This page presents a private collection of several ancient coins relating to greco-roman architecture (ARCHITECTURA NUMISMATICA: monuments, buildings of all kind). All information has been checked carefully. I apologize for possible errors and am grateful for all corrections and comments (especially on not yet mentioned literature with reference to the topic).
The pictures and information are available to everyone; there are no conditions or copyright issues.
The site is entirely non-commercial.
What does architecture mean in this context?
Certainly anything which is perceivable at first glance as a building or at least part of one on a coin. This is generally undisputed. In the case of other monuments, however, it may occassionally, be more difficult to draw the line.Sometimes, especially with portrayals of motion (for ex. horseback riders or Artemis hunting) it is not possible to say whether one is dealing with the picture of a fixed image, that is, a building. Therefore only coins have been included which unmistakably portray statues, for ex. by showing the plinth(e.g. a0260).
Portable shrines (e.g. a0763) and models (e.g. a0097), also temple-like covered wagons (e.g. a0733) or parts of buildings (for ex. capitals, a0783) certainly also bear reference to architecture. Finally, symbols which refer to edifices (for ex. wheel for Via Traiana a0774, meta sudens) as well as several examples of Tyche with mural crown are to be included.
How many types of such coins do exist?
Architectura in nummis has been of numismatic interest since the Renaissance; the focus was, understandably enough, initially on coins of the Roman Empire, especially depictions of Rome itself. The diverse coins from the Roman provinces did not attract notice until more recently. In all, more than 300 mints which used architectural motifs were scattered throughout the entire empire. I would roughly estimate that far more than 2000 single monuments (sometimes partially) have been represented in various manners.
The percentage of coin types which refer to architecture of the republic or empire is probably significantly smaller than that of the roman provinces. That of pre-roman (greek) coins is negligible (e.g. Tarsos, Sidon). For clarification purposes, several numbers of coins of the imperial era outside of Italy (without Tyche with mural crown) have been provided. The percentages have been rounded up: the first number states the percentage (of all coins displayed) which show architecture; the number in brackets refers to the percentage of the „architecture“ coins which show temples and altars.
|Coll. Winsemann:||10||(91)||many doublets|
|MFA Boston:||8||(92)||mostly Asia minor, online|
|RPC I und II:||4||(80)||no doublets|
|RPC IV||5||(85)||no doublets|
|SNG vAulock:||8||(95)||asia minor only|
|SNG Leypold:||7||(94)||asia minor only|
Thus one might note, cum grano salis, that images on coins which bear reference to architectural structures, making up little more than 5%, are quite rare. More than 90 % of this small number depict temples and altars. This in turn means that secular monuments (such as bridges, gates, lighthouses) are almost rarities.
If the coins actually, in a sort of secundary function, served mainly propaganda purposes (in a broad sense), then it is quite remarkable that so few functional structures have been represented. Precisely these were imperial features in view of the fact that every country town had aquaeducts, amphitheatres, thermal springs, bridges and more. The explanation for this is the predominant significance of the emperor and the imperial cult which were the primary focus, leaving little room for anything else.
Which types of monuments (motifs) were represented?
Like ancient coins in general, the coins showing architecture do not fit into a stereotype. There are various reasons for his diversity: the issuer’s intentions, techniques and individual abilities of the die engraver, changes undertaken on the structure itself throughout time, sometimes over a period of centuries, 'styles', regional differences (for ex., there is no knowledge of diagonal views of temples from Alexandria, no 'syrian arches' from european mints, with the exception of Corinth, Cassandreia and Coele) and so on.
A simple outline according to the motifs on the reverse sides is provided in order to avoid going into too much detail:
Tabernacle, sanctuary, naiskos, Aedikula, Sacellum among others are subsumed under Temple, because a distinction is often not possible. These include buildings which are conventionally referred to as temples, but, strictly speaking, are not (for ex. gateways). These special cases will be described individually.
Due to the large number of temple coins they must be divided into subgroups.
First of all, I will differentiate among (1) 1, (2) 2, (3) 3 and more temples as well as (4) temple complexes.
The coins with just one temple are divided into those displaying (a) front views, (b) diagonal views, (c) round temples (tholos) and (d) others (for ex. Janus temple).
a) Representations of temple facades are divided into those having 2 (not mentioned pure arches), 4 , 6 , 8 , 10 columns. This also includes those (apparently) buildings with strictly front views which are, however, actually shown in 'parallel projection'. This method was taken into consideration by Donaldson (Janus-Temple, S.82) in his commentary on several representations, and should oftener be taken into account. This is a device for showing, not only the facade, but also one or both sides by turning them around an edge or corner column towards the front. This gives the impression that there are more columns in the front than is actually the case, which is not always immediately recognizable (a0457).
b) In contrast, 'diagonal' refers to the type of representation in which two sides of the temple are at first glance recognizable as such. As opposed to the strictly frontal view (see above), in which only the gable is visible, in this group the roof (or part of it) is visible as well. The composition can be based on any conceivable perspective: ranging from parallel projection (a0437) to the bird’s eye view (a0476).
c) he circular temple, whether it have 2, 4, or 6 visible columns, makes up another group. These temples too are often not immediately recognizable as being round. In extreme cases, even, the image does not possess a single curved line. Minor clues can be helpful, for ex. inner column pairs (usually) appear shorter and narrower; the frequent (apparently) pointed gable roof possesses no gable with pediment (a0661), rather ribs in order to emphasize the conical form (for ex. the circular temple of Topeiros a0351); it is difficult to distinguish them from a tent roof (that is, a square rather than circular layout if these are not recognizable (a0325, a0487).
II) Shrines, arcs
Only 'temples' which are obviously portable (a0017), or wagons in the form of a temple, etc. are primarily designated as being shrines as well as 'pure' arches.
III) Altars, tombs
IV) Gates, triumphal arches, city walls, views of cities.
V) Bridges, aquaeducts.
VI) Lighthouses, ports.
VII) Other public buildings (e.g. Curia a0131)
VIII) Statues, columns, steles, obelisks, baityloi.
X) (Tyche with mural crown)
Which representational means were implemented in order to express the intentions behind the designing of coins?
It is generally agreed that coins were significant conveyers of often a significant amount of information (and disinformation) and still are even today. Of course it is also known that the physical size and composition of the flan set limits to all intentions. Therefore, as a rule only altars (less frequently and very stereotype, inornate 4–column temples) are represented on small bronze coins with 9-13mm diameter (a0022, a0580), simply because they are easier to position on a circular area.
Nevertheless, it may be assumed that even these simple representations contained at least a minimal amount of information for the contemparies which probably escapes us today. From the efforts connected with the preparation of die engraving one may deduce that indeed everything represented on a coin had a meaning. Even inconspicuous details could deliver information, for ex. a point placed in the space between the middle columns of a temple indicates a fixed image in the interior of the temple (cf. a0132 and a0569). Another, quite lovely example for hardly perceivable bits of information is the 'growth' of trees in temple groves, which keeps pace with the following consecutive emissions (compare Caracalla, Augusta Traiana: a0544, a0325, a0583).
The literature displays a consensus that the engraver seldom added anything which was not present in reality. On the other hand, details were often left out, should the requirements demand or allow it, for ex. the miniaturization of nominals (Sagalassos: only the middle column remained in a double shrine, compare note to a0094) , for ex. the exact number of columns seemed less important if the temple’s identity was unmistakably recognizable by virtue of other characteristics (statues, symbols). It was not due to the engraver’s incompetence if, in a side view of a temple, he allowed the rear edge of the roof to meet the last column, appearing to be an extension of it; he merely wishes to express that the temple is actually longer than portrayed (a0073).
Such things are, I believe, easy to relate to. There are, however, many other examples which are more difficult to understand, because the engraver has transmitted information in ways which are unusual nowadays (for ex. notes to a0059, a0104, a0430 ua). It must nevertheless be emphasized, that every detail on an ancient coin most probably has a meaning. Since the interpretation of these matters can often be very speculative, I wish to encourage their discussion. (LINK)
These brief comments already show that one should be careful about making global (flat) judgements regarding the significance of ancient coins showing architectural structures. The representations on coins are neither solely realistic nor idealistic, neither solely individual nor sterotype. They are probably just «...interpretations, rather than reproductions, of buildings» (Burnett, Buildings and Monuments, p.152). It goes without saying that coins are not suitable for reconstructing what has been lost (Fuchs p. 57f), they are not blueprints. The modes of representation which they display are as numerous as the engravers themselves, as their clients, as the contemporary circumstances in general.
What information content do the motifs have?
Despite potential overlap, the following groups can be created:
- Realistic, in a sense photographic (as far as the medium of the coin allows) representation of buildings which actually existed and for which there are supporting archaeological (e.g. Circus maximus a0678, Colosseum, Dionysos-Theatre, Trajans column, Temple of Jupiter Heliopolitanus among others) or literary (e.g. Pharos) equivalents . An example would also be an confirmed architectural section (for ex. turning mark in the Circus maximus). Since such representations are relatively rare, one ought to, with qualification, take them all the more seriously. This also applies to the following group.
- Realistic and detailed, therefore 'credible', however for us not provable portrayals of structures in toto or in parts (for ex. the Temple of the Great God in Odessos, the Macellum maximum a0276).
- More schematized, but for the ancient observer immediately recognizable and unmistakable portrayals such as views and temple complexes ( for ex. the city walls of Nikaia a0077, Zeugma, Garizim), or individual buildings (Vesta –Temple). These also include buildings which can be unmistakably classified due to single structural characteristics (for ex. the „broken“ pediment of Zela (a0508) and Maroneia, which are known by no other city.
- A multitude of representations of temples and altars, in which the structure is solely 'house' for the Deity; the details, even the number of columns, therefore retreat to the background. The classification results, not through the building itself, but through the respective statues (for ex. the various Artemis - cult pictures in Ephesos, Perge, Antiochia among others) or through other attributes (for ex. lightning, eagle for Zeus temples, eagles for the imperial cult).
- Unambiguous stereotypes which, from our point of view, could not convey anything significant to even the ancient observer (especially on pieces having a small format, for ex. Nikaia a0422, Nikomedia).
- Structures as decor or background surrounded by other structures which stand in the foreground (construction of the city walls of Karthago with Dido a0649, Tower of Sestos with Hero and Leander or even Nike leaning against a column a0036) or as a basis for inscriptions (for ex. steles, Cippus a0061) or parts of buildings (for ex. capitals a0675)
- Buildings which cannot be classified (for ex. Poseidonia / Paestum a0180, Tyros a0590, Deultum a0014) or with very controversial classification (for ex. obelisk or baityloi a0594).