Where to begin?

I spent an hour or so this morning re-reading how different scholars narrate the beginning of Roman coinage.  I am most taken with Burnett’s narrative style, especially when he’s writing for a non specialist audience.  He owns the complexity but makes that complexity seem comprehensible by being brave enough to generalize and discuss the controversies in big brush strokes.  He owns his own options and gives a direct assessment of where he thinks the balance of scholarship is leaning.   There is a mildness in tone which allows the possibility that alternative view might prevail.   Shades of gray, but not pea soup opaque.  I really enjoyed his clear distinction between ramo secco and aes signatum.  Weight standard, design variation, metallurgical content, and find spots are all key.  And, yet they clearly can co exist in the same monetary system as they are hoarded together.

Cast copper alloy currency bar.

On critical addition seems to me to be that the Roman currency bars, even if on a weight standard, were often treated as bullion, like the ramo secco.

The design and weight standard aren’t ‘respected’ by those using the money. The use of bronze currency bars (esp. ramo secco) in Etruria and Emilia goes back at least until the 6th century BC.  The Romans didn’t start making their aes signatum until probably the 3rd century (280-255BC ish).  This is actually a little later than when we think they may have been making their first tentative forays into struck coinage.

Copper alloy coin.

This is probably the first Roman coin and it was probably made in Neapolis (modern Naples) c. 320 perhaps as early as 326.  It looks just like the Neapolitan coins of the time, but has the legend RΩΜΑΙΩΝ (notice the use of Greek not Latin).   It’s a bronze alloy.  The next up is this silver beauty which might be as early as 300BC:

Silver coin.

[I’m skipping over all the dating controversies and iconographic issues and historical context.]

My main point is just that its possible that the urge  instinct to standardize the weights and to add “obverse” and “reverse” designs to the currency bars may be influenced by the early forays into struck coinage.  They may be evidence of a change attitude towards what money should look like.

We need to guard against assumptions about what is more or less primitive and how societies should develop.  The story of money at Rome is one of comfortable(?) code switching between different socio-cultural systems through at least the 1st Punic war if not longer.

2 thoughts on “Where to begin?”

Leave a Reply to achilleamillefolia Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s