Friday, September 26, 2008

The Coin Collection at the Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

Readers may have noticed that I have not posted much over the past month or so. The reason for this is that there are several demanding projects at Frankfurt University requiring my attention and I was also preparing for a visit from my mother. It was her first trip abroad. My mother arrived in Frankfurt on September 10 and stayed for 12 days. I kept her busy after her arrival showing her the sites in Frankfurt and some nearby towns and cities, such as Mainz, Heidelberg, and Cologne. The following Monday we went to Rome for four days and I took her around the sites there. Except for a run-in with one corrupt taxi driver, we enjoyed our time together and I am glad she was able to experience a small part of Europe and its rich history. I hope that I will be able to post more frequently now since I have returned to work and am starting to get caught up on my obligations.

One place I have consistently visited every time I go to Rome is the Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. The museum is located next to Termini train station and contains a very import collection of sculpture, wall paintings and, of course, coins. Naturally, this museum was on our itinerary, since I wanted to ogle the magnificent numismatic collection once again. My mother was not as impressed with the coins as she was with the wall paintings, sculptures, and fine mosaics, but I was able to make a quick jaunt through the basement vault where the coins are kept anyway.

Unlike most of the important western collections of ancient coins, those in Rome often contain significant proportions of coins that are known to have been recovered in Rome and Italy. Most of the coins in the cases at the Palazzo Massimo come from the private collection of Francesco Gnecchi, a numismatic scholar from the late 19th and early 20th century, but other displays include excavated hoards and finds as does its larger inventory which cannot be displayed at once. Some 60,000 - 70,000 ancient coins from the Rome, which were recovered during the risorgimento, await publication by the numismatists at Frankfurt. Some finds from the Tiber River have already been published.

The extensive display at the Palazzo Massimo allows visitors to view the evolution and development of the Roman monetary system in a chronological fashion and also includes later medieval and modern coins from Italy. Unlike most museums containing ancient coin displays, the cases at Palazzo Massimo have magnifiers that visitors can manipulate electronically to view select coins in greater detail. Often, however, I have found some of these inoperable. Nevertheless, any numismatist or ancient coin enthusiast who passes through Rome ought to visit this collection and the other important holdings of this fantastic museum. In some ways its a much more enjoyable experience than visiting the Capitoline Museums or the Vatican Museums, where one has to fight the throngs of tourists.

(Photos: 1. My mother and I on the Palatine Hill in Rome with the Colosseum in the background; 2. Display cases for ancient coins at Palazzo Massimo; 3. Detail of display case with magnifiers; 4. Display showing the stratification of the Vicarello votive deposit; 5. Detail of the Vicarello votive deposit.)



The stratification display is interesting. I've not seen that style of display used for coins.


I've seen stratification displays in various archaeological museums before, but you are right - I can't recall seeing one outside of Palazzo Massimo that showed a collective deposit of coins in this fashion. According to the information at the museum, the Vicarello deposit is a votive deposit that accumulated over time in a well and thus the stratification is preserved and nicely represents the various currencies used at earlier and later periods. The very early Roman/Italic bronze currencies (aes signatum, aes grave, looked like some aes rude as well) are at the bottom and the later Republican cast coins are closer to the top. I've not come across this deposit in any research I've done, but if/when I can get caught up on some work, it would be interesting to dig up the literature on it. Thanks for the comment.



Nathan- Sounds like a great trip. I've also been to this museum and was similarly impressed with the coin display. The stratification display is a particularly interesting idea. I also liked the magnifiers, but noted some were broken when I visited/and or the lights were off on some displays.

I also recall many of the later Italian coins were from the collection of the the King Victor Emanuel III, who was also apparently quite a numismatic scholar. (The coins issued in his name were quite nice too!)

There are presumably other great collections around Rome, though I'm not aware of any others being open to the public. For example, I understand that the Vatican has a great collection hidden somewhere.


Peter Tompa



Thanks for the comment. I know that many of the numismatic finds of from the risorigimento were incorporated into the collection of the Capitoline Museums, but I'm unclear as to whether this is still housed there (if so not on display) or if it has been merged with that at the Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo, which is supposed to be the State's collection.

I'm glad you mentioned Vittorio Emmanuele III - certainly an important figure that I didn't mention in my original post.

Indeed, you are right that the Vatican Library is meant to have an excellent collection of ancient coins and medallions and fortunately part of it has been published. Unfortunately, it seems difficult for many to gain access to the collections (including coins) in the Vatican Library, unless they are already loaned to the Vatican Museums.

When I was conducting my die study on the Flavian Colosseum sestertii (most research for that was conducted in 2005), I sent around 100 or more letters to collections around the world asking for photographs or casts of any of these coin types and received no initial response from both the Vatican Library and another museum either in Rome or Naples - I cannot be sure which it was anymore. After speaking with some senior colleagues, I learned that it is relatively common for some Italian institutions not to acknowledge inquiries from foreign researchers unless it comes on letterhead from a recognized foreign institution, such as the British School in Rome, the American Academy in Rome, the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, etc... Naturally I wrote these letters both in English as well as German, French, or Italian, depending on where it was being sent, but even sending letters in Italian I received no response from these two institutions. After my initial failure to get a reply, I made use of some contacts at the BSR, who made an inquiry on my behalf on BSR letterhead and I soon got a reply. This was good since the Vatican Library had 4 specimens of this type! Since I had in the neighborhood of 40 legitimate specimens for the die study, this was a significant proportion.

It is unfortunate that some Italian institutions can be this exclusive, but I am told things are changing. Hopefully the increased digitalization of collections in places like the U.S., the UK, and Germany will put more pressure on changing some of these old customs. Some other important Italian museum collections have been published in recent years, which is allowing some more access.

In contrast to my experience with the Vatican Library, I should say that all of the letters I sent to Northern Italian collections, such as Verona and Bologna, were answered promptly and courteously, without the aid of a special letterhead.

All best,


Nathan- Thanks for your additional information. I have a similar story, though I was not doing research, but rather just wanted to look at coins of Marcus Aurelius (a personal favorite) in the collection in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. See
To get any attention, I needed to get a letter of introduction from Arthur Houghton (then ANS President) on ANS stationary. It was well worth it, however. It was quite interesting to see tray upon tray of coins, the vast majority of which had tickets indicating they were purchased for the Royal Collections of Franz Joseph! The back room where I viewed the coins was also quite intereting. There were a series of portraits of famous numismatitsts that had been keepers of the Hapsburg collections staring down on me. In any event, I agree with you. Hopefully, over time most of these collections will go on-line. That would certainly be very helpful for anyone interested in numismatics.

Best regards,

Peter Tompa

Anonymous said...


I too found the collection of coins at the museum, remarkable. And in going back through pictures I had taken noted with disappointment that I took no pictures of the cases overall, as you did.

Correct me if I am wrong. But what I appeared to see playing out over and over again was inflation. Coins start out large and through the years became smaller and smaller until boom, we were back to a large coin, and the process plays out again. Or was I in fact looking at smaller and smaller denominations of coins?

I tend to think of inflation as a modern issue but here one sees that not only is this a very old problem, but a persistently present problem.

Your pictures of the overall case highlights the issue much better than the closeup photos I took. Not being a numismatist, I would enjoy learning from any comments you might have on my "inflation" theory.

best regards,

Marc Lee


Many thanks for the comment. Yes, its very interesting to see the whole span of numismatic history laid it in a way like it is in this collection. With Roman period coinage, you can clearly see how various economic conditions (inflation, etc.) affected the coinage over long periods of time. From the the first century AD, for example, on to the early third century AD, you see constant debasement of the silver content in denarii until it is ultimately replaced with a new silver denomination: the antoninianus, which soon itself is debased and becomes essentially a bronze coin.

Other trends are great to observe such as the tiny Greek fractions that are introduced in mainland Greece shortly after coinage is introduced there and it doesn't take long for fiduciary (bronze) coinage to come onto the scene since these pinky-nail sized silver and gold coins were so impractical.