Sunday, 5 May 2019

Pythagoras and early Italian coinage

The early Italian coinage from the instep of the "boot" of Italy is very distinct. The reverses frequently mirror the obverses but incuse, rather than relief. Dating to the period c. 530-510 BC four of the obove five coins show this trait.

The top two are from Sybaris, the middle coin from Croton and the bottom two from Metapontum. 

The question arises why the distinctive relief/in use mirrored design? It has been suggested that it aids the stacking of the coins. That hypothesis doesn't really stand as, unless the sided of the coin are identical, they won't interlink. With hand made dies/punches this is not possible. 

One of the more intriguing suggestions is that their introduction is linked to the exile of Pythagoras from Samos. His father was a gem engraver and the skills of a coin die engraver are very similar. Pythagoras was exiled initially to Croton and then Metapontum around 530 BC and so the approximate timings are right. It is a possibility that this individual was responsible for the introduction of the distinctive coin design. 

Friday, 1 March 2019

Europa and Zeus

Tiberius, AE 20mm, Amphipolis in Macedon, Europa riding astride a bull (Zeus)

As the UK prepares to leave the EU it feels right to post on the legend of Europa and Zeus using excerpts from The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso:

On a beach in Sidon a bull was aping a lover’s coo. It was Zeus. He shuddered, the way he did when a gadfly got him. But this time it was a sweet shuddering. Eros was lifting a girl onto his back: Europa. Then the white beast dived into the sea, his majestic body rising just far enough above the water to keep the girl from getting wet.........Trembling Europa hung on to one of the bull’s long horns. Boreas spotted them as they ploughed through the waves. 

Europa could see no end to this crazy sea crossing. She guessed what would happen to her when they hit land again. And she shouted to the wind and water: “Tell my father that Europa has been carried off by a bull – my kidnapper, my sailor, my future bedmate, I imagine.” She was going to call to Boreas too, ask him to lift her up on his wings, the way he’d done with his own bride, Oreithyia, from Athens. But she bit her tongue: why swap one abductor for another?

Augustus, AE 20mm, Amphipolis in Macedon, Europa riding astride a bull (Zeus)

Monday, 10 December 2018

Lawrence Wilson, Wetherby 1667 token issuer

I am not a token collector but I have always been interested in the nearest 17th century tokens issued to where I have spent most of my life.

There was a monetary crisis in the mid 17th century, silver was not issued in the form of farthings nor half pennies because their size was prohibitively small. There was an attempt by the government at the time to rectify it with the issue of patents to Harrington and Lennox for the production of base metal coinage but this had ceased by 1650 and, in order to facilitate small trade local merchants issued their own base metal tokens.

I have just been lucky enough to acquire, albeit a poor example, the rare 1667 token from Wetherby issued by Lawrence Wilson (pictured at the head of this post).

Obv: (star)LAWRENCEWILSON.HIS.HALFE , around beaded inner circle, shield containing Blacksmith's Arms within.

Rev: (star)PENNYOF.WEATHERBE.1667 , around beaded inner circle, L W with ormonde knot below, at the ends of which three flowers appear above the initials.

Williamson 365

The memorial gardens, Wetherby

There was a pub in Wetherby called the Blacksmiths Arms, located where the memorial gardens are, adjacent the HSBC bank opposite the Horsefair Centre. It was noted in the 1834 trade directory in the possession of James Mason and was finally recorded as closing in 1929.

 Williamson's catalogue of 17th century tokens

Three tokens were listed by Williamson in his catalogue of the series. As well as the Wilson coin there were specimens for Wetherby Market (undated) and an issue by Francis Sayer (1668). All three types were sold over this summer, specimens much finer than mine, but I’m still pleased to have secured my little piece of 17th century Wetherby history.

The three Wetherby tokens

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

A Bronze Age Cypriot flask

I have finally got around to photographing a small pot in my care. Seemingly rebuilt from many pieces and is incomplete. It is a long necked bottle of Karpasian red and black polished ware from the north eastern peninsular of Cyprus. The form is known as an onion shaped flask and this piece is missing a long neck.

The pot dates from the early Cypriot Bronze Age, 2700-1900 BC.

The designs on the body of these flasks have been studied and catalogued and this piece is the product of the artist referenced in the catalogue of the Desmond Morris collection of ancient Cypriot pottery as “tiered diamond artist, style A”. It is note that the artist has a distinctive, calligraphic quality with the lines being boldly and heavily incised. The characteristic element is the blunt ended hatched diamond (just visible on this piece) with an open inner border. The horizontal bands are thick with six or seven lines. DM-RBP-109 is the closest in design to this example. 

Monday, 28 May 2018

Weighing ancient gold coins

Genuine Roman gold solidus of the emperor Valens 

The weighing in ancient times of gold coins ensured that they were neither cut down nor plated inferior specimens. The acquisition of a new ancient coin weight has prompted this post showing real and ancient imitation gold coins as well as the associated weights. I’ve also come across a couple of ancient texts that support the approach to Roman and Byzantine gold coins.

Contemporary base metal gold plated imitation of a solidus of Constantius II

First of all we have the Codex Theodosianus from AD 325:

“The gold which is placed on a levelled balance is to be counterpoised by equivalent weights in such a manner that it is evident that the top of the suspension cord is held by two fingers, while the three remaining ones should be free to point towards the tax collector, so that they neither depress the weights nor disturb the level, but help to maintain the correct balance.”
Bronze weight for three solidi

We also have a declaration of the emperor Julian II on the occasion of his fourth consulship in AD 363 to Mamertinus:
Bronze solidus weight

“The buying and selling of solidi is impeded if anyone clips down or diminishes or – to use the proper avarice – nibbles them away, for some persons refuse them as light or inadequate. It therefore pleases Us to appoint a zygostates (weigher) as the Greek word terms him, in each city, who on account of his faithfulness and industry will neither deceive or be deceived , so that if a dispute shall have arisen between either seller and a buyer of solidi, it may be settled according to his judgement and reliability”

This bronze Egyptian coin from the early 280’s clearly shows the method of weighing coin with the free pointing fingers well in advance of the formal edict.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Martial's Epigrams

Working now in the centre of York I can regularly call into a number of my favourite haunts. On one such lunchtime trip I came across a cheap, rather tatty copy of Martial's Epigrams. I wasn't intending to buy it when I picked it up to look through it but  I saw it contained over twenty plates of Roman coin engravings.

This book was originally published for the education of the Dauphin (Delphinus), the young crown prince of France, the future king Louis XV. Great care was bestowed on the editing and printing of the series. 39 editions of Latin authors, from Cicero to Ausonius, also difficult ones like Festus and Manilius, were published by leading or promising French scholars. They were also meant for a broad public and offered introductions, reliable and readable texts, easy interpretations, and philological, educational and historical notes without too much philological niceties, or textual criticism. The series was a huge success. This particular edition of Martial was a weak link in the series, and had consequently little success, for it was reissued only once, in 1701. It was originally produced by the otherwise unknown French jurist Vincentius Collesso, or Vincent Collesson, and was first published in Paris in 1680. 

This edition of 1701 is the only reissue of the Martial of Collesso. It was produced by the Dutch scholar Ludolf Smids, who enriched and elucidated the text with engravings of numerous coins. At the end, as in the original edition of 1680, we find on 56 pages the 'epigrammata obscoena'. Ludolf Smids, 1649-1720, became Doctor of Medicine in 1673 in Leiden. He went to live in Amsterdam, where he spent more time on the study of history, antiquities, poetry and numismatics than as medical practioner. He wrote plays, poetry, and several books on numismatics.

Sunday, 11 February 2018


I have a thing about Roman usurpers and in particular the Palmyrene revolt of  the 270s. I have always promised myself that if ever I get a boat I will name it Zenobia after the wife of Odenathus and mother of Vabalathus, the ruling family of the time.

Most of the coins of Vabalathus name him as VCRIDR, acknowledging him as a client king. Vabalathus is laureate and therefore clearly subordinate, iconographically, to the Roman emperor, Aurelian, with a spiky radiate crown, who appears on the other side

There is a very rare series, however, where Vabalathus is acknowledged as emperor and a series of deities appear on the reverse. I have just acquired a second example with Hercules on the reverse, holding a club and the apples of the Hisperides.

The revolt was quickly crushed in 272AD. Vabalathus and Zenobia were taken to Rome. Accounts vary as to his fate, some say he died en route while others say he was paraded with Zenobia, his mother, and Tetricus senior and junior who had revolted in Gaul.