Just Five Coins?!

Next Sunday, August 1, 3 pm, I’m have an outdoor book event at a local bookstore and the audience will mostly have never thought much about either coins or Romans, a collection of local friends and family and perhaps any interested members of the community. Yes, it is open to the public. Yes, I’ll be signing books (reserve a copy for pick up on the day at a 10% discount). Yes, it will be live streamed (sign up here to get the link).

While I have a great deal of experience teaching coins, I usually have a captive audience of college students who know there is likely to be a test and I get a full hour plus and all the powerpoint slides I want. This is a completely different challenge. I need to keep it under 20 minutes. Ideally under 15. I have to pay to print large posters of any images I want to share (outside venue = no ppt) and I must assume the know nothing and I cannot be boring.

SOOOOooooo. My plan is to talk about five coins and try to hit all the most important points about Roman republican coinage with just those five coins.

Preliminary line up:

  1. Elephant and Pig
  2. a Quadrigatus
  3. a Bigatus
  4. Faustulus
  5. Brutus’ Libertas

Elephant and Pig

  • Coins don’t have to be round and small
  • The Italic monetary tradition is different than the Greek
  • We make mistakes when we want to connect the pictures on coins to our most famous stories


  • Romans struck coins to circulate with Greek coinages and thus imitating Greek conventions
  • Heads (=obverse = anvil die) and Tails (=reverse = punch die) correlate to how coins were manufactured
  • Roman coinage reflects Roman religion, and we don’t always know for certain the mean of the images
  • Crisis –> Change

So-Called “Bigatus

  • conservative, stable designs is the norm for ancient coinages
  • Denarius = 10 asses
  • an innovative new denomination but one whose influence is still felt today
  • Roma: goddess? personification?
  • Dioscuri: Battle of Lake Regillus: Proof of Divine Favor
  • Signed Issues: another Greek habit but one eventually to ‘take over’ of the Roman coin design tradition


  • With Mediterranean-wide hegemony conservative coin design is no longer a necessity, even as the denomination itself remains stable
  • New designs speak both to community identity in new ways, using an existing visual repertoire
  • Diverse legend functions: Denomination marks, Moneyer’s name, labeling of the design, missing ROMA

Brutus Libertas

  • Still the denarius! Incredible stability and recognizably of the denomination
  • Radical design shifts
  • Use of shared past to comment on the shared present
  • How the individual is also communal
  • Foreshadowing…?!?!

Yeah that’s going to run longer than 15 minutes isn’t it….

Thoughts? suggestions?

NOW I need to get my image files and figure out where I’m getting them printed. Bonus result is I’ll have some pretty sweet posters for my office!

Leaving my self this sweet specimen so I can find it in future when thinking about RRC 235/1

That ‘bingo machine’ again

Schaefer pointed out the trouble with the bingo machine id for the obverse symbol 103 on the Fabatus series is the little symbol that (seems?) to connect the ball to the top bar.

See previous post to catch up on convo and also read comments.

I went looking for models of bingo balls that had a square frame around them (not a typical modern feature of mechanical bingo balls).

Here’s one I found being offered for sale with great pics but little historical detail/context.

If the little sticky out thing at the top is part of the ball not part of the frame and not connecting the two, then it might be the box that catches and releases the random ball. That’s a lot of ifs and by no means certain, but until we find an actual archaeological match for the symbol this is the best I’ve got so far.

Clare Rowan drew my attention to this depiction on a ball game machine in the Bode Museum Berlin:

The rest of the reliefs on this machine are as she points out are all chariot related. See tweet thread for more images.

Mars, not Roma

Detail of statuette found in Lombardy, now in Louvre

This statuette got me thinking that we probably have the obverse of RRC 388/1 (and perhaps other types with similar iconography) wrongly listed as Roma when they would more naturally be read as Mars by an ancient viewer:

front view of same statuette

This re identification would make sense with Mars’ totem animal the wolf on the reverse of 388.

Specimen in trade

Philopator and Laodice

This is a cast of an unknown original specimen in the Louvre.

The type assimilates the identities of Queen (Basilisse) Laodice and King Mithridates (Philopator) with Zeus and Hera and identifies them as Philadephon. Sibling Lovers. Emulating the Ptolemies and with a heavy nod to the same logics as Theocritus Idylls 17 justifying the sibling marriage among Hellenistic royalty based on the Olympic precedent.

The obverse.

NAC 106, 247

Coin design Longue Durée article

Barbara Pavlek, James Winters, Olivier Morin, “Ancient coin designs encoded increasing amounts of economic information over centuries.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 56 (2019).




Coinage, the practice of minting small bits of metal with distinctive marks, appearing in the second half of the 7th century BCE, had a transformative impact upon ancient economies and societies. Controversies endure concerning the original function of ancient coinage, in particular the respective role of states and markets in its emergence. Applying information-theoretic measures to a corpus of 6859 distinct coin types from the Ancient Mediterranean world, dated between c. 625 and c. 31 BCE, we show that the symbols minted on coins (designs combining images of plants, deities, animals, etc.) became increasingly informative about a coin’s value. This trend was specific to value-relevant information, as distinct from information concerning issuing states. Coin designs also carried more information about higher denominations than about lower ones. Before numerical or written marks of value became widely used on coinage, these iconic symbols were carrying economic information.