Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Monday, May 10, 2010

Roman Coins as Looted Artifacts

Should Roman coins be considered looted artifacts? The U.S. government may soon decide that issue. Laws have been in place since 2007 regulating coins from Cyprus and China, but regulations have left out coins from elsewhere, including Roman coins. The law states that people bringing certain Cypriot and Chinese coins into the U.S. must show proof of the coin's provenance. Collectors are worried that Roman coins may be next on the list, and though they have many arguments for their case, they fail to convince. It is certainly true that this issue is not black and white, but I have to take the side of archaeologists and anthropologists. The collectors argue that Roman coins circulated widely in antiquity and their provenance is impossible to determine. They also say that coin collectors are stewards of coins that museums don't want. Both valid points in my book, but there are larger issues at stake here. Including Roman coins in the current law will not end all looting, but it is a step in the right direction.

Coins are the single most valuable artifact used in dating archaeological sites. Coin hunters with metal detectors can rob sites of this valuable information. They can also damage sites in the process of digging up coins. There is nothing wrong with collecting ancient coins, but archaeology shouldn't be compromised in the process. That's what makes this issue so tricky. How do you regulate the thousands of Roman coins on the market? How do you stem the tide of looting, yet keep people interested in ancient coins and in the ancient world? It is impossible to excavate every site where a Roman coin is found, so what's to be done?
The Romans had a rich history in coin production and design. The standard system of Roman currency came about during the Second Punic War with the introduction of the system based on the silver denarius. The four major coins major Roman coins in the Republic and Empire were the silver denarius, the gold aureus (equalling 25 denarii), the bronze sestertius (1/4 denarius) and the as (1/4 serstertius). There was also a lengthly list of smaller coins representing fractions of the sestertius or as. The earliest coins showed the head of Roma on the obverse and the Dioscuri on the reverse. It didn't take long before coins were used to advertise victories in battle or the histories of important families. Senators were in charge of minting (the triumviri monetales), and they used the opportunitiy to depict their famous ancestors on coins. Sometimes the moneyers were creative, playing off puns of their names (like the charming coins minted by Quintus Pomponius Musa). It wasn't until Julius Caesar that a living Roman was depicted on a Roman coin. This practice was continued by the future leaders of the empire, giving us some of the most remarkable coins from the Roman world. Under the emperors, coins became their most effective way of spreading imperial propaganda. Coins depicted the likeness of the emperor or his family members on the obverse and either scenes of victories, deities or important political events on the reverse. Rulers throughout history, including those of today, use the artistic formula laid down by the Romans. Just look at the coins in your pocket and you won't be able to miss the similarities.


Mike Anderson said...

Excellent post. As a Roman coin collector I found your article spot on.