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XXI

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Into the Lion's Den - Sharing Ancient Coins with a Middle School Class

The following is a letter that was posted on Moneta-L (an ancient coin e-mail discussion group).  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did and put his advice to good use.

From: David M. Garstang

Well, I survived my two trips to the "lion's den", and had an absolute blast. My daughter is in seventh grade. They just got done studying Rome in Social Studies, so I volunteered to give a little presentation on ancient Roman coins. I can talk to an auditorium full of adults without throwing up or anything, but a classroom full of middle-schoolers scares the heck out of me.  OK, for those of you still with me, I'm going to go into some detail below, because I'm hoping (hint! hint!) that some of you will do the same thing.  It's great -- really!

First, I passed out little sealed coin envelopes, each containing two lower-grade little bronze Roman coins (mostly Constantine era), good enough in all cases to see that there was a portrait. As they opened the envelopes and took out the coins, I had them think about the fact that 1,600 to 1,800 years ago, Roman citizens were carrying these around in their pouches to spend. We then speculated on what they might have bought, and how the coins might have been found (dropped coins found by metal detectorists, pots buried in people's basements found by archaeologists, etc), and how many had been made (200 million to 500 million per year estimated at peak Constantinian times -- 1 BILLION every 2-5 years! Wow!)

We then roughly compared early Imperial values (1 denarius approx. 1 day's pay for common laborer) to Diocletian's "price controls" (100 denarii for eight quarts' volume of wheat). "So you have to work 1/3 of a year for two gallon jugs' full of wheat??? I don't think so! What gives??" This led into -- inflation!

To illustrate Roman-style inflation, I passed around two Roman Egyptian tetradrachms (a big heavy silver of Otho vs. a little bronze of Carus) and two antoniniani (a large silver Trajan Decius vs. smaller, thinner bronze from Claudius II). Otho to Carus is more than 200 years, but T. Decius to Claudius II is a mere 20, so see how bad things can get very fast!

Fakes were fun, both ancient (I passed around a couple of fourres) and modern (a real Pertinax denarius side-by-side with a Bulgarian fake).  The kids speculated about how ancient coins were made. Most thought they would be cast, and I mentioned that the earliest Roman coinage was, but that it was much faster to strike them. The teacher pointed out the "splat" shaped edges, rather than the perfect circles of modern coins.

Then it was story time, illustrated with coins. I led with the nice story.

- Antoninus Pius and Faustina: "I'd rather live with her [in exile] than without her in the palace," then on to some fun ones.

- Commodus, the "Roman Hercules", fighting in the arena, then being poisoned & strangled by his girlfriend and her "other" boyfriend, the wrestler. ("No way they were going to pass THIS one off as 'natural causes'").

This is my daughter's favorite story.

- The "Brotherly Love" of Caracalla & Geta.

- Mommy & Son (Julia Soaemis and Elagabalus) dragged through the streets and dumped in the Tiber, to much general rejoicing.

- "I was a Teenage Emperor", or "How Five Emperors Became Dead and 13-year-old Gordian III became the sole ruler of Rome, all in the same year."

- "Ya wanna see my Emperor skin?" Emperor as living footstool and Temple wall hanging -- the ignominious end of Valerian I at the hands of Shapur I. (This was especially nice, because they hadn't talked much about the fact that there were other big, powerful empires in the world that Rome couldn't conquer) The only non-Roman coin I showed was a Shapur I drachm, and the kids thought it was very cool.

Of course, I had to skip many good stories for brevity's sake.

SUGGESTIONS: If you're going to do this (and I HIGHLY recommend it!), here are things that worked well for me:

1. "Hook" them early. The second presentation, I asked them their ages up front, got 11, 12, and one 13. I then mentioned that he was old enough to be a Roman emperor. This worked very well, because he was clearly one of the more "difficult" students, but once I cast him as Gordian III, he was on my side all the way. Also, the idea that someone 1,800 years from now might find the loose change that they dropped last week was intriguing to them.

2. Tie it in to their own experience. "How many of you have brothers and sisters? When I was a kid, we'd go on long car trips. I'd draw a line on the seat and say 'This is my side and that's yours!' Well, Caracalla and Geta did something like this in the Imperial Palace ..."

3. Get them involved. This may take several tries; it did for me. "How do you think they ..." at first yielded nervous glances or blank stares, but eventually, they got into it. And "Suppose you're a soldier, about to march off to war. What do you do with your extra money?" always got someone to pipe in with "Bury it!"

4. Have fun! Speak casually, not formally. "Caracalla and Geta finally decided to split the Empire, but their mother said, 'How are you going to split me??', and they said 'Oh, gee, Mom! Well, okay!'"

5. Give them coins!!! (Bribery is good ...) Even if they're ancient slug-quality coins. Surely, some friendly Internet coin dealer would unload some of his/her "floor sweeps" on you for just the cost of shipping. If you're lucky, you might even get someone to generously donate some recognizable "bargain" bronzes.

6. Pre-package the coins in little envelopes. The little yellow "coin envelopes" at Staples work great. If you don't, the kids will rummage around for hours trying to find the very best. Let them take out the coins, touch them, think about ancient Romans touching and carrying them around, before you get too deep into the lecture.

7. Fun visual aids. No way they would know what a "modius" was, so I cut the top off a gallon milk jug and used it to hold the coin envelopes I passed around. Then, when we were talking about Diocletian's price controls, it went something like this: "100 denarii for 1 modius of wheat. Who knows what a modius is? No one? Well, a modius is a peck. And a peck is 1/4 bushel, of course. You all know what a bushel is right? No?? Well, fortunately, I have my half-modius scoop right here!" (holding up the jug)

8. Don't "sanitize" too much. Of course, too much s*x can get you in trouble with parents, but the kids love the gruesome stuff -- the nastier, the better. (I did avoid Caligula, though ...)

Things that DIDN'T work well:

1. Long stretches of "lecture". Break it up with anecdotes or passing around coins to look at.

2. Complicated stories. "I Was a Teenage Emperor" gets long and complicated in the middle. I had them in the beginning, and I got them back toward the end, but around the middle, their attention was wandering.

3. Trying to get their attention back too quickly from their coins. Give them time to enjoy their treasures. It will pay off later in the program. 

Is it scary? Yes. Is it fun? YES! Do I recommend you do it yourself? Absolutely!

Dave