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Updated: May 3, 2021

Coins as Evidence


The technical name for the study of coinage is ‘numismatics’. The word derives from the Greek ‘νομισμα’, meaning ‘thing established’ or ‘custom’, ‘tradition’, from there is came to mean a coin or piece of money.


It might seem an unusual area to start with, but it is simply because I love coins. I make absolutely no claim to be a professional numismatist, but I find coins fascinating and I know enough to give you all a good idea of what great historical sources they can be.


So, we’re going to work through a coin.







This is the OBVERSE, or face-side of a coin. We are presented with a female head with a winged military helmet and a faint ‘X’ shape to the left of the head. Before we come to the identity and symbolism, I note that this seems to be a well-used coin as it is fairly worn. It is made out of silver. Who could the head be? Athena? She is certainly depicted as helmeted on Athenian silver coinage. However, the ‘X’ perhaps suggests Rome, ten? Why would ‘X’ be on a coin? Well, coins often bore a MINT MARK, that is to say, where they coin was made. The Greek KOPPA sign (Ϙ), for example, signifies Corinth. ‘X’ does appear on Greek coinage. It is, of course, the Greek letter ‘chi’. But it could also be mark of the ‘OFFICINA’ where it was produced, namely the specific workshop. If so, it would indicate a Roman coin. Moreover, Athena is not the only female figure depicted in military headgear on a coin OBVERSE. The goddess ‘ROMA’ is also depicted in this way. So, it is a silver coin, potentially an Athenian drachm or maybe a Roman denarius.


Let us turn to the REVERSE, the ‘TAILS’ side. The Tails side, in UK coinage, traditionally carries a national symbol, the value of the coin. Either side may contain an inscription. Ancient coinage is similar, although they rarely give the explicit value. This was gauged through size, metal, and weight.


Here is the REVERSE of our coin.







And so, the inscription tells us that our female head is ‘ROMA’, the city goddess of Rome. With the clear inscription are two mounted male figures with cloaks. Who are they? They are very similar. In fact, they are twins. A study of Roman coinage shows that the Dioscuri twins, Castor and Pollux, are common figures on Roman coinage. For Romans, Castor and Pollux were associated with help in a time of war. The denarius was first minted around the time of the Hannibalic War, c.212 BCE onwards. There is a parallel coin with very similar imagery and similar lettering from 207 BCE. Please do look closely at the second coin down on the following link and compare with the pictures of this coin (https://www.rfrajola.com/Roman/Republic.htm). We can, therefore, conclude that we have a fairly early silver Roman denarius.


And that is how to analyse a coin:


· Metal

· Imagery

· Marks or single letters

· Inscriptions

· Comparison with other coins of similar provenance.



(This was the first coin in my collection – YIPPPEEEEEEEE!!!!!)



Further Comment (03/05/21)


The link between safety from trouble and Castor and Pollux was strong in Roman religion. So I wanted to add these beautiful lines from one of Horace's finest poems (Odes, 3.29):


tunc me biremis praesidio scaphae

tutum per Aegaeos tumultus

aura feret geminusque Pollux.


Then in the protection of my little double-oared

boat, through the tumultuous roar of the Aegean,

Pollux and his twin will bear me safely on the breeze.



Horace contrasts the simplicity of he calm safety he feels. His is a humble craft, a modest living, compared to his good friend Maecenas, Augustus right-hand man, or he was, from the wealthy line of Etruscan kings, and his lofty position and care for public affairs. Castor and Pollux protect Horace and he exhorts Maecenas to hear his plea, and put his cares aside for the moment.



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