This blog post is written by Dr George Watson, a Roman historian and numismatist, with particular interests in the social and economic history of the 3rd century AD and bronze coinage in the Roman world. His research focuses on the ways in which coin production reflects societal relations in the ancient world, and in particular the relationship between the Roman state and the wider population of the Roman empire.
When I began working in the Department of Classics at Swansea in January 2021, colleagues quickly made me aware of the brilliant collections of the Egypt Centre and in particular—given that my research focuses on the coinage of the Greek and Roman worlds—its coin collection. Conversations with Ken Griffin made it clear that not all of the Egypt Centre’s coins had been fully documented. Before the COVID-19 Pandemic, Professor Nigel Pollard organised weekly workshops for students to document the coins, but this had to be curtailed because of the subsequent lockdown. Following on from this work, we put together a plan to make it easier to use the coins in teaching, research, and of course, displays in the Egypt Centre itself.
The first step was to identify and catalogue the coins, and to record all of this information in the Egypt Centre’s online database. This would ensure that anyone wanting to use the coins—for whatever purpose—would know what was there! We then planned to link the coins to a number of numismatic portals hosted by the American Numismatic Society and others that would make the specimens more readily available to researchers—more on this below.
All of the coins had already been photographed, which meant that I could do a lot of the work from home during the pandemic, but I also spent a number of afternoons in the stores of the museum, looking more closely at the coins, weighing them, and recording other measurements. Some of the coins had already been tentatively identified, but I wanted to make sure that reference was made to the latest scholarly literature wherever possible. This initial cataloguing allows a summary of the collection as follows: 14 Greek coins, 2 Roman republican coins, 56 Roman imperial coins, 13 Roman provincial coins, 20 Parthian coins, and 9 post-antique coins. Below is a brief discussion of some of the highlights of the collection:
The majority of coins in the collection are Roman, and the principal coin of the Roman empire was the silver denarius, of which EC1527 is an excellent example (fig. 1). It is a denarius of the emperor Domitian, who ruled AD 81–96, weighing 2.93g and with a diameter of 19mm. The inscriptions on both sides are in Latin and give Domitian’s names and titles. Because the emperor’s titles changed throughout his reign, we are able to use this information to date the coin to the period AD 95–96. The reverse image shows Minerva, the goddess of wisdom who was Domitian’s patron deity.
|Fig. 2: Bronze sestertius of Caligula|
Alongside the silver denarius, the Roman empire’s monetary system also included bronze and gold coins. EC1534 is an example of a bronze sestertius, four of which made up a denarius (fig. 2). It was struck during the reign of the emperor Caligula (AD 37–41). Although the coin is quite worn and the image difficult to make out, the reverse originally bore an image of Caligula’s three sisters, who were all named in the reverse legend: Agrippina, Drusilla, and Julia. This is quite a momentous depiction: it was the first time any living woman had been depicted and identified on an issue of Roman coinage. This was not, however, a case of happy families. After Drusilla died in AD 38, Agrippina and Julia plotted with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus to overthrow Caligula. The plot was foiled, Lepidus was executed, and the two sisters were exiled.
|Fig. 3: Roman provincial coin of Trajan|
The coinage of the Roman empire was a very varied entity. Alongside the gold, silver, and bronze coins struck at Rome, there existed a vast array of coins produced by cities of the provinces. These coins, now commonly known as the Roman provincial coinage, were principally made of bronze, and have legends written in Greek. EC1493, struck in the city of Mytilene during the reign of Trajan (AD 98–117), is a good example (fig. 3). Roman provincial coins often combine local and imperial images. The portrait on the obverse of this coin is identified in the legend as Dada, who appears to be a mythical figure associated with Mytilene’s history, but she appears with the features of Matidia, the wife of Trajan.
Not all Roman provincial coins, however, were bronze. EC1494 (fig. 4) is an example of a silver drachm from the reign of Trajan (AD 98–117) (a drachm was a Greek unit of value, equivalent to one Roman denarius). There has been considerable debate about two aspects of this coin type: the species of camel on the reverse and the place of minting. The camel on the reverse is commonly linked to Trajan's creation of the province of Arabia in AD 106, but if this is the case, we would expect to see the one-humped camelus dromedarius (Arabian camel or dromedary), not the two-humped camelus bactrianus (Bactrian camel). Indeed, many other coins celebrating Trajan's new province of Arabia show a one-humped dromedary (e.g. http://numismatics.org/ocre/id/ric.2.tr.245). So why do these coins show a Bactrian camel? Many different explanations have been put forward without agreement: perhaps this coin was celebrating long-distance trade with Bactria, perhaps the humps were simply an engraver's mistake. The place of minting has also been much debated. The style of the obverse dies is very similar to the style of dies used in Rome, but other technical aspects of minting suggest production in Arabia. The most recent study of these coins narrowly favoured production in Rome. Wherever they were minted, hoard evidence shows that these coins circulated predominantly in the Levant.
|Fig. 5: Billon tetradrachm of Numerian|
Unsurprisingly, the Egypt Centre’s collections contain numerous Roman provincial coins from the Roman province of Egypt. Egypt’s provincial coinage was a little different from other provinces, firstly because the mint of Alexandria struck coins for the entirety of the province, and secondly because most coins produced were not made of bronze, but of debased silver, an alloy that we call billon. EC1540 (fig. 5) is an example of a billon tetradrachm (four drachms) struck at Alexandria during the reign of the short-lived emperor Numerian (AD 283–284). An interesting feature of the Alexandrian provincial coinage is the inclusion of a regnal date. On this coin, you can see the letters L B on the reverse. L is the Egyptian demotic symbol for “year”, and B is the Greek numeral for 2. So this coin was struck during the second year of Numerian’s reign, that is to say—because Egyptian years began in August—between August 283 and August 284.
The collection also includes a nice example of what might be termed a minting mistake from antiquity. EC1526 is a type of coin that we call a brockage (fig. 6). You can see that instead of having a normal reverse design, the reverse shows the same image as the obverse, but mirrored and in incuse. This occurs because coins in antiquity were struck between two engraved dies. Sometimes a coin would get stuck to the upper die and not be removed before the next coin was struck. In this case, the second coin would be imprinted with the proper obverse design from the lower die, but the upper die would impart not the reverse design but an incuse of the obverse from the stuck coin.
Although all the examples above come from the Roman period, there are also some nice Greek and Parthian coins in the collection. GR100 is a beautiful silver tetradrachm of Ptolemy I, the first king of the Ptolemaic empire (fig. 7). This coin dates to 306 BC, relatively early in Ptolemy’s reign, and the obverse shows Alexander the Great wearing an elephant headdress, advertising Ptolemy’s connection with the great conqueror. Later in his reign, Ptolemy’s coins would feature a portrait of Ptolemy himself on the obverse.
Once all the coins were catalogued, we wanted to make them more widely available to the scholarly community. One great way to do this is to get them included in various online numismatic portals. These portals typically host a standardised typology, which can then list various specimens of each type, where the specimens are hosted on the websites of individual museums. The two major portals the Egypt Centre was able to contribute to were Online Coins of the Roman Empire (OCRE) for Roman imperial coins, and Roman Provincial Coinage online (RPC online) for Roman provincial coins. These portals are all designed according to the principles of Linked Open Data, which provides a stable format for referring to real-world concepts (like coin denominations or Roman emperors) and makes it easy to connect the mass of numismatic data available on the internet.
These portals gather coins from many of the most important coin collections around the world, and it is great to see the Egypt Centre’s coins alongside specimens from, for example, the British Museum, the American Numismatic Society, and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. For example, on this type, the Swansea coin finds its place alongside 180 other examples (as of 29/06/2022) from museums right across the world. Sometimes, however, the Swansea coin really stands out. For this denarius type of Nerva, the Egypt Centre’s coin (fig. 8) is the only example of the type that has been digitised. Therefore, whenever anyone searches online for an image of this coin type, the Egypt Centre’s coin is the one they will come across.
It has been a lot of fun diving into the Egypt Centre’s coin collection, and I’d encourage you to explore the coin collection online, or maybe pop into the museum and ask Ken to show you the coins themselves!