The Roman lead tokens in the BnF

Lire ce billet en français : Les tessères romaines en plomb de la BnF

One of the most neglected artefacts from Classical Antiquity are the tokens (so-called ‘tesserae’) from the Greek and Roman/Greco-Roman world. Bronze, lead, and clay tokens were used in Athens during the Classical and Hellenistic periods, and are also found elsewhere throughout the Mediterranean from the Hellenistic age. During the Roman Imperial period, tokens (mainly lead) continued to be used across the Empire by different groups. Ancient tokens have recently been the subject of study by the Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean Project (funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 678042).1

In Summer 2019, this project led us to study the major collection of ancient tokens kept at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF). The recent digitization of these collections is an opportunity to  present these objects and what they teach us about the ancient Romans.

The  BnF holds several important collections of ancient tokens. One is the collection Récamier, originally published by Dissard in 1905, which contains more than 4700 pieces.2 These tokens are currently being studied in detail by Denise Wilding.3 The majority of the pieces in this collection come from Lyon, ancient Lugdunum. They were discovered in the Saône in the 19th century, along the 2km stretch of the river running from the “Montée de l’Observance” and the “École Vétérinaire” in the north, to a point equidistant between the Pont Tilsitt and Pont Saint-Georges to the south. Tokens from Lyons are generally very small (average diameter of 10mm, sometimes smaller with 5mm) and uniface (only one side is decorated). Many of them show decorative motifs and letters, which might well be abbreviations of the names of individuals. Abbreviation of Roman names to two or three initials is also known from amphora stamps, graffiti and election posters, amongst other material.4 Examples of this type of token are catalogued under Récamier 834 (each number of the original catalogue can have numerous specimens in the BnF collection). The token carries the legend C·A·V between two palm branches, and specimens of this type range between 8 and 12mm in diameter.

Figure 1: Side A:  C·A·V between two palm branches. Side B: Blank (BnF, MMA, Recamier 834.23)

Another major collection are the lead tokens published by Rostovtzeff and Prou in 1900.5 A large portion of this corpus comes from Rome, donated to the BnF in 1897 by Michael Rostovtzeff, a Russian historian who compiled an extensive catalogue of tokens in the 19th century, with analysis.6 Lead tokens produced in Rome and Ostia differ from those found in Lyons; since production of these artefacts was locally undertaken by  various communities across the Mediterranean Sea, the fabric, style and designs of tokens are largely specific to one area. Lead tokens in Rome and Ostia were decorated on both sides and were cast from marble moulds.7 The BnF houses two token mould halves, both originally from the Froehner collection (finds of two halves of a token mould together are extremely rare).8 Figure 2 is an example of a token mould half.

Figure 2: Mould for 5 triangular tokens of c. 15-17×20-21mm, all of the same design: R/VB. A central casting channel and branches are visible. A hole for nails is present in top left and lower right. From Rome, palombino marble (BnF, MMA, Froehner IV, 127)

Found in Rome in 1883, the mould would have created triangle-shaped tokens carrying the legend RVB on one side.9 Without the accompanying other half of the mould, we cannot know what would have been on the other side; no specimens of tokens carrying this design are known. Although most of the tokens from Rome and Ostia are circular, triangular and quadrangular shapes are also known, as are the tokens in the shape of a tabula ansata, a type of tablet with dovetail handles. This variety is not surprising: the finds of token moulds (and lead casting waste) on various sites throughout Rome and Ostia reveals that tokens in the capital were made locally by a variety of different groups.

Figure 3: Roman lead token. Side A: Bare head of Nero right; NERO CAESAR around. Side B: Head of Claudia Augusta right; CLAVD AVGVSTA around. 18mm, 2.92g (BnF, MMA, Prou-Rostovtzeff, 32)

A few tokens from Rome refer to the imperial family, as specimen 32 of Rostovtzeff and Prou illustrates (Figure 3).10 One side shows and names the emperor Nero, and the other represents his daughter, Claudia Augusta. Similar to provincial coinage, tokens show a greater range of the imperial family than the official imperial coinage: particularly during the first century AD, some tokens were used during imperial festivals and to facilitate imperial distributions. One type specifically mentions a liberalitas distribution of the emperor Claudius.11 Tokens referring to the imperial family were also created by other groups, likely on the occasion of a festival connected to the emperor.

Figure 4: Roman lead token. Side A: HAD / AVG. Side B: PPF. 19mm, 3.76g (BnF, MMA, Prou-Rostovtseff no. 33g)

For example, Figure 4 is a token carrying well wishes (feliciter) for the emperor Hadrian Augustus, father of his country (Had(riano) Aug(usto) p(atri) p(atriae) f(eliciter)). Similar messages are found on Roman tokens made in bronze (frequently called ‘spintriae’ in modern scholarship). One example is BnF 16985, which bears the head of Augustus with the legend FEL beneath (fel(iciter)) and the number VII within a wreath on the reverse.12

Figure 5: Bronze token. Obverse: Laureate head of Augustus right; FEL below, all within linear border. Reverse: VII within dotted border, within wreath. 22mm, 4.11g (BnF, MMA, AF 16985)

Other lead tokens from the city carry well wishes for the personification of the people of Rome, the Genius Populi Romani.13 These types of representation no doubt contributed to a Roman civic identity amongst users of the tokens, serving to communicate and reinforce a sense of belonging in a similar way to the provincial coinage issued by cities throughout the Roman Empire.14 We can find further evidence of this in Rome’s port, Ostia. Here, several tokens carry patterns refering to the maritime nature of the settlement. Figure 6, for instance, shows the lighthouse at Ostia, with the letters P and T on either side; Rostovtzeff suggested this might refer to Portus (Portus Traiani), the new harbour built under Trajan. The other side of the token carries a representation of the god of the Sea Neptune.

Figure 6: Roman lead token. Side A: Lit lighthouse of three tiers; P on left and T on right. Side B: Neptune, holding trident in right hand, riding right in a biga of hippocamps; star above. 14x12mm, 3.07g (BnF, MMA, Prou-Rostovtseff, 98)

Many individuals and groups created tokens in Rome and Ostia. Youth associations can be identified through legends like that found on Figure 7, which carries the legend IVVEN on one side and a boar accompanied by the legend VERV on the other. Rostovtzeff suggested the legend might be understood as Juven(es) Veru(lani), referring to a youth association in Verulae, although no tokens of this type are reported from that area. Nonetheless the token does carry a reference to the Roman youth, iuvenes, and the boar likely represents hunting, one of the many activities undertaken by these groups. Other Roman associations (collegia) also issued tokens. Tokens, for example, were found in the Terme di Cisiarii of Ostia, the baths of the association of coachmen who ferried people between Ostia and Rome.15

Figure 7: Roman lead token. Side A: IVVEN. Side B: Boar right; VERV above. 18mm, 3.79g (BnF, MMA, Prou-Rostovtzeff, 94a)

Individuals are also occasionally named in full on tokens, including women. Figure 8 refers to a woman named Hortensia Sperata, one of several token types that carry her name.16

Figure 8: Roman lead token. Side A: HORTESPER around. Side B: Palm branch within wreath. 20mm, 4.13g (BnF, MMA, Prou-Rostovtzeff, 422a)

The connection of some tokens to Roman festivals is particularly clear on one series, which carry reference to the Saturnalia. This was a festival held in December in honour of the god Saturn, and was characterised by gift giving and a carnival-like atmosphere. Several lead tokens carry the cry chanted at this festival, Io Saturnalia Io (Figure 9), and these objects must have been used during these festivities, perhaps to facilitate distributions or banqueting.17 The palm branch and wreath displayed on these tokens are also imagery associated with festivities.

Fig. 9: Roman lead token. Side A: Palm branch ending in a hook, IO on left, SAT IO on right. Side B: Wreath. 19mm, 4.47g (BnF, MMA, Prou-Rostovtzeff, 101)

There are also tokens from Roman Egypt within the catalogue of Rostovtzeff and Prou, with pieces donated by Ambroise Baudry and Giovanni Dattari.18 Lead tokens in Egypt appear to be struck rather than cast, and carry both classical and Egyptian patterns. Figure 10 carries for instance the representation of a rooster on one side and an Egyptian mongoose on the other. Tokens again here appear to be locally produced, with several carrying the names of settlements (e.g. Memphis, Oxyrhynchus).19

Figure 10: Egyptian lead token. Obverse: Egyptian mongoose seated left. Reverse: Rooster standing right. 18mm, 5.45g (BnF, MMA, Prou-Rostovtzeff, 689)

The personification of the Nile, who appears as a male god carrying reeds, a cornucopia and/or corn-ears, all signs of abundance, is a popular image on tokens of this region (Figure 11). Nilus also appears on provincial coinage from Roman Egypt, which was a frequent source of inspiration for token designs – an important piece of evidence for the close attention paid to coin imagery as it circulated through the Roman world.20

Figure 11: Egyptian lead token. Obverse: Nilus reclining left holding cornucopia in left hand and reeds in right. Dotted border. Reverse: Dikaiosyne standing left wearing modius, cornucopia in left hand, corn-ears and scales in outstretched right. Dotted border. 22mm, 4.19g (BnF, MMA, Prou-Rostovtzeff, 764k)

The BnF also keeps Greek and Roman tokens donated by Wilhelm Froehner and specimens from Syria donated by Henri Seyrig. When one considers the corpus of tokens from the ancient world as a whole, they are a rich source of evidence for local culture, ideology, identity, imagery, events and groups. Tokens served a variety of uses in a variety of locations, facilitating interactions, exchanges and distributions within communities. This same variety is seen for tokens in the modern world: for example we have locker tokens, electronic tokens used for chip and pin card transactions, deposit (Pfand) tokens at German beer markets, and crypto-currencies like Bitcoin. Like coinage, the use of a token opens a relationship between giver and receiver, serving to cement social bonds and build communities. The use of what may frequently seem to us to be cryptic legends on these artefacts (e.g. the RVB tokens made from the mould shown in Figure 2) would probably only have served to reinforce the division between those “in” the community (who had access to tokens and the privileges they conferred, who understood the significance of the design) and those “outside” the group. There is still much work to be done on these objects, uncovering what they might tell us about daily life within the Roman Empire.

Clare Rowan

  1. You can read more about the project, as well as our findings to date, on our website. []
  2. P. Dissard (1905). Collection Récamier : Catalogue des plombs antiques (sceaux, tessères, monnaies et objets divers). Paris, Rollin et Feuardent. []
  3. D. Wilding (forthcoming 2020), Tokens and Communities in the Roman Provinces: An Exploration of Egypt, Gaul and Britain. (PhD thesis, University of Warwick, UK). []
  4. See, for instance, R.R. Benefiel (2010). “Dialogues of ancient graffiti in the House of Maius Castricius in Pompeii”, American Journal of Archaeology 114, p. 59-101. []
  5. M. Rostovtzeff and M. Prou (1900). Catalogue des plombs de l’antiquité, du moyen âge et des temps modernes conservés au département des médailles et antiques de la Bibliothèque nationale. Paris, Rollin et Feuardent. []
  6. M. Rostovtzeff (1903). Tesserarum urbis romae et suburbi.  St. Petersburg. The accompanying discussion is M. Rostovtzeff (1903). Римскія свинцовыя тессеры.  С.-Петербургъ. The text has been partly translated into German, see M. Rostowzew (1905). Römische Bleitesserae. Ein Beitrag zur Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte der römischen Kaiserzeit. Leipzig. Dieterich’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung. []
  7. C. Rowan (2019). ‘Lead token moulds from Rome and Ostia’, in Tokens: Culture, Connections, Communities, eds. N. Crisà, M. Gkikaki and C. Rowan. London, Royal Numismatic Society, p. 95-110. []
  8. BnF, MMA, Froehner IV, 127 and BnF, MMA, Froehner V, 201. []
  9. See Cahiers Froehner vol. 4, p. 127 (BnF, MMA, Rés. ms. 40009 FRO 8° (4)), CIL XV.2 p. 996. Further information on the other mould half at the BnF can be found in Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean web portal. []
  10. See Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean web portal. []
  11. EX LIBERALITATE TI CLAVD CAE AVG, no. 10 in M. Rostowzew (1903). Tesserarum urbis romae et suburbi. St. Petersburg. See also now Token Communities in the Ancient Mediterranean web portal. []
  12. On ‘spintriae’, see T. Buttrey (1973). “The spintriae as a historical source”, Numismatic Chronicle 13, p. 52-63 and my forthcoming article in the Numismatic Chronicle 2020. []
  13. e.g. TURS 1574 (Rostovtzeff and Prou 361b and 361c) carries the legend G(enius) P(opuli) R(omani) on one side and the word feliciter on the other. []
  14. C. Howgego, V. Heuchert and A. Burnett (eds.) (2005). Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces. Oxford, Oxford University Press; website of the Roman Provincial Coinage project. []
  15. E. Spagnoli (2017). “Un nucleo di piombi ‘monetiformi’ da Ostia, Terme dei Cisiarii (II.II.3): problematiche interpretative e quadro di circolazione. Per un contributo di storia economica e di archeologia della produzione tra II e III secolo d.C.”, Annali dell’Instituto Italiano di Numismatica 63, p. 179-234. []
  16. C. Rowan (2019). “Hortensia Sperata, Token Issuer in Rome or Ostia”, Coins at Warwick Blog (1/10/19). []
  17. Tokens or tesserae in Palmyra served as tickets to particular banquets; see R. Raja (2015). “Staging “private” religion in Roman “public” Palmyra. The role of the religious dining tickets (banqueting tesserae)”, in Public and Private in Ancient Mediterranean Law and Religion, eds. C. Ando and J. Rüpke. Berlin, de Gruyter, p. 165-186. On acclamations on coins and tokens see A. Burnett (2016). “Zela, acclamations, Caracalla – and Parthia?”, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 59, p. 72-110. []
  18. Coins and tokens from Dattari’s collection are published in G. Dattari (1901). Numi Augg. Alexandrini. Catalogo della collezione G. Dattari. Cairo, Arnaldo Forni Editore. []
  19. See footnote 18 and J.G. Milne (1971). Catalogue of Alexandrian Coins.  Oxford, Oxford University Press, for a listing of types. []
  20. see for example type RPC III, 4134 []

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