ROMAN PROVINCIAL COUNTERMARKS: AN INTRODUCTION
1. INTRODUCTIONThe practice of “countermarking” coins, or adding elements of design to a coin after it had originally been struck, was widespread throughout much of antiquity. This was particularly common in the provinces of the Roman Empire. This brief paper discusses what Roman Provincial countermarks are, some reasons why they were applied, and shows how they can be collected and studied. No scholarly ambitions lie behind this paper, which only aims to offer an introduction to what is certainly one of the most fascinating and enigmatic fields within ancient numismatics. (All links to coin illustrations are in "red" to distinguish them from other links, which are in "blue")
2. WHAT A ROMAN PROVINCIAL COUNTERMARK IS AND WHAT IT MAY LOOK LIKERoman coins are typically divided into four of main classes, including Roman Republican, Roman Imperatorial, Roman Imperial and Roman Provincial coins (the latter here being defined as those coins not belonging to the "Roman" monetary system or not intended for widespread circulation across the empire, henceforth referred to as RPCs). Primarily, Roman Provincial Countermarks include all countermarks applied under provincial authority to any Roman coin. There are, however, also a number of countermarks applied under imperial authority to provincial coins (e.g. by the Roman Legions), which are commonly also treated as Roman Provincial Countermarks.The application of a countermark, thus, took place under imperial or official provincial authority. Consequently, private bankers’ marks, as might have been applied to silver coins to certify their silver content, are not considered as countermarks, since these were (to the best of our knowledge) applied without official sanction. A test cut, as might be made on a silver coin, certainly does not qualify as a countermark, even if these are occasionally presented as such by, e.g., sellers of ancient coins.For the purpose of this paper, a countermark (also known as a counter stamp) is defined as a mark punched into the obverse or reverse of what is referred to as a host coin after the host coin had already been provided with a complete design. I.e., a design element is not considered a countermark if applied to a blank that did not previously carry any other elements of design. Rather, the term emergency money might be used to refer to such a coin.Countermarks take many forms. The most common include heads and busts of gods or members of the imperial family, standing figures (usually of deities), animals, inanimate objects typically associated with certain cities, single and multiple letters, and monograms. The shape of the countermark punch is also a significant characteristic of the countermark. The punch is usually circular, oval, oblong, square, rectangular, triangular, or shaped according to the object depicted. Commonly, the punch is recessed into the coin allowing the design of the countermark to rise above the background, although there are also “incuse” countermarks. Additionally, a few countermarks take the forms of “incised” marks, i.e. rather than using a particular punch a sharp tool was used to “incise” a line or combination of lines.
3. PURPOSES OF COUNTERMARKINGIn the preceding section, the symbolism of countermarks is touched upon. It is, however, important to distinguish between the countermark as an element of design and the purpose for which it was applied to a host coin.Countermarks were applied to coins for many reasons. Exactly when and why individual Provincial countermarks were applied is often difficult say with any certainty, although a set of generic reasons can be deduced. Here it is argued that these reasons break up into at least five main groups, including (3.1) the provision of new currency, (3.2) the revaluation of existing currency, (3.3) the reaffirmation of the validity of existing currency, (3.4) demonetization, and (3.5) reasons of propaganda and commemoration. Possibly, individual countermarks were applied for a combination of the above reasons.
3.1 The provision of new currencyAlthough the provincial series spans well over three centuries and coins were issued by more than 600 cities and other authorities, not all issuing authorities issued coins all the time. Quite to the contrary, in the case of most cities coins were issued only during relatively brief periods or on specific occasions, often decades apart. Additionally, often one or two denominations were issued, not satisfying the need for coinage. In fact, often it seems that coins were issued for reasons of civic pride rather than as a response to a lack of small change. Very few cities maintained a steady output of coins throughout the Roman period. Indeed, in the case of entire regions, like e.g. Lycia, most cities stuck coins of their own for a very brief time. Thus, when cities issued no coins of their own they relied on the issues of other cities for the provision of small change. There is plenty of find evidence indicating that issues of many cities circulated freely in entire regions (E.g., two such “monetary unions” have been identified in Moesia Inferior and Thrace). When coins did not circulate freely across, e.g., city borders, foreign coins could still be “imported” and countermarked to make them valid in another cities, in effect likely also making them invalid anywhere else. Even if this was not a terribly common practice, exceptions are fascinating, generating a wealth of countermark-and-coin varieties. One example is the city of Aphrodisias, which countermarked coins of many other cities with an image of Aphrodite (standing). Similarly, Sardis countermarked coins of other cities with a two-lineinscription. The first line read "CAP" (for Sardis), while the other line indicated the value of the coin after countermarking.During the first and second century A.D., Roman Imperial coins were occasionally countermarked in and by provincial cities to make them valid there. Often, such Imperial coins were heavily worn. “Unofficial” imperial coins were also countermarked to make them valid. I.e., imitative of counterfeit coins could be made legal tender through the provision of a countermark.Not only cities that did not issue their own coins countermarked imperial coins and the coins of other cities, however. Countermarks may have served the purpose of making the handling of coins easier. The enormous varieties of coins encountered by people in some regions must have caused a lot of confusion. A countermark may have cleared up some of that confusion.
3.2 The re- or devaluation of existing currencyRPCs often circulated for long periods of time, as indicated both by the amount of wear that the typical RPC has sustained and the fact that coins issued decades and even centuries apart are commonly encountered together in single hoards. We know for a fact that the Roman Empire underwent periods of inflation, instances of revaluation of currency, and on a few occasions revisions of the entire monetary system. Such periods and instances typically resulted in the removal of old coins. In the case of inflation, this occurred through what is commonly known as Gresham’s law (coins of high intrinsic value are hoarded), while, in times of revaluation and revision, through official withdrawal of old coins. In the provincial series we often see that, rather than withdrawing an old issue, a countermark was applied to give a coin a new value, perhaps to equate it with a new issue or clarify its relation to newly issued coins. Large bronze coins of Side, for example, are often found countermarked "E". The countermark indicates a devaluation to 5 assaria, and was applied to old 10 and 11 assaria pieces at the same time as new 10 assaria coins were issued. Not to cause confusion, the countermark was applied over the old denominational mark, obliterating it.Since we often do not know the original denomination of many or even most RPCs, the task of determining whether a specific alphanumeric countermark denotes a new denomination or something different is frequently a complicated one. In order to determine the meanings of such alphanumerical countermarks many coins must be examined, their sizes and weights subjected to comparison. There are plenty of examples where one can say with certainty that a specific alphanumerical countermark did not denote a new denomination, e.g. the commonly encountered “delta” countermark applied to coins of Seleuceia ad Calycadnum. Still, in many cases it is not possible to determine the meaning of an alphanumerical countermark, and it cannot be ruled out that its meaning is denominational simply because it is applied to coins of different size.Like in the case of gold and silver coins, the larger the bronze coin the higher the denomination. In the case of worn bronze coins, however, countermarks were occasionally applied to reduce their value, perhaps to equate them with smaller, newly issued coins. Within the Imperial series, there are examples of barbarous copies being given official sanction through the application of an imperial countermark. These countermarks may indicate that the barbarous coin circulated as a lower denomination than the coin of which it was a copy. Interestingly, this also gave rise to barbarous or imitative countermarks applied unofficially.
3.3 The reaffirmation of existing currencyThe term countermarking is somewhat misleading, since often the “mark” was not “counter” to anything. Instead, the countermark sometimes served to reaffirm information already provided by the coin, e.g. the issuing authority or the coin’s denomination.Coins issued under one emperor are occasionally countermarked with the head of another emperor, possibly indicating that also he sanctioned the coin. The application of imperial heads to coins did not serve only this purpose, however, since there are examples of coins that bear countermarks of the same imperial head as the coin! E.g., what has been interpreted as the head of Antoninus Pius was applied to coins of Trajan as well as of Antoninus Pius in Laodicea ad Mare.Another reason for applying countermarks was to equate old issues with new issues, e.g. when, in a new issue, only a single denomination was issued.RPCs typically circulated for long periods, often until the coins were worn nearly smooth. Even in the case of RPCs, however, came a time when a coin was worn enough that it could no longer circulate. Countermarking offered a cheap and efficient way of quickly returning a coin to circulation. One obvious reason for countermarking was thus to reaffirm original information more or less lost through wear. Exactly how common this practice was is difficult to say, since the countermark is recessed into the design and stays well preserved long after the coin has lost most of its original design. Since there are so many countermarked coins where the host coin is worn nearly or entirely smooth while the countermark is perfectly preserved, the countermark must surely often have served to reaffirm information provided by the host coin, though. One might also speculate whether a fee was charged by local authorities for countermarking and whether this might in fact have been one important reason for countermarking coins in the first place. Such speculation might also lead to the notion that there were forged countermarks applied to avoid paying the official fee… This is one area that has yet to be explored.
3.4 DemonetisationDemonetisation, or the removal of a coin’s status as currency, may have been one reason for countermarking, although perhaps not a very frequent one. Basically, this form of countermarking transformed coins into tesserae, and may explain part of the very large numbers of rare or unpublished countermarks. Logically, when turning a coin in a tessera fewer coins would have been countermarked than when countermarking was undertaken by an official authority.
3.5 Reasons of propaganda and commemorationLikely, other purposes than those relating to state or city finances lay behind countermarking. These may be celebratory or commemorative in nature. For example, it is generally not possible to say with much certainty, whether the countermarking of coins with the head of a new emperor, actually served the purpose of providing evidence that the coin was sanctioned by the new authority or whether the application served the purpose of celebrating that a new emperor had risen to power. Countermarks may also have been applied to commemorate certain events. It has, e.g., been suggested that countermarks on coins of Nicomedia in Bithynia were applied to mark that Caracalla spent his birthday there in A.D. 215.The countermark “COL” was applied to coins of Laodiceia ad Mare in Syria after that city achieved status as colony. The reason might have been to validate older coins with Greek legends and allow them to circulate alongside newer coins with Latin legends, but another reason might have been to mark the city’s change of status.
4. RESEARCHING ROMAN PROVINCIAL COUNTERMARKSWhile collecting countermarked Roman provincials is a stimulating endeavour in itself, adding to the body of knowledge of this enigmatic field can be so much more fulfilling. One does not have to hold a Ph.D. in numismatics to make a contribution. A tremendous amount of work remains to be done within this area, regarding (4.1) meanings of countermarks, (4.2) cities of application, (4.3) groups and issues of countermarks, (4.4) countermark designs, (4.5) dates of application, (4.6) order of application, (4.7) circulation patterns, (4.8) proportion studies, and (4.9) gaining knowledge of history from countermarks
4.1 Identifying potential meanings of a countermarkIt has already been noted that the design of a countermark may provide no clues as to its purpose. While the actual purposes of countermarks are often obscured by history, the meanings of the countermarks were supposedly perfectly clear to those who handled the coins on a daily basis. Much research remains to be done in this area. The potential meanings – and, possibly as a consequence of this, reasons for the application – of specific countermarks may e.g. be identified through the comparison of countermarks to coin types. Often a certain countermark will in fact bear the same design as coins of a city. Conclusions can, thus, potentially be drawn concerning the value of the countermarked coin in relation to other coins circulating in the city.Careful study of the history or characteristics of a city or region might also provide clues as to the meanings and purposed of countermarks. E.g., are there important historical events that might provide a countermark with further meaning? Even if the actual reasons for application of the countermark cannot be deduced, at least conclusions as to what the countermark alludes may be drawn.
4.2 Identify the city of applicationWhile an examination of the total body of coins bearing a certain countermark might lead to the conclusion that coins were more often than not countermarked in the city where the coins were originally issued, this is far from always the case. If most coins bearing a certain countermark are from one city, the implicit argument has been that the countermark was applied in that city, unless the countermark as such clearly indicates otherwise (e.g. through a legend or city-symbol). Careful study of countermarks and coin series might shed more light on whether this really is the case.Frequently host coins from many cities bear the same countermark, which raises the interesting question of which city was responsible for actually applying the countermark. One cannot, e.g., simply assume that the city where the greatest number of coins bearing a particular countermarked was the city where that countermark was applied.
4.3 Groups of countermarks and issues of countermarked coinsHowgego’s (1985) catalogue (see Literature below) is based on the idea that countermarked coins can be divided into groups based on the design of the countermark, the implicit argument being that one group equates one “issue” of countermark. Frequently, the actual groups in which he divides the coins are uncertain, however. Careful study of countermark dies as well as material discovered since the publication of the text (and material not included there such as a great many sales and auction catalogues) may provide further clues.In the case of many countermarks, only very few specimens are recorded. Quite frequently, designs – not necessarily very clear even when the countermarks were applied in the first place – have been obliterated by wear and time. Occasionally, on all published specimens the designs will be obscured and only qualified guesses as to what they are meant to depict can be made. In these instances, simply identifying a design will be a contribution to the knowledge of countermarked coins.
4.5 Dating countermarksAs noted above, it is sometimes difficult to say with any precision when in time a countermark was applied. Careful examination of both countermarked and non-countermarked coins of a certain city (primarily in those instances when a certain countermark was applied to coins of a particular city) might provide leads. The last date of striking of a coin bearing a countermark provides an indication of the earliest time of application (based on the presumption that countermarking typically took place at a particular point in time rather than over long periods), while the earliest date of striking of coins not bearing countermarks provides a hint as to the latest date of countermarking. Of course, when making such assumptions one may also consider the wear of host coins, although this usually does not provide very reliable evidence since the countermarks were recessed into the coins and often sustained little wear even after lengthy circulation.Another way of dating countermarks is the examination of entire populations of certain coins (see also below). If all or nearly all known coins of a certain type are found countermarked it is likely that countermarking took place soon after or even in connection with the issues of the coin, the reason being that not enough time would have passed for any or many coins to have become lost or buried.
4.6 The order of application of countermarksMany Roman Provincial and Imperial coins will bear more than one countermark. In some instances, all coins that display one particular countermark will also bear another, specific countermark. Then the conclusion can be drawn that they were likely applied at the same time. Often, however, some coins of a certain city will exhibit a sole countermark, while other coins of that city bear one, two or more addition countermarks. The study of existing material and newly discovered coins may provide important clues in determining the order of application.
4.7 Patterns of circulationIt has already been touched upon that countermarks may provided important clues as to the circulation patterns of coins, and as a consequence even say something about the patterns of movement of people.
4.8 Proportion of countermarked coinsExamination of entire populations of certain types as well as the mintages of cities during certain periods will provide some insights into whether all circulating coins were countermarked, i.e. whether countermarking was a prerequisite for further circulation. This is made problematic, however, by the fact that coins may have been lost or buried before the decision to implement countermarking.The portion of countermarked coins encountered might also imply something about the purpose of the application of the countermark. If the application was a prerequisite for further circulation a greater proportion of coins might be expected to be countermarked, compared to if the countermarked was applied to commemorate some specific event.
4.9 Learning about history from countermarksWhile studying the history of cities and regions might provide some clues as to the meanings of countermarks and the reasons for their application, studying countermarks may possibly provide insights into the history of people, cities and regions.
5. COLLECTING ROMAN PROVINCIAL COUNTERMARKSBy now it should be evident that Roman Provincial countermarks is an area that has a lot to offer both the scholar and the scholarly inclined collector. Below are presented some thoughts on (5.1) finding Roman Provincial countermarks, (5.2) paying for them, (5.3) grading countermarks, (5.4) collection themes, and (5.5) literature.
5.1 Finding Roman Provincial countermarksCountermarked coins make up a decent proportion of all Roman Provincials and a small fraction of Roman Imperials, although a guess as to the exact percentage should not be hazarded without reviewing a number of collections, sales catalogues etc.Countermarked coins are typically not very difficult to find for collectors, though. Most larger auctions and ancient coin dealers will feature some. A quick online search will reveal quite a number currently for sale, as well as records of hundreds sold in the recent past. It will also reveal that a relatively small group of countermarks are quite common, while the vast majority must be considered rare. Thus, when searching for a particular countermark, the collector may spend a decade or a life time and still not come across one. Selecting a very narrow collecting focus might, therefore, not be very satisfying.
5.2 Paying for Roman Provincial countermarksAs with most ancient coins, placing a value on a countermarked coin is difficult. The picture that emerges when the pricing of countermarked coins is studied is fragmented. It is not possible to say that a countermark will increase the value of a coin by a certain percentage. Indeed a countermark might even decrease its value. Collectors who buy coins for artistic reasons might find that the countermark detracts from the aesthetic properties of a coin, thus limiting the market for a certain coin (countermarks are perhaps not typically what one would call aesthetically appealing in themselves, although there are of course many exceptions). There is also the problem of flattening of the design on the side opposite to the one where the countermark was applied, detracting from the desirability of the coin. Countermarked coins may, thus, be cheaper than similar, non-countermarked specimens. A heavily worn coin that would hardly have any value in itself, though, will typically be easier to sell with a countermark. Indeed, fake countermarks can, therefore, been encountered. The number of collectors is small enough, though, that this does not currently seem to be much of a problem.Generally, as far as pricing of countermarked coins is concerned, the same “logics” apply as with most obscure ancient coins. Absolute rarity in itself does not play much of a role, prices at auctions being determined by the number of interested parties and their willingness to pay. More spectacular countermarks (in terms of design and historical connection) will fetch higher prices, as will than those sold by large and established dealers.
5.3 Grading Roman Provincial countermarksAny discussion concerning the grading of ancient coins gives rise to arguments. There are different grading systems that take different aspects of a coin’s appearance into consideration, and these grading systems are applied more or less liberally by collectors and dealers. Since most coins are nowadays sold only after the buyer has had a chance to evaluate it by proxy of a photo, the chances of disappointment and conflict are perhaps lesser than in the past, but grading none the less plays an important part both in transactions and reasons of valuation (for insurance reasons, e.g.). Countermarked coins are more complex to grade, though, since the countermark should be graded separately. The same grading scale is often applied as when grading coins in general, although in the case of the countermarks one may question whether this is appropriate. There are apparently no conventions concerning the application of specific grades to countermarks. The problem is compounded by the fact that countermarks sometimes do not look very clear when photographed. Also, many countermarks displayed little in the way of design when originally applied and many punches were obviously used for a long time.Maybe a scale referring to the “strength” of the countermark is more appropriate than one referring to wear. A countermark may have sustained no wear due to its recessed position, but may have been weakly struck, still displaying no or few features.
5.4 Themes for CollectionsMany themes around which collections may be build can be conceived of, including e.g. regional themes (i.e. a focus on coins from a geographical area), historical periods (i.e. countermarks of the first century), design of countermark (e.g. letters, busts etc.), special meanings of countermarks (e.g. imperial titles, revaluation), etc.
It is no exaggeration to say that the literature on Roman Provincial countermarks is limited. Except for Howgego’s (1985) work titled “Greek Imperial Countermarks” (recently reprinted), to the best of my knowledge there exist no comprehensive catalogues or works in this particular area. In the area of “Imperial countermarks”, R. Martini recently published a text and catalogue titled “The Pangerl Collection: Catalog and Commentary on the Countermarked Roman Imperial Coins”. There does, however, exist a number of studies of specific countermarks or those of specific cities. General works on Roman Provincial coins often include sections about this topic, as do introductory texts to the RPC area such as those by Butcher (1988) and Sayles (1998).
Joe Geranio Collection, anyone may use as long as credit is given.
Gaius (Caligula). AD 37-41. Æ As (28mm, 11.11 g, 6h). Rome mint. Struck AD 37-38. Bare head left / Vesta seated left on throne, holding scepter and patera; c/m: TIB CLA IMP (ligate). RIC I 38; for c/m: Pangerl 51.