Liberty Dime Excursus

This, this is a distraction, but an enjoyable one.   I was asked in the comments what I thought about this product of the US mint from 1916 to 1945, specifically the reverse.

The image of fasces with and without axes has a LONG tradition in the official sanctioned art of the United States certainly going back to portraits of Washington.  Houdon portrays Washington as a sort of second Cinncinnatus:

Houdon's Washington with Roman fasces

and the representation became highly influential, see esp. Ward’s Washington:

File:George Washington Statue at Federal Hall.JPG

These are without axes.  The Civil War memorials tend to juxtapose axed and axeless fasces in near proximity.   Lincoln in his temple rests his hand on axeless fasces, but the tripods flanking the steps sit atop axed fasces:

Here in Brooklyn, Grand Army Plaza’s inner columns have fasces with axes, the outer without:

GAP columns 7-22

I read the dime as a ‘Liberty must be Defended’ ideology inspired by the memorialization of the War between the states and the new experiences of the Great War.

Many of the drafters of the constitution thought of the US as a (even the) new Republic. We’ve been left with a very Roman legacy.  Each generation, in its own way, must come to terms with what that symbolic language means in a new age.

Update 8/24/13:  The more I think about the more I want to emphasize the olive branch in relation to the fasces, this seems to me as very similar to the caduceus as a symbol of peace juxtaposed against the fasces on republican coins. Peace and Law and Order beget Liberty?  Augustus rather dramatically connected the idea of Liberty and Peace on this issue:


The obverse legend resolves: “Imperator Caesar, Son of a God, Consul for the Fourth Time, Defender of Liberty”.

65 out of 410 days: Countermarks



It makes me really irritated I couldn’t get MS Word to make the whole table into a picture only a half at a time.

Yesterday I wanted to add something to chapter 6 about the coins of the mid 80s, that irritating in-between-time where the coins are full of strange gods we can’t quite identify. As I looked at them, I realized that I just did’t have a big picture regarding countermarks on coinage in my head.  [That’s not for lack of opportunity.  I’ve supervised a masters thesis die study of a countermarked issue and chaired academic panels with papers on the subject.]  Taking a no-time-like-the-present approach, I did a down and dirty survey of RRC, taking notes as I went.  The picture above is the result of those notes.  There are much better charts and analyses in many publications, but if I didn’t do one myself no matter how crude I’d never get the material stuck in my head properly.   I’m sure there are inaccuracies and missing elements, but I hope it captures the overall trends. Pink are were Crawford thought countermarks were die specific. Blue where they are not. Light pink is for apparent attempts to be die specific with known inaccuracies. Hashed pink is where some sub types are die specific, but others are not.  Dark pink is where countermarks indicate die pairs. Dark blue are for where die pairs are present, but the pairs are represented by multiple dies. Grey is for too little information.  The dates defer to Mattingly and Hollstein’s adjustment of Crawford’s chronology.

The use does not perfectly map onto the use of serrated edges BUT it does follow the same trend.   Early isolated experimentation in Sicily.  A little recurrence in the mid/late 2nd century, and then a much more serious adoption around 104/103 BC.   The difference is that countermarks stay in use almost continuously.  They taper off a bit in the mid 90s, are steady in 80s with a HUGE effort to use them right over the 83-79 period, and then they tale off in the 70s with a revival at the very end of the 60s early 50s.

Serrating each flan is a huge amount of effort and is likely to have drastically slowed production.  Countermarks, especially per die or coordinated applications, also require significant efforts, but are more logistically challenging, rather than man-power challenging.  What the chart above doesn’t capture are trends in types of systems: letters, numbers, symbols, combinations thereof, variations with dots and Greek letters, or double letters, or consonants with vowels.  No one system is dominant.   The hope has been that die studies of countermarked issues can tell us more about the operations of the Roman mint.  Many such studies have producing tantalizing insights and likely hypotheses.   All the different systems mean that countermarks can’t have served a single administrative function.  Like the serrati their popularity and also the experimentation with new systems and revivals of old systems may be about inspiring confidence in the money supply — to be seen to be producing GOOD coin.  45 out of 66 issuers who used them managed some degree of die-countermark coordination.

As a historian I’m most interested in what caused the 104/103 adoption.  The intensity during the time of the Sullan return and dicatorship is not unexpected, if it is about creating confidence in the money supply, but certainly not worth that such systems are applied even to camp coinages presumably made in less than ideal conditions under serious pressure.   Similarly the tail end.  Why the revivals?  Why the complete cessation?  More of a whimper than a bang…

I am also curious about its application to some quinarii.  The quinarii is never serrate.  And it is usually associated with particular applications and especially associated with Cisalpine Gaul…

64 out of 410 days: Reducing Stimuli

I saw this on a social media site which I frequent. I thought it was dreadfully pretentious. “Oh poor me! I am a creative. No one understands me. Life is soooo difficult.” *

And then I looked at my browser tabs. On average I have about 16+ web pages open, 7+ pdf documents, 4+ word documents, at least one spreadsheet, a few sticky notes, 3+ powerpoint files [I use powerpoint slides like the index cards of old for sorting notes, images, references etc.], the snipping tool, my dropbox file folder, skype, and then did I mention my problem with stacks of books:


That is the “surface” of my desk this morning. I’m not sure there really is a surface under there.

[The pillow in the window is normally for the cats (when Mary Beard isn’t using it, of course); this reduces their attempts to climb the book stacks or stand behind me poking me with their paws for attention.]

Is this because I’m a creative mind? Maybe. Maybe, I just have a hard time focusing on one thing. What if I need it later? What if I lose the reference? What if forget to come back to it? OH MY G-D! I’m a data HOARDER. Some people hoard bits of string. Or tins of food. Or boxes of garage sale finds. Even some people to whom I’m related… Nope, not me. All information, all the time. A veritable pack rat of details.

The last couple days I’ve been trying to restrict my pdfs and browser tabs to a single one of each. To open another, I must close the last. It seems to help.

Now that I think about it a few colleagues have periodically said “Wow, you have a lot of windows open.” when they stop my office at work. Maybe I should have picked up on that feedback a little sooner.

* – If you’re the friend who posted the e-card above. I’m really sorry for being so horribly judgmental. And, thank you for helping me come to a useful little self realization.

62, 63 out of 410 days: Cleaning Up

At the blackjack tables! No. Not really. Not even the house. Just Chapter 6. I ended doing a major restructuring which felt satisfying and then I decided it was about time that I created neat and tidy corresponding apparatus: 1) numbered block quotations and groups of block quotations for corresponding literary sources with proper references to such in the text, 2) an actual bibliography used if a proper format, rather than a jumbled list of things I’d like to include, 3) (a) a number list of figures with (b) a list of cross references to figures in other chapters so I have something to check later to make sure in the final drafts those other chapters actually contain what they’re supposed to.

It is easier to revise a bad draft than agonize over a first draft.

That’s there as a reminder that I’m enjoying the revision process and that I shouldn’t worry about imperfections in first drafts. Something is more than nothing. I tell that to my students all the time.

I’m struggling a bit with the lack of footnotes. I think I could have them. Another book by the press in a different series but with a similar target audience used them. It was recommended by the editors as ‘inspiration’. One of my peer reviewers thought they might be better than parenthetical notation. All that said, they could get out of hand. They could start to clog the page and trigger OCD-like compulsions for completeness. Parenthetical notation feels like it will keep me in-line, writing for a-scholarly-but-still-introductory audience. For now.

I cheated yesterday. It was totally a work day and I didn’t give you a coin. Do I feel guilty? A little. Do you feel lied to and like our strong foundation of trust is broken? Are you disappointed in me? I promise I will make it up to you.

I woke up in the middle of the night linking about this coin. Perhaps that was my conscience eating at me. The jug and lituus and wreath reverse kept throbbing behind my eyelids. The IMPER pulsed. They want to make sure I don’t forget about them apparently. On the other hand, on waking I was treated to a little refrain of a Turkish conversation that featured in my audio lesson yesterday? “Amerikalı mısın? Evet, Amerikalıyım.” Over and over. I apparently I’ve got that bit down. Now, if I could just get better about saying and understanding the verb to KNOW, I’d feel like progress was being made.

Okay. On with it properly now.

Like Father, Like Son

L. Valerius Flaccus, the moneyer of this coin, is likely to have been the son of the then or previous Flamen Martialis (priest of Mars):

War was to be waged against Aristonicus in the consulship of Publius Licinius and Lucius Valerius. The people was consulted as to whom it wished to have the management of that war. Crassus, the consul and Pontifex Maximus, threatened to impose a fine upon Flaccus his colleague, the priest of Mars, if he deserted the sacrifices. And though the people remitted the fine, still they ordered the priest to submit to the commands of the pontiff.

The Roman naming customs make it easy to elide the identities of family members. Many of the customs of the Roman state encouraged these associations, especially the Roman funeral.

It is likely that the son succeeded his father in this priesthood. At what date is uncertain. Here’s the entry in Magistrates of the Roman Republic:



Drummond in that 2008 article I mentioned in the last post raises the possibility already entertained by Broughton that Flaccus the younger is commemorating himself, not his father. BUT, then he pushes the idea even farther saying even if he meant to commemorate his father, it could be interpreted by later audiences as self commemoration (p. 396). This idea is important. It emphasizes that the image makers aren’t in control of the image and much of the reception depends on viewers evolving knowledge and assumptions about what is likely to be on a coin. This reminded me about a point Clare Rowan made in her blog. The ambiguity may be intentional or a fortuitous evolution. Neither Flaccus the elder or Flaccus the younger would be surprised or upset to have their individual accomplishments augment the acclaim of the other.

I selected this specimen as it is easier to see a few key details (rather than the ANS specimens). The face of Mars is in profile. His spear is pointed downwards diagonally behind him. The cape flows behind his nude body and the trophy rests over his left shoulder supported by his hand. This Mars type will be the basis for Augustus’ Romulus statue in his forum and its numerous copies. Like father, like son.

61 out of 410 days: Still at It

I can tell that two months in to this sabbatical I’ve fully adopted research as my primary occupation. I wake up thinking about coins, sometimes in the middle of the night, usually quite happily in the morning. Whenever I relax, I just default to thinking about coins. A happy obsession. [Except when I wake up with the cold sweat panic that the book won’t ever be done, but as SDA says I just need something to worry about. If I’m anxious there must be a reason.]

I get frustrated with the slow progress. SDA says if there is progress (which there is!), don’t question the process. I wonder if I don’t need a bit of Zen, one foot in front of the other. I might be losing the individual trees for the forest. I see my job as the whole of the series and thus as I find anything relevant at all for the project I feel I need to capture it and file it away for later. This is exhausting. I constantly have to refind my place. I want a more one-foot-in-front-of-the-other – what will help me write the next sentence? – approach. Inspiration, and curiosity, and a continuous investment of time and energy all seem to be present but I could do with more focus.

Two things made me very happy with the process. 1) The engaging comments here on the blog. and 2) Finding I trust Drummond’s article on Sulla’s augurship enough that I can move on with my writing and just cite him. Both are nice reminders that we can’t do all the work ourselves. We need our colleagues to point things out and also to provide many of the answers.

The other thing that makes me happy is giving up the idea of weekends. Crazy, right? It means I don’t have to stop and restart and upset any momentum. And, there is always tomorrow to move the project forward. Some how its liberating. Good thing I like the work.

Disappearing Axes

Reverse Image

Fasces are bundles of rods that symbolizes the authority and dignity of a magistrate. (I find Drogula pretty convincing with how he nuances their function and meaning.) What seems uncontroversial is that fasces with axes were carried outside the pomerium (the sacred boundary of the city) and without axes inside the city. The difference being that when one commanded troops one had more summary authority than in a civic context. Marshall makes a relevant point about the understanding of the symbolism, especially in relation to the axes themselves:



He then advocates a very practical reading that both the axes and rods were actually used for punishment and executions and thus any symbolism would be a reaction to their use. Above is the first use of the symbol on the Roman coin series in 83 BC by a partisan of Cinna, Norbanus. This was followed shortly by this coin of 81 BC:

Reverse Image

And then this one later in 63 BC:

Reverse Image

Even on this famous scene of the first consul of 509BC, struck 54 BC, the fasces all have axes:

Reverse Image

And then the next time they show up in 44 BC, the Axes are removed:

Reverse Image

And it stays gone during the ensuing Civil Wars:

Reverse Image

Somewhere in the Wars between Caesar and Pompey Axes went out of symbolic fashion…


I didn’t mention this coin of c. 70/69 BC because I just don’t think Roma is holding fasces. I think it’s a scepter and we can see the hilt of her sword as well. It’s just not how you hold a set of fasces and the two ends are differentiated as on other types. There is no stripping on any specimens to suggest rods are being portrayed:

Silver coin.

60 out of 410 days: Serrati


Serrated Denarii are less than 5 percent of all Roman Republican Issues. And their production is certainly not consisten,t as the above timeline shows. In constructing it I’ve deferred mostly to Hersh & Walker and Mattingly, and noted Hollstein’s disagreements. Even if one prefers one dating assignment over the other the big pattern doesn’t change. A few early issues, most notably the Narbo issue, four issues in the midst of the Marian period when Roman was embattled against the Cimbri and the Teutoni, and then a big uptake around the time of Sulla’s return, followed by petering out over about the next two decades. Crawford held that it must be an aesthetic as it would not adequately deter forgeries. The awkward uneven execution makes it hard to consider it likely to have been an aesthetic choice.

Kraft et al. has undertaken a recent analysis:

A number of serrated silver denars of the Roman Republic and a Greek bronze coin were investigated, paying special attention to the notches, in order to reveal their production technique. Particular interest was devoted to three contemporary forgeries of serrated denars, because the official pure silver issues were also available for inspection. Several microbeam analytical techniques were applied, such as scanning electron microscopy(SEM), electron probe micro-analysis (EPMA) and secondary ion mass spectrometry(SIMS). The surfaces of the notches, which show traces of the tools used, were investigated by SEM. In the case of the forged coins, the thickness of the silver layer (inside the notches as well as on the surface of the coin) was determined by SEM and SIMS. The main components of the surfaces were similar in both cases as measured by EPMA. Combining the results, it is possible to reconstruct the steps in the production of the serrated denars. The investigations also permit a review of different opinions about the purpose of the notches.

Their conclusion is that forgers using the foil technique and the official mint both used the same technique: chiseling each notch into the blank prior to its heating and striking. AND, that it is likely that serrati were preferred because they where perceived as less likely to be forged. It would have been a costly labor intensive technique, so there must have been some perceived benefit. It is tempting to connect the height of their production with the monetary anxieties reflected in the legislation we talked about yesterday.

Tacitus tells us in the Germania:

Silver and gold the gods, I know not whether in their favor or anger, have denied to this country. [35] Not that I would assert that no veins of these metals are generated in Germany; for who has made the search? The possession of them is not coveted by these people as it is by us. Vessels of silver are indeed to be seen among them, which have been presented to their ambassadors and chiefs; but they are held in no higher estimation than earthenware. The borderers, however, set a value on gold and silver for the purpose of commerce, and have learned to distinguish several kinds of our coin, some of which they prefer to others: the remoter inhabitants continue the more simple and ancient usage of bartering commodities. The money preferred by the Germans is the old and well-known species, such as the Serrati and Bigati. [36] They are also better pleased with silver than gold; [37] not on account of any fondness for that metal, but because the smaller money is more convenient in their common and petty merchandise.

This testimony has certainly influenced our belief that these coins were more trusted. Even if they made up a small percentage of the coins in circulation they were certainly noticable, and would have been easy to select out in Imperial times as older, and perhaps purer than some contemporary issues.

Here is Duncan Jones‘ chart showing decreasing fineness:


However, can we tell is serrati were really preferred in a more contemporary context? For this we’d need hoard evidence. There is no hoard I have found where serrati make up even a majority of the coins, rarely even 10%. I’d need to do a proper statistical analysis of the hoards to see if they are retained in greater numbers than one might expect. Unfortunately I had some problems pulling the data from the CHRR online and I don’t absolutely need to find out to write the book, so I shall probably let it go for now.

The Italian scholarship is on ILL order. If it changes my thinking, I’m sure you’ll be the first to know.

Wondering what these things look like? Click Here.

What is interesting is that periodically we find a coin of an unserrated issue that has been serrated after it has entered circulation (in ancient times? in modern times?):

Obverse Image

Was this a means of ‘adding value’ in someway?

Update 24 January 2014:  Just for completeness, here is the English abstract of the Italian article from Bollettino di numismatica 17.1 nos.32-33 (Jan/Dec 1999): p.104-128.  Pancotti and Calabria consider the consequences of these finding in the Proceedings of the XVIth International Numismatic Congress (2009), 888-892.  They do not consider the work of Kraft et al.  Likewise Kraft seems unaware of de Caro et al.  A sad state of affairs.

CaptureThe abstract is a little misleading.  250 coins were not looked at with SEM+EDS only 5 got the full treatment.  The 250 is the number examined with an ‘ordinary’ (?) microscope.  Here’s the data on the five that got the works:


Capture1In inexplicably they use E. R. CALEY, Analysis of Ancient Metals, Pergamon Press, Oxford 1964 for comparative data instead of Walker, D. R. (1980) The silver content of the Roman Republican coinage’, in D.M. Metcalf, W.M. Oddy (edd.) Metallurgy in numismatics, 1 (London), 55-72.  Another missed opportunity.


59 out 410 days: Lex Cornelia De Falsis

Anyone who knowingly and maliciously writes or reads publicly, substitutes, suppresses, removes, re-seals, or erases a will, or any other written instrument; and anyone who engraves a false seal, or makes one, or impresses it, or exhibits it; and anyone who counterfeits gold or silver money, or washes, melts, scrapes, spoils, or adulterates any coin bearing the impression of the face of the Emperor, or refuses to accept it, unless it is counterfeit, shall, if of superior rank, be deported to an island, and if of inferior station, be sentenced to the mines, or punished capitally. Slaves if manumitted after the crime has been perpetrated, shall be crucified.

Lo Cascio believes that the portion of this passage on the crime of refusing a coin goes back to Sulla like the rest (p. 161). And, that originally it would have been something like the mark of the state, rather than the face of the emperor. Heinrichs thinks that it this regulation goes back to Marcus Gratidianus and that it is key for understanding the problem he was trying to address, that is according to Heinrichs: underweight coins whose value depended on their relationship to the Roman pound (esp. p. 267). [If I’ve understood the German properly!]

Given my current obsession with seals, I’m also rather taken with how the same law that covers counterfeiting coins also applies to false seals.

Memories of Sulla

Sulla himself emphasized his title of “Imperator”, or later on a smaller issue “Dictator”, on the coins made in his life time in his name. Neither role appears on the remarkably numerous posthumous commemorations he receives on the coins. Q. Pompeius Rufus is celebrating his maternal and and paternal grandfathers, the consuls of 88 BC. And it is the shared consulship itself that receives emphasis. The two are treated as equals.

Yet, his paternal grandfather of the same name was murdered as consul, allegedly by Pompieus Strabo, Pompey the Great’s father, when he went to take over Strabo’s army as his duly assigned province of Italy. That sort of murder surely created some tension between their descendants. The two headed type was produced by far fewer dies than the curule chairs (according to Crawford — I’ll want to check the accuracy of this). The later gives even more emphasis to the legal office and authority of each ancestor, along with indications of their priesthoods. It tries to invoke Sulla and Rufus as exempla of law and order.

Sulla’s son, Faustus, takes a very different approach:

He refers to his father only as FE(E)LIX, the remarkable agnomen, adopted upon his Civil War victories in 82 BC, meaning something like ‘Blessed’, not dissimilar from the meaning Faustus’ own name. The imagery of one type harkens back to Sulla’s first success, the surrender of Jugurtha, while just Marius’ quaestor, an image that served as his father’s seal and the famous Bocchus monument. The rest recalls his divine patronage, an issue we’ve talked about before. He may also be trying to emphasize a close relationship between Pompey, his close ally, and his father.

This type shows Venus Victrix to whom Pompey dedicated the very next year his huge theatre complex and an image of Pompey’s seal ring, but of course it was a seal ring very close to Faustus’ father’s and Venus played a prominent role in his father’s life as well.

[I’m going to skip talking about RRC 480/1 as you can read about it in my earlier post to which I put a link above, even though it properly fits into this topic. I’m also skipping over the Sulla-Hercules connection as all I’d be doing at this point is parroting Crawford.]