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By Günther Dembski

VIENNA, 22 NOVEMBER 2005The Romans in Asia Minor: Money, Power and Politics  is a special exhibition hosted by the Coin Collection in Vienna that focuses on a little-known chapter in the economic and monetary history of the Imperium Romanum. The monetary reforms instigated by the first Roman emperor, Augustus (14 B.C. - 27 A.D.), created a coinage that was valid in all parts of the empire. The Eastern provinces, however, retained a special status: being distant from the central mint in Rome there were numerous smaller centres that issued coinage of base metals which was then put in circulation locally. Their designs followed the coinage issued in Rome only in a perfunctory way.

Today, these isolated coins are called "provincial Roman coinage". On the obverse they generally depict the reigning emperor or a member of his family and these portraits are generally identified by an inscription. The latter are generally written in Greek and only rarely in Latin. Contrary to the coinage issued in Rome, however, the obverse frequently also features numerous other depictions: we encounter both city-deities and various other gods and heroes.

The reverse rarely depicts any of the motifs normally encountered on Roman coinage. They deal with a great variety of topics, among them the depictions of sacred and profane buildings. These are valued by archaeologists who normally must be content with digging up the foundations of ancient buildings, as they provide valuable insights into the possible former appearance of these now-lost classical edifices.

Of particular interest are the depictions and identifications of local deities, allowing us at least some insights into the cults venerated in the various Eastern cities. In connection with these religious celebrations one must mention the regional agone or games. In the course of these sporting events a victor would receive a prize amphora, and these are also frequently depicted on the reverse of coins.

The coinage was commissioned by what we would today call the wealthy citizens or offcials of the various cities. The main reason for such local coinage seems to have been fiscal tricks and the profit to be made in money-changing. Rome always paid her soldiers and officals in gold (aurei) and silver coins (denarii). However, inscriptions show that locally services and goods were normally paid in copper coins. This nececitated the exchange of the official into the local coinage. And this was only possible in exchange-bureaus which charged a suitable agion, or fee. This fee was then divided between the money-changer and the local government.

Provincial Roman coins were thus a profitable source of income. This is another reason why the depictions on the coins were carefully selected for their attractiveness and relevance for local customs and tastes. For us today, they form valuable documents about the life, cults and architecture of the period when Asia Minor was part of the Imperium Romanum.

Almost all the objects in the exhibition come from a single private Austrian collection which was acquired in 2004 by the Austrian National Bank and is now administered by the Coin Collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The collection was published in a two-volume catalogue by Univ-Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Szaivert (University of Vienna). In addition, the exhibition is augmented by objects from the Coin Collection and the Collection of Classical Antiquity of the Kunsthsistorisches Museum.


The Romans in Asia Minor: Money, Power and Politics
Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien - Coin Collection
On view until May 2006
Maria Theresien-Platz
Tel: (43) 1 525 24-0  

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