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RNS President’s Lecture and Annual Summer Party, 19 June

The final Society meeting of the year will take place on Tuesday 19th June at Tuesday 19th June 2018 at Spink & Son Ltd., 69 Southampton Row, London WC1B 4ET. The Society President, Andrew Burnett, will present on the title Coinage in Rome and the Roman Provinces V. This lecture accompanies the Annual Society Summer Party. Please join us for drinks, refreshments and a summary of the business of the Society in 2017/18, as well as ballots for Society posts in 2018/19.

Society Lecture, 22 May: Sophytes: Reappraisal of an enigmatic ruler and the Sophytes coins

The final lecture of the Society series this year, before the summer party and the President’s annual lecture, will take place at 6pm at the Warburg Institute on Tuesday 22nd May. Dr Sushma Jansari of the British Museum will present on the title Sophytes: Reappraisal of an enigmatic ruler and the Sophytes coins. Society lectures are open to all and information about the full current lecture programme can be found here.


Paper Abstract:

A hemidrachm bearing the name ‘Sophytes’, linked through from Wikimedia Commons.

Classical sources mention Alexander the Great’s dealings with local rulers in the Punjab including one named Sophytes. Intriguingly, Greek coins minted with the non-Greek name ‘Sophytes’ are found in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent. These coins belong to the period between Alexander’s departure from the Punjab in c.325 BC, and Seleucus’ arrival in the East and transfer of territory to Chandragupta following their encounter and treaty in c.305 BC. 19th and early 20th century scholars argued they were minted by the Sophytes associated with Alexander; while recent scholars seek to break this link and argue for a Bactrian provenance.

Yet all these numismatists share a common methodology: they study or publish individual Sophytes coins or small groups of them, meaning that such studies are inherently limited. Nor is a clear methodology employed to research the coins and the literary sources together: e.g., some scholars infer Sophytes’ age when some of the Sophytes coins were minted based purely on the appearance of the portrait on the coins.

My approach is different. I compile the largest group of Sophytes coins that has hitherto been brought together thereby enabling me to study them in detail and in comparison to other contemporary coins found in the northwest of the subcontinent through, for example: iconography; signatures on the coins; weight standards; and die analysis. The resulting identification of the Sophytes named on the coins is not conclusive, but it is based on a holistic and more methodologically sound approach to the source material and, therefore, yields a stronger conclusion than has been put together thus far.

Society Lecture, 17 Apr: The Iconography of the Coinage of the Valerianic Dynasty

The next Society lecture will take place on Tuesday 17th April at 6pm at the Warburg Institute. Nick Holmes, National Museum of Scotland, will present on the title The Iconography of the Coinage of the Valerianic Dynasty (AD 253-268). Society lectures are open to all and full information about the current lecture schedule can be found here.


Paper Abstract:

Aureus of the emperor Valerian, 253-260 AD. Linked through Wikimedia commons.

The principates of Valerian I and Gallienus have been described as among the most disastrous in Roman imperial history, and Gallienus in particular has been unjustly maligned by both ancient and modern historians. More recent studies have attempted to redress the balance by demonstrating that his 15-year reign was remarkably successful in military terms given the constant threats from with the imperial boundaries as well from external enemies. Less frequently mentioned are the innovations in coin design which took place during this period, reflecting the images which the imperial family wished to disseminate across the empire of themselves and their policies and achievements.

The first part of this study concentrates on portraiture, in particular on the coins of Gallienus, who had himself represented in numerous guises rarely or never previously seen on issues from central imperial (as opposed to provincial) mints. These portraits – military, consular, heroic, etc. – were intended to reinforce the emperor’s claim to the qualities required to rule the empire during the troubled times in which it found itself.

Reverse designs were frequently intended to contribute to the claims of the Valerianic dynasty to be the founders of a new ‘Golden Age’ for Rome. Clearly not all of them can be studied in the course of a single talk, and those themes which have been selected are those which are associated in particular with the coins of these emperors and which contain substantial number of innovative types to illustrate these themes. Unsurprisingly many of these are military in nature, not only highlighting victories achieved but acknowledging and encouraging the support of military units, on which the emperors relied for the continuation of their rule and even of their lives. Adherence to religious observance is emphasised by the sheer numbers of different deities from whom support was sought and the different ways in which they were represented on coins. Finally the frequently misunderstood concept of Virtus is discussed, along with the many ways in which these emperors attempted through coinage to convince their subjects that they possessed that quality.

As the various aspects of the coinage of the Valerianic emperors are studied, mention also has to be made of what can only be described in modern terms as a ‘propaganda war’ by means of coinage being fought between Gallienus and the Gallic emperor Postumus in the 260s AD. Similar themes can be found in the coin designs of the two emperors, as each appears to have tried to match or exceed the claims of the other to be the most effective ruler and defender of the empire.

Society Lecture, 20 Mar: Kingship, Court Rituals and Coinage in the Mughal Empire

The next Society lecture in the 2017/18 programme will take place on Tuesday 20th March at 6pm at the Warburg Institute. This lecture will be given by Dr Shailendra Bhandare of the University of Oxford, on Kingship, Court Rituals and Coinage in the Mughal Empire.

Society lectures are open to all and full details on the current programme can be found here.


The right to ‘Sikka’- to have coins struck in the King’s name – constitutes one of the fundamental rights of Kingship in the Islamic concept of Kingship. Exercising the right brought legitimacy to the ruler because coins, by their very nature, circulated as a medium of exchange, and their acceptance as such meant acceptance to the one whose authority they bear. Coins thus were instruments of kingly power apart from being just a monetary medium. 

The Mughal rulers of India exhibited an unusual intimacy with their coinage. Coins to them were a medium to exhibit their prowess, patronage and prerogatives. As such coins played a very important role in court culture, where elaborate performances were constructed around ritual exchange and distribution of coins. At the centre of these rituals, was the concept of the ‘powerful king’, considered to be a ‘shadow of the Divine’, who by his nature as such was visualised to have powers of special grace, favours, healing and authorisation. But occasionally sighting him and being in his close presence could also attract the ‘evil eye’ upon him.

Coins were used in ritualised context at both ends of the spectrum of courtly rituals – as objects of favour they could be proudly shown off by the recipient to show they had received the special grace; as objects of propitiation, they could be used as talismans and charms to bring forth particular results of luck, fortune or benefit; as objects to ‘deflect’ the evil eye, coins could be scattered as largesse so the ‘gaze’ of the lesser mortals could be turned away from the king while he processed in stately splendour.

The paper will contextualise Mughal coins in such instances of courtly and kingly rituals. In particular it will focus on Nazar and Nisar, two rituals of the Mughal court which involved the ‘evil eye’ concept at their heart. Apart from providing an illustrative numismatic summary of Mughal coins struck especially for such purposes, it will attempt to problematize the role of such coins in complex socio-political functions such as ‘gift economy’. It will also highlight how such rituals were continued in the Colonial times, when Mughal sovereignty was replaced by British paramountcy. 

Society Student Lectures, 20 Feb: Coins of the Eleusinian Mysteries and Roman lead tokens

On Tuesday 20th February the Society welcomes to its lecture series two researchers early in their career. This recent initiative in the Society lecture programme has received great feedback as a chance to listen to cutting edge research and support the future of numismatic study. The two talks to be presented on this occasion both relate to subsets or local versions of classical coinage series and their meaning for users and producers. The lectures, which will run consecutively, will begin at 6pm in the Warburg Institute. Society lectures are open to all and full information about the current Society lecture programme can be found here.


Charlotte Mann, University of Warwick, Spent or Saved? The Circulation of Festival Coins Struck for the Eleusinian Mysteries

A token of Mitreius, linked through from ‘Gaius Mitreius, Magister Iuventutis, and the Materiality of Roman Tokens‘ by Charlotte Mann.

The bronze coins produced for visitors to the Eleusinian mysteries between 500-400 BCE constitute a small, but intriguing, subset of Athenian currency. Struck with Eleusinian ritual imagery and the ethnic ‘of Eleusis,’ these coins raise questions concerning deme administration, festival organisation and mint management in Classical Athens that are of interest to historians and numismatists alike.

This study explores the role of Eleusinian festival coins within the ancient Greek economy. What happened to these festival coins when the mysteries were complete? Did they maintain an economic role, entering general circulation, or were they demonetised and discarded upon the festival’s conclusion? Or, alternatively, was the monetary character of festival coins superseded by their sacred associations, causing them to be withdrawn from circulation and saved as momentos or votive offerings to the gods?

This project uses excavation reports, hoard data and museum collections to gather and map the movement of Eleusinian festival coinages throughout the cities and sanctuaries of Greece. The data assembled presents an image of festival currency that contradicts the behaviour expected of low denomination coins. Unlike civic bronze pieces, that are expected to remain within the city of issue, festival bronzes are found in cities far beyond Athens and its territories, proliferating commercial areas and small cash hoards, while being noticeably absent from burial sites, temple inventories and votive deposits. The resulting impression, that Eleusinian festival coins maintained an economic, rather than a sacred or commemorative character, offers new insights into the use of small denomination currency and the ‘tokenality’ of ancient coins.


Denise Wilding, University of Warwick, Token Identities: Discerning the role of leaden tokens in the formation of group identities in the Roman Empire

A spintriae in the collection of the University of Liverpool, linked through from ‘Tokens from the Roman Empire‘ by Denise Wilding.

Previous studies on the leaden tokens of the Roman Empire have been unable to reach a consensus as to their purpose, and no scholarship has focused on the role that they played in the everyday lives and identities of past communities. Studies undertaken by Rostovtzeff (1903), Milne (1908, 1914, 1922, 1930 and 1935) Thornton (1976) and Mitchiner (1984) have catalogued certain tokens, or focused on discerning their use through their imagery. Previous work has not, however, considered lead tokens from across the Empire in light of their archaeological contexts in order to investigate their purpose, or theorised their potential for mediating social identities.

This paper will draw on ongoing research to address this lacuna by contextualising the role played by tokens through analysis of their findspots and archaeological contexts. A selection of provinces from across the Empire shall form case studies in order to discern the extent to which their distribution across a variety of different contexts (temples, houses, rubbish dumps, baths, stray finds) can inform us as to their purpose. Through this, consideration will be given to the variation in their contexts of deposition in different provinces of the Roman Empire, and the implications this has for discerning their use.

This paper will also outline the potential for ascertaining how the tokens were perceived by those in the communities who used them, and the extent to which they were tied to group and civic identities both through their use and their iconography. For example, the imagery depicted on leaden tokens is diverse, and varies depending on the place of origin, thereby providing scope for investigation into the link between material culture and collective identities.