Appadurai and Roman Provincial Coinage: Musings on Theoretical and Practical Resources

book cover

Today I would like to share with everyone, in case it is not already evident, the inspiration behind the name of the blog. The title is an homage to Arjun Appadurai’s seminal book, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspectives, which is a compilation of essays by anthropologists who explore through different historical and cultural instances the politics of assigned value via the study of objects themselves.

This book was assigned to me in classes as an anthropology major when I was an undergraduate, as well as in graduate school, and it deeply influenced the way I, and many others, have thought about the study of objects and societies. I cannot adequately summarize the book here, but Appadurai is very clear on his intent from the beginning (p. 3):

Economic exchange creates value. Value is embodied in commodities that are exchanged. Focusing on the things that are exchanged, rather than simply on the forms or functions of exchange, makes it possible to argue that what creates the link between exchange and value is politics, construed broadly. This argument, which is elaborated in the text of this essay, justifies the conceit that commodities, like persons, have social lives.

The essays compiled in this volume essentially nuance how people assign value to commodities and how, in turn, commodities give value to human relationships. As an economic historian, I was deeply influenced by the idea that objects have agency and live lives.

river and trees
A view of the Huron River from Ann Arbor’s Arboretum.

A few weeks ago, I was walking through the Arboretum here in Ann Arbor with a colleague and mentioned that I was going to start a coin blog. I said that I planned to call it “The Social Life of Coins,” in a direct reference to Appadurai’s book. However, my colleague highlighted the fact that museum objects, coins in this instance, have had many lives: first as currency for economic transactions, then as archaeological objects excavated and catalogued, and now as accessioned museum objects waiting to be studied in relation to other objects. This multiplicity of lifetimes stuck a chord with me, so I decided to pluralize the name.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I have been working slowly through the numismatic collection at the Kelsey. I am not systematically cataloguing or studying the coins in depth, yet. These first months are merely for me to get a general overview of the collection by browsing through it before diving deeply into specialized projects. (Although those are certainly in the works as well!)

As I get to know the collection, I would like to share with you some of the numismatic and historical stools — modern and old fashioned — that I find most useful. But rather than throwing a plethora of links and a long bibliography at you all at once, I prefer to do this piecemeal. (I will be adding them all to the blog’s Resources pages as well.)

book coverThe coins I have been working with for the past month come from the site of Karanis in the Fayum oasis of Egypt. One of my main references, therefore, is the 1964 catalogue, Coins from Karanis. My copy just arrived today! Another great resource is the website and open access online database of the Roman Provincial Coinage Online. During the first three centuries of Roman rule, Egyptian coinage maintained a Greek system of denominations — namely, a continuation of the system utilized under the Ptolemies. Thus the coins made in Alexandria during this period are considered part of the Roman Provincial Coinage series (RPC), not the Roman Imperial Coinage series.

Originally published in 1992 as Roman Provincial Coinage, Volume I (44 BC–AD 69), RPC aims “to produce a standard typology of the provincial coinage of the Roman Empire.” The project will eventually comprise 10 volumes and they are making good progress: several volumes have been published and some even loaded online to their database and website. This means that thousands of coin types now have a stable URL, with all known instances of the type. I also really appreciate their interactive map, which gives a visual understanding of the vast number of provincial mints in existence during the Roman Empire until Aurelian, who closed down several of these mints (Estiot 2012).

Screenshot of the RPC interactive map.
ancient coin
Reverse of KM 41430 and RPC VI, 10612 in the background.

The advanced search capabilities of the database are very useful. One can search a coin type with partial or full obverse and reverse inscriptions, and their respective designs on the coin. For Alexandrian coins, I find it even easier to narrow down coin typology, given that the reverse of Egyptian coinage often contains the L (sign for year) plus the Greek numeral (Α, Β, Γ, Δ, Ε, etc.) designating the year of the emperor, and narrowing down possibilities. In some instances, the images provided by RPC even allow us to check for potential die links (two coins made from the same die). 

With some training, these online tools make the identification of coins quick and easy, and I am already encouraged to start cataloguing some more coins! But since this post is already long enough, I will refrain from discussing Severan coinage itself, which deserves its own blog post anyway, but I will add some introductory bibliography below in case anyone is interested in reading further. Next week I hope to discuss the history of Egypt’s closed currency system and how it is related to the collection at the Kelsey, as well as keep on showing you some online numismatic tools.

Bye for now! And if you made it this far, thanks for reading!


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Some Bibliography

Abdy, Richard. “The Severans.” In The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage, edited by William E. Metcalf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Appadurai, Arjun. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Christiansen, Erik. The Roman Coins of Alexandria: Quantitative Studies; Nero, Trajan, Septimius Severus. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1988.
Estiot, Sylviane. “The Later Third Century.” In The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage, edited by William E. Metcalf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Rowan, Clare. Under Divine Auspices: Divine Ideology and the Visualisation of Imperial Power in the Severan Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Roman Provincial Coinage volumes

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