Coin Relief – Issue Fourteen

Welcome to another edition of our regular blog on ancient coins. In this edition Dr. Andrew Brown takes a break from the coins to look at another type of round object: medallions.

Roman medallions are extremely rare objects and to date there are perhaps half a dozen examples that have been identified. The term “medallion” is generally used to refer to struck coin-like objects that, although issued by the Roman mints, differ from standard denominations in circulation in a number of ways.

Bronze medallions were initially struck using dies for sestertiidupondii, and asses, but notably have larger (and often heavier) flans, often with modified or thickened rims to frame the imagery, and characteristically often omit the SC that should appear on official coinage in circulation. Some, particularly in the Neronian period, have enlarged flans with concentric grooves and are termed “pseudo-medallions”.

Medallion of Nero, c.AD 66, from The British Museum collections (BM: 1844,1008.18, copyright The British Museum).

By the 2nd century, notably with Hadrian, this had developed into an art form in its own right, with specific medallic dies used for the production of these special pieces. Often, the types seen on medallions are not represented otherwise in Roman coinage and the dies are often more elaborate or well-executed and the objects themselves larger and heavier.

Medallion of Hadrian c.AD 117-138, from The British Museum collections (BM: 1872,0709.899, copyright The British Museum).

In some instances, notably at the end of the 2nd century with Commodus, bimetallic medallions appear that incorporate elaborate edges or rims of the flans to distinguish them from the normal bronze coinage in circulation. These elaborate presentation pieces were not just confined to bronze, however. Large, multiple denominations in gold and silver also appear from the 1st century onward, although perhaps most notable at the end of the Roman period, that did not circulate as normal currency but would have had a medallic function much like the bronze types.

In their imagery, too, the range of types represented in particular on bronze medallions perhaps reflected contemporary events or more complex scenes relevant to the contemporary Roman world (or in some instances her history) that their intended audience would have understood. These were valued, therefore, not for their instrinsic metal content, like the large silver and gold multiples in the later Roman period, but for their status as a gift from the emperor and the direct link this created with him. The recipients of these miniature works of art would likely have been of some status themselves, particularly during the early-2nd century with Hadrian when the production of medallions was at its artistic peak. In the later Roman period, the gold and silver multiples come to the fore.

Medallion of Gordian III, AD 238-244, with a view of the Flavian Amphitheatre (Colosseum), from The British Museum collections (BM: R.5048, copyright The British Museum).

Medallions are rare finds but they can usually be identified as a result. The handful of PAS examples to date means it is unlikely there will be huge numbers appearing, but it is always possible! When dealing with very worn bronze coins, the size of the flan, possible finishing to the edge of the coin, and the lack of SC on the reverse are clues that what you have may be a medallion rather than a normal bronze denomination.

The earliest example recorded to date through the PAS belongs to a series of medallions struck during the reign of Antoninus Pius between c.AD 140-143. These depict various scenes from Roman history and mythology and are often seen as commemorative medallions celebrating the 900th anniversary of the foundation of Rome (in AD 148). However, analysis of this series by C. Rowan suggests that they should instead be seen as components of a broader tradition begun with Hadrian that highlights an interest in the past and Rome’s early history.

Medallion of Antoninus Pius, AD 140-143. Record ID is SUSS-5C54B2 (Copyright: Sussex Archaeological Society, Licence: CC-BY-SA).

In the PAS example we see the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno Regina and Minerva, who were worshipped in the three cellas of Rome’s oldest temple – the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (“Jupiter Best and Greatest“) on the Capitoline Hill. They formed an integral component of Roman state religion with the temple located at the heart of Rome itself. Little remains on the Capitoline Hill of the temple today, although parts of the podium are visible in the Capitoline Museum. A range of other examples appear, some, like this example from the BM collection that depicts the Aesculapian snake coming ashore at Tiber Island (Insula Tiberina) where the Sanctuary to Aesculapius was constructed, carrying types that are otherwise not known on Pius’ coinage.

Medallion of Antoninus Pius AD 140-143 depicting the Aesculapian snake, from The British Museum collections (BM: 1853,0512.238, copyright The British Museum).

Medallions struck in this period are not just confined to Pius himself though and a range of examples appear for the wider Imperial family, often with quite wonderfully executed and unusual types.

For Marcus Aurelius as caesar under Pius, a remarkable medallion was recorded from London in 2014. The reverse depicts Apollo in his guise as Apollo Salutaris (god of healing or well-being), a type that notably appears on mid-3rd century coinage at a time when the Empire was suffering from outbreaks of plaque. A medallion of Pius with this type is known and was struck from the same reverse die as the PAS example, but the combination for Marcus as caesar is otherwise unknown.

Medallion of Marcus Aurelius as caesar c.AD 139-161. Record ID is LON-8553C1 (copyright: Museum of London, Licence: CC-BY-SA).

At the end of the Antonine period, and with his Hercules complex, in full swing, comes this wonderful medallion of Commodus from Lincolnshire (below), recorded on the the PAS at sold at auction in 2010.  The appearance of TR P XVIII in the reverse legend indicates that this medallion was struck in the last few weeks of Commodus’ reign from 10th December AD 192, when his tribunician powers were renewed, to his death on the 31st December AD 192.

Medallion of Commodus, AD 192. Record ID is FASAM-1C2AB3 (All rights reserved, Licence: CC-BY-SA).

There are two striking features that can be highlighted in this medallion, apart from its preservation and crafstmanship. Most obvious is the clear allusion to Commodus’ association and identification with Hercules. Not only do we see Commodus self-styled as Hercules and his first labour – the Nemean Lion. It belongs with a group of medallions that reference the cult of Hercules towards the end of Commodus’ reign, including examples in the BM collection.

Medallion of Commodus AD 192, from The British Museum collections (BM: 1872,0709.405, copyright The British Museum).

The second point of interest in both of the examples of Commodus above is that the medallions are bimetallic. Here we can see the use of one alloy (copper) at the core with a different (in this case brassier) alloy forming an outer rim. This would have clearly marked them as exceptional and different from the standard bronze coinage in circulation at the time and not for use as currency in the same way as the regular large bronze denominations would have been. These bimetallic medallions are exceptional – they cluster particularly during the reign of Commodus, although there are earlier and later examples, the majority of 2nd century medallions are simply bronze and often identified based on the lack of SC seen on sestertiidupondii, and asses. It is not clear how these bimetallic pieces were originally struck. That their components could potentially become separated is apparent in an example of Severus Alexander in the BM collection.

Medallion core of Severus Alexander c.AD 224, from The British Museum collections (BM: 1992,0509.365, copyright The British Museum).

The most recent medallion recorded through the PAS, of Severus Alexander, was discovered in Yorkshire in 2019 and is the only example on the database dating to the first half of the 3rd century AD. The reverse type emphasises the fidelity/loyalty of the Roman army (FIDES MILITVM) to Alexander, while the appearance of Jupiter as his protector (Jupiter Conservator) appeaers not only on this series of medallions but a number of other contemporary coin issues dated. Analysis of these types by C. Rowan notes that their appearance on Alexander’s coinage in AD 231 might highlight the importance of the military in his accession to power at a time when it appears some had also revolted against him in the east.

Medallic as of Severus Alexander c.AD 231. Record ID is  YORYM-AED2AF (copyright: York Museums Trust, Licence: CC-BY).

The lack of SC in exergue, combined with its size (28.5mm in diameter and 9.86g in weight) suggest this is a medallic as. In the standard as issue the same reverse type is known but with the addition of the SC. Interestingly, two examples of this medallic type are present in the British Museum collection, both from very similar, if not the same, dies. This is perhaps not surprising given the rarity of these medallions, but it is interesting all three are in Britain. The reverse type also appears on a wonderful medallion featuring Alexander and Julia Mamaea.

Larger bronze denomination from the second half of the 3rd century are generally rare as PAS finds – they essentially disappear as single finds with Gallienus and Postumus, and for Reece Periods 13 and 14, the PAS has records for perhaps c.100 examples of sestertiidupondii, and asses (amongst the more than 50,000 records for this period). The medallion of Gallienus from North Yorkshire recorded in 2006 is therefore quite an exceptional find, with another example of this type in the Münzkabinett in Berlin.

Medallions continue to be struck into the later 3rd century and at the end of the period those of Carausius and a returning Constantius I nicely encapsulate the breakaway Britannic Empire between AD 286-296. Sam is working on the new RIC for Carausius and Allectus and so the more definitive account will come with his volume! However, it is worth noting the unique examples of Carausius in the BM that provide an unprecedented direct reference to Virgil and which perpetuate Carausius’ image as perhaps more Roman than the Romans! One carries the legend RSR in exergue, while the other  I.N.P.C.D.A . G.
de la Bédoyère has interpreted these combined legends as references to Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue (IV.6-7)11, reading: Redeunt Saturnia Regna (the Golden Age returns) and Iam Nova Progenies Caelo Demittitur Alto (Now a new progeny is sent down from heaven above). Carausius’ new state did not last for all that long, however, and the wonderful Arras Medallion from the Beaurains hoard sees a triumphant Constantius I arrive in Britain on horseback in AD 296 to greet a kneeling London personified and retake the province for the Roman empire. These are exceptional objects from this period and while an example of this quality has not yet been reported through the PAS, we can speculate that a very worn bronze coin recorded from Lancashire in 2016 could possibly represent a medallion of Carausius. It will be fascinating to see if other examples appear in the future – Britain, after all, is perhaps the most likely place for them to turn up! 

Two gold 1¼ soldii of Licinius I, AD 313-315 of the type sometimes referred to as “money medallions” or simply “multiples”. Left: WILT-D86FB6 (copyright: Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum, Licence: CC-BY). Right: NARC-A1A418 (copyright: Northamptonshire County Council, Licence: CC-BY).

In the 4th century, there are no examples on the PAS of medallions as such, although we do have two coins that are multiple denominations of solidi struck for Licinius I. As we have already seen in previous blogs, slightly heavy miliarenses were struck in the 4th century (at 60 to the pound) but alongside these much larger coins appear as multiples (multipla) of the standard silver and gold denominations. The two gold coins on the PAS are just fractionally larger than a normal solidus, at about 1¼ of a solidus. However, examples of multiples several times the weight of a normal denomination are known (up to a 72-solidus piece with Tiberius II in the 6th century AD!) – these are sometimes termed ‘money medallions’ or simply ‘multiples’. Gold and silver multiples had replaced the bronze medallions of earlier periods but likely had a similar function as donatives or diplomatic gifts as much as part of the regular coinage . We have yet to see a really large example on the PAS. They are extremely rare, but do keep a look out for them, and indeed, any other potential earlier bronze medallions if recording through the scheme – it is possible there are some out there….!

Standard references when dealing with medallions:

H.A.Grueber, BMCRM / Roman Medallions in the British Museum (1874)

F. Gnecchi, I medaglioni Romani (3 vols.; 1912)

J.M.C. Toynbee, Roman Medallions (1944) – online here

More recent useful contributions include:
P.F. Mittag, Römische Medaillons. Caesar bis Hadrian (2010)

N. Schindel and B. Woytek ‘Nero and the Making of the Roman Medallion’ NC 171, 2011: 109-20

C. Rowan ‘Showing Rome in the Round: Reinterpreting the ‘Commemorative Medallions’ of Antoninus Pius’ Antichthon 48, 2014