The Rhino on the Roman Coins



For as long as coins have been in use, humans have stamped them with images of things they found important or impressive: kings and rulers, symbols of nations and gods, and powerful animals. Animals are one of the most common motifs on coins, as attributes of a particular animal can be used to represent particular attributes of a country: the strength of a bull, the majesty of a lion, etc.
But sometimes, an animal might make it onto a coin just because people are fascinated by it.
Naumachia_DomitianiDuring the reign of the Emperor Domitian, Colosseum games came back into popularity, given the emperor’s fondness for chariot races and other competitions. It was during Domitian’s time that the Colosseum was flooded for a mock naval battle. During this time, the rhinoceros made its first appearance to the Roman Empire.


Not much is known about the first time a rhinoceros appeared in the wild animal fights at the Colosseum, except that the rhino scored a decisive victory and became a favorite among the Romans for its strength. The poet Martial even wrote two epigrams about the beast:


667. “The Nose-horn, Caesar, that for recreation
You gave, in battle passed all expectation.
Well might the torrent of his wrath appal;
Bull found his master, and became a ball.”

669. “Long time in gathering rage the monster bore
Each saucy thrust of trembling picador;
All hope of desperate conflict was in vain;
At length the wonted fury blazed again.
On his twin horns a bear he tosses clear
As play-ball gored by Andalusian steer.”


According to the English Cyclopaedia: Geography, “By this description [of the second epigram] it appears that a combat between a rhinoceros and a bear was intended, but that it was very difficult to irritate the more unwieldy animal, so as to make him display his usual ferocity; at length, however he tossed the bear from his double horn, with as much facility as a bull tosses to the sky the bundles placed for the purpose of enraging him.”



The emperor was so fascinated by this strange new beast with peculiar horns and immense power that he began issuing coins with the rhinoceros on them. (Coins with both left- and right-facing rhinos were minted.) Rhino coins were minted in relatively small numbers, and often sell for several hundred dollars in good condition.


[Image at top is property of forum user Imperator.]

The Coins of the Lost Emperor


Coins are an unusually good way of preserving history. They are stamped with the images of rulers and significant persons, the precious metals in them do not corrode easily, and the value of precious metal coins means that people save them. In the case of the Gallic usurper Domitianus, the best evidence we have are two coins recovered from buried hoards, one of which was ignored for a century.


The 3rd century CE was a time of great unrest in the northwest Roman empire. Rome faced enemies on several fronts, as well as internal strife. The Crisis of the Third Century, as it is known to historians, included a 50-year period in which there were no less than 26 claims to the throne of the Empire, largely from officers of the military. Gaul and Britannia had formed the Gallic Empire and claimed independence from Rome; the current Roman emperor rarely challenged this, as the Gallic emperor usually bore the brunt of invaders from the north, making one less thing for Rome to worry about. The eastern edge of the empire had become the Palmyrene Empire, ruled by regent Zenobia, who later claimed the title of Empress and was defeated by Aurelian in 272 CE.



The Chalgrove Domitianus coin, courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum

Several leaders claimed the rule of the Gallic Empire, five of whom were considered somewhat legitimate (though not by Rome itself, since none of them had been acclaimed by the Senate), and two of whom were usurpers. Domitianus was one of the latter.


Until the more recent coin was found, historians were unsure that Domitianus had ever even claimed the Gallic throne. The majority of what we know about him comes from two sources written a century after Domitianus died. Both sources together give us fewer than 30 words about his life and reign. Zosimus states, “Epitimius, Urbanus, and Domitianus, were suspected of committing treason [by Aurelian], and were immediately apprehended and punished.” Neither source mentioned him as emperor.


Some sources say that his predecessor, Victorinus, was killed by one of his soldiers after finding out that the emperor had been sleeping with the soldier’s wife. While it’s possible that Domitianus was that soldier, there’s no way to know for sure, unless more contemporary records are found. However it happened, Domitianus claimed the throne after the death of Victorianus in late 270 or early 271 CE, and probably took control of the mint at Trier (in what is now Germany.) It’s unclear if the portrait on the coin is even that of Domitianus; it looks very similar to the coins minted for Victorinus. It’s possible the mint did not take time to create a new portrait, but simply made a few slight alterations and changed the name on the coin.


The first Domitianus coin was found in France in 1900; however, since little record had been kept of how it had been found, and there was no textual evidence for Domitianus ever having been emperor of the Gallic empire, it was assumed to be a modern forgery and dismissed. In 2003, metal detectorist Brian Malin was detecting in a field in Chalgrove, just outside Oxford. His family had recovered a small hoard from the field nearly 20 years before, but Malin was not convinced they had found everything. He came across a jar full of coins from the Roman era, which had fused together with the coil into a compact lump. He turned the hoard over to the Ashmolean Museum without attempting to separate the coins. As the experts at the museum worked their way through the coins, carefully freeing each one from the others, they discovered the Domitianus coin. Since this hoard had careful documentation, and the coin was found fused with other easily verified coins of the era, its authenticity was unquestioned. Even better, examination of the original French find confirmed that both coins had come from the same stamp. Both were authentic, and Domitianus regained his place in the line of Gallic rulers.


Both coins and their respective hoards seem to have been buried not long after Domitianus was overthrown by Tetricus. The Gallic Empire was reclaimed for Rome by the emperor Aurelian in 274 CE (as the Palmyrene Empire had been a few years earlier.) Aurelian suppressed the Gallic culture that had arisen, and it’s possible the coins were buried to protect them from raids or other military threats. It’s also possible that having a large amount of money was dangerous during such uncertain times, and the coins were buried to prevent them from being stolen. Regardless of how the coins ended up in the hoards, it is only due to their burial that we have any solid evidence of the emperor Domitianus.


Cover image by Wikipedia User Geni, used under GFDL.

Coins and Sailing Traditions


Sailors are known as a superstitious bunch, and coins have been used in luck charms for almost as long as they have existed. It’s no wonder that there are maritime traditions involving coins.


Coins are involved at the very beginning of shipbuilding, during the keel laying. The builders place a coin or two beneath the keelblock of the ship, as a symbol of good fortune. These coins are usually loose, and often removed after the ship has left the dry-dock, though sometimes they are welded to the keel.


Another coin ceremony takes place when the mast is secured, or “stepped.” In the past, coins were placed directly under the mast step itself; it’s likely this custom began with the Romans. In ancient Roman custom, the dead must pay Charon a coin to gain passage across the river Styx. Coins below a ship’s mast would ensure that the sailors could pay this underworldly ferryman in case the ship sank. Other theories posit that the tradition began not as preparation for a watery grave, but as an offering to the gods for good luck on the journey.


In 1962, Peter Marsden discovered the wreck of a 2nd century AD sailing vessel by the side of the river Thames. It is the earliest-known sailing vessel of British origin; a bronze coin of the Emperor Domition was found under the mast.






Mast stepping ceremony for the USS Dewey

This tradition continues today; in fact, the official US Navy blog has a post about it. Coins are now put in a corrosive-proof case and welded to the radar mast of a ship. Coins are used, as well as memorabilia, and exonumismatic items like challenge tokens. Captain William J. Hart, commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, said, “I think it’s very important we commemorate the stepping of the mast because it is a linkage between crews past, the current crew and the crew of the future. As we’re stepping the mast and rebuilding the ship, the story and legacy of the ship being involved in almost every major conflict in the past 25 years is passed on. Now the current crew picks up that legacy and has to build the ship and start building the new reputation of Theodore Roosevelt.” The USS Theodore Roosevelt had a mast-stepping ceremony in 2011, for which Roosevelt’s great-grandson was present.(A coin ceremony for this ship is particularly fitting, given Roosevelt’s long-lasting impact on American coin design.)


For thousands of years, sailors have used coins to bring good luck on the uncertain seas. It’s a tradition that connects the past and the present, and sure to extend into the future as well.

How Coins Preserved the Memories of an Empire



TenCommand_055Pyxurz.jpgFans of classic films may remember the dramatic moment in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” when the old pharaoh, Sethi, exiles Moses and commands that his name be stricken from all monuments across the kingdom. “Let the name of Moses be stricken from every book and tablet, stricken from all pylons and obelisks, stricken from every monument of Egypt. Let the name of Moses be unheard and unspoken, erased from the memory of men for all time.” While this kind of extreme erasure was rare, it was practiced by many ancient cultures. Modern historians have termed the practice “damnatio memoriae.” While statues and memorials were the usual targets for defacement, the practice sometimes extended even to coins bearing the name or image of the person to be removed from memory.


In ancient Egypt, several controversial rulers, including religious reformer Akhenaten and female pharaoh Hatshepsut, were removed from memorials and sculptures after their deaths. The practice reached a peak in Roman culture, especially during the Imperial era.



It’s difficult to know who actually carried out the defacements; officially, the Roman Senate would make a pronouncement condemning an emperor or other individual. However, these actions were usually undertaken when a new emperor arose by acclamation or military support. Outside of the main areas of Roman culture, such defacement may have been carried out by soldiers or other officials. In a few reported instances, crowds of civilians swarmed the street to tear down statues of particularly despised rulers.



Defaced coin of Nero. Photo copyright Trustees of the British Museum

The size of the Empire, in fact, is why few coins suffered such treatment, though they were one of the primary symbols of any given emperor. One of the things that binds a nation and culture together is a common currency that can be relied upon across the nation. Defacing coins could lead to questions about their legitimacy as currency, causing coin shortages and economic crises. The simplest answer was for the new emperor to issue new coins with his image as quickly as possible, and put them into circulation across the empire, primarily via payments to the Roman legions.


In the rare cases when coins were defaced, it was usually on the obverse of the coin, where the portrait and name of the emperor were found. However, in a few extraordinary cases, the damage was done to the reverse of the coin.
Project Curator of Roman Provincial Coins at The British Museum’s Department of Coins and Medals, Dario Calomino, states, “Some coins struck in Emesa in Syria (modern Homs […] had the image of the altar of the local sun-god Elagabal defaced with an X. We do not know who did this and for what reason. This may have been a way in which opposition to this cult was expressed. But sometimes coins were also mutilated for ritual purposes; they were offered as a gift to a divinity in a sanctuary, and in order to do this they were previously de-monetised, i.e. marked and mutilated to signify that they were no longer official currency, but tokens of devotion.”


Defacement of coins did not always originate from Roman decree, though. In some Iron Age coin hoards from what is now Bulgaria, new Celtic designs have been minted over Hellenistic and Roman coins. These Celtic designs were produced in a time of intense battle between Roman and Celtic forces; the effort of minting over coins indicates a strong rejection of Roman culture in its entirety.



(ac)-Caligula_sester_10It’s impossible to know just how successful any efforts at damnatio memoriae were; completely successful erasure would be undetectable by historians. It’s likely that none were completely successful, given the difficulty of such an endeavor. Many contemporary historians wrote about the emperors who ruled during their time, and coins in particular give us long-lasting records. Even the despised Caligula, whose records underwent the most extensive erasure known, remains one of the best-known Roman emperors in history. Several Caligulan coins have had his name filed down or hammered out, yet remain recognizable.


Even the smallest and most ordinary coin can bear a historical record that thousands of intervening years cannot erase.

King Arthur’s Coins: Minting in Roman Britain


Though it is still hotly debated if a historical Arthur ever existed, the legends about him are some of the most compelling in the Western World. The fanciful myths of Mallory, de Troyes, and other later writers are certainly not accurate; Arthur and his knights would not have been beautifully attired in silks and plate armor. However, a real person might exist behind the legends. The basic picture is of a warlord keeping order in 5th century Britain, preserving the last bits of the Roman Empire on the island, and keeping back the invading Anglo-Saxons. When the Romans left the British Isles, their mint remained…and their coins.


Celtic_gold_stater_Iceni_tribe.jpgThe Romans had developed very reliable systems for governing large areas with a minimal presence. Though Britain had produced some coinage before the Romans came, local coinage would quickly have been stopped and replaced with Roman coinage. The Iceni, for instance, minted coins that are in high demand for collectors; it is unclear if their minting operations continued up until their failed revolt against the Romans in the first century AD, lead by their queen Boudicca. (Boudicca is said to be buried under Platform 10 at King’s Cross Station in London, though no proof has ever been found.) Iron Age Britain was primarily a barter economy, and coins used as status symbols, similar to the early Viking culture.


hadrian_denariusWhile an army may march on its stomach, it will also insist on being paid. The advance of Roman troops in Britain created an urgent need for large amounts of coinage. A great deal of coins had been brought from Rome itself, which was quickly introduced into local economies. The two precious metal coinage denominations were the gold aureus and the silver denarius. An aureus was worth 25 denarii, and was not used in most common transactions. Other coins were struck in orichalcum, copper, and bronze. According to the Omskirk & West Lancashire Numismatic Society, base metal coins “were a token coinage, in the following fixed relationship to the silver: 1 denarius = 4 sestertii = 8 dupondii = 16 asses. The as had further subdivisions called the semis, or half as, and the quadrans, or quarter as, but these, as well as the gold and silver quinarii – half aureus and half denarius – were used mainly in Rome and the more developed provinces.” This is called the Augustan monetary system.


Though a Roman soldier would have been paid one denarius per day, due to withholdings, most soldiers appear to have been paid smaller amounts in base coinage. The requirements for this amount of coinage cause the Romans to begin minting coins closer to the British Isles. The first Roman British coins were unofficial copies of the small aes. Despite not being true Roman coinage, they seem to have been accepted as currency. Countermarked coins from previous emperors were also common.



Shortly after the Iceni revolt, the Empire began minting coins at Lugdunum, Gaul (modern Lyon, France.)  Coin hoards from this time period indicate that the quality of precious metal coin began to decline during Nero’s reign; before this period, republican coinage made up about half of the silver circulating in Britain.


Coinage in circulation continued to debase through the second and third centuries; during the late third century, several of the appointed rulers of western Roman lands seceded from the Empire, establishing what is known as the Gallic Empire, consisting of modern Britain, France, and Spain. These Gallic emperors struck coins, including precious metal coins, at Trier and Cologne; during the short-lived Gallic Empire, these were the primary coins entering the British Isles. (Some of these coins have the excellent name “barbarous radiates.”)


antoninianus_carausius_leg4-ric_0069vThe Gallic Empire gave way to the British usurper Carausius (AD287-293) followed by Allectus (AD293-296.) Since the area was cut off from the central Roman Empire, the coin shortage became desperate, and the first identifiable British Roman mint opened in London, with a second mint following in Colchester. Carausius marked some coins during his reign with “AVGGG,” the extras “Gs” intended to refer to his “colleagues” in Rome and Byzantium.


Diocletian, however, had no intention of sharing his power, and sent Constantius Chlorus to deal with the usurpers and bring Britain back into the western Roman empire. As part of the overhaul of the empire, Diocletian also reformed the coinage of the empire. Over the next century, his coinage faded from popularity, and was replaced by lightweight silver coins like the miliarense and the siliqua. A large silver-washed bronze coin worth 20 denariiwas also in use; though the contemporary name of the coin has been lost to history, today it is referred to as the follis or nummus.
Coins entered circulation quickly in Britain, and mixed freely. The London mint proved to be too valuable to the Empire to destroy after Carausius was deposed, and continued to strike coins; coins from lands east of Gaul also made their way to the Isles.


As the Roman Empire continued to crumble, chaos rose in the British Isles. Coinage changed rapidly and continuously. Unofficial coins began to reappear, as well as overstruck coins. The unified coinage of prior centuries disappeared, and eastern coins are only rarely found in British hoards. Roman control of Britain began to be pronounced in the 4th century, and the legions of trained Roman soldiers began to pull back into the collapsing Empire. The citizens of the Isles found themselves increasingly open to predation from Anglo-Saxon and other invading forces.


The Roman army suffered a defeat from British tribes in 367, causing desertion on a large scale as invaders looted the area. Though an effort was made to refortify and rearm the British Roman forces in 369, it would prove to be the last major effort Rome would take to secure Britain. This led to a short period of peace at the end of the 4th century, but the chaos would rise again during the fifth century. It is around this time that a historical Arthur may have been present. The departing Roman forces left a power vacuum, and a populace clamoring for defense from raiders as Irish pirates from the west and Saxons from the east began to prey along the coasts. During this time, the British Isles had a good supply of gold and silver in circulation; however, it seems unlikely that silver was regularly struck after AD404, as few such coins have ever been found.


Arthur would likely have had access to these gold and silver coins; by the late fourth century, coins from the eastern empire were very rare, and probably would no longer have been in circulation. He could have used Roman coinage as it existed, or counterstamped coins for his own use. (No such coins have ever been found, of course, nor has any definitive sign of the existence of a real King Arthur.) Some late fourth century coins found in recent years have been clipped extensively; clipped coins are not common with Roman areas, and it seems that the practice developed after Roman forces retreated.


By the mid fifth century, coin usage was no longer widespread in Britain, though isolated areas may still have used them. Some sixth century sites are completely coinless; after the final fall of order in Britain, coins would not be used until Germanic settlers reintroduced them in the seventh century.



The Power Suit

The modern American woman is at a pinnacle of equality and freedom of expression more so than ever before.  Claiming ownership of intellectual and physical expression, women have come a long way in the past century from housewife subordinate to capable and genitive goddess.  Surely, creating a power base upon which this ladder to women’s suffrage was built, necessitates climbing with tact and intelligence. The evolution of swimwear has always been linked with women’s liberation.

Though it might be hard to imagine any itsier bitsier swimwear than what is worn today, the modern bikini is surprisingly similar to the bathing suits worn in Greece as far back as 300 B.C.  The communal bathhouse was a central gathering place for conversation and gossip over a luxurious hot or cold bath.  After the fall of the Roman Empire, Western society viewed bathing as being strictly therapeutic, rather than recreational.

Greece Swimwear, Greece, Bathing Suit

This view of bathing as a private activity conjured more modest beach attire.  Early swimsuits were gowns with weighted hems to prevent the wool from floating up revealing any leg.  Women would dress in bathing houses which were then wheeled out into the water so that the women would never be seen in their raunchy swim attire on the beach.

The bikini, invented in 1946 by Paris designer Louis Reard, was suspect to strike the world like a bomb; hence it recieved its nuclear nickname after the prevalent South Pacific test bombing site Bikini Atoll.  The public was shocked and repulsed by this “suspect garment favored by licentious Mediterranean types”.  A 1957 issue of Modern Girl claimed: “It is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing.”  In fact, Reard had to hire a stripper, Micheline Bernardini to debut his creation because no reputable model would dare wear it.

Bikini debut - It fits into a matchbox.

Bikini debut – It fits into a matchbox!

Facing much resistance from the media and social normality, the bikini was banned from beauty contests and films and those who donned them were arrested for indecent exposure.  Not fifteen years passed before people began to change their attitudes about the bikini as the sexual revolution of the 60’s encouraged conversation about decency and the effects of showing skin on women’s rights.  But how did if effect the men?

Photo by Michael Irwin/Rex Features

Photo by Michael Irwin/Rex Features

A study conducted by Princeton University used brain scans to measure activity in the pre-frontal cortex when men were shown images of women in bikinis.  The pre-frontal cortex is the region of the human brain responsible for thoughts, feelings and intentions.  When men saw pictures of women wearing bikinis, the brain scans showed without fail little activity in the pre-frontal cortex.  In a separate Princeton study, men tended to use first-person action verbs to refer to women in bikinis and third-person action verbs when describing a woman in modest clothing.  This suggests that in wearing the bikini, women do hold some form of power – the power to shut off man’s capability to see them as a person, rather than as an object.  Weather or not this is the kind of power women fighting for equality should desire, the bikini is certainly here to stay.

Since the growing popularity of the bikini, there has been continued controversy spurring much needed dialogue about the effects of this “thoughtless act” (Esther Williams).  The bikini exposes the young girl to the significance of her figure as a tool of womanly power.  Explicitly demonstrating stick-thin models as an image of perfection is harmful on a developing self-image, removing any acceptance of individual variation.   When asked who shouldn’t wear a bikini, American fashion designer Norma Kamali respnded “anyone with a tummy”.  The bikini is less supportive for curvy women and has been a means for promoting the provocative.

From the beginnings of the bikini and the splash it has made in modern society, modesty and women’s movement have been certainly intertwined.  As a topic of discussion today, it’s important for both women and men to consider the effects of this power suit.  All in all, is less more?