Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Research Note: Dining and Numismatic Imagery during the Roman Empire (Version 1)

This post is offered as in-process research note. Nothing about it is complete, neither the evidence it collects, nor the citations to secondary scholarship that it makes, nor the conclusions that it reaches. It is also an unfinished translation of existing text and scanned images from desktop editing tools into a blog post. The planned venue for publication of the finished version is volume 1.2 of the new journal Past Discussed Quarterly (PDQ). I am making this very early draft available now so as to encourage "community review" prior to submission and, I hope, eventual acceptance. I therefore welcome comments and look forward to incorporating those into later versions of this note.

[A note on process: Some of the editing of the first version of this text happened directly within the Blogger interface. I'm sure this has introduced various typos and other misfortunes. My plan is to hit the "Publish" button and then copy-edit in-place. When I make major changes to content, I will publish those as a whole new post. This is all an experiment so bear with me.]

The following paragraphs provide a preliminary survey of the use of numismatic imagery in the decoration of objects related to dining during the Roman empire. Such use includes the actual incorporation of coins into the material culture of dining and also the copying of numismatic imagery into different media. In form, this note is essentially a list of objects that are examples of such incorporation and reuse.

Dining is defined very broadly and the objects listed below may well have been used in religious activities as opposed to daily meals. There is no need, however, to draw a very strong line between religion and daily life so that the objects collected below do all bear upon the issue of dining when the group is taken as whole. The importance of empire extends beyond merely the definition of the chronological bounds of the study, which at the current time focusses on the second and third centuries. Roman imperial coins, as well as most provincial issues, usually bore images of the current emperor and/or his family so that they are inherently "imperial" objects. Coins also have reverses whose legends and imagery can be understood to communicate themes of imperial propaganda, though the efficacy of this communication is a hotly debated topic in the field of ancient numismatics. Accordingly, when possible the list below will make clear which image, imperial portrait or reverse message, is displayed or reproduced. Doing so can make a small contribution to the problem of the extent to which numismatic imagery was actively examined and responded to by ancient viewers. Preliminary conclusions along these lines are made during the course of presenting the relevant objects.

Italian and Gaulish Sigillata Vessels
An article by Marabini Moevs (AJA 84 [1980]:322) makes reference in its text and notes to Italian and Gaulish Sigillata vessels whose decoration includes direct copies of coins. These are made by pressing the face of a coin into the molds in which such vessels were produced.

Partial list:
  1. An Arretine Krater with impressed coin of Augustus repeated 8 times. The legend "AVGVSTVS CAESAR" is legible. (ArchCl 7 [1955]).
  2. Impressions of a coin of a "Julio-Claudian prince" appear on a Southern Gallic bowl.(Knorr 1919:87)
  3. A single sherd of a late Italian Sigillata bowl partially preserves an obverse portrait of the empress Sabina (Marabini Moeves 1984)
  4. Arretine or Gallic bowl with impression of a coin with eagle. (ArchCl 7 [1955])

Even in the absence of a complete list of published pieces, it should be stressed that the direct reproduction of numismatic imagery on sigillata vessels is a sporadic phenomenon. Nonetheless, when such reproduction does occur it certainly illustrates an avenue for the incorporation of the imperial image into the visual setting of the meals at which such vessels were used.

Appliqué Medallion's on Claire-B Vessels from the southern Rhone valley
Claire-B is the name given to a well-slipped tableware manufactured in the Rhone valley around Lyon and further south. Table jugs with appliqué medallions are a regular part of this series and were meant for pouring wine and other beverages. Though they are larger than coins, the circular shape of these medallions means that they share some of the formal constraints and appearance of numismatic imagery. The following example drawn from Déchelette's 1904 survey of decorated vases from Gaul has obvious similarities with both coin and medallion reverses also showing scenes of imperial interaction with an assembled populace.

A medallion celebrating the defeat of Armenia shows a personification similar to those appearing on Antonine coinage:

It is probably not useful to say that either the ceramic or numismatic version of this image is the "original" that influenced the copy. Rather, they are both small-scale versions of visual motifs that appeared in larger media. To put this another way, provincial reproduction of imperial propaganda does not prove that numismatic reverses were the route by which such propaganda reached the provinces. It does suggest that coins existed in a milieu of images and that the numismatic versions may not have been ignored. Indeed, motifs that appear on coins were actually brought into people's homes in the form of ceramic vessels. This domestic acceptance of imperial imagery is a reminder of Greg Woolf's observation that the material correlates of "Romanization" are often the work of provincial craft industries. The combination of coin and vessel indicates that there was frequent interaction between imperial and provincial agency during the reception of images.

A bronze vessel now in Boston (
In 1963, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston acquired a bronze vessel from the well-known numismatic collector H. von Aulock, with the purchase being made in Istanbul and the object being understood to have come from western Asia Minor. In form it is a deep pot with rounded-walls and a flat handle extending from the rim. In these aspects it is unremarkable. More distinctive are the five coins attached to the exterior surface, with all showing their reverse side. As listed on the MFA's website, the coins are:
  1. Cyzicus. Dionysos seated on pantheress, holding thyrsos. (Commodus)
  2. Hierocaesarea. Artemis with a quiver or bowcase on shoulder facing Apollo (?) with lyre and cloak. (Commodus)
  3. Hierocaesarea. Artemis standing to right discharging arrow. Stag running at left, beside her. (Marcus Aurelius)
  4. Smyrna. Bull standing right. (Antinous)
  5. Smyrna. Bull standing right. (Antinous)

[These coins are sufficiently well-known and distinct so that the chronology can be inferred.]
In addition to these pieces, two coins were purchased later but are believed to have been attached to the vessel as well:
  1. Troy. Marcus Aurelius/Aeneas right bearing on left arm Anchises and looking left at Ascanius
  2. Koinon of Bithynia. Hadrian/Distyle temple with star in pediment; Hadrian stands between Bithynia and Roma, who crowns him.

Assuming that the two detached coins are part of the original ensemble and also had their reverses visible, this collected group of images contains an eclectic mix of local gods and sacred animals, along side a hint of Roman sympathy/loyalty in the form of a reference to Aeneas and to the image of the emperor accompanied by Roma and a loyal province. In this provincial context, it is the reverse images that are chosen to achieve the transformation of this vessel from functional object into a bearer of meaning.

The Rennes Patera

Now in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Rennes Patera was discovered in that French city in 1774 along with 43 aureii, the latest of which was issued during the reign of Aurelian (d. 275). The object is a shallow, gold plate, 1.315 kilos in weight - or aproximately 4 Roman pounds - with a central medallion showing a drunken Hercules standing next to a seated Bacchus, the two being engaged in a contest that pits strength against wine. The latter prevails, as shown by the surrounding motif of Bacchus' triumphal march, in which the victor rides in panther-drawn chariot, with the loser languishing bareback a few ranks behind him. While there is perhaps some humor to be found in this arrangement of images - though this much gold makes the joke expensive - there is also an explicit imperial context. The outermost band of decoration consists of 16 aureii depicting emperors ranging from Hadrian to Septimius Severus, alternated with junior and female members of the imperial families, including Severus' sons Caracalla and Geta as Caesars. In all cases the obverse is showing, though descriptions of both sides of each coin can be given following their removal and resetting, notes on which were published in 1858. The list of coins (Obverse/Reverse), starting from the top as indicated by the orientation of the central medallion and moving clock-wise, is:
  1. Hadrian/Hispania Reclining/HISPANIA
  2. Caracalla/Geta r.
  3. Marcus Aurelius/Victory advancing
  4. Faustina, Jr./Laetitia stg.,LAETITIA
  5. Antoninus Pius/Liberalitas stg.
  6. Geta/Severus btw. std. sons.
  7. Commodus/Liberty, LIBERT
  8. Diva Faustina/Ceres stg.
  9. Septimius Severus/Caracalla and Geta,AETERNIT IMPERI
  10. Caracalla/Severus and Julia Domna, CONCORDIAE AETERNAE
  11. Antoninus Pius/Jupiter std.
  12. Diva Faustina/Ceres
  13. Antoninus Pius/Liberalitas stg.
  14. Commodus/Hilaritas, HILARITAS
  15. Septimius Severus/Julia Domna btw. Caracalla and Geta
  16. Julia Domna/Laetitia stg., LAETITIA
(Based on Chabouillet1858]:360-363)

Although the accompanying hoard dates the deposition of this object to the reign of Aurelian or later, it is presumably Severan in composition. The combination of this date with the objects Bacchic/Dionysiac, Herculean and Imperial associations makes several categories of evidence useful as context for understanding this object. The first category is epigraphic and relies on the overlap between Severus' manufactured ancestry as implied by the patera and as advertised in public inscriptions. Taking just one example, CIL VIII.9317, from Caesaria in Mauretania, begins with the following dedication:
To Imperator Caesar, son of the divine Marcus Antoninus Pius Sarmaticus Germanicus, brother of the divine Commodus, grandson of the divine Antoninus Pius, great-grandson of the divine Hadrian, descendant of the divine Trajan Parthicus, descendant of the divine Nerva, Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax Augustus…
While the patera does not stretch back so far as Nerva, the emperors Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius and Commodus do appear. This suggests considerable awareness of, and sensitivity to, Severan dynastic concerns on the part of the designer/patron of this object. That Pertinax is not represented among the depicted emperors is not a surprise given Septimius' emphasis of his manufactured Antonine descent. [On a practical note, the gold of Pertinax may not have so readily available.] The alternated family portraits, culminating to some extent in the then current heirs Caracalla and Geta, only add to the dynastic context.

Further Severan links are found in the Bacchic and Herculean imagery. Both gods are depicted on the reverse of a coin of Severus issued in 194 (RIC IV.25).
Courtesy of CNG Coins, via Wildwinds
The pairing of Bacchus and Hercules is also found in the Basilica at Severus' hometown of Leptis Magna. Here the pilasters to the left and right of the apse are decorated with scenes from the lives of each divinity. (flicker, flickr [both with cc licenses]).

The coin is an official issue and the architectural sculpture is part of an imperially sponsored program of public display. Both Bacchus and Hercules were popular gods at this time as well (ANRW II.17.2:684-702; LIMC V:158) so that the motif of their contest also appears in private domestic contexts. It is found in the second-century mosaic decoration of the so-called Atrium House at Antioch (Illustrated at Ling 1998: fig. 33) and in an early third-century version from nearby Seleucia (Ling 1998:fig. 36).

These comparanda, not all of which would have been known to any single ancient viewer, reveal the Rennes Patera to be an extremely sophisticated object. It brings together a set of ideas that were current at the highest levels of both society and government. It belongs in this study because numismatic imagery is an essential component of the "program" of its visual composition, which highlights the role of coins in providing imperial portraits that could be re-used in non-commercial contexts. Of course, one cannot say that the patera was used during dining. It is plausibly a ritual object - perhaps a part of the imperial cult - and almost certainly used during extra-ordinary circumstances, and not during the repetitive occurrence of everyday meals. Nonetheless, authors such as Athenaeus create a place for Bacchus, Hercules and the Emperor at the Roman meal so that the Rennes Patera may give a window into the thoughts of drunk and loyal Roman aristocrats as they conversed merrily with each other during evening gatherings.

A final note is necessary when discussing this object. There are rumors that the patera is an 18th century fake; but without having found such an opinion in writing, I find this unlikely.

It was noted above that the Rennes Patera need not have been used in the setting of a meal. The same can be said of jewelry which incorporates coins. Bruhn's study of coins and costume is an excellent introduction to the topic (8-16,30-32). Her fig. 6, showing a necklace ( with aurei of Lucius Verus, Julia Domna and Alexander Severus in pendant settings, is a good example of the prevalence of such pieces in the third century. Bruhn (32) also cites a 2nd century Egyptian funerary portrait, now in Detroit ( Zooming in on the deceased's necklace shows that the pendant holds a coin. It may also be reasonable to suggest that the obverse is showing.

A Late Antique Coda
The focus of this note is the pagan empire. A late Roman silver plate in Munich in which the central medallion copies a quinquennalia issue of Licinius II is relevant (cf. Leader-Newby 2004:20). A later example of a similar phenomenon is a silver plate, now last, incorporating a gold solidus of Theodosius II.

(After Barrate 1993:fig. 20)
Finally, I note an ARS lamp type (cf. Hayes 1980:313) which has the alternated impressions of the obverse and reverse of a gold coin (tremisses?) of Theodosius II impressed on its shoulder.

(After le Blant 1886:plate ii, for additional examples see Bejaui 1997:283)

At a time when the emperor stressed the religious unity of the state, it is fitting that these lamps' manufacturer would choose to show both the obverse and reverse of an imperial coin.

Appendix on Primary Texts
[Needs more passages and to be integrated into main text]

With the objects described above in mind, it is appropriate to consider some of the textual evidence for Roman attitudes towards coins. Suetonius relates that Augustus gave foreign coins as gifts during the Saturnalia.(Aug. 73) Philostratus in his early third century life of Apollonius of Tyana relates a story set during the reign of Tiberius, in which a slave-owner was convicted of impiety because the slave he struck was carrying a coin with the image of the emperor on it. Cassius Dio, also writing in the early third century, refers to coinage on numerous occasions. He relates that "...Brutus stamped upon the coins which were being minted his own likeness and a cap and two daggers, indicating by this and by the inscription that he and Cassius had liberated the fatherland." (LXVII.25) He also writes of a young equestrian was sentenced to death for taking a coin into a brothel and that a senator was similarly punished for wearing a coin of Augustus set in a necklace when he went to the toilet. Finally, he relates that under Elagabalus a certain “Valerianus Paetus was executed because he had because he had stamped some likenesses of himself and plated them with gold to serve as ornaments for his mistresses.”(LXXIX.4) This was seen as a precursor to rebellion. Although hardly unanimous, these and similar passages tend to confirm that it was the imperial likeness on coins that often drew the particular attention.

1 comment:

Unknown said...


I found this post to be very interesting, and hope that you will indeed continue to develop this line of inquiry. It occurred to me as I read that use and find contexts are surely as valuable for interpretation as they are undoubtedly hard to recover.

In particular, it seems to me that usage or deposition in the context of imperial cult, the office of the augustales and such like would qualify objects with imperial iconography (numismatic or otherwise) as relevant to a very specific type of dining ritual (as you theorize for the Rennes patera).

Is there such specific information, or does poor provenancing and context survival thoroughly frustrate such a line of inquiry?