Ancients: Roman Provincial Coins

This month, David Vagi discusses coinage of the Roman Empire.

An especially rewarding area of ancient numismatics is the local coinage of the Roman Empire, which was issued at hundreds of mints throughout its provinces. Traditionally, they are called “Greek Imperial” because their inscriptions usually are Greek rather than Latin. But most scholars and collectors now call them “Roman Provincial,” a better term since many of the cities that issued these coins were, in fact, not Greek.

The main dilemma in categorizing provincials is deciding whether the primary division should be geographical or chronological. Some references list them chronologically according to the emperor, empress or caesar who issued them, and others arrange them by their place of issue. In truth, neither is satisfactory. Each highlights a different aspect that is essential for understanding this vast and complex coinage.

Since no survey can be comprehensive, we’ve selected ten subjects that represent some of the more important aspects of this fascinating field.

1. Standard Issues The best place to start is with a standard issue, such as this 32-millimeter bronze of Mopsus, a city in the province of Cilicia, in the south of modern Turkey. It has the portrait of the Roman Emperor Valerian I (A.D. 253-260) and is dated to the 323rd year of the local era, equal to A.D. 255/6. Though an impressive and interesting coin, it is standard in the sense that the obverse is dedicated to a member of his family and the reverse shows something of local interest. In this case, the reverse is an elaborate type dedicated to a well-known local attraction: a bridge of five arches over rushing water; the bridge is decorated with the river god Pyramus reclining between triumphal arches. Most provincial mints issued only base metal coins, with a select few being allowed to strike silver or billon. Gold was struck only at Imperial mints, some of which were located in the provinces.

2. Pseudo-Autonomous Issues Some provincial coins substitute the portrait of a Roman ruler with a non-Imperial design, such as the bust of a god or a personification. The absence of an Imperial portrait led some early scholars to conclude they must have been struck with greater autonomy than the standard portrait bronzes. But this is not the case, and their antiquated name, Pseudo-Autonomous, has largely been abandoned. Most often they are dated based upon the style of engraving and the characteristics of their planchet and strike. This example was struck early in the reign of Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138-161) at Laodicea, in the region of Phrygia in Asia Minor. It shows on its obverse an extraordinary bust of Demos ("the people"), and on its reverse Zeus holding an eagle and scepter, flanked by the name of a local magistrate, Po. Aelius Dionysius Sabinianus.

3. Roman Colonies An important instrument of Roman influence was the foundation of Latin colonies (coloniae). Originally these settlements were of a military nature, but with the passage of time they also fulfilled other needs, including the relocation of impoverished city dwellers to the provinces, where they were more useful as farmers. Sometimes these cities were fresh ventures, and other times they were merely ways to restructure or redefine existing settlements. Coins from most Roman colonies have Latin inscriptions. Some of the most familiar colonial issues are the crocodile bronzes of Nemausus (modern Nîmes, France) struck for the emperor Augustus (27 B.C-A.D. 14). They pair the heads of Augustus and his general Agrippa with a crocodile chained to a palm tree, which alludes to the conquest of Egypt; the name of the city, Colonia Augusta Nemausus, is abbreviated COL NEM. This example was struck c. 9-3 B.C.

4. League Issues Throughout their history the Greeks formed many leagues (koina) to pool the resources of cities. During the age when Greeks were under Roman rule, the reasons for forming leagues were perhaps less pragmatic than before, and they often were dedicated to worship of the Imperial cult. Typically they were organized around groups of cities that had historical, economic, social, religious or defense ties that predated the Roman occupation. Some leagues that issued coins were based in Macedon, Thessaly, Lycaonia, Crete, Bithynia, Pontus, Ionia, Phrygia, Galatia, Lycia and the islands of Lesbos and Cyprus. Shown here is a large provincial bronze struck for the Koinon of Bithynia during the reign of the emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138). It probably was struck for federal games held during an Imperial visit, so it is not surprising that the artistry is of a high caliber.

5. Alliance Coins During Roman times Greek cities would sometimes forge an alliance (omonoia) with another city in hopes of improving their status. Sometimes these bonds were celebrated with alliance coins, mainly in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. Currently, issues are known for 87 cities in Thrace and the East. The alliances were a means by which rivalries were addressed, disputes were settled and coalitions were built for a wide range of purposes. Naturally, religious and athletic festivals might be hosted by one or both of the alliance partners, and we might speculate this was the function of most alliance coinages. Illustrated here is a 39 millimeter bronze for Pergamum and Ephesus, two extremely important cities of Asia Minor. In addition to the portrait of the emperor Gallienus (A.D. 253-268) it shows emblems of the cities: the god Aesculapius for Pergamum and the goddess Artemis for Ephesus.

6. Cistophori Among the most impressive of all Roman coins was the cistophorus, a large silver piece equal to three-denarii that was struck at a variety of mints in Asia Minor. They were introduced by the kings of Pergamum in about 180 or 167 B.C. and were continued by the Romans after they inherited the Pergamene Kingdom in 133 B.C. Initially, the Roman issues were not much different than the Greek originals, but starting in the early 50s B.C., Roman inscriptions were incorporated into the design, and in about 39 B.C. entirely new designs were introduced. Some noteworthy breaks aside, cistophori were produced in quantity up through the early 3rd Century A.D. Shown here is one struck by Augustus at the mint of Ephesus in about 25 B.C. It bears Augustus’ portrait and a Capricorn with a cornucopia on its shoulder – a personal type since he was born while the moon was in the sign of Capricorn.

7. Caesarean Silver Another important provincial mint was Caesarea, located in the Cappadocian plateau in the center of modern Turkey. Before the region became a Roman province in A.D. 17, Caesarea was the capital of local kings who by the early 1st Century B.C. had established close diplomatic ties with Rome. Its provincial coinage consists mainly of silver hemidrachms, drachms and didrachms, tridrachms and tetradrachms, starting with Tiberius (A.D. 14-37) and continuing through the reign of Gordian III (A.D. 238-244). The obverses bore Imperial portrait(s), and though the reverse designs varied, the standard, iconic type shows Mt. Argaeus, the tallest peak in the region. The mountain often is adorned with a grotto and surmounted by a wreath, a star or by one or more figures. This silver tridrachm of Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211), which shows the famous mountain, is dated to the 13th year of his reign (A.D. 205).

8. Syro-Phoenician Tetradrachms The southeastern shore of the Mediterranean was home to more than 30 cities which struck silver and billon tetradrachms for the Roman emperors. Many of these were issued for commercial demand or governmental needs, but most seem to have been struck for military purposes, especially civil wars and campaigns in the East. Because most were struck at mints in Syria and Phoenicia, the series as a whole is often called Syro-Phoenician; however, they also were issued in Cilicia, Commagene, Mesopotamia, Cyrrhestica, Cyrpus, the Decapolis and Palestine. Most of the mint cities were located along the Mediterranean shore, with some considerably inland, especially in areas critical for defense against the Parthians and Sasanians. This example was struck at the most prodigious tetradrachm mint, Antioch in Syria, late in the reign of Caracalla (A.D. 198-217). It bears the most common reverse type of a standing eagle.

9. Alexandria The most diverse, challenging and interesting series of provincial coins was struck in Alexandria, the ancient capital of Egypt. There had been a productive mint in Alexandria under the Ptolemies, the Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt before it was conquered by Octavian (Augustus) in 30 B.C. The emperors struck provincial coins in Alexandria for more than three centuries, and thereafter produced imperial coins for more than 150 years. The provincial denominations were fairly straightforward: tetradrachms that began as billon and over time were reduced to virtually base metal, supported by a series of copper denominations. The reverse types are often spectacular, and most of the coins are dated according to the regnal year of the emperor whose portrait appears on the obverse. This copper drachm of Hadrian (A.D. 117-138), struck in his 18th regnal year (A.D. 133/4), shows the goddess Isis Pharia with a billowed sail approaching the Pharos, the lighthouse of Alexandria and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

10. Allied Kingdoms The Romans forged many alliances with rulers of territories on the fringe of their world. Alliances and treaties often were ideal solutions to difficult situations, as they could be inexpensive ways to maintain peace and security on a border. Thus, it is not unusual to find coins that bear the portraits of both local rulers and a member of the Imperial family. A prodigious issuer of such coins was the Kingdom of the Bosporus, based in the modern Crimea. In addition to bronzes, the Bosporan kings issued staters for nearly four centuries as allies of Rome. In the late 1st century B.C. these staters were gold, and by the time the last known issue was struck, c.A.D. 342, they were essentially base metal. This debased gold stater with the portraits of King Rhescuporis II (A.D. 211/2-226/7) and the Emperor Severus Alexander (A.D. 222-235) was struck in A.D. 225/6.

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group

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