Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ancient Cultures and their Attractions

It is not possible to endeavor upon any serious inquisition into ancient cultures without being influenced by their attractions.

The inquisitor must always recognize this, and be aware of the nature and significance of these attractions. They vary between cultures, in the case of ancient Greek or Roman civilization being oriented toward visualization of historical subjects and study of the contemporary literature.

In studying other ancient cultures, it may be necessary to shift one's perspective very far back toward spiritual aspects. In antiquity life was governed by spirituality to a degree almost impossible to imagine now. No one then ever did anything without giving thought to how the spirits would receive it. That was an incredibly ancient perspective dating back to the far distant times when our ancestors were not classified as being "homo sapiens" but instead as our much earlier ancestors.

Perhaps the first evidence of human culture that then emerged, apart from the use of tools and the effect that had upon daily life, was cohabitation. Our remote ancestors gathered together in their lives to survive and to prosper,  They also evolved communications skills for those purposes.

Eventually the sum of their skills became noticeable in the historical record. In European history this trends to being the transition from "hunter gatherer" to pastoral society. At some point after 8000 b.c. humanity, in certain areas, started to effectively cultivate the land and in that process began civilization.

Ancient civilizations in the Near East centered in the rivers of the Tigris,  Euphrates and the Nile. These defined a "fertile crescent" whose cultivation supported their societies.

These societies became noticeable as a result of their activities,  beginning recorded history. Ultimately and through many milennia, that has resulted in history significant to us.

These ancient societies of the "fertile crescent" and nearby areas coalesced into urban centers important  under the Roman Empire. They became the cities of the Roman Provincial Coinage.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Linguistics: a special numismatic treat

When I was young, I greatly enjoyed studying Latin and Greek under the classical studies regime of the Jesuit fathers. As I matured I found occasions to study other languages: German for its scientific importance, Spanish for its relevance to my Californian lifestyle, French for its importance to my European business interests, Irish for relevance to my ethnic heritage, and Italian for its significance in numismatic and musical literature.

There are also languages which are now considered extinct but nonetheless historically important, which my interest in numismatic inscriptions attracted me toward. One could catalogue many extinct scripts that appear in legends in ancient coins, however most of them are related and for numismatic purposes, the principal ancient languages other than Latin and Greek were:
Italic (other than Latin) dialects
Persian, especially Middle Persian (Pahlavi)
Aramaic (the language of the New Testament)
Punic, the Phoenician dialect of Carthage
Karosthi (the Indo-Greek language of Alexander's successors)

I did not, of course, realize what a vast linguistic adventure I had embarked upon until I was far advanced in the study and recreation of these ancient languages and their scripts. Then it became an intense exploration which proliferated into studying tonal Greek pronunciation, Homeric bardic singing, and perhaps above all else Zoroastrian religious literature in Sanskrit and Pahlavi.

Whilst I am not setting out to win converts to the Zoroastrian religion, where converts are not now welcomed, I must admit to being impressed by their immense sacred literature.

The linguistic aspect of my numismatic studies has offered many important insights into history as well as numismatics. That statement could justifiably be extended to cultural aspects and even to comprehension of the daily lives of ancient peoples.

It is difficult for me to describe the many rewards of these antique linguistic studies. For me they were never onerous nor demanding, instead I always felt that I had gained by the effort expended.

This, I suppose, is the perspective of the compulsive scholar for whom the amount of knowledge still to be acquired is always infinitely greater than what one knows.


Collecting Ancient Coins: a Noblesse Oblige

Collecting ancient coins has been since since the days of Augustus Caesar, a respectable and beneficial social avocation for those in the nobility who found that they had time on their hands. Some of their collections, such as those of the de Este family, became world famous.

Present times are justly criticized for retreating from and abandoning once socially respectable avocations, among which collecting ancient coins must rank at the very forefront.

To this observer it seems clear that the archaeological blogosphere, infamously personified by Paul Barford, has never yet nor ever will advance any argument credibly maintaining that collecting ancient coins is in any way a threat to archaeology.

Thus this observer believes that it is important that we should celebrate historical collectors of ancient coins,  beginning with state banquets of Augustus Caesar in which these coins were awarded as party favors.

This observer will conclude with a philosophical observation:

The study of ancient societies is in every respect honorable and socially beneficial. The study of their artifacts, including  their coinage, significantly contributes to knowledge of their cultures and history, and is likewise honorable and beneficial.

Pseudo-archaeologists (without recent active field excavation credentials) who maintain that the study of ancient artifacts - including coinage - threatens archaeology lack credibility, and have no factual basis for their opinions which should be discounted.

Whilst pseudo-archaeologists will no doubt continue to campaign against the socially beneficial avocation of collecting ancient coins, it is sensible and pertinent to inquire as to exactly what their activities have uncovered that (in their opinion) supports their negative assertions.


Monday, December 16, 2013

The Billon and Potin Tetradrachms of Roman Egypt

David Sear, author of the "... Coins and their Values" handbooks which are the essential collecting references for Roman, Greek, Greek Imperial, and Byzantine coins once observed that in his opinion one of the most neglected and undervalued series of ancient coins was the billon and potin tetradrachm issues of Egypt under the Roman Empire.

Roman Egypt is a numismatically complex subject whose structure was inherited from Ptolemaic Egypt. Under the Ptolemies, Egypt had a coinage system deliberately structured so as not to be freely convertible to Greek or Roman monetary standards. Egypt had its own monetary system and its government profited from all currency conversions.

Without going into the fascinating complexities of Ptolemaic and Roman Egyptian bronze issues, it can be observed that Ptolemaic silver tetradrachm issues were eventually continued under the Roman Empire as debased silver or billon (less than 25% silver) tetradrachms. Their nominal silver content equated to that of a Roman denarius, which defined the exchange rate.

When the tribulations of the late third century impacted this coinage, billon was replaced by potin, an alloy dominated by copper and lead with a nominal but small silver content.

Potin tetradrachm issues from Alexandria, beginning with the reign of Claudius II (268-270) and extending until the end of Provincial issues in 305, were prolific and despite the fact that they lasted only 37 years, form a very fascinating subset of numismatic history.

The issues of Roman Egypt are collected here:

Attractive potin tetradrachms are featured which will interest collectors of this subject.