Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dr. Cristiano Viglietti : “The Mythical Origins of Roman Coinage”


Università degli Studi di Siena

“The Mythical Origins of Roman Coinage”


The most detailed and studied ancient source concerning the history of Roman coinage is Pliny, Naturalis historia 33.13.42-44. That passage, in which Pliny tries to gather all the data he considers reliable (certi) about the use of money from the origins of Rome to the time of Nero, has long been a locus of debate for numismatists and historians, who underscored either the accuracy (Breglia 1967; Nenci 1968; Peruzzi 1985) or the error of the information that the ancient scholar gives (Crawford 1974, 1985).

Much less interest has been accorded by modern scholars to another tradition concerning the origins of Roman coinage, which is clearly mythical. This tradition consists of Ovid, Fasti 1.229-240; Minucius Felix, Octavius 23.10; Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.7.22; Plutarch,Quaestiones Romanae 274.E-F. All these sources relate the origins of coinage at Rome to the arrival of the god Saturnus in Latium sailing up the Tiber by a ship, then welcomed and hosted by the king-god Janus. A sign of this mythical fact was made evident – sources say – on the most ancient Roman as, cast in bronze, which bears the images of a Janus head on the obverse and of a ship-prow on the reverse.

The lack of references to actual events in this group of sources caused many numismatists and economic historians to ignore them as evidence. My opinion is that these sources are of great interest if we approach them from a different point of view, emphasizing their anthropological value, their capacity to make manifest the cultural models of the society that elaborated them (Bettini 1989; Ginzburg 2006).

All the four passages concerning the “myth of Roman coinage”, and especially Ovid and Macrobius, underline that the engraving of the image of a ship-prow was determined by the wish of the Romans (or of Janus) to recall the memory of Saturnus: Ovid, At bona posteritas puppem formavit in aere,/ hospitis adventum testificata dei [Saturni]; Macrobius, [Ianus] servavit et in hoc [i.e. in nummo] Saturnireverentiam (…) quo Saturni memoriam in posteros propagaret). Coins appear, in the logic of Roman myth (Bettini 2010; Ferro - Monteleone 2010), as a sort of mnemonic device, a means capable of reminding its users of events and values who characterize the community who produced the coin.

The meaning that myth seems to ascribe to coins in Roman culture has points of comparison in some Roman cults and institutions. Romans chose, in fact, the sacred area of Juno Moneta on the Capitoline hill as the seat of the first Roman mint in the 3rd century B.C. (Coarelli 1994), and the epithet of Moneta has been reliably interpreted as “she who has to do with memory” (Bettini 1978, 2009; Meadows - Williams 2001). The Roman goddess of memory, therefore, was considered by the Romans the most suitable one for overseeing the coin production. This apparently strange choice finds its explanation in the history of Roman forms of exchange. Before the introduction of coinage, Romans used as money copper or bronze lumps whose value depended on the weight. Paying one as thus meant putting on a scale pieces of copper until the weight-value of a Roman pound (327 grams) was reached (Peruzzi 1985; Viglietti 2001). The introduction of coinage changed everything: from 3rd century B.C. onwards, the economic power of a coin at Rome was no longer measured by its weight, but by the value established by the city-state authority (Viglietti 2009). And such value, otherwise unmeasurable, had to be engraved on the coin-blank, through a collectively recognisable type.

Every coin, being a “pure sign” (Parise 1996) is, in fact, a mnemonic object and the Romans understood and emphasized this substantial aspect of their new form of money through institutional decisions like placing the mint under the control of Juno Moneta and – we can add now – through myths which clearly explained that coin is something that has to do with memory.

The case of the “mythical origins of Roman coinage” shows, therefore, how myths reflect and “give voice to” a society and its mentality. What has been considered the scarce value of these sources for constructing an evenemential history of Roman currency thus turns out to be quite substantial, if we study it in an historical-anthropological perspective (Sahlins 1985).

1 comment: