The reconstruction of ancient buildings is often a difficult undertaking in a world where most ancient structures either no longer exist or have been heavily modified. However, a massive online coinage database with over 600,000 objects and a new book on ancient “architectural coinage” demonstrate that coins provide an abstract view of the buildings of antiquity which deserve more attention.
Three architectural coins from the collection at the American Numismatic Society, which boasts around 600,000 objects in its online database. By Permission Of The American Numismatic Society (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Three architectural coins from the collection at the American Numismatic Society, which boasts around 600,000 objects in its online “MANTIS” database.
The American Numismatic Society’s database of coinage (called MANTIS) has over a half million objects in it. As the society notes, “These include coins, paper money, tokens, ‘primitive’ money, medals and decorations, from all parts of the world, and all periods in which such objects have been produced.” You can search this database according to time period, mint, ruler, or a host of other categories. A newly launched image identifier for the coins of the Roman empire, called OCRE “Identify a Coin”, even helps students, teachers and non-specialists to identify a coin simply by image–and provides a great tool for novice numismatists.
The “Identify a Coin” interface on the OCRE website from the American Numismatic Society. American Numismatic Society
The “Identify a Coin” interface on the OCRE website from the American Numismatic Society.
Additionally, you can access the entire database through an interactive map that allows you to explore where each object was likely minted. The ANS often supplies large color photographs of each piece of coinage along with this metadata. The citation information within the database entries is also linked to dozens of other digital projects that provide secure information about the ancient world; a digital humanities citation approach called Linked Ancient World Data (LAWD).
Screenshot of the interactive Leaflet map on MANTIS, the coin database for the American Numismatic Society. American Numismatic Society
Screenshot of the interactive Leaflet map on MANTIS, the coin database for the American Numismatic Society.
Beyond just exploring this massive database, the holdings of ANS provide the foundation for a number of studies of ancient and modern coinage. A new book on the subject of “architectural coinage” published by the ANS presents a number of stunning buildings often depicted on the reverse side of Roman coinage. Written by Nathan T. Elkins, the monograph examines how we can go beyond coinage as a means of reconstructing ancient buildings that may no longer exist, and begin to appreciate this numismatic evidence as a way of accessing how Romans and their rulers may have felt about architecture generally. Elkins reveals how coinage could be used as propaganda by rulers, as a means of propping up their ideological programs and as a way of celebrating certain Roman ideals.
A color enhanced photo of the Colosseum and the Meta Sudans in Rome in 1890 next to a depiction of the Colosseum on a coin minted by the emperor Domitian soon after its earlier completion by his brother, Titus. American Numismatic Society
A color enhanced photo of the Colosseum and the Meta Sudans in Rome in 1890, next to a depiction of the Colosseum on a coin minted by the emperor Domitian around 81-82 CE soon after its earlier completion by his brother, Titus.
For instance, the emperor Domitian seems to have particularly enjoyed placing buildings on his coinage–as did the emperor Augustus at the beginning of the Principate. Domitian minted a coin with the Colosseum on the obverse, quite similar to the coin that had been minted by his brother, Titus, when the Flavian Amphitheater (later referred to as the Colosseum) was dedicated in June of 80 CE. He also had a coin struck with his image on the obverse and a triumphal arch on the reverse. Quite a visual message of victory and strength in the face of a rather low approval rating.
Billon Tetradrachm of Domitian, Alexandreia, AD 86 – AD 87. (1944.100.53868) American Numismatic Society
Billon Tetradrachm of Domitian, Alexandreia, AD 86 – AD 87. (1944.100.53868)
Although these projects are fantastic digital tools to interact with, it is important to recognize how they came into being as well. The patrons of the arts still deserve mention, after all. As the ANS has recently pointed out in a new article on the subject, many of the projects meant to digitize and make these coins accessible online to the public have been funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). However, current threats to the funding of the NEH for fiscal year 2018, as stated within the proposed comprehensive budget for the federal government recently released by the Trump administration, are quite real.
If this proposed budget is approved by Congress, funding for many open access digital projects such as those hosted by the ANS would be under threat. Many more might never come into being. These digital collections are thus a reminder that the ancient world provides us all with a wealth of information–about the use of currency, the ancient manipulation of architecture and even the portrait types of an emperor–but are often free to the public in part because of the valuable federal funding of the arts received through endowments like the NEH.