Learning to Read

Feats of Scholarship

The Writing on the Wall

Epigraphy and Wanderlust

Cities and Men

The Currency of the Ancients

The Visual Image of Antiquity




The Currency of the Ancients



Guillaume Rouillé, Promptuarium

Caesar Augustus

Hubert Goltzius, Caesar Augustus

Dialoghi sopra le medaglie

Antonio Agustin, Dialoghi sopra le medaglie

Coins and medals are among the most resilient of the material artifacts of antiquity, as well as the most prone to forgery. Throughout the Middle Ages ancient coins were used in a variety of contexts. Many were melted down, some were used as ornaments, and others, identified with the thirty pieces of silver for which Judas betrayed Christ, were venerated as relics.

With the rise of classical studies, the antiquarians, Petrarch and Cyriac included, began to form collections of ancient coins, thus giving birth to the study of "numismatics." The portability of coins ensured their popularity as travelers' spoils, although their transport was not always a simple matter. The great numismatist Jean-Foi Vaillant (1632-1706), menaced by pirates, swallowed some twenty gold pieces, which he retrieved upon his return to France by adopting a diet of spinach.

The earliest antiquarians were especially attracted to coins that portrayed the Roman emperors, thus putting a face to history. When Guillaume Rouillé (1518-1589) published a collection of short biographies of historical figures, the woodcut portraits he commissioned, mostly sheer fantasy, were all in the form of ancient coins. Rouillé's Promptuarium demonstrates the authority that numismatic evidence possessed in the 16th century, and its vulnerability to abuse.

Even serious numismatists were easily duped. One of the most serious was Hubert Goltzius (1526-1583), who sketched the contents of over a thousand collections of coins. He then developed his drawings into a series of thematic and biographical studies in ancient history, illustrated by his own engravings. Although Goltzius thus laid the groundwork for the systematic study of numismatics, the great majority of the coins that he published seem to have been counterfeit. The critical study of coins, as of inscriptions, was pioneered by the Spanish lawyer Antonio Agustín, who integrated epigraphic, numismatic, and textual evidence to clarify the historical origins of Roman law.


[Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections]