Ancient numismatic irreverence

I have very little time to write just now, and about eight blog posts existing only as titles and skeletons held together with a few sinewy links. In the meantime, you can have this. A couple of things have passed over my scanner at work lately that made me want to tell someone about them, and even though they’re not remotely medieval I fear you, dear readers, are that someone… From the ridiculous to the sublime, first off let me show you this.

Bronze of Smyrna, 75X76 AD, for Emperors Titus and Domitian by Marcus Vettianus Bolanos, Corpus Christi College, Lewis Collection, CM.LS.1381-R

Corpus Christi College, Lewis Collection, CM.LS.1381-R

Bronze of Smyrna, 75X76 AD, for Emperors Titus and Domitian by Marcus Vettianus Bolanos

It’s not terribly pretty now, I know, but this is in fact the single most GLAM ancient coin type there is. To the average numismatic expert, yes, it’s just a piece of bronze small change from Smyrna struck under Vespasian in the name of his sons, in 75-76 AD. But it’s the moneyer that makes the difference, for his name is on the coin, and it was Marcus Vettianus Bolanos. MARC BOLAN. Truly, this guy was the metal guru.

But seriously folks. Here are some more nondescript bits of bronze.

Bronze of Judaea by Pontius Pilate under Tiberius, 29 AD, Corpus Christi College, Lewis Collection, CM.LS.1917-R
Bronze of Judaea by Pontius Pilate under Tiberius, 29 AD, Corpus Christi College, Lewis Collection, CM.LS.1917-R

Corpus Christi College, Lewis Collection, CM.LS.1917-R

Bronze of Judaea by Pontius Pilate under Tiberius, 30 AD, Corpus Christi College, Lewis Collection, CM.LS.1918-R

Corpus Christi College, Lewis Collection, CM.LS.1918-R

Bronze of Judaea by Pontius Pilate under Tiberius, 30 AD, Corpus Christi College, Lewis Collection, CM.LS.1918-R

Now, what these are is coins of two of the types that were issued as your basic small change in Judæa under Pontius Pilate. The upper one’s from 29 AD, the lower from 30 AD, just before a certain Saviour of us all started his ministry, at least as long as one accepts him as historical. These aren’t the thirty pieces of silver, which presumably would have been regular denarii from some of the big mints nearby, but the average bronze small change of the day-to-day. What this means is that, if you’d had a shop in Nazareth, for example, and one of the window-frames had gone rotten, and you’d called in a carpenter to fix it, and Joseph & Son had been nearest or cheapest or whatever, these are the coins with which you’d have paid Jesus for fixing your window. I’m just saying.

(All images copyright the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and not to be reproduced without permission. The actual coins belong to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, who have for some years kindly allowed the Samuel Savage Lewis Collection to be deposited in the Museum.)

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4 responses to “Ancient numismatic irreverence

  1. Bang a gong! Get it on! Torments of the summer of 72!

  2. fourcultures

    It’s amazing to think that in a previous life, Marc Bolan was… Marc Bolan.

    As for the serious bit, I’d like to ask whether you think coins have a similar purpose in varying historical periods. As I understand it the rule of Pontius Pilate was a period when the Romans were attempting to impose taxation on the population of Judea not just by taxing them but by forcing them to pay the tax in Roman coinage. Previously they hadn’t had these. The coins themselves didn’t have the wider usage we tend to assume money must have (working backwards from today). In my youth I must have sat through a hundred sermons where the preacher assumed coins were coins were coins, in any and every period.

    • There are a good few analogues for rulers basically issuing coins in order that their populations can pay tax in them, certainly, and there are on the other hand a good many coinages initiated by demand from traders, so the simple answer is no, there are a bunch of purposes money serves. Korea basically used paper money from within a few centuries of developing coin until a financial crisis forced the government back onto metal currency for a while in the eighteenth century, so it can even arise as regression. There are probably fewer options in cases where one is definitely moving from a non-monetised situation to a monetised one, however. It requires an agreed value standard at least over the circulation area, and usually that entails government backing. Not always though! I don’t think I could keep the variations down to four categories :-)

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