By Lucia Carbone for American Numismatic Society (ANS) ……
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On April 17–18, 2023, the British School at Rome hosted an international conference titled Rome and the Coinages of the Mediterranean 200 BCE–64 CE, with the primary purpose of sharing with the academic community at large the preliminary results of a five-year European Research Council-funded project with the same name. The project Rome and the Coinages of the Mediterranean 200 BCE–64 CE (RACOM), headed by Kevin Butcher in collaboration with Matthew Ponting at the University of Liverpool and Adrian Hillier at ISIS Neutron and Muon Facility, is now in its fourth year and is hosted by the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick.
As silver coinage formed the backbone of state finance in Classical antiquity, the fineness and quality of a coinage has often been taken by ancient and modern historians alike to be a good indicator of the financial and economic health of the issuing authority (Fig. 2). However, very little was really known about the fineness and chemical composition of the issued coinages until the preliminary results were shared by the presenters during this conference. Roman conquest of the Mediterranean between the second century BCE and the first century CE led to greater economic and monetary integration of the area, but only reliable metallurgical analyses could fully reveal the level of Roman involvement in the monetary issues circulating in this area. In previous publications and, most importantly, in their 2014 The Metallurgy of Roman Silver Coinage, Butcher and Ponting had already shown the importance of metallurgical analyses as a key to a better understanding of the Mediterranean area under Roman dominion in the first century CE. Since the beginning of the RACOM project in 2018, 1,853 coins from the second and first centuries BCE have been analyzed in order to produce a detailed and reliable set of analyses of the chemical composition of all major silver coinages of the period, obtained by taking samples from deep within the coins through micro drilling.
The first day of the conference (April 17) was dedicated to Roman coinages, issued between the late third century BCE and the end of the rule of Augustus. The first two papers focused on methodological aspects of archeometallurgical analyses in ancient coins (Fig. 3).
Matthew Ponting delivered a paper titled “The Archaeometallurgy of Silver”, where he explained the Microwave plasma atomic emission spectrometry (MP–AES) adopted by the RACOM team for sampling the 1,835 analyzed so far and commented on the cupellation process and its economic importance in the antiquity.
In his paper “Roman Republican Coinage: chemical signatures on a bigger picture”, Jonathan Wood argued that chemical signatures in coinage could reveal the ores originally used for the production of a certain coinage or, alternatively, the recycling process it underwent. Chemical signatures, therefore, offer a fundamental heuristic tool for a better understanding of monetary supply under the Roman Republic. While the Roman Republican coins analyzed in the paper are characterized by a fineness approaching 100%, the elemental traces included therein enabled researchers to assess that 1) the Romans usually “mixed and matched” bullion of various provenance for their monetary issues, and 2) the analyses of chemical signatures suggest the existence of two bullion provenance clusters for Roman Republican denarii, one around 120–100 BCE and the other around 49 BCE. In the former case, the bullion seemed to have come from Iberia, while in the latter from Gallia.
In the third paper of the day, Charles Parisot–Sillon offered a convincing analysis of the changes in bullion provenance caused by Roman expansion in the Mediterranean between the late third and the early first century BCE (Fig. 4). Building on the metallurgical analyses pursued by the IRAMAT-Centre Ernest-Babelon in Orleans, he identified a clear shift in silver supply strategies in mid-second century BCE with replacement of supply from booty with revenues from mining districts, especially in Sierra Morena (Spain) and in Western Languedoc (France).
In their paper “Economic Fears and Realities in the 80s BCE”, Liv Yarrow and Alice Sharpless integrated the quantitative data from the Roman Republican Die Project, bullion composition data from the RACOM Project with hoard data provided by Kris Lockyear for his revisions of Coin Hoards of the Roman Republic Online</a. RACOM data highlight a fineness well below 80% for all the quinarii produced between 90 and 89 BCE, while there is a noticeable debasement for the denarii issued between 88 and 87 BCE (RRC 345/1, 346/1 & 2, 348/1,2,3–349/1).
For what concerns the debased issues of denarii, there seems not only a noticeable decrease in production but also a clear attempt at minimizing production costs with weight adjustment by gouging and a higher number of striking mistakes in the debased issues (Fig. 5). However, hoard data surprisingly suggest that Romans did not notice the debasement, as there is no difference in hoard presence between debased and non-debased issues.
In Arma et nummi—Twenty Years On: Some Remarks on New Metallurgical Data for the Silver Coinage of the 40s BCE (2003), Bernhard Woytek convincingly argued that RACOM data confirm the intuition of M. Crawford, who argued that—quite differently from previous periods—there was no perceptible difference in fineness between denarii and quinarii in the 40s BCE. However, there are very noticeable drops in fineness in the issues of 48, 46, and 44 BCE, also paired with a great increase in production. These drops in fineness find a perfect correspondence with the campaign against Pompey in Greece (48 BCE), with the Bellum Africum (46 BCE), and with the preparations for the Parthian campaign in 44 BCE, then interrupted by Julius Caesar’s death (Fig. 6).
Moreover, RACOM data allow us to confirm the attribution of RRC 441/1 to the mint of Apollonia, already proposed by the author in “Arma et Nummi” (Fig. 7).
On the other hand, Q. Sicinius/Cuponius issues (RRC 444/1b), should be attributed to Rome, not to a ‘mint moving with Pompey.’
Arnaud Suspène and Maryse Blet-Lemarquand compared the results provided by the LA-ICP-MS analyses (Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry) conducted by the IRAMAT–CEB team in Orleans and the MP–AES analyses (Microwave plasma atomic emission spectrometry) conducted by the RACOM team for the denarii issued in the 30s BCE. They argued that there are no significant differences in the results provided by the two methods, thus confirming the scientific value of both (Fig. 8)
Their analysis focused on the IMP CAESAR and CAESAR DIVI F denarii (RIC I2 250–257, 263–267, 269–272, 274), all issued in the 30s BCE but with an uncertain mint. The results show no consistency in bullion composition between these issues and the denarii issued in Rome in 48–40 BCE. At the same time, there is no bullion overlap between the aurei of this series and the ones issued by Augustus in Rome or in Lyon. On the other hand, the bullion presents several similarities with the bullion used for the Eastern issues of Mark Antony.
In the last paper of the day, Eleni Papaefthymiou discussed “The Presence and Circulation of Roman Republican Denarii in the Balkans and Mainland Greece during the 1st c. BCE”, by highlighting that the 50s BCE represented a huge shift in the monetary circulation patterns of these regions. The author studied 417 hoards all dated between the early first century BCE and the end of the rule of Augustus and reached the conclusion that mixed hoards of local silver coinages and denarii began to appear in significant numbers in the 50s BCE but became the norm only after the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE.
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