78 out 234 days: Gratidianus

a round up of stuff I’ve said or learned before about Gratidianus and concerns over the coinage in the 80s BCE

What follows has repetitions section to section, but it is useful for me personally to see the slight changes in my own framing or where I’ve been consistent over the years. This is an active post so I’ll be dropping more primary evidence and thoughts at the end as I spend more time with the topic.

This is from a draft of chapter 1 of my coin book written 2018. This section goes with fig. 1.40 and was cut to keep the book somewhat close to target word length.

We have both literary and physical evidence that suggests anxiety over the authenticity of coins and the ability of the state to regulate coin production, two issues that go hand-in-hand. These concerns seem to develop in the mid 110s BCE and continue down until the early 50s BCE, with a peak in intensity in the late 80s. On the coins themselves, we find increased use of serration and the use of control marks (1.40). Flans were serrated by cutting the edges prior to striking; control marks may have corresponded to record-keeping regarding batches of bullion issued to the mint.[1] Both processes are extremely labor intensive and neither became standard operating procedure. The irregular application of and great variety in control mark systems and other intermittent minting innovations such as serrations may derive from these regular shifts among post-holders and these individuals’ desires to distinguish themselves from their forerunners. They are outwardly visible signs of the care the moneyer took in regulating his issues. Our literary testimony seems to speak of similar concern. Cicero writes of the legislation of Gratidianus as a praetor under the Cinnan regime in the 80s BCE thus:

Even our kinsman Gratidianus failed on one occasion to perform what would be a good man’s duty: in his praetorship the tribunes of the people summoned the college of praetors to council, in order to adopt by joint resolution a standard of value for our currency; for at that time the value of money was so fluctuating that no one could tell how much he was worth. In joint session they drafted an ordinance, defining the penalty and the method of procedure in cases of violation of the ordinance, and agreed that they should all appear together upon the rostra in the afternoon to publish it. And while all the rest withdrew, some in one direction, some in another, Marius (Gratidianus) went straight from the council-chamber to the rostra and published individually what had been drawn up by all together. And that coup, if you care to know, brought him vast honor; in every street statues of him were erected; before these incense and candles burned. In a word, no one ever enjoyed greater popularity with the masses.

Cicero, On Duties 3.80

It maybe that Gratidianus codified the purity of the silver and the number of denarii to be struck to the pound.[2] The nature of these currency reforms or regulations are much disputed, but the political capital Gratidianus gained from being seen to act is not.[3] Upon his return, Sulla also passed legislation on the coinage, certainly concerning counterfeiting, and probably making it a crime to reject coin with the mark of the state upon it.[4] Sulla’s legal measures and preceding ones by members of Cinna’s faction all point to a general anxiety about the quality of the coinage in circulation. Thus, along with these legislative solutions, it is also possible that the uptick in serrated issues in the late 80s and early 70s may also be an attempt to improve confidence in the coinage.[5]

[1] Kraft et al. 2006; Witschonke 2012, cf. Stannard 1993, cf. 1987: 162.

[2] Plin. NH 33.132, quoted below p. XXX.

[3] Cic. Leg. 3.36, Plin. NH 34.27; Heinrichs 2008.

[4] Julius Paullus, Opinions 5.25.1; Lo Cascio 2008: 161.

[5] Cf. also p. XXX n. 6.

This is a section from chapter one of the longer version of coin book that I set aside as it was far more in-depth than the press wanted. To write the shorter now published version of the book, I had to move from a chronological approach to a thematic approach. Of course, the first longer version deeply influenced the writing of the final published version. This was last revised 18 June 2014. RACOM has now begun to answer the questions and concerns raised in the final section.

The Fabric of the Coins Themselves

After die studies and hoards, metallurgical analysis is the other major component of the quantitative numismatic tool kit.  Even in antiquity, there was great concern over the fabric of the coins themselves.  Did they weigh what they were supposed to weigh?  Did they contain the right amount of precious metal?  These were particularly key issues during the second Punic war (chapter 3, p. XXX) and also during the Civil Wars of the 80s BC (chapter 6, p. XXX).  Our challenge is to correctly interpret the physical evidence we have.

The first and most obvious data point is the weight of individual specimens as they survive today.  Even determining the original intended weight standard can be problematic.  It is not enough simply to average the weight of all known specimens.  Such an approach would ignore factors which make our existing specimens likely to weigh less than originally intended.  First, the more a coin circulates, the more wear it suffers from handling, so the less the specimen will weigh.  Thus, optimistic scholars have tried with little success to estimate the relative speed of circulation based on the observation and comparison of coin weights (Lightfoot 2007: 206 contra Duncan-Jones 1994: 180-192).  Second, environmental factors in the deposition of coins prior to their recovery, or even poor storage conditions after their recovery, can cause corrosion.  A potential third factor would be shaving or clipping, whereby an unscrupulous user could remove a small amount from the edge of a coin and then spend that same coin at face value.  Although a well-known phenomenon in later periods, rather surprisingly we see little-to-no evidence of the practice on republican coins (Stannard 1993: 50).

The other issue with using the average of known specimens as a means of expressing the intended weight standard is that it assumes that there was one specific weight per coin which the mint was attempting achieve.  This is not as obvious as it might at first appear.  The mint was given a certain amount of bullion, and there was an expectation that that bullion would produce a certain number coins.  Thus, it should be possible to express weight standards as the target number of coins per Roman pound.  We know this was the case for the Imperial period from Pliny and the context of the passage implies that the ratio, 84 denarii to the Roman pound, was in place for the Republican period (NH 33.132, also see p. XXX [quoted in chapter 7]). Based on his analysis of the Cosa hoard, Duncan-Jones suggests the ratio was 82 denarii to the pound before the Social War, then falling c. 90-89 BC to 83 and finally to 84 in the Triumviral period (1995, cf. 1994: 219).  This has not been widely accepted in part because we do not know with confidence what the Roman pound weighed.

Duncan-Jones uses the figure 322.8g for the Roman pound based solely on weights in the Naples collection (1994: 214-215; 1995: 110).  Other estimates are more wide ranging and often higher.  Crawford surveyed various estimates noting their different source materials – coins, stone weights, balances, metal weights – and in the end used c. 324g, with the caveat that it was not reasonable to assume “that the Romans were able to maintain the weight of their pound absolutely constant, at all times and in all places” (1974: 591).  He conceptualizes the target weight standards for the precious metal coins as fractions of the Roman pound, 6 scruples for the didrachm, 4 scruples for the early denarius, sometimes falling to 3 scruples (1974: 3, 7, 11, 34).  A scruple was a fractional measure, 288 scruples in a pound, 24 in an uncia or ‘ounce’.  The same vocabulary was used by Romans to also discuss small divisions of land and time, so a scruple could also be 1/288th of a iugerum or 1/24th of an hour as well.  One finds other scholars using other figures sometimes with no particular justification; so for instance, Heinrichs uses c. 327g without further comment in his discussion of Gratidianus’ reforms of 85/84 BC, a figure common enough in Late Roman and Byzantine studies (2008: 265-6; cf. Entwistle 2008: 39).

It appears that the Roman mint controlled the weight of its silver coins, not by the individual flan, but by the weight of batches.  Flans were cast erring on the heavy side.  When a batch of flans was weighed prior to striking and it came in over target, any particularly overweight flans were removed and recast or some were gouged to reduce their weight.  Only after this control step were coins heated and struck.   The results of the gouging often remain visible (fig. 1.35).  This practice was introduced c.123BC and does not seem to extend beyond 49/8BC (Stannard 1993).  Brockages and control marks may also be byproducts of the Roman mint working in batches (Goddard 1993; Witschonke 2012).  One could not discard a single flan as a striking error, i.e. a brockage, if its elimination would disrupt the integrity of the batch.  Control marks, even those appearing on duplicate dies, could have been used to trace batches of coins back to a particular striking team, thus deterring, or at least making detectable, corruption at the mint itself, if anything should prove wrong with a particular controlled batch.

The original, intended chemical composition of the coins is of just as much interest to scholars as the weight standard, and it is even more fraught with methodological difficulties.  The refining, smelting, casting and finishing techniques of the Romans and other ancient societies were highly sophisticated.  Not only could they closely control the percent of precious metals in the flans, but they even had techniques to ensure the surface of a coin had a higher percent of silver than its core.  Sometimes called ‘surface enrichment’, it is more accurately described as ‘depletion silvering or ‘gilding’.  A combination of oxidation and acid leaching removed base metal elements leaving behind a porous surface.  The porous flan would then be rendered smooth in the striking process.  Ancient Mediterranean societies were adept at these processes from the third millennium (La Niece 1995).  Even when flans were not thus treated in the manufacturing process, some deposition conditions can have a similar leaching effect.  Besides depletion silvering, the conditions under which an individual flan cools from a molten to a solid state also affect the distribution of elements within the flan.  There are well-known models for solidification for different metal alloys, but as historians and archaeologists we do not know enough about the practices in the ancient mint to model this.  Moreover, human intervention and environmental effects on the cooling process are unlikely to have been consistent mint to mint or even batch to batch.  While to a certain extent these issues affect all metal alloys, the problems are most pronounced and most studied for silver alloys. 

These factors mean that the only certain method of establishing chemical composition of any one specimen is to take a core sample.  This process is minimally invasive: a drill as small as 0.6 mm in diameter penetrating about a centimeter into the coin from the edge with no effect on the struck surfaces.  The discarding of the first, and sometimes even second, millimeter of the drillings ensures only the core is tested.  This type of analysis has been and continues to be applied to coins struck under the Roman Empire (Ponting 2012).  Unfortunately, most of the existing studies have relied heavily on non-destructive techniques.  These past methodological choices have been driven by a variety of understandable factors.  First, an appreciation of the extent to which all the factors above may affect results has been very slow to emerge.  Second, both museums and private collectors are exceptionally reticent to allow testing that has a physical effect on the coin, however minimal.  This has led to an over-optimistic application of a variety of non-destructive techniques. 

The largest study to date on Republican coins is still Walker’s analysis using x-ray fluorescence (XRF) of 1,991 silver coins from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (1980).  He understood the possibility of surface leaching from environmental factors, but did not anticipate intentional depletion silvering or possible issues around the dispersal of elements during the cooling process.  He abraded the surface of each coin until he achieved three consistent readings.  He found a gross mean silver fineness of 96.78% based on issues of 169-100, 97-81, 78-41 BC.  A flan made from an alloy of 90% or more silver with the remaining portion made up primarily of copper with other trace elements such as lead, bismuth and gold will be relatively homogenous in character, with exception of lead as it is insoluble in copper (Ponting 2009: 273, 2012: 21).  This means Walker’s analyses for the Republic are likely to be more valid than those he did for the Empire when debasement and depletion silvering have now been proved to be far more prevalent than originally thought (cf. Butcher and Ponting 2005).  It is suspected intentional depletion silvering may have been first introduced with the legionarii denarii of Antony, but this is not yet proven (Ponting 2012: 17).

Twenty years after Walker’s study, another major investigation of the composition of Republican coins was published (Hollstein 2000).  This project used non-destructive techniques, primarily wavelength dispersive XRF, to investigate more than 630 specimens, considering not only fineness, but trace elements.  The hope was that trace elements, especially lead isotopes, could point to likely metal sources for coins so produced.  Even coins struck by the same dies demonstrated very different trace element profiles (Hollstein 2000: 33-4).  This confirms that the Roman mint used bullion from many different sources, not only the product of recent mining, but likely also old and foreign coins and various the spoils of war, including jewelry and tableware.  Those with a metallurgical background have been critical of the methodology and missed opportunities of this study (Raub 2002), while numismatists have praised it for the number of insights it does offer (de Callatäy 2002).  Its results usefully inform many points of our historical discussion in coming chapters.

The future of metallurgical analysis for the republican series is likely to lead in a number of directions with technological improvements. Even smaller microscopic drill bits might encourage more curators to approve core sampling of specimens. There has even been some experimentation with using lasers which leave a crater not visible to the naked eye (Guillaume et al. 2007 with Ponting 2012: 24).  However, non-destructive techniques that answer the questions of greatest interest remain the holy grail.  The two largest studies on republican silver coins both used XRF, a surface analysis technique.  The other nondestructive techniques presently available are neutron and proton activation analyses (NAA, PAA).  Activation analysis can give an accurate reading of the composition of the whole coin as it exists today.  While this does not, on its own, bring us closer to knowing the original intended composition, it can be combined with XRF results for the same specimens to help determine any discrepancy between the composition of the coins surface and its core (Rizzo et al. 2010; Brissaud et al. 1990).  Republican specimens used in previous studies could be productively retested using activation analyses.

further snippets from unpublished papers

Both literary and physical evidence suggest anxiety over the authenticity of coins and the ability of the state to regulate coin production, two issues that go hand in hand. Much of the conversation in literature centers on the figure of Gratidianus, yet while nature of his currency reforms or regulations are much disputed, but the political capital he gained from being seen to act is not. Graditianus was part of the Marian-Cinnan regime, but we know Sulla also introduced currency reforms during his dictatorship.

Cic. Off. 3.80; Plin. NH 33.132; Cic. Leg. 3.36, Plin. NH 34.27 with Verboven 1994 and Heinrichs 2008, cf. Bransbourg 2013.

Heinrichs uses c. 327g without further comment in his discussion of Gratidianus’ reforms of 85/84 BC, a figure common enough in Late Roman and Byzantine studies.

Heinrichs 2008: 265-6; cf. Entwistle 2008: 39 cf. this past blog post

From another old post

In spurious coin there is an alloy of copper employed. Some, again, curtail the proper weight of our denarii, the legitimate proportion being eighty-four denarii to a pound of silver. In consequence, a method was devised of assaying the denarius: the law ordaining which was so much to the taste of the plebeians that in every quarter of the City there was a full-length statue erected in honour of Marius Gratidianus.

Pliny, Natural History 33.132

From a 2013 blog post

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.

From THE OPINIONS OF JULIUS PAULUS ADDRESSED TO HIS SON (as found in S. P. Scott, The Civil Law, I, Cincinnati, 1932. Book 5 section 25

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!]

I’ll add further primary source quotations here as I go along.

For now here is a link to the attalus.org website round up of primary evidence.

I particularly want to think more about how Catiline’s involvement in Gratidianus’ death may color how the man himself is remembered and also how we account for partisan politics in all these events. While most of the above is written as ‘history’, I think what might be called for is a more historiographical investigation of the literary testimony and why it has come down to us in the form it has.

“…or refuses to accept it, unless it is counterfeit…”

Lege Cornelia testamentaria tenentur: qui testamentum quodve aliud instrumentum falsum sciens dolo malo scripserit recitaverit subiecerit suppresserit amoverit resignaverit deleverit, quodve signum adulterinum sculpserit fecerit expresserit amoverit reseraverit, quive nummos aureos argenteos adulteraverit laverit conflaverit raserit corruperit vitiaverit, vultuve principum signatam monetam praeter adulterinam reprobaverit: honestiores quidem in insulam deportantur, humiliores autem aut in metallum dantur aut in crucem tolluntur: servi autem post admissum manumissi capite puniuntur.

Cic. Off. 3.91; Loeb

I put this passage here against the language of the sent. Paul. 5.25 because of the use of adulterinus to describe coinage.

I’m wondering if we could connect this clause to the rise in so called banker’s marks. The coin has to be accepted if it passes a simple punch test. I’m going to sit with this idea. I like it.

Likely Relevant Bibliography

Debernardi Pierluigi. Plated coins, false coins?. In: Revue numismatique, 6e série – Tome 166, année 2010 pp. 337-381. DOI : https://doi.org/10.3406/numi.2010.2941 ; www.persee.fr/doc/numi_0484-8942_2010_num_6_166_2941

CRAWFORD, M. H. “PLATED COINS—FALSE COINS.” The Numismatic Chronicle (1966-) 8 (1968): 55–59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42666542.

F. Albarède et al. 2020. “From commodity to money: The rise of silver coinage around the Ancient Mediterranean (sixth–first centuries bce)Archaeometry 63(34) DOI: 10.1111/arcm.12615

P. Debernardi et al. 2018. “Average and core silver content of ancient-debased coins via neutron diffraction and specific gravity” Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 10(7): 1585-1602 DOI:10.1007/s12520-017-0464-y

    non coin section

    Yesterday was frustrating. I’d put too much on my calendar, writing and editing a piece for a set of conference proceedings does not mix with doctor’s appts and other necessary logistics such as parenting while my partner addresses his commitments. Today looks better. I don’t think I have to leave the house. In the early pandemic all I wanted was a reason to leave the house, but now I just want to be left alone in my office to get on with things in my pajamas and cup of tea.

    Anyway, most of this post was pulled together yesterday and I did also have some great back and forth with colleagues via email and finalized my April Rome travel arrangements, including a visit to Nemi and fingers crossed the Capitoline too, so not a total wash out. Oh, and I also wrote and sent in the abstract for a public lecture I’m giving to open an exhibit at a local college.

    Today I’ve got a zoom on a grant proposal and those conference proceedings then need to take center stage. There are some emails but I may leave them to later in the day to keep my focus where I want it.

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