Numismatic circulation in Corinth and Athens of the Roman times

Athina Iakovidou, Sophia Kremydi

The objective of this research is to present numismatic circulation in two cities of the Roman province of Achaia, namely, Corinth and Athens. These are two important albeit different cities as to their legal status and numismatic production. The finds discussed in this paper have been discovered during systematic excavations, particularly by the American School of Classical Studies—excavations conducted from 1896 to 2004 in Corinth and from 1931 to 1990 in Athens. The sufficient amount of numismatic material published has allowed us to proceed to its systematic presentation as well as comparisons between the two cities. It should be noted that the photographs accompanying the maps are indicative and do not illustrate the specific coins found during the excavation but similar ones.

The coins hereby presented are classified into three categories:

•local coins, that is bronze coins minted in the two cities examined,

•provincial coins, that is bronze coins that were minted in other cities of Roman provinces,

•Roman coins, that is coins minted by state mints, mostly those minted by the state mint of Rome.

The aforementioned material has been divided into three chronological periods for Corinth and four chronological periods for Athens. Concerning Corinth, the first period includes coinage dating from the foundation of the colony (44 BC) to the end of the reign of Domitian (96 AD); the second period coincides with the second century AD and pertains to the years between the reigns of Nerva and Commodus (96-192 AD), while the third period refers to the years from Septimius Severus to the reign of Gallienus (193-268 AD). Concerning Athens, the first period (first century BC) begins with the occupation of Athens by Sulla (86 BC), when the territory passes completely under Roman control, and ends with the battle of Actium (31 BC). The second period covers the time from Augustus to Domitian (31 BC- 96 AD —it is noteworthy that Athens minted coins only up to 10 AD). The last two periods chronologically coincide with the respective periods in Corinth. The choice of the reign of Gallienus as the closing period of this research was made due to the fact that it constitutes a time during which most of the provincial mints ceased to operate. Additionally, this era allows us to draw conclusions concerning the circulation of coins coming from other provincial mints, since Corinth did not mint its own coins during the first half of the third century AD.

Roman Corinth

As the capital of the province of Achaia and the seat of its governor, Corinth was an international commercial center since, due to its neuralgic position it controlled the passage from Italy to the Aegean Sea. In 44 BC, Julius Caesar re-established in Corinth freedmen from Italy and founded a Roman colony in the place of the deserted Greek city. The city had been ruined after the defeat of the Greeks by the Roman general Lucius Mummius at the Isthmus in 146 BC. Immediately after its foundation as Colonia Laus Iulia Corinthiensis, the city began minting again —an activity abandoned since the end of the third century BC. The mint of the Corinthian colony had developed into the most important mint of Achaia by the early third century AD, when mintage was disrupted.

Circulation in Corinth

Lacking any relevant monograph which would gather the numismatic finds of the excavations in Corinth, the material presented has emerged from the indexation of numerous excavation reports, published in the journal Hesperia, and from monographs of the series Corinth. Results of Excavations Conducted by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, which presents the excavation findings of particular archaeological sections.

Corinthian Coinage

As one would expect, the vast majority of coins circulating in the city during the three periods examined are the local issues of Corinth (2,048 local coins, 410 provincial and 657 Roman coins). Especially during the first century BC, out of a total of 1,505 coins, 1,329 coins are Corinthian. The number of the local issues changes significantly in the two following centuries, when there are 207 (131 provincial and 106 Roman coins) and 110 local coins (157 provincial and 220 Roman coins) respectively. However, a methodological issue should be considered; an important number of Corinthian coins have not been included in the study, since the published excavation reports do not offer sufficient evidence for their dating (402 coins). Yet it remains clear, that, even if these specimens were to be included in the remaining two centuries and thus somewhat affect the numbers, they would not contradict the overall image of reduced local circulation or mintage. The latter mainly concerns the second century AD, since in the following period Corinth is monetarily active for only 13 years (193-approx. 205 AD). Unfortunately, there has been no die study of the second and third century Corinthian coinage. However, the study of all published material indicates that the small number of second century Corinthian coins discovered in situ does not reflect their limited production but rather a larger circulation of Roman coins in the city.

Provincial Coinage

With regard to provincial mints, few are the ones not presented here due to insufficient evidence of dating (only 31 coins). It is observed that, although Corinth was an international trading center, the majority of provincial coins in circulation come from neighboring cities. 85% of the total amount comes from the province of Achaia —of which a subtotal of 76% concerns Peloponnesian cities. In the second century, the amount of coinage from Argos, Patras, Sparta, Sicyon as well as Athens, is considerably high. The presence of coins coming from distant provinces to the city of Corinth suggests closer relationships with the West and the East, rather than the North. What should be noted is that the aforementioned finds do not constitute an index of trade since they are bronze coins of low value, which could easily get lost. Therefore, they are more indicative of the movement of the people who visited the city on administrative, religious, touristic, or other grounds.

Roman Coinage

As regards the circulation of Roman coinage, an increase in its percentage is observed as time goes by. During the first century AD, Roman coins constitute only 6% of the total currency in circulation; this percentage amounts to 37% in the second century and 59% in the third century. This significant increase of Roman coinage in the third century is mainly due to the fact that Corinth only minted under the reign of Septimius Severus. Additionally, the coins are mostly antoniniani (silver-plated coins) from the reign of Gallienus. The presence of a great number of such coins could be related to the extremely precarious conditions due to the invasion of the barbaric tribe of the Heruli in 267 AD. It should be noted that this presentation does not include Roman coins lacking evidence as to their metal (that is, 38 coins in the first, 90 in the second and 156 in the third century AD).

Roman Athens

During the Achaean War, Athens had been an ally of the Romans. After the victory of Lucius Mummius at the Isthmus, the Romans did not destroy Athens, as they did with Corinth, but bestowed the privileged status of a free city (civitas libera et foederata). Nevertheless, when the city supported the king Eupator Mithridates VI of Pontus in the war against the new superpower, the consul Cornelius Sulla conquered Athens and temporarily deprived the city of its privileged status. Contrary to Corinth, colonists from Italy never systematically settled in Athens, while the city remained an important intellectual and religious hub, which gathered visitors from other regions of the Greco-Roman world —a fact also evident by the currency in circulation.

From the Mithridatic Wars to approximately 40 BC, Athens produced very few coins of the traditional Athenian types “the head of Athena and owl,” known as “stephanephora” (wreath-bearing) and mainly bronze coins of the same types. The abandoning of the traditional iconography at Athens occurs during the reign of Marcus Antonius. From that moment down to the reign of Augustus, the production of bronze coinage continues unabated. Then, a cessation of minting activity is observed until the 120s AD, when production starts anew and lasts until the 170s AD. Following a long gap, the coinage of Athens resumed during the last four years of the reign of Gallienus (264-267 AD).

Circulation in Athens

The Athenian and provincial coins discovered in the excavations of the Athenian Agora between 1931 and 1990 have been systematically studied and thoroughly published by Kroll and Walker in their relevant monograph. For the Roman coins we have principally relied on the monograph by Thompson, which covers only the excavation material between 1931 and 1949. For the remaining years, we have worked with the scant material presented in the journal Hesperia. Of course, this disproportionate nature of the published material should be taken into consideration when interpreting data. Furthermore, our study omits 10 provincial coins of uncertain dating, as well as more than 849 Athenian coins which Kroll dates between the first and the second period.

Athenian Coinage

In Athens, the coins circulating between the end of the Mithridatic Wars and the reign of Augustus are exclusively local (there are only 31 Hellenistic coins from other cities and 15 Roman coins in a total of 1,288 coins). The city relies on its own production in the following period, as well (2,060 Athenian coins and only 104 provincial and 46 Roman ones). It should be noted that, according to Kroll, all Athenian coinage of the first century AD was minted during the reign of Augustus. As shown by the hoard evidence and the preservation of these coins, they continued to circulate in the second and possibly even during the third century AD. According to evidence from our research, the percentage of local coinage significantly decreases during the third century and amounts to 58% (in contrast to 97% in the first century BC, 93% in the first century AD and 88% in the second century AD).

Roman Coinage

The Roman coins discovered in the city show a gradual increase —from just 1% in the first century BC to 38% in the second century AD. This fact might be interpreted as a “compliance” of the local markets to the Roman numismatic system. The presence of an incredibly large number of antoniniani from the era of Gallienus is definitely linked to the destruction of a substantial part of the city by the invasion of the Heruls in 267 AD —as suggested also by emergency hoards discovered in that area.

Provincial Coinage

The presence of coinage from other provincial mints in Athens remains particularly low in all the periods examined and fluctuates from 2% to 5%. A large number of these coins (62%) come, as expected, from neighboring mints of the province of Achaia —mostly from Corinth and Sparta. As in the case of Corinth, foreign coins in Athens point to an intense mobility from the cities of the East and less contacts with the North. The number of coins coming from Nikopolis is especially high.

Differentiations in Numismatic Circulation between Athens and Corinth

The study of the numismatic material has shown some basic differences in the circulation of currency in the two cities under examination. Firstly, it is observed that both Roman and provincial coins —that is, all “foreign” coins— have been found in a larger percentage in Corinth (21% Roman and 13% provincial coins) than in Athens (12% Roman and 3% provincial coins). The possibility of precarious conclusions concerning the number of Roman coins discovered in Athens has already been noted. Regarding, however, the provincial mints, a possible explanation for the difference that emerges could be due to the fact that Athens uses its own metrological system, as opposed to Corinth that, as the majority of the provincial mints, followed the Roman standard. Therefore, foreign coins entering the city should have been exchanged and indeed at a price highly profitable for Athens—a city that probably used the metal to mint its own coins that were of higher nominal value.

Secondly, the origin of provincial coins shows the closer communication of Athens with more distant areas, since 24% of the finds come from Asia Minor, 7% from the southeastern provinces and another 7% from Macedonia and Thrace. In Corinth, the total percentage of specimens coming from cities beyond the province of Achaia covers only 15%. This fact is consistent with the role and the historical course of the two cities. As the capital of the province, Corinth attracted visitors from neighboring areas —mainly for administrative reasons— whereas Athens was an international cultural and educational center.


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Research directed by: Sophia Kremydi. Collaborator: Athina Iakovidou. GIS Cartography: Panagiotis Stratakis