Academic journal article Antichthon

Showing Rome in the Round: Reinterpreting the 'Commemorative Medallions' of Antoninus Pius

Academic journal article Antichthon

Showing Rome in the Round: Reinterpreting the 'Commemorative Medallions' of Antoninus Pius

Article excerpt


This article re-examines the 'commemorative medallions' of Antoninus Pius, a series of medallions showing the early history of Rome. It is suggested that these pieces should be seen not in a Saccular Games context but as a continuation of Hadrianic precedent, probably connected with the construction of the Temple of Venus and Rome. These medallions represent a wider imperial emphasis on the distant past under both Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, an interest the we observe in other coin types, public building works and perhaps also works of literature. A detailed examination of these Pius medallions reveals that their iconography was drawn from earlier types, and that they in turn inspired later imagery. This phenomenon reveals a certain intertextuality in numismatic language, and suggests that coin imagery did not merely grace Rome's currency, but was recorded and was accessible to later generations. These medallions, truly 'monuments in miniature', reveal a new understanding of Pius' reign and his (self-)presentation as Hadrian's successor.

During the third consulship of Antoninus Pius (140-143),1 a series of medallions was struck showing scenes from the early history of Rome. Since the early twentieth century these so-called 'commemorative' or 'program' medallions have been connected with celebrations surrounding the 900th anniversary of Rome in 148. But a closer examination of the context of these pieces reveals that they are better understood as a continuation of a Hadrianic program which celebrated the legendary history of Rome, a focus that was monumentalised with the construction of the temple to Venus and Rome in the capital. This temple and these medallions, as well as several of the coin types struck by both Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, reveal a broader imperial interest in the mythological past in this period. This imperial focus formed a point of connection between the reigns of Hadrian and Pius.

The Genre of Roman Medallions

Roman bronze medallions differed from ordinary coinage in various ways. Medallions were presentation pieces, often struck on larger or bimetallic flans. They also omitted the legend SC, which graced the day-to-day bronze coinage. In the earlier imperial period these pieces were issued using the same designs and dies as bronze coinage. In order to differentiate the medallion as a presentation piece, the die was either stmck onto a larger flan, or the resulting piece was framed.2 The second century, however, saw the introduction of specific medallic dies, engraved particularly for this medium, and stmck onto specifically prepared large flans.3 It was also from this period that the imagery on medallions began to diverge from normal monetary issues. The production of these types of medallions reached a peak under Hadrian. As Mittag observes, more medals were stmck under Hadrian than in the entire period preceding his reign.4 The medallion had become an important medium.

Since medallions differed from normal currency in both size and weight, they are generally not found in archaeological contexts alongside regular coinage.5 Medallions from the second century have been found in tombs dating to the third and fourth centimes, suggesting that they could become heirlooms.6 Though the wear on some medallions suggests that a few may have entered circulation, the holes (indicative of mounting or display) and contexts of other pieces suggest many had a non-monetary usage.7 The modern interpretation of these pieces is that they were gifts from the emperor to high military and civilian officials.8 Medallions found in regions associated with military and imperial administration support this idea.9

That these were presentation pieces is re-inforced by the fact that Roman medallions possess many characteristics of 'gift money'. The idea of gifting money to social equals is a fraught concept, even in the modern day, and so steps are usually taken to differentiate gift money from normal currency (achieved today through instruments like gift vouchers). …

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