CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz ….
I have endured what no one on earth has endured before. I kissed the hands of the man who killed my son. I loved my boy from the moment he opened his eyes until the moment you closed them. Let me wash his body. Let me say the prayers. Let me place two coins on his eyes for the boatman.
In the epic film Troy (2004) which cost US$175 million to make, the great Peter O’Toole in the role of King Priam, speaks these words as a supplicant to Brad Pitt (Achilles), who has killed and mutilated Priam’s son Hector, played by Eric Bana. In ancient Greek religion, this kind of supplication was a powerful ritual, under the special protection of the gods.
But Priam cannot place two coins on the eyes of his son, because coins don’t exist in his world; they will not be invented for centuries.
Ancient sources gave dates for the Trojan War, ranging from 1334 to 1135 BCE. Current scholarly consensus puts the most likely date around 1180 BCE. The poet Homer, composer of the Iliad (our main literary source for the Trojan War), lived about 850 BCE. He never saw a coin. Warriors in the time of the Trojan War might be buried or cremated with a mask of gold foil, but not with coins or coin-like amulets.
Nevertheless, when Achilles comes to ignite the funeral pyre of his beloved Patroclus, slain by Hector, we clearly see two huge coins on the eyes of the deceased youth. The design seems to be an archer firing an arrow – ironic considering how Achilles will die. Although the very brief screen shot is not clear, there are also coins on the eyes of Hector on his funeral pyre.
Near the end of Stanley Kubrick’s classic film Spartacus (1960), sympathetic Roman senator Gracchus (Charles Laughton) funds the escape of disgraced gladiator trainer Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) and Varinia, the pregnant wife of Spartacus, by giving them “two million sesterces”. Well into the Imperial era, Romans rather perversely expressed large sums of money in terms of the sestertius, a low-value bronze coin. It would be rather like modern Americans computing wages and prices in nickels rather than dollars. Gracchus hands Batiatus two rather small sacks, which he slings over his shoulder.
Two million sesterces equals 500 thousand silver denarii, with one denarius at the time weighing about four grams. That’s 2,000 kilograms, or about 4,400 pounds of silver coin. Even converted into gold, this would be still be over 130 kg (290 pounds)–hardly a practical one-man sack-load.
And gold wasn’t part of Rome’s regular circulating coinage in 71 BCE. Indeed, when Spartacus negotiates with the Cilician pirates for ships to evacuate the slave army from Italy, the proposed payment is in chests of captured jewelry and precious-metal dinnerware. Wealthy Romans often kept a large part of their wealth in the form of gold and silver goblets, platters and ornaments, rather than coin.
When it was released in 1963, Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor in the title role, was the most expensive film ever made. A large part of the cost overrun was due to lavish expenditure on exquisitely crafted props. In one scene Cleopatra wears a massive necklace made of gold coins:
Antony: “…an unusual necklace, nothing but gold coins of Caesar. How did you come by it?”
Cleopatra: “I had it made, I wear it always.”
There does not seem to be any ancient source for this ironic plot twist. It is true that Julius Caesar commissioned large issues of gold aurei, although none of them bear his portrait. Cleopatra issued no gold coinage in her own name, but as queen she would have had access to stocks of the impressive gold octadrachms issued by her ancestors. These would have been more likely to make up a royal necklace.
The film Gladiator (2001), starring Russell Crowe in the title role, is a fictionalized account of the reign of the demented Roman emperor Commodus (ruled 180-192 CE). In one brief scene, a loyal servant of the disgraced general Maximus (Crowe) gives an urgent message to princess Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) as she is carried through the Forum in her litter.
“This is for your loyalty,” she says, placing a huge gold medallion–roughly the size of the Nobel Prize–in his hand.
Quite a nice tip!
The largest gold medallions of this period had a value of eight aurei, roughly equivalent to a year’s pay for a legionary, the price of a thoroughbred horse, or a house slave. But such high-value medallions were prestigious presentation pieces for members of the elite, not gratuities for the help.
Based on the 1998 graphic novel, the film 300 (2006) is an extravagantly fantasized version of the story of Leonidas and the three hundred heroic Spartans who fell at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BCE) fighting the vast Persian army of King Xerxes. Fantasy coins feature in several scenes, bearing the image of the film’s version of Xerxes, with exotic piercings for bizarre facial jewelry. Replicas of the prop coins from the film are offered for sale online by a number of sites.
The actual coinage of Xerxes is rather less exotic, showing the crowned king (no piercings) running while holding a spear. The silver siglos and the gold daric are nearly identical in design.
The two seasons (22 episodes) of the HBO TV series ROME (2005), set during the civil wars that led to the end of the Republic (52 – 30 BCE), established a high standard for historical fidelity. Large quantities of prop replica coins were used, including Julius Caesar’s famous “elephant” denarius, of which an estimated 22.5 million were struck in 49-48 BCE. But for some reason the replica coins were designed without Caesar’s name prominently inscribed below the elephant.
A batch of gilded replica “aurei” were designed with the image of actor Ciarán Hinds (who plays Julius Caesar) with the plausible, but historically incorrect inscription SPQR OPTIMO PRINCIPI (“The Senate and People of Rome, to the Best of Rulers”). The phrase Optimo Principi first appears on coins of Trajan, who ruled 98-117 CE. Julius Caesar’s image never actually appeared on gold coins during his lifetime.
A very odd batch of replica coins appears as a chest of stolen loot in one episode. Seen in extreme close-up in one brief shot, it clearly consists of a mass of silver shekels of Tyre, an important trade coin in the East during this era. But the replicas are struck on irregular eight-sided blanks, perhaps to give them a “foreign” or “barbaric” look. The actual coins were, more or less, round.
The depiction of coinage in films and TV series about the ancient world is almost always wrong. This is a source of endless irritation to classical numismatists but it is understandable.
Ancient weapons, costumes, and interiors seen in films are generally accurate (though sometimes exaggerated for effect) because production designers and prop masters care about getting these things right, and the professors of classics, art history or archaeology typically engaged as consultants know these subjects well. But coins are small, and they seldom appear on screen in close-up or for any length of time. The study of ancient coins is specialized, technical and rarely of much interest to the audience (with the possible exception of Biblical films, which is a topic for another article).
But if any future gladiator epics need a numismatic consultant, Hollywood directors should know that I’m available.
* * *
 For the custom of placing coins with the dead, see https://www.coinweek.com/ancient-coins/ancient-charons-obol-coins-dead/
 The most recent Roman gold coins had been a rare issue of aurei struck under the dictator Sulla in 82 BCE. There is some evidence that elite Romans at this period made large payments in “philippoi”, Macedonian gold staters (8.5 grams) captured as booty in 148 BCE.
 The Egyptian hieroglyph for “gold” is actually a drawing of an elaborate necklace.
 For the coinage of Julius Caesar, see https://www.coinweek.com/ancient-coins/coinweek-ancient-coin-series-coins-julius-caesar/
 The Nobel Prize medallion (currently 18 kt gold) is 66 mm in diameter and weighs 175 grams.
 Perhaps so they could be re-used, in extreme close-up, in a different historical era for another series?
Beard, Mary. Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations. New York (2013)
Llewellyn-Jones, Lloyd. “Hollywood’s Ancient World”, A Companion to Ancient History (Andrew Erskine, ed.). Blackwell (2009)
Solomon, Jon. “In the Wake of Cleopatra: The Ancient World in the Cinema Since 1963”, Classical Journal 91 (1995)
Solomon, Jon. The Ancient World in the Cinema. New Haven (2001)
Strauss, Barry. The Spartacus War. New York (2009)
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