By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
The Mint of the Roman Republic operated under the supervision of magistrates known as the Tresviri Aere Argento Auro Flando Feriundo (“three men for casting [and] striking bronze silver [and] gold”). This was a board of three men (tresviri), each of whom was just beginning his public career and was elected (or appointed) for a one-year term to manage the operations of the Mint.
We usually refer to these men as “moneyers” but a better term would be “mint magistrates”: unlike the “moneyers” of later periods, these men were management, not workmen, and they controlled the process of producing Roman coins. One of their most important duties was determining coin designs.
When Rome first launched the denarius coinage c. 212 BCE, the design of the coin was largely standardized: the obverse featured a helmeted head of Roma (the personification of Rome) while the reverse depicted the Dioscouri, the legendary saviors of Rome.
Being politicians, the moneyers soon found ways to use the coinage as a marketing tool to further their political careers.
At first, they did little more than place their initials or names (prominently) on the coins, but over time they grew bolder and bolder, eventually striking coins whose designs boasted of the accomplishments of their real and imagined ancestors–preferably those who shared their names. Moneyers with less-distinguished ancestors might use the images of gods and goddesses with whom they could associate themselves.
This system worked well for many of the moneyers, some of whom later achieved great prominence. One of the moneyers of 54 BCE was Qunitus Servilius Caepio Brutus, better known as Marcus Junius Brutus, and even better known as the principal assassin of Julius Caesar; M. Brutus minted coins celebrating the memory of his alleged ancestor L. Junius Brutus, he who had supposedly overthrown the last of the Roman kings and established the Republic.
Other moneyers seem never to have advanced in their careers, and to the extent that they are known at all, they are only known because of the coins they minted.
The most prominent of these non-prominent men was Quintus Pomponius Musa, moneyer in 56 BCE (or 66 BCE, sources vary), who minted the most extensive series of coins of any Republican moneyer. His name lives on today through the coins he struck honoring the Muses.
The Muses were minor deities who served as inspirational goddesses in literature, in the arts, and in one of the sciences. There are multiple versions of their myth, but the most common telling is that there were nine of them and that they were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (the personification of Memory). The modern word “museum” comes from a Greek word meaning “place of the Muses” and reflects the origin of museums as edifices for the display or presentation of cultural works. Q. Pomponius Musa no doubt felt inspired to mint coins honoring the Muses because of the resemblance his name to theirs.
The obverse of the first coin in the series presents an androgynous portrait of Apollo, the god of music, of dance, of poetry, of light, of truth and prophecy, and much more, wearing his hair in ringlets held by a diadem, with the inscription Q POMPONI MVSA around the border.
The reverse depicts Hercules with the inscription HERCVLES MVSARVM; this is the only coin in the series that names the individual portrayed. The obverses of the other nine coins present another androgynous portrait of Apollo, but his hair is rolled back and he wears a laurel wreath.
Each of the reverses depicts one of the nine Muses, with Q POMPONI to the left and MVSA to the right of the subject Muse.
The reverse images were probably based on a famous statuary group that M. Fulvius Nobilior brought to Rome following his conquest of Ambracia near Argos in 189 BCE. He built a lavish temple in Rome dedicated to Hercules Musagetes as the “Leader of the Muses” and placed the statuary group within the temple. The temple disappeared long ago, but there stills exists an inscription that reads “M. Fulvius M. f. Ser. N. Nobilior cos. Ambracia cepit” (“Marcus Fulvius, the son of Marcus, the nephew of Servius, Nobilior, Consul, the Capturer of Ambracia”) which was probably inscribed on the pedestal of one of the statues.
The first coin of the series features Hercules as “Hercules Musagetes” – that is, the “Leader” or “Conductor” of the Muses. While he was butchering his way through Greece, M. Fulvius Nobilior was told that Hercules was the leader of the Muses, but there is no known religious cult for this, nor is there anything in the standard mythology of Hercules’ character that suggests he would have had any interest in the attributes of the Muses.
The coins depicting Hercules Musagetes are probably the most common of the series but finding truly nice specimens is a challenge. A pleasant example of the coin will generally cost $1,000 USD or more; truly beautiful coins can run from $3,000 on up. The coin shown here sold for $3,250 at auction in January 2019.
Calliope was the Muse of Epic Poetry. Her name comes from a Greek word meaning “beautiful voiced”. She was the mother of Orpheus, the great but mortal musician of Greek mythology. Calliope is identified by the lyre, which she is shown playing on the reverse, and by the lyre key behind Apollo’s head on the obverse.
Epic Poetry was a performing art in antiquity: the performer would sing the poem while accompanying himself or herself on a lyre. This custom continued into the European Middle Ages when the Anglo-Saxon scops performed Beowulf, Icelandic skalds performed the Eddas, troubadours performed the Song of Roland, minnesingers performed the Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelung), and others.
These coins are somewhat more scarce than most in the series but can usually be found in nice condition without great difficulty. The coin shown here sold for $3,250 at auction in January 2005.
Clio was the Muse of History. Her name comes from a Greek word meaning “to celebrate”. She is identified by the open scroll that she holds (it no doubt records some important historical event, but the writing cannot be made out) and by the scroll behind Apollo’s head on the obverse. In modern times the Clio Awards are given to recognize creativity and success in advertising and marketing.
The coins of Clio are among the more common coins of the series. Nice specimens can generally be obtained for mid-three-figure prices, and beautiful coins will generally run in the low four figures. The coin shown here sold for $1,100 at auction in January 2003.
Melpomene was the Muse of Tragedy. Her name comes from a Greek word meaning “to celebrate with dance or song”, reflecting her origin as the Muse of Chorus (in ancient Greek tragedy the Chorus was a main character in the play). She is identified by the tragic mask she holds in her left hand and the club she holds in her right, and by the club behind Apollo’s head on the obverse. Tragic actors wore distinctive masks while performing; the mask is still used today as a theatrical logo.
The coins of Melpomene are on the scarce side within the series, but nice specimens can generally be obtained for in the low four figures. The coin shown here sold for $1,750 at the same January 2003 auction as the coin of Clio shown above.
Euterpe was the Muse of Music and Lyric Poetry. Her name derives from two Greek words meaning “to please well”. She is identified by the aulos, also called the tibiae, a double flute that she plays expertly on the reverse, and by the crossed flutes behind Apollo’s head on the obverse.
The coins of Euterpe are a bit more common than those of Melpomene. Nice specimens can generally be obtained in the very low four figures. The coin shown here sold for $900 at auction in September 2010.
Terpsichore was the Muse of Dance. Her name comes from words meaning “delights in dance”. She is identified by the lyre and plectrum (pick) she holds on the reverse: she was typically represented as performing music on the lyre as dancers swirled around her. The object behind Apollo’s head is a tortoise, which indirectly references the muse; the soundboard of a lyre was typically made of tortoise shell.
The coins of Terpsichore are comparable to those of Clio in terms of availability and price. The coin shown here sold for $1,800 at the same January 2003 auction as the coins of Clio and Melpomene shown above.
Erato was the Muse of Erotic Poetry; for the Greeks “erotic poetry” meant poetry about love, not naughty limericks. Erato’s name comes from a word meaning “desired” or possibly “lovely”. She is identified by the kithara she is playing on the reverse and by the flower behind Apollo’s head on the obverse.
The coins of Erato are the rarest of Q. Pomponius Musa’s coins of the Muses.
For many years, collectors interested in obtaining a coin of Erato had to contend for an example of the first coin that is shown here, a coin known from just a single die. The specimen shown here, believed to be the finest known, sold at auction for $35,000 against a $30,000 estimate in 2010 – an amount greater than what it would cost to obtain high-quality examples of all of the other coins of the Muses, combined.
The second coin shown, which is graded the same as the first but is a bit better struck (particularly on the reverse), was sold at auction eight years later by the same dealer who sold the first coin, but it only reached $3,750 against a $3,000 estimate. What has happened in the market is that the second coin was previously identified as a coin of Terpsichore – a Muse whose coins are much easier to obtain than Erato’s – but recent research has shown that this coin was misattributed and that it actually belongs to Erato. The first coin is simply a very rare die variety of the second.
The result of all this is that a collector who wishes to acquire one coin from each of the Muses can now do so much more easily and at much less expense.
The keys to correctly attributing the second coin to Erato rather than to Terpsichore lie in the instruments the two Muses play and in the devices behind Apollo’s head. On the coin that was and still is attributed to Terpsichore, the Muse plays the lyre and the symbol behind Apollo’s head is a tortoise, while the extremely rare coin that has always been attributed to Erato shows the Muse playing a kithara and depicts a flower behind Apollo’s head. The coin previously attributed to Terpsichore but now reattributed to Erato shows the Muse playing a kithara and depicts a flower behind Apollo’s head – just like the extremely rare coin that has always been attributed to Erato.
Nevertheless, the coins of Erato are still the scarcest in the series.
The coin type that was previously believed to be the only one for Erato has retained its high price: an example of that coin sold at a British auction for £32,000 (approximately $41,800) in November 2018. As news of the reattribution of the coin previously attributed to Terpsichore filters through the marketplace, however, the price “generally” for a coin of Erato has come down; a decent specimen of the reattributed coin sold for $380 at an auction in January 2019 and another sold for $437 at an auction in May 2020.
Urania was the Muse of Astronomy, apparently the only science of interest to the Muses. Her name comes from the Greek word for “heaven” and she may have been named after her great-grandfather, Uranus, the early Greek god of the sky. She is identified by her wand and a globe on the reverse, and by a star behind Apollo’s head on the obverse. The official seal of the United States Naval Observatory features an image of Urania.
Urania’s coins are the most easily obtainable of the coins of the Muses and are probably the most popular as well. Truly nice specimens can generally be obtained for less than $1,000, and sometimes for much less. The coin shown here is quite exceptional and sold for $1,800 at the same January 2003 auction as the coins of Clio, Melpomene, and Terpsichore shown above.
The faces of the Muses on most of the coins tend to be weakly struck or struck from dies with little or no detail, but the strike on the specimen shown here is sharp enough to show the outline of Urania’s left eye on the reverse.
Thalia was the Muse of Comedy and Idyllic Poetry. Her name comes from a word meaning “flourishing” or “verdant”, reflecting her origin in idyllic poetry (poetry that celebrates nature and the rural life). She is identified by the comic mask she holds on the reverse and by the sandal behind Apollo’s head on the obverse. Thalia’s Mask of Comedy, like Melpomene’s Mask of Tragedy, continues to be used as a theatrical logo, and “Thalia sandals” are apparently “a thing” in modern merchandising of women’s footwear.
The coins of Thalia are comparable to those of Euterpe in terms of availability but tend to command somewhat higher prices. Nice specimens can generally be obtained for about $1,000 or a bit less, while the truly beautiful coins will generally command prices approaching $3,000 or more. The coin shown here sold for $3,250 at the same January 2019 auction as the rare coin of Erato, shown above.
Polyhymnia was the Muse of Sacred Poetry and Music. Her name comes from two Greek words meaning “many” and “hymns (songs of praise)”. She is identifiable by her pensive, thoughtful posture and the wreath she wears on the reverse, and by the wreath behind Apollo’s head on the obverse.
The coins of Polyhymnia are the rarest after those of Erato, but the prices are much more moderate. The coin shown here is quite exceptional and sold for “just” $1,500 at the same January 2003 auction as the coins of Clio, Melpomene, Terpsichore, and Urania, all shown above.
Collecting the Coins of the Muses
The designs of the coins of the Muses are very detailed and cover much of the surface of the planchets. When well struck (as most of them are) and when well-centered (as most of them, sadly, are not), they are among the most beautiful of the coins of the Roman Republic.
They do, however, seem to suffer more than usual from banker’s marks, but if these are not too distracting then they can make for a more affordable purchase.
The most current and complete references on the coinage of the Roman Republic are Crawford (1974) and Sear (2000). Davis (2015) provides a very clear, forceful, and convincing argument for reattributing the “Terpsichore” denarius to Erato (numismatist Zach Beasley made much the same argument through his Beast Coins website in 1998). Hesiod’s Theogony opens with a hymn to the Muses and poetic descriptions of them and of the world in which they resided; Hamilton (1942) treats the subject with a lighter touch.
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Crawford, M.H. Roman Republican Coinage. Cambridge. The Cambridge University Press. 1974.
Davis, P. “Erato or Terpsichore: A Reassessment”, FIDES: Contributions to Numismatics in Honor of Richard B. Witschonke. New York. American Numismatic Society. 2015.
Hamilton, E. Mythology. Boston. Little Brown and Company. 1942.
Harlan, M. Roman Republican Moneyers and Their Coins 63 BC – 49 BC. London. Seaby. 1995.
Hesiod. Theogony (Tr. By Norman O. Brown). Bobbs Merrill. Indianapolis. 1953.
Sear, David. Roman Coins and their Values: The Millennium Edition, Volume One. The Republic and the Twelve Caesars 280 BC – AD 96. London. Spink. 2000.
All coin photos are courtesy and copyright of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (www.cngcoins.com)