultural contexts in which to place a Roman coin, one might turn to ancient texts and modern historical discourses. Traditional numismatic methods such as die studies, associating certain types with emissions, and quantifying the frequency of a particular type provide the numismatic context; these may allow one to 'rate' the semantic value of types in relation to one another and understand them in conjunction with wider ideological programs. The art historical context, namely approaching images on Roman coins as part of a semantic system, allows one to unpack the meaning of an image. Not the least of the contexts to consider is the material or archaeological context, which may allow researchers to define the audience to whom certain types were directed on regional and site-specific levels. It is no longer sufficient that iconographic studies on Roman coins be relegated purely to historical, art historical, or numismatic perspectives. The nature of the objects themselves demands a more comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach. Only in this manner, can one hope to use the source material to its greatest potential and fully appreciate the role numismatic imagery played in the Roman world" (p.46).

All posts relevant to the monograph containing this collection of essays can be found by using the keyword "Coins in Context I."



A fascinating topic which I hope you will expound upon in future posts. (For instance, what is meant by the term "semantic system"?) Incidentally, I had Noreña as a history professor a few years back--good lecturer--I enjoyed the course.

Voz Earl


Hi Voz,

Thanks for the comments. The "semantic system" is basically a fancy way of saying a communicative system. State-sanctioned Roman art is widely viewed as serving the purpose of communicating ideas to the viewer. This could be done in various ways: personifications, for example, could connote broad or generic concepts while specific symbols or representations may denote something more pointed. Hölscher has done a lot of work in this area and also with coinage. Most of his work is published in German, but one of his books was translated into English a few years ago: The Language of Images in Roman ARt. He doesn't deal with coins specifically in this work but talks about how subtle changes in style communicated different ideas. Along with all of this comes the notion of Bildsprache (picture language). Chris Howgego's book, Ancient History from Coins, pp. 72-77 discusses the role that Roman coin images played in the semantic system in view of Hölscher's work in particular and Zanker's work.

I know this is all a very condensed explanation. If you are interested in how this all applies to coinage and want to stick to English sources, I'd recommend the short passages in Howgego. I'd also recommend R. Brillant, "Forwards and Backwards in the Historiography of Roman Art" in Journal of Roman Archaeology 2007 for an overview of our evolving understanding of Roman art. You should be able to find this easily if you are near a good university library. There is a poignant passage in there regarding the role Roman coinage played in semantic system which I also quoted in full in my article. I didn't repeat in the blog post, since it would be odd to have a quote of a quote ;)

All best,


P.S. I saw Noreña speak for the first time at the AIA/APA meeting this past January. He is a very good speaker and I have a lot of respect for his research. Did you have him at Berkeley?

All best,


Thanks for the explanation and references, I'll definitely have a look at those.

Yes, I had Noreña at Berkeley. The two things I remember most: great lectures and great hair--what else can you ask for in a professor ;)

Voz Earl