Aug 18, 2011

One of the most beautiful and mysterious coins of the ancient world

Aureus of Augustus,  photo of Joe Geranium

In 19 BC the monetalis M. Durmius struck one of the most interesting and captivating coins of those produced under the long reign of Emperor Augustus. It was an aureus, a gold coin of nearly 8 grams, the most valuable in the Roman monetary system, equivalent to 25 silver denarii. In the obverse, we see the face of a young Augustus with a crown of oak leaves and the legend CAESAR AUGUSTUS. Nothing surprising there. But the reverse features a stunning crab holding in its claws a graceful butterfly, accompanied by the legend M • III • VIR DVRMIVS designating the magistrate responsible for the minting, the monetalis Durmius. The interpretation of the reverse has been discussed by experts since the times of Joseph Eckhel (1737-1798).

Cassius’ denarius - Crawford 505 / 3

We find a similar representation of a crab in the reverse of a denarius of C. Cassius (one of the Caesar’ murderers), minted in 42 BC, probably in Sardis. The crab holds in its claws an aplustrum (a piece of ornament that was placed in the stern of ancient ships and a common symbol of naval power). Below the crab, we can recognize a diadem and a rose. In this case, however, there is a reliable interpretation of the motif. Cassius had just won a major naval victory against the Rhodian fleet and the crab represented the city of Kos, while the rose symbolized Rhodes. The historian Karl Galinsky sees in the aureus discussed here an example of Augustus’ ability to appropriate motifs used by his predecessors, but his argument is unconvincing. There are significant differences between the aureus of Augustus and this denarius and, at least to me, that makes direct imitation unlikely.

In a paper in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, W. Deonna proposed an astrological interpretation, seeing the crab as a representation of Cancer, the sign of the Zodiac, and an allusion to the concepts of happiness, prosperity, and worldly conquest, while the butterfly symbolizes the immortality of the soul. A complex and unconvincing interpretation.

Aureus of Augustus,  photo of Joe Geranium

Before the establishment of what might be called "scientific" numismatics by Eckel in the eighteenth century, it was common to interpret Roman coins allegorically. During this period, Durmius’ aureus was seen as a clear reference to the motto festina lente (make haste slowly), that according to Suetonius was one of Augustus’ favorites adages. This can be seen, for example in the emblem book Imprese Heroiche, by Gabriele Simeoni (1509-1575) where the coin and the phrase are expressly connected. In the absence of more convincing answers by modern experts, should we return to this interpretation?

Aug 3, 2011

Aes Rude and Aes Signatum – The Beginnings of Roman Coinage

Coinage came into use in Asia Minor around 600 BC. By 500 BC its use had spread through the Greek world. Compared with other civilizations of the Mediterranean world, coinage came late into use in the Roman Republic. The Romans remained a primitive and eminently rural people until the late fourth century BC. They used livestock (pecus) and crude bronze bars (aes rude) as media of exchange. Latin preserved the memory of this period in its word to designate money, pecunia (from pecus). A similar system was used by other peoples in Italy, because there were no deposits of silver and gold there. Only the Greek colonies of southern Italy issued coins of these precious metals following the common practice in their mother cities. They obtained, however, these metals through trade.

The Law of the Twelve Tables (Lex Duodecim tabularum) demonstrates the use in Rome of the bronze pound (as, plural asses) as a way of measuring the value of properties in the V century BC. The memory of this primitive system was preserved for a long time. All transactions with these rough bronze pieces involved the use of a scale. Many centuries after the introduction of coinage, a scale and a piece of bronze were still used as a symbol of the sale and the change of ownership in the ceremony of mancipatio, by which the transfer of certain types of goods, like land, for example, was officially confirmed.

In the late fourth century BC, silver coins were minted for Rome in Naples. Their origin and function are discussed by specialists. Their impact on the Roman economy was surely limited. Only at the beginning of the third century BC, Rome began to standardize the form of bronze bars by introducing the use of cast ingots. The purpose of this change was probably to achieve a more uniform set of weights and to facilitate trade. The new bars were marked with various motives, and this is why they are commonly known today as aes signatum.
 signatum aes (Crawford RRC 5 / 1)

The oldest bars had a motive only on one side, but the Romans began soon to decorate both major faces. The motives served, probably, as a certification of the characteristics of the piece. By covering also the entire length of the block, they allowed to recognize if it was intact or if a portion had been removed.

Of course, these bars cannot be considered as coins in the strict sense, because they were produced by pouring molten metal into molds. They met, however, a monetary function as means of exchange. It was common practice to split them when a piece of lesser value was needed.
signatum aes (Crawford RRC 9 / 1)

The motives of these ingots are not without a certain beauty, as seen in the examples that accompany this text. The two most elaborate are RRC 5 / 1 (Crawford) with a bull on each side and RRC 9 / 1 (Crawford) that presents both an elephant and a wild boar. These are usually related to a story told by Aelianus Tacticus, according to which the Romans used pigs to scare the elephants used against them in the Pyrrhic wars.