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Die Marks and the Organization of the Roman Mint: An RRDP Case Study

By Alice Sharpless and Lucia Carbone for American Numismatic Society (ANS) ……

The purpose of control marks in Roman Republican coinage is not well understood.

Beginning as early as 112 BCE, the Roman mint began experimenting with control marks. Sometimes these control marks were unique to the die and sometimes they were not. Control mark systems employed a very wide use of numbers, letters, and symbols. So far, the issues released to the Roman Republican Die Project (RRDP) include 40 with control marks.

Much has been written about the potential function of such marks. Back in 1987, A. Burnett suggested that die marks “were apparently [originally] intended to keep track of the production of the coinage and the dies used to strike it (pp. 22–23).” Building upon previous studies, Richard Witschonke argued for a direct connection between the use of die marks and the control of the monetary production in the Roman mint, suggesting that a precise amount of bullion was allocated for a specific issue and that the coins produced from that bullion were accounted for with die marks.

Yet, the fact that control marks are never used across all issues at any given time suggests that if control marks were used to track bullion or dies, the mint never felt the need to do so consistently.

The present data release for RRDP, the fourth since the beginning of Phase II, offers further insight into this important question. This release involved the analysis of 6,297 specimens and added 1234 new dies to the RRDP database for the following Crawford types:

The recent analysis of RRC 335/3 in particular has offered new insights into the function of “subtypes” (smaller units within an issue often distinguished by different symbols or control marks) both with regard to their use by modern scholars as well as to their purpose within the Roman mint. Crawford identified seven subtypes of 335/3, but there are no known specimens of 335/3e. Crawford’s description of the type may be a misinterpretation of a small group of unusual dies that likely do not form a particular subtype at all. Even more interesting, however, is the evidence this issue provides to our understanding of the organization of the Roman mint. One subtype (335/3c) has four dies that were recut to add a die mark. The presence of these recut dies seems to confirm previously suggested theories that die marks were used primarily as ways to control production volume.

RRC 335/3 is a joint issue of L. Caecilius Metellus and C. Publicius Malleolus struck in 96 BCE. Crawford divided 335/3 into seven subtypes (a–g) distinguished by their reverse designs. The basic reverse design shows a naked warrior standing left, holding a spear in his right hand and placing his right foot on cuirass with a trophy on the left. The design of the right field varies but always includes the legend C·MAL. Crawford identified five subtypes (a–e) which have a prow below the legend (Fig. 1), while c–e are further distinguished by symbols above the prow: 335/3c has a caduceus, 335/3d has a grasshopper (by far the largest subtype of the issue), and 335/3e has a tablet.

Figure 1. RRC 335/3b. BnF REP-16937.

According to Crawford, 335/3c should have a caduceus between the legend and prow, but only 10 dies precisely fit this description (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. RRC 335/3c. ANS 1937.158.64.

There are an additional five dies, which currently can best be associated with 335/3c but do not clearly have a caduceus at all. Three of these dies (Schaefer 335/3c Reverse F, Schaefer 335/3c Reverse H, and Sharpless 335/3c Reverse 1002) do not have anything between the prow and legend (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Reverse dies of RRC 335/3c?. Left to right: Reverse F (SITNAM 7e3b8434); Reverse H (SITNAM 9bc89691); Reverse 1002 (BnF REP-16939).

Rather, they have marks located between the warrior’s back leg and the legend. The marks could possibly be intended to be the top of a caduceus represented without a handle, but they look more like letters. A fourth die (Schaefer 335/3c Reverse J) has both a caduceus located between the legend and prow and the marks between the warrior and legend (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. RRC 335/3c. Specimen with Reverse J showing both a caduceus above the prow and letters (?) behind the warrior. SITNAM 694f2b61.

On this die, the marks look fairly clearly to be the letters CO. On Reverse F or Reverse H, the letters could be CP (Fig. 3). They could be interpreted as standing for C(aius) P(ublicius), though this seems somewhat unlikely given the presence of C(aius) in the main legend. Regardless, the presence of the caduceus in addition to these marks suggests that the marks are not meant to depict the head of a caduceus and should, therefore, not be used to distinguish the typology for a particular coin.

But two dies complicate this picture. Sharpless 335/3c Reverse 1002, which is known only from one specimen, has marks only between the warrior and the legend, but in this case the marks look most plausibly like the head of a caduceus (pointing left) and can not easily be distinguished as letters (Fig. 3). Even more intriguing is Schaefer 335/3c Reverse I, also known from only one specimen (Fig. 5).

Figure 5. RRC 335/3c. Sole specimen with Reverse I showing two caducei. British Museum 2002,0102.1801.

Reverse I has not one but two caducei, but neither is located between the legend and prow. One caduceus is instead placed upright between the warrior’s legs. The other has the head located between the warrior’s back leg and the legend, while the handle, which is angled downwards, sits between the prow and legend. It appears, in fact, that the second caduceus was not originally made as a caduceus at all. It seems instead that the die originally had marks (letters?) like those on Schaefer 335/3c Reverse J (Fig. 4) but the engraver added a handle to turn these marks into a caduceus, resulting in the unusual placement and the awkward angle of the handle.

Crawford also identified another subtype with the prow: 335/3e, which he describes as having a tablet between the prow and legend. Crawford cited a specimen of this type from the Bellicello hoard but we have found no other specimens. In a 1957 publication of the Bellicello hoard, Cutroni Tusa lists one coin from this issue in the hoard (no. 18) but describes the reverse as having a “cavalletta” (locust) above the prow, in which case the coin is actually 335/3d (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. RRC 335/3d. ANS 1950.103.21.

It is possible that when Crawford described 335/3e he was actually thinking of one of the specimens with the marks between the warrior and legend that could potentially be interpreted as an open tablet, in a smaller version of the tablet that appears on types 335/3f-g. This interpretation seems possible for Schaefer 335/3c Reverse F or Sharpless 335/3c Reverse 1002 (Fig. 3) but seems unlikely for the other dies. We must conclude, therefore, that 335/3e, at least as Crawford describes it, is a “phantom” type that does not really exist.

Even more relevant to the question of shedding light on the function of “subtypes” is the presence of four dies of 335/3c that were clearly recut from dies that had already been in use minting 335/3b. It seems at some point a die engraver simply added a caduceus between the legend and prow on an older die. The following dies were recut:

Figure 7. RRC 335/3c. Specimen with Reverse 1000 that was recut from a die of 335/3b (Fig. 8). British Museum 2002,0102.1800.
Figure 8. RRC 335/3b. Specimen showing the original die (Reverse B) that was later recut for use with 335/3c (Fig. 7). British Museum 2002,0102.1799.

Dies are sometimes recut for use in a new year or for use by a new moneyer. Examples of dies recut to fit a different civic year, month, or moneyer are quite rare, but not unknown in the Greek world, as made clear by Figures 9 and 10.

Figure 9. Lydia, Tralles. Cistophoric tetradrachm, 145–140 BCE. ECC p.71, series 36, 66-a; Ashton 2003 A4/P12. 32.2 mm. 12.78 g. ANS 2015.20.1767 (bequest of R.B. Witschonke). Monogram with the Macedonian month Audnaios (Ashton 2003 A4/P12) struck over Π.
Figure. 10. Attica, Athens. Silver tetradrachm, dated by Thompson to 147/146 BCE, but likely dated to 115/114 BCE. Reverse die recut to write ΔΗ/ MOΣ/ ΘE over MIΛ/ TIA/ ΔHΣ, ME. Thompson 635a. 16.73 g. Noble Numismatics 124, 28 July 2020, lot 3042.

In Figure 9, the reverse die of this cistophorus from Tralles, probably dated to 145–140 BCE, has the letters AY (Audnaios, the Macedonian month of December/January) cut over , a clear reference to the month of Apellaios, which immediately precedes Audnaios in the Macedonian calendar. In this case, the die, which was not exhausted, was used for a different month, since the Lydian city of Tralles briefly adopted the month indication on its cistophoric coinage.

Figure 10 shows a New Style Athenian tetradrachm–originally dated by M. Thompson (pp. 232–237) to 147–146 BCE, but likely produced a few years later–whose reverse die has been recut to write ΔΗ/ MOΣ/ ΘE over MIΛ/ TIA/ ΔHΣ, ME. The recutting of the reverse die allowed for the substitution of the more generic ΔΗMOΣ to MIΛTIAΔHΣ, the moneyer who had signed the rest of the issue (Fig.11).

Figure 11. Attica, Athens. Silver tetradrachm, dated by Thompson to 147/146 BCE, but likely dated to 115/114 BCE. Thompson 633c. 16.68 g. Chaponnière & Hess-Divo 3, 21 May 2012, lot 150.

For reasons unknown to us, MIΛTIAΔHΣ could not sign the die anymore, so the city had to hastily step in while the production was in progress. Recutting a die was thus a way to prolong the life of a die under different issuers or in different years.

In the case of RRC 335/3c, however, we have dies that were still in a usable condition being recut for use by the same moneyer. The addition of the caduceus to these four dies confirms Crawford’s proposed chronological sequence of subtypes 335/3b and 335/3c, but they also appear to confirm the suggestions of Burnett and Witschonke that die marks were used to control production. The fact that these dies were not simply used until exhaustion but were instead recut to form a new subtype within the issue suggests that the production size for particular types, marked in this case by symbols or variations on a base design, was established before striking began. The size of each type was not simply determined by how many coins a die with a certain die mark could strike before it was spent but by a decision made prior to production, possibly in accordance with a specific decree of the Senate, as suggested, among others, by the presence of S.C. on issues related to emergency funding for Rome’s grain supply in 56 BCE (Carbone and Yarrow 2019, pp. 16–19; Fig. 12).

Figure 12. RRC 430/1 showing S·C on the obverse. ANS 1937.158.219.

These production levels could be controlled by the use of changing control marks within a type, but the recut dies of 335/3c show that the division of issues into “subtypes” could serve a similar function. This suggests that the mint could have tracked bullion more consistently than was previously thought based on the number of control-marked issues alone.

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American Numismatic Society (ANS)

American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Societyhttps://numismatics.org
The American Numismatic Society (ANS), organized in 1858 and incorporated in 1865 in New York State, operates as a research museum and is recognized as a publicly supported organization. "The mission of The American Numismatic Society is to be the preeminent national institution advancing the study and appreciation of coins, medals and related objects of all cultures as historical and artistic documents, by maintaining the foremost numismatic collection and library, by supporting scholarly research and publications, and by sponsoring educational and interpretive programs for diverse audiences."

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  1. Loved your article I was wondering if I can send you a photo of a Roman bronze coin 1-3 c AD Mesopotamian beads 3500-2500 BC


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