Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Week 1: "Picture Language on Roman Coins: Approaches and Interpretations"

Yesterday we had our first meeting for the course "Die Bildsprache auf römischen Münzen. Methoden und Deutungen."

At present, only one participant has signed up for the course and so its future is uncertain. The University of Frankfurt has a very peculiar modulized system for its course requirements which can make the choice of courses inflexible for many students. I am also told that due to the scheduling of introductory departmental meetings for students in other departments, like Classical Archaeology, that other potential students may have been unable to attend the first meeting. Therefore, it is a possibility that more students may come to register next Tuesday. We will see. If no one else shows up, I will see if the one registered participant wishes to continue independently or if we should cancel altogether. Should we continue, the course will become a more informal discussion on the historiography of the study of Roman coin images and the potential of developing numismatic, art historical, and archaeological methodologies to the understanding of images on Roman coins. If there are very few participants, the course blog will probably be dropped since it will be easier to distribute course materials directly, though I will still post reports for those interested in the topic here.

In the meanwhile, I thought interested readers might like to see what we did during our introductory session. As presented in the handout for week 1 (Deutsch - English), I posed four discussion questions:

The first dealt with the question of why coin images are important. We discussed that Roman coin images have traditionally been viewed as instruments of "propaganda" or sometimes likened to "newspapers" that could convey important events taking place in the Roman Empire (these approaches and understandings will be critically examined later in the course). It was also remarked that in the absence of literary evidence, we might turn to coin images for some information as in the third century when our literary evidence is either lacking or unreliable.

The second question was "what can coin images tell us about the past," a question similar to the first but more pointed. We again turned to examples in the third century where one might look to them as historical sources in the absence of literary evidence, but also supposed that close attention to coin images might be able to inform us about how the Roman state conceived of itself and that the personal use or transformation of coin images (e.g. deliberate defacement of coin portraits or the selection of certain types to be buried with the dead) could tell us how individuals responded to or understood certain images.

The third question dealt with how we could correctly interpret Roman coin images and what prerequisites are necessary to understand coin images. Here we spoke about several contexts including the historical context in which an image was produced and the numismatic context (other coins struck at the same time). I also emphasized that we had to understand Roman visual culture in order to unpack the meaning of images. I showed a slide of several coins from different eras (ancient and modern) with eagles on the reverse. We could see that eagle conveyed different meanings in all instances. On the Ptolemaic coin it was an attribute of Zeus and on the coin of the deified Marcus Aurelius it signified his consecratio as eagles are commonly shown in imperial art as bearing the souls of the divi to the heavens. On the American half dollar, the eagle (part of the Seal of the President of the United States) conveys freedom and independence. As an American more familiar with our visual culture, I easily understood more subtle aspects of the design such as the olive branch in the right claw and the arrows in the left, which conveyed the ideal that peace and diplomacy ought to be sought before war. The final two coins showed were German: one from the World War II era and a modern euro coin. When I asked what the eagle symbolized to Germans, it was clear and expected that the German student had a greater understanding of the eagle as a German symbol than I did. He better understands German visual culture. The eagle on the WWII era piece was depicted aggressively and clutches a swastika in a laurel wreath in its talons. We discussed the aggressive depiction of the eagle in the context of the ideology of National Socialism and discussed how other representations of eagles from this time period in both Italy and Germany were modeled on Roman representations as the fascist movements in these two countries were conciously presented as rebirths or incarnations of the Roman Empire. Eagles with spread wings clutching laurel wreaths are very common in Roman art and often resembled the eagles that were carried as standards in German military parades during WWII or that adorned government buildings at the time. By contrast, the eagle on the modern euro coin is executed in a contemporary artistic style and symbolizes the modern German state, but with a meaning and intent is very different from that produced over a half century ago.

The final question was "what does Bildsprache mean." We discussed how it implies that images on Roman coins had a communicative property. We also discussed that just as several characters make up a word or just as several words make up a sentence, so too could several independent or co-dependent symbols in a coin design formulate a particular message. I also introduced the concept of "connotative" or "denotative" types. The former tends to rely the most on abbreviated symbols or personifications which could communicate broad ideals or concepts, but which may require more thought or reflection to unpack the meaning. Denotative types are "more to the point" and may convey a meaning with straightforward representations, often accompanied by descriptive legends. I then showed several slides of Roman coins and we discussed the various symbols used on their reverses in the context of Roman visual culture and whether or not we might consider them to "connote" or "denote" a message.

I have put the Power Point slides for our first meeting online.