Announcing Inheriting Rome

Publicity image for Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 27 February 2015 – 24 January 2016

Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture
Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 27 February 2015 – 24 January 2016
Coin Gallery

One of the very many things that have been keeping me from updating this blog as I would wish over recent months is now done, and can and should be announced. It is nothing less than the new exhibition in the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, curated by none other than yours truly. It’s entitled Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture and I’m really very pleased with it. The designer has taken my ideas and content and made it into a feast for the eyes as well as the brain but people have also been telling me that it is clear and interesting and makes them think and all those things that one wants to hear when one has done this much work to put objects, text and images together for the delectation of the general public. The Barber’s current What’s On leaflet has this to encourage you to come and see:

Look at one of the coins you’re carrying today: you’ll see the Queen’s portrait facing right and Latin script around the royal head. It seems our coins have looked this way forever, and that’s nearly true. But why? This exhibition uses money to explore and question our deep-seated familiarity with the Roman Empire’s imagery. Britain is not the only nation, empire or state to channel ancient Rome in this way: the Barber’s excellent collection of coins from the Byzantine Empire – as well examples from Hungary, Georgia and Armenia – illustrate both the problems and possibilities of being genuine heirs of Rome. Attempting to uncover the political uses of Rome’s legacy, this exhibition encourages the visitor to ponder why we are so often told of the empire’s importance – and whose interests such imagery serves.

A little UK-centric in retrospect, but then I don’t think we send the leaflet out any further than that… You can see that I was and am out to make a point, anyway, but really, come for how great it all looks and stay for the interpretation. It’s open until the 24th January 2016, and there are gallery tours on the third Sunday of most months as well as a number of gallery talks by myself, of which you can find details on the Barber’s website at those links. Do come and see!

Entrance to the Coin Gallery, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, showing the banners for Inheritance of Rome

Entrance to the gallery

Meanwhile, I have to thank Robert Wenley, Chezzy Brownen and John van Boolen for making it clearer and better in various ways or in John’s case actually helping install it, as well as crawling in roof-spaces to try and fix broken lights, and most of all Selina Goodfellow of Blind Mice Design for making it into something everyone wants to look at. I’ll have as much credit as is going, you know, but these people deserve theirs too. Thanks to all and you, readers, come and see what we did!

Backdrops at the end of the coin gallery of Inheriting Rome

Backdrops at the end of the gallery

(Right. So that just leaves a website rewrite, children’s activities, auditing the collection, checking the library and uploading the entire set of catalogues onto the University of Birmingham’s website, ON WHICH MORE SHORTLY, as well as zapping things with X-rays for purposes of Science! What’ll I do tomorrow?)

The English and Hungarian coins in the exhibition Inheriting Rome

The English and Hungarian coins in the exhibition, in full splendour

24 responses to “Announcing Inheriting Rome

  1. Allan McKinley

    Hate to worry you, but we have been known to deposit Barber leaflets on the far side of the globe…

  2. Michael Jacobs

    Good looking exhibition.
    Is it true that Julius Caesar was the first ruler to put his portrait on a coin? I recall such a statement from a lecture by Mary Beard, but can’t find confirmation.

    You might have missed this discussion of coins v stamps from “The Guardian” circa 2011, starting like this:

    “Why does the Queen face right on coins but left on postage stamps?

    THE design of coins is determined by a tradition going back at least to the time of Charles II that the direction in which the head faces should alternate between the coinage of successive monarchs. The only exception to this has been the coinage of Edward VIII, who insisted on his likeness facing left…..”,5753,-1499,00.html

    • Well, I think I can safely say no to the first question, with all due respect to Professor Beard. For Rome it depends who’s a ruler, since the consuls of the Republic frequently got portrait coinages, but there are ancient Greek royal coinages which present no such delicate issues. As to the alternation, yes, this has been mentioned by exhibition visitors who note the same left-and-right on Roman coins. There, however, the reasons are much less clear; the same ruler can appear either left- or right-facing in the same coinage, though left is rarer. I think it probably then served simply to distinguish strikings of different quality or periods of issue.

  3. Tacitus, Allenburgh

    Numismatics always seems to exterminate the worst of the military families from their colloquailasumptions of British aged collections. Invisible life of Rome indeed.

  4. Good to see things happening here. I hadn’t visited the blog in a while, relying on my feed reader to keep me up to date, but it seems like the RSS feed doesn’t work with my feed reader ( innoreader ) any more. Seems like the last post it finds is the musings on the deaths of Daevid Allen and Terry Pratchet. After that, the blog is no longer reported. Make of that what you will !

    The exhibition looks like it will be a great one to visit.

    Its fascinating seeing coins from history. As part of the recent Silk Road exhibition at the Hermitage Amsterdam there were many coins displayed taken from all along the route, so not only could you see the history throgh them them ( rulers, countries, currency ) but also form and function , as the various cultures coins showed how they were used , ie those more ‘chinese’ with holes for use, versus the more Greek emphasising ‘power’ or aesthetic qualities. Certainly makes some modern currency seem a little featureless.

    • Sadly, your feed-reader does not lie; I haven’t been able to post since then. This will hopefully change soon! At the moment I am reading for whatever deadline is next before going to work, spending the day at work, and dealing with the most urgent stuff for the next day on returning home, and then finding it’s midnight and I must sleep, and apart from going abroad for research or conferences a couple of times in there, it’s been like that since March. Sorry! I do have hopes of change shortly however. That Silk Road exhibition sounds great, though, I wish that could have been one of the trips!

  5. Oh dear, JJ. Just wait until you have children.

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  12. I wonder to which extent can we consider the medieval “nomisma” (the “Greek” name for “solidus”) or the “hyperpyron” to be coins reflecting the legacy of Rome or actually Roman coins…

    • Fair questions, but part of a much larger one about how far the Byzantine Empire was Roman. A first answer would certainly be: the issuers of those coins thought they were Romans and that the issuing state was the Roman Empire, what more do you want? A second one would be that the nomisma was still pretty much the same coin in terms of weight and fineness in 925 as it had been in 325, and the man who introduced it in the former era had actually ruled Rome as emperor. Again, hard to ask for more. The case with the hyperperon is perhaps harder to make and I won’t try; it was a patch on a failing system that proved surprisingly effective, but little about Alexios I’s rule except its capital and its name resembled the empire of, say, Theodosius II. But those could matter! If you go and see the exhibition you will see that Byzantium’s troubled relationship to its once-pagan parent state is the subject of one of the large cases…

      • I agree the case is very hard to make, but not impossible. I think the “hyperpyron” was essentially a reform of the coinage with the intent of stabilizing it and a (quite failed) attempt at resumption of former monetary policies.

        Regarding the Romanness of the “Byzantines”, I think traditional perspectives, due to their Eurocentrism (especially the always continuing attempt to claim sole inheritance over the Roman Empire by western European states and scholars since the Middle Ages) and in the Greek case nationalist perspectives projecting back into the past ethnical or national Hellenic identities, are essentialist and gloss over the (quite thorny) subject of Romanization in Rome’s eastern provinces.

        For me, Romanness is a cultural and social construction: the meaning of being a Roman was always debated throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages, being always changing with time. That’s why I think the arguments on transformation from Rome into “Byzantium” are fundamentally flawed: the moment of great adaptation and revolution that the 7th century ended up being thanks to external pressure, instead of being viewed as another major revolution of Rome’s history like those of Diocletian, Pompey/Caesar/Augustus or the early 4th century BC (the start of the Republic more or less as we traditionally know it, probably in 367 BC), is often seen as a moment of change of one state to another. But if we analyze medieval Roman identities, the roles of Greek culture and language in the classical and late antique Empire or political continuities, for instance, I think we can’t really talk about a daughter state, but instead about a medieval Roman Empire.

        I also tend to believe that the old argument that the medieval state was very different from its ancient counterpart suffers from the problem that ancient Rome itself changed very dramatically over the centuries. How to recognize the chief kings of Rome or Constantine I as Roman if we take the late Republic as an essentialist standard of Romanness? Besides, I think medieval continuities are a bit stronger than usually credited for the medieval Roman Empire (despite the catastrophic changes at the end of Late Antiquity), but also continuity and change were 2 faces of the same coin in Roman policies.

        By the way, what do you think on the possibility of the Ostrogoths (namely Theoderic) forming some kind of barbarian junior imperial house? And what do the coins tell us? I thought that possibility interesting by reading Jonathan Arnold’s book on Ostrogothic propaganda and the “perceptions” (if we can call that such a thing, since their use in the Ostrogothic court is quite a polemic subject) , but there’s always that ponderation over the thin line between facts, exaggerated claims and sheer propaganda. Besides, despite some interest on this subject, I’m not an expert on Ostrogothic Italy by a long shot.

        Sorry if I’ve been rambling too much and thanks for your constant fedback. Unfortunately I can’t go to your exhibit since I don’t have much availability in the next months to travel to the UK, but it is always a pleasure to read your posts and learning quite some different thing almost every day. :)

        • …the always continuing attempt to claim sole inheritance over the Roman Empire by western European states and scholars since the Middle Ages.

          It’s a real pity you can’t make it to the exhibition, you would be sympathetic to its basic pitch by the sound of that! Thankyou for your kind words instead, however.

          Ungratefully, I don’t agree with you about the hyperperon, because of the changes to the rest of the currency system that went with it. The hyperperon was a new thing to do the job of the nomisma because that had gone missing in the action of long-term devaluation. After that all that could be done was to put a new relatively fine denomination in at the top of the tree and leave the old stuff where it had fallen, only as part of a deliberate system. I think the continuity in that system is the debased denominations, not the new one.

          I think your point about Roman variation is perfectly fair, though. Coming from a ritualised and militarised Republic to a monarchical empire with a professional military and civilian government means that no point in the transition can be considered medial, and I think the formulation of ‘medieval Roman empire’ says something important, but both it and my formulation previously there emphasise important continuities even so. I agree that there were also huge changes, of course, and the seventh century is only one, but there are historians who recognise the internal revolutions as well as the external one, James Howard-Johnston being one who springs to mind.

          I haven’t yet read Arnold’s book, though I’m impressed by the controversy it seems to have provoked. The coins would fit well enough with a ‘junior house’ argument, though also with a normal client king relationship in many ways. The silver links emperor and kings even for some time after they were at war, whereas the bronze is either solely imperial, regal or civic, I think. (There is some of both in the exhibition…. ) I suppose that the silver situation implies that there was some locally-Roman legitimacy for the kings to draw on like that that the essential conservatism of money made it worth retaining even once politically ridiculous. There is a great danger, however, in letting Cassiodorus—writing or ‘compiling’ to defend himself in that troubled time—show the early Ostrogothic enterprise as super-conformally Roman and then assuming that it must have been thus after his time too (let alone during!), and I don’t think the coins can be allowed to absolve us of that duty of caution. We don’t, after all, know any of whom designed them, who used them and who could read them with anything like the clarity we’d need to deduce the effects and impact of their messages safely!

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