Anecdotal Observation on Inscriptions

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by kevin McGonigal, Oct 20, 2020.

  1. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    I was perusing my collection the other day when I noticed something I had not thought about before. My Greek coins had great pictorial representations, but not so much in the way of inscriptions whereas my Roman coins seemed to be loaded with as much writing as they could possibly cram onto them. I don't know that there is anything of cosmic significance in noticing this but I was wondering if it indicates anything different about Greek versus Roman in terms of what was important to them.

    I have formulated a number of questions I would like to throw out for comment and discussion. First of all am I correct in noting that Greek coins really do tend to use more imagery than verbiage on their coinage. If not, skip the rest and just enjoy the coins posted below. If it can be established that there is tendency for Greek city states and kingdoms to put more effort at imagery on their coins than the Romans and the latter more on writing, why might this be so? All kinds of possibilities have been going through my mind. Were the Greeks, on average, less literate than the average Roman and had to rely on imagery to have their coins recognized by many different peoples? Thus Greek coins frequently were mentioned by, not the state that was issuing, them but by names like turtles, colts, owls, etc which were instantly recognized as coming from a known city state. No need for much of any writing here. A rose, a honeybee, a young man riding a dolphin, a hoplon shield, that sort of thing was all that needed to be known.

    On the other hand, at least by imperial times, one emperor could look very much like another. Trying to figure out if it were Tiberius or Augustus, Vespasian or Titus, Marcus Aurelius or Lucius Verus ( or an older Commodus) could get pretty tricky. Best to have the emperor's name and offices on the coins to properly render credit to the right Caesar. or maybe it was just a matter of timing. Greek coins could get pretty wordy by the time of the Successor states, what with important sounding appellations being assigned to the rulers. One had to keep father lovers distinct from saviors or made manifests.

    So I don't really know if there is any rhyme or reason to what may have no significance at all. It may just be that as a state developed, any state, whether Greek or Roman, or Parthian or Carthaginian, there would be a tendency for all ancient states to put more wording on their coins for no other reason than they discovered that they could. After all early Roman coins often had nothing more on them than an image, a few dots and a big ROMA.

    What I am asking readers to do is to think about this a bit and think about why there may be a reason that has more to do with who was issuing the coins rather than when they were issued. If so please post what you might have accounted for this apparent observation and perhaps a few coins illustrating this. Below I have a few coins of my own which I admit might be indicative of nothing more than that I have a few nice coins. They are, from upper left to lower right, a tetradrachma of the Magna Graecia city of Leontini with a big lion (Leon in Greek) and the name, Leontini, in very small letters. ca. 450 BC. Next is the very recognizable Athenian "owl" where all you get beyond the image of Athena and the owl are the three letters, alpha, theta and epsilon, from ca. 425 BC. Third is a life-time tetradrachma of Alexander where all there is is his name, and a couple of control marks, ca, 325 BC. The last Greek is a tetradrachma of Laodikea with Tyche on the obverse and a statement of its autonomy and a seated Zeus, ca. 75 BC. IMG_1779[7259]coin inscriptions obv.jpg IMG_1780[7263]coin inscirptions rev.jpg

    Moving on to the Roman coins is, first a simple, early Roman As with a nice representation of Janus and a big ROMA on the reverse, ca. 165 BC. Second a Republic denarius with Roma, but now surrounded by writing and on the reverse some very small writing on what is a pretty small flan, ca.118 BC. Third a nice Nero dupondius with a good deal of writing telling folks of all the names this emperor has accumulated with a nice self congratulatory accomplishment, ca. 65 AD. Last is a dupondius of Marcus Aurelius stuffed to the gills with inscriptions and good wishes, ca. 175 AD.
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  3. Only a Poor Old Man

    Only a Poor Old Man Well-Known Member

    I am not sure I have the answer, but I suspect it is most likely just aesthetic reasons. Also, we need to seriously take into account the timing. Archaic and classical Greek coins did not have much writing on them, but at the same time there was no way to compare them with Roman coins as those didn't even exist yet. And as we know from the Hellenistic period and beyond Greek coins got a lot wordier, so there wasn't much of a difference with the Roman ones, apart from the style of course.

    Here a Greek example. One common theme with Greek coins is that the city name, if present, was often abbreviated. In this case they only bothered to write the first part of the city name. 'Μεταποντιον' became 'Μετα'. Perhaps this indicates that the design was more important than the wording and in any case the barley grain was a well known identifier of that city.

    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020
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  4. NewStyleKing

    NewStyleKing Beware of Greeks bearing wreaths Supporter

    The Seleucid kings titles become more shouty with Antiochus lV...soter, god given, beneficent god..god manifest... I believe on the tets.
  5. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Yes, it may have something to do with real persons being on the coins and using them as self promoting bombast, something the early Greeks did not have and would have disapproved of if tried.
  6. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    There were inscriptions on a number of the more elaborate Greek vases in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. Perhaps they were intended for a more literate audience than coins in general.
  7. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Yes, Roman coins started out pretty simple and only gradually became grandiose with the writing so perhaps all coinage goes through some kind of similar evolution.
  8. Sulla80

    Sulla80 one coin at a time Supporter

    I think the differentiator may be more time period than Roman v. Greek or who was ruling...the Roman's definitely perfected the "overly wordy coin" with the sestertius, but they were behind the Parthians who were already getting carried away with too much (semi-readable) text e.g.
    Orodes II Parthia.jpg
    Parthia, Orodes II, circa 57-38 BC, AR Drachm, Ekbatana mint
    Obv: Diademed and draped bust left, wearing torque ending in sea-horse or griffin, wart on forehead; eight-rayed star to left, crescent above eight-rayed star to right; all within pelleted border
    Rev: BΛΣIΛEΩΣ/BΛΣIΛEΩN ΛPΣΛKOV EVEPΓETOV/ΔIKΛIOV EΠIΦΛNOVΣ/ΦIΛEΛΛHNOΣ, archer (Arsakes I) seated right on throne, holding bow; Ekbatana monogram below bow, anchor symbol behind throne
    Ref: Sellwood 48.7 ("anchor ii" not "anchor iv" of Sellwood); Shore 259

    The Roman republican coins were fairly limited in text:
    Procilius denarius.jpg
    L. Procilius, 80 BC, AR serrate denarius
    Obv: Head of Juno Sospita right; S C behind
    Rev: Juno Sospita, holding spear and shield, in biga right, serpent below; L PROCILI F in exergue
    Ref: Crawford 379/2; Sydenham 772; Procilia 2

    "Greek Imperials" aka "Roman Provincials" vary but can often be as wordy or wordier than Roman Imperial coins e.g.
    Macrinus et Diadumenian.jpg
    Moesia Inferior, Marcianopolis, Macrinus with Diadumenian as Caesar, AD 217-218, Æ Pentassarion, Pontianus, consular legate
    Obv: AVT K ΟΠEΛ CEVH MAKPEINOC K M ΟΠE ANTΩNEINOC, confronted heads of Macrinus right, laureate, and Diadumenian left, bareheaded
    Rev: VΠ ΠONTIANOV MAPKIANOΠOΛEITΩN, Hera standing facing, head left, holding phiale and scepter; E (mark of value) to left
    Ref: AMNG I 722 var. (E to right plus flaming altar); Varbanov 1185a var. (E to right plus altar)
    Note: CNG coin from same dies "currently unique variety with mark of value to left of Hera and no altar"

    The following is an untested timeline - pure speculation that requires more study - I suspect text on coins may have been as much design element as communication. Perhaps, over time, fashion evolved in what money should look like?
    • early coins and proto-money had no writing
    • images appear on early coins
    • over time place names, dates, mint marks were added
    • then titles and people names became more common by 1st century BC
    • the Romans, Parthians and others started to get wordy and by 1st century AD coins had lots of words on them - much of which was templated text
    One wouldn't require a lot of literacy to appreciate the text on most coins - so I am skeptical that literacy rates would have had a big impact. I am also skeptical that many people spent much time reading text on coins or caring who was on them as long as they were accepted as currency. I rarely contemplate the figures or the words on my modern coins as long as they work at the pub, the supermarket, the restaurant, the pharmacy, the vending machine.....that said there are some latin words on my coins that might deserve some additional attention e.g. "e pluribus unum"
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    @kevin McGonigal's and @Sulla80's observations really resonate. ...Without putting the chronology front and center, as a criterion, isn't it just a shade counterintuitive that the average Greek would be less literate than the average Roman would be, in the same, proto-middle-class demographic that would be handling coins in the first place?
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  10. Magnus Maximus

    Magnus Maximus Dulce et Decorum est....

    Huh, that’s interesting. One user pointed out Antiochus IV’s coinage, and he is correct with a noticeable shift in reverse legends and iconography.
    Compare Antiochus IV

    VS his father (Antiochus III)

  11. Sulla80

    Sulla80 one coin at a time Supporter

    Apologies for my rudeness, perhaps just some jealousy kept me from the genuine observation that you shared some very nice coins :)
    Here's one point of view on the subject - although I do find the difference proposed to be somewhat shocking (and maybe not reasonable to compare):

    "I have suggested in my book Ancient Literacy (Harvard, 1989) that the available statistics of literacy in early-modern and modern times are of great importance for any inquiry into Greek and Roman literacy. I do not suggest that such figures can be transferred in any simplistic way to the ancient world. What I do maintain is that, if they are studied carefully, they very strongly suggest the numerical range within which Greek and Roman literacy is likely to have fallen. The likely range for the overall illiteracy level of the Roman Empire under the principate is almost certain to have been above 90%. Even the most advanced cities (which, I think, means the Greek cities in the fourth to first centuries B.C.) the level of illiteracy is to be sought, if we include women and country people, far above 50%."
    - Harris, W. (1990). Graeco-Roman Literacy and Comparative Method. The History Teacher, 24(1), 93-98. doi:10.2307/494208

    I will also add, with no reasonable basis for my argument, no supporting evidence, and an attempt to distract from my weak arguments with this coin of L. Cassius Longinus, AR Denarius. Rome, 63 BC:
    Longinus Vote.jpg
    that there must have been a higher level of literacy in the Roman republic.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020
  12. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Thanks for that very inclusive response, especially the evolving scenario.
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  13. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    You may be right about the literacy part. Other than Rome, Athens, Alexandria, Antioch and Carthage, literacy was likely to be more aspirational than operative (especially in Lacedemonia). I wonder if there are any other studies on the rate of functional literacy in the ancient world.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020
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  14. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    I know that some people have pointed to the large amount of graffiti found at Pompeii as evidence of a high literacy rate.
  15. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    Y'know what? Your thesis makes lots of intuitive sense, but only on the basis of the dramatically varying population levels.
    Along the lines of, highest per capita literacy rate, in modern times, for years on end? Iceland. Easy peasy; small island, small population. Transfer the same dynamics, even on a relentlessly right-brain level, to the demographics between Rome, still in its early stages, and the entire Greek-speaking world as of, what, the 3rd -2nd c.s BCE, and there's no comparison.
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  16. Terence Cheesman

    Terence Cheesman Well-Known Member

    I believe the answer is far simpler. If you look at the vast majority of Greek coins one would note that the design essentials really do not change very much. If one looks at say an Athenian Owl one sees essentially the same totemic design of a head of Athena on the obverse and an owl standing on the reverse. True the style will change over time. The Archaic changes to the Starr group to the Mass 454-404 BC coinage and so on until the New Style, but the main features do not really change. Roman coins especially the Later Republic through the Imperial period are besides units of commerce they are also vehicles of disseminating official information (or propaganda) by the authorities to the their audience whomever they might be. Thus with a Greek coin it is very unusual for an event to be commemorated for a short time. An example would be again the Athenian Owl where the leaves on the visor of the helmet and the crescent moon on reverse which are claimed to be a refence to the defeat of the Persians is carried on in the design for over a century. Whereas on Roman coins such commemoration is very common. Furthermore the propaganda on Roman coins can only be really understood if one studies the entire issue of coins for that year. If one looks at the issues from the mint of Rome of Tiberius in 22-23 AD or Caligula in 37 AD one can see a very complex nuanced message being delivered by various coins within a context presented by other coins. To do this Roman coins would by their very nature have more complex legends. 76001361.jpg
    Tiberius sestertius Restitution of the Asian Cities 22-23 AD Courtesy of CNG not my coin. Xaugustuss6.JPG Divus Augustus Ae Sestertius 22-23 AD Showing much the same pose as the corresponding coin of Tiberius
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020
  17. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    @Terence Cheesman, Many thanks adding a whole criterion --what the issuing authority had any intention of conveying-- to the dialectic. ...Eyes: Open! The synapses are lighting up like a Christmas tree.
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  18. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    Except, @DonnaML, try this. ...Busted; in the absence of any reliable statistical data, it has to be on the level of a thought experiment.
    Except, what if, as of 79 CE, the town of Pompeii was preponderantly middle class (or the operant prototype), and as such, more literate than, um, average, just starting with Italia? ...Thank you, a somewhat arbitrary demographic marker for the wider, operant context.
    ..Whatever that is, exactly.
    ...This is the kind of thing, in the context of ancient history, that resonates so much, relative to the earlier phases of the medieval period. You get Only This Much data, and you're kind of stuck making more and, inexorably, less informed guesses. (...Teacher: I Raise My Hand.)
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2020
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  19. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    The Roman and the Greeks, at least of the Hellenistic period, were putting inscriptions, verbal text on their coins, for whatever reasons they had, but obviously they were doing this because they had an expectation that people were reading this text, otherwise they would not have taken the bother to inscribe them. Had there not been a significant percentage of people capable of reading inscriptions they would not have so inscribed them with words. I did some research on this and the common conventional conclusion was that about 15% of the population circa 300 BC to 300 AD was literate enough to read and that about half of those could write as well. Most of the literate population was to be found in urban areas, which may explain the presence of walls of graffiti covered with everything from the political to the scatalogical. I am guessing here but perhaps the Hellenistic monarchs and Roman emperors concluded that among the population of the mercantile class there were a sufficient number of members who could read coin inscriptions, that they were the ones most commonly handling coins, and that they were the ones who had the most influence, and on whom written inscriptions would be the most efficacious and practical means of getting across messages to the populace. In other words, while the total number of citizens who could read coin inscriptions was not large, the important members of the citizenry could, and for them inscriptions were an efficient use of a medium they would be handling on a daily basis. Images for the proles, inscriptions for the cognoscenti.
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2020
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  20. akeady

    akeady Well-Known Member

    I'd say it's mostly down to the type of government - the Classic Greek coins were of democratic city states who had no king with a string of titles to list on the coins, so they just stuck to the name of the issuing city and its symbols.

    The Hellenistic kings put their names, some titles and their heads on their coins.

    The earliest Roman coins had Greek inscriptions meaning "Of the Romans", which later became the Latin "ROMANO" and finally the nominative "ROMA". Roman Republican denarii were conservative in design - Roma/Dioscuri, with ROMA in the exergue. Over time the moneyers seem to have been given or taken liberties to put their names on the coins and to incorporate designs which reflected their own ancestry, real or imagined. Eventually, the name ROMA was omitted as there was no need to tell anyone where the coins were from. Moneyers were junior officials (though some went on to greater things) and only held office for a year, so had no great titles of their own to list.

    The situation is quite different in the Imperial period - especially in the earlier Empire where there was some pretence of being a Republic and the emperor's authority ostensibly was down to having tribunician or consular powers and so these are often listed listed along with the likes of AVGVSTVS, the main Imperial title, PATER PATRIAE, PONTIFEX MAXIMVS, imperatorial acclamations, etc. Equally, the reverse types often reflect the deeds of the emperor, so megalomania reigned.

    The early coins of Augustus are interesting, in that his legends are sparse - IMP CAESAR or CAESAR DIVI F are typical ones - and his portraits godlike. By the later Julio-Claudians, the typical Imperial coin was of the same format as we have today in many countries with a monarchy - head of ruler with his/her titles on one side.

  21. kevin McGonigal

    kevin McGonigal Well-Known Member

    Good observations.
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