Tag Archives: war

I found this coin, 3: imperial violence

I had intended to follow the last post, which was quite heavy, with something lighter-weight—specifically, about three and a half grams—by picking something out of the coins photography I was still doing in late 2016 and telling its story in that way that I sometimes do. And yet, without my having planned this, it functions rather well as an epilogue. So here’s three coins…

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Licinius I struck at Siscia in 320, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0650

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Licinius I struck at Siscia in 320, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0650

Reverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Licinius I struck at Siscia in 320, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0650

Reverse of the same coin, with the imagery that’s important for this post, under the legend Virtus Exercitus, ‘strength of the army’

In one of the previous ones of these posts I remarked on a well-known but still interesting fact, that the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine I (306-337) to Christianity, however loudly his biographer Bishop Eusebius of Cæsarea wanted to tell us about it, shows up almost nowhere on Constantine’s absolutely prolific coinage, which retained the pagan imagery of his immediate colleagues and predecessors. The other favourite subject, however, was by now the Roman army. And above there you see the ideal results of its operations, two unlucky captives bound below a military standard, a reasonably simple visual message to parse.

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantius II struck at Thessaloniki in 350-355, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantius II struck at Thessaloniki in 350-355, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Reverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantius II struck at Thessaloniki in 350-355, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

And the reverse of the same coin, showing as you can probably see a Roman soldier skewering a fallen horseman with his spear

The three of Constantine’s sons who eventually succeeded him, Constantine II (317-340), Constantius II (324-361) and Constans I (333-350), were all, we suppose, raised Christian, and there is a bit more Christian imagery on their coins but mainly they stuck to the same theme. It is worth bearing in mind, of course, that the Roman army was the primary user base for new coinage, since they received it as pay, or in the case of pieces like these, as exchange for a low enough part of the value of their pay, which was made in gold, that they could actually spend it. So messages that say how great and fearsome the army was make sense on Roman coinage, but still, this imagery of violent and unequal battle and, let’s face it, death, was also the general circulating medium of exchange in the empire.

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Julian II struck at Thessaloniki in 355-361, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Julian II struck at Thessaloniki in 355-361, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Reverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Julian II struck at Thessaloniki in 355-361, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Reverse of the same coin, showing the new emperor (admittedly then operating as junior to Constantius II still) maintaining the same imagery

Now, it seems to me that this is one of those lines our culture (by which I mainly mean the Anglophone liberal one in which I currently write) has set up between the past and us; we wouldn’t put imagery of our state employees killing the state’s opponents on our money. But where does the past start that we have chosen to mark ourselves off from in the manner I was describing last post?

Colin Gill, 'King Alfred's Longships Defeat the Danes', 1927, London, House of Commons, WOA-2600

Colin Gill, ‘King Alfred’s Longships Defeat the Danes’, 1927, London, House of Commons, WOA-2600, used under the Open Parliament License

Maybe not all that long ago, huh? We all know that the 1914-1918 Great War was not in fact ‘the war to end all wars’, but in 1927 the UK’s governing establishment was apparently still pretty proud of its previous wars, and of course this is still there now, part of the normal backdrop to the entry and exit of our ruling class from their place of daily responsibility. Not just them, either; the last time I was in the London auction house Spinks, there was on display there a, how shall I put it? ‘dramatic’, I think is the word, a ‘dramatic’ diorama of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, made in 1979. It eventually sold for £2,100 (lot 666, indeed). And we could go on piling up examples.

Which of us in the UK can, after all, honestly say that they have never uttered a line from this film? Not many! And yet it is the same message being delivered: this empire’s army surely does (did?) kill its enemies. Obviously, it surprises no-one to say that empires rest on violence. The Romans as a people knew this, not least because their state used means like these coins to tell them so. We would not put that on coins. But you can make a lot of money passing the message all the same. Funny, isn’t it, where our scruples now lie compared to theirs?

Added in passing II

Firstly, whereas before it was not, now the schedule for this term’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research is up on the web. Happily for me, this is the same day as my KCL teaching, so I should be able to make it to most of them, and hopefully report back here having so done. It will not escape the alert that the first has already happened, and I will therefore so note it when I have time.

One of a great many differing covers of John Keegan’s A History of Warfare

Secondly, in trying not to let my previous reading pile go entirely unattended while I try and put together lectures, one recent late night found me briefly picking up John Keegan’s A History of Warfare. Now I’ve been enjoying this, but I have to say, his coverage of the early Middle Ages, in about six pages, is pretty impressively useless. You could read it and be left with the impression that between 476 and the First Crusade all warfare in Western Europe except for some Reconquista campaigns in Spain was internecine quarrels between local knights. It is just about mentioned that the Carolingians raised armies, but what use they put them to, such as for example and e. g. putting together and briefly holding the largest empire in Europe between the Romans and the Habsburgs at their peak (which may not even be fair on the Carolingians), you would never guess from this.

This is a pity, but despite the fact that I gather this is not the only problem critical readers have had with the book, it’s very readable and gives a first orientation in many areas about which I knew very little. (And it was free :-)) But as with so many wide-ranging books like this (I guess the last was the inspiring and fascinating but rather deterministic Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond) the few places where it touches my own field leave me aware that in following up its references (of which, let it be said, there are a fair few) I shall want to be checking for more up-to-date work in pretty much every case…

(To be fair on Diamond, my reaction there was generally more along the lines of “Hmm. I’d want to read the site report myself before I was sure about that.” I’m pretty sure that what he is saying is not sixty years out of date as Keegan’s ideas of the early middle ages seem to be. Perhaps Keegan just hasn’t been reading articles in the right places…)