Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Week 5: "Picture Language on Roman Coins - Approaches and Interpretations"

Another short update.

Today was our fifth meeting. In previous meetings we examined the historiographical development of the iconographic approach to Roman coins up to c. the mid-twentieth century and critiqued their interpretation as instruments of "propaganda." Today, we looked at A.H.M. Jones' influential and provocative essay "Numismatics and History" in which he argued that numismatic scholars should not investigate political questions via iconography, comparing them to postage stamps, something which few people would pay much attention to at the time they were produced (handout Deutsch - English). He also criticized the haphazard way coin images had been studied and interpreted as propaganda as creating fanciful histories. In Jones' view numismatics and history could be better served if scholars were to focus their energies on questions revolving around technical concerns, volumes of issues, intricacies of coin circulation and supply, law, chronology, and economy.

To his credit, Jones influenced many numismatic scholars who investigated the potential of these other areas and, in our discussion, we commented on the ways where numismatic science has matured (or has started to mature) in these other areas (e.g. the work of Kemmers on the logistics of Roman coin supply and circulation). Although we may disagree with Jones' negative assessment of the iconographic approach to coins, his critique also stimulated a methodological review in the discipline.

C.H.V. Sutherland is perhaps one of the best-known twentieth century Roman numismatists who regularly investigated political question via coin iconography. In 1959 he published a response to Jones' article and outlined the ways in which coin images can be soundly studied and pointed to numerous examples where attention to coin images enhances our understanding of Roman politics and the Roman world. The participant who was to report on Sutherland's two articles in the handout was preoccupied with an important report for another seminar and so we will discuss the two contributions from Sutherland in more detail in our meeting next week.

We then talked about Weigel's methodological essay from 1995. Weigel turns against Jones' criticism of the iconographic approach, much like Sutherland, but layed out a firmer methodology. His emphasis was on interpreting coin images from multiple perspectives and the necessity for both a critical and interdisciplinary approach to Roman coin images, whereby they are not studied in insolation of other comparative evidence.

In coming weeks we will look at the interdisciplinary nature of studying coin images by discussing the contributions art historical, numismatic, and archaeological contexts. Next time we will address the topic of "Art Historical Context: Defining Roman Art and Redefining the Role of Images on Roman Coins – The Concept of Bildsprache" (handout Deutsch - English).



Can you elaborate on the reasons given by Jones for why numismatic scholars should not investigate political questions via iconography beyond the idea that few people would pay much attention to them at the time they were produced? This intrigues me.


Hello Scott,

Thank you for your interest and comments.

A.H.M. Jones' essay viewed much of the iconographic numismatic research up to the period as inadequate and uncritical. He found it isolated (arguments largely based purely on the coins themselves) and overly speculative.

I think we must also view Jones' criticism in the context of his own work. He was a very renowned historian and economic historian and, therefore, was naturally less interested in iconographic questions. His dismissal of the iconographic approach set the background for the second half of his article which elaborated on the need for numismatists to begin addressing economic and technical questions. In this respect, his contribution was successful since now more than 50 years later we can start answering many of the questions he prompted in the second half of his article and many numismatists/archaeologists/historians are actively conducting research in these areas. Many scholars have commented on the influence of his article in other works.

We must also keep in mind that Jones was writing at a time when he and other great economic historians such as Moses Finley and Karl Polyani were developing research on economic history. Jones himself was a rather traditional ancient historian who also preferred literary and epigraphic sources over other material evidence, which he appears to have viewed as inferior to the written record. A very short Wikipedia article on Jones is here.

Although, we can say today that, in spite of Jones' criticisms, the iconographic approach remains a valid avenue of inquiry, I think he was very much responsible for prompting numismatists and historians to reevaluate how they study coin images and to begin doing so in a more critical manner. Since Jones wrote this in 1956, numismatics and archaeology have developed a great deal and both archaeologists and art historians have highlighted the value of coin images in several different interdisciplinary studies.

Jones wrote that coins only served as instruments of exchange, but today we know that coins served many functions in the ancient world and through archaeological work the Roman state even supplied coins to certain regions or populations based on reverse designs. If Jones were around today, I think he would have a different view of the iconographic approach. Certainly, he was responsible for helping prompt a reformulation of the methodology.

See posts in the upcoming weeks about the new perspectives offered via art history and archaeology.

If you do not have access to the Festschrift for Harold Mattingly which contains the essay in question, please send me an email and I can try to get a scan out to you if you are interested in reading it for yourself.

Thanks again for your comments.

All best,


Great information, I appreciate you taking the time to reply. Jones is a quite interesting fellow. Having an art history background, the iconographic approach seemed at the very least valid and informative. It seemed odd, perhaps idealistically influenced, that iconography would be poo-pooed, and I wanted to be sure that was not what Jones was saying, at least outright. I have assumed that the visual communication element of coinage (or anything else) ought not be elevated or reduced when placed alongside the epigraphic record, perhaps my idealism regarding the nature of academia is uninformed? Being rather vulgar and common in my academic sharpness, I am happy to have the info on Jones. Thanks!


No problem, Scott.

Having entered into the field of the numismatics, art history, and archaeology in the late 20th/early 21st century myself, I can say there is a trend - a conscious trend - these days to promote "interdisciplinarity." While one might be a specialist in inscriptions, for example, I doubt few would argue today that the epigraphic record is more important than say the archaeological or numismatic record. Again, in Jones' time of writing, archaeological method was rather undeveloped as were many aspects of numismatics.

The convergence of historical disciplines was actually the theme of the APA Presidential Panel at the Joint AIA/APA meeting this past January. I believe I've mentioned it here before.

These days scholars ought to be well versed in all the types of evidence the ancient world offers us whether they be numismatists, archaeologists, art historians, or historians. I think striving to be a combination of all these greatly enhances our understanding of the ancient world.

All the best,