ERIC II Review

The second edition of the Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins by Rasiel Suarez follows its namesake little brother by only five years but in some ways it is a very different book. ERIC II was a hungry little fellow growing from 618 pages in 2005 to 1455 in 2010. This review will try to treat the new book as a completely new work rather than making repeated comparisons to ERIC I. There will come a place below where I will have to address whether owners of the first version need to ‘upgrade’ to this one but that is not clear enough to me as I write this first paragraph to include it quite yet.

As a way of disclaimer, these comments are based on an unbound galley proof of the book sent to me by the author for this purpose. ERIC II has not yet made it to these shores in final form as of this date (September, 2010). I really hope that I don’t spend too much time worrying about matters that the author later changed and I have come not to proofread the book but to review it. Unfortunately, there are some matters of practical use of the book that will be different when you have a copy all bound up in one package. This is particularly the case since we are dealing with a book this big. The galley weighs 16.6 pounds but I believe it is on heavier paper than the final, bound versions so it would be unfair for me to suggest visiting your physician before attempting to lift the book especially if you have had recent surgery. It will still be a ‘big’ book – perhaps 10 pounds. I can not comment on such matters as how well the book lays flat or other physical characteristics.

The purpose of the book was to provide a one volume overview of the coins it covers. My first question is whether we benefit greatly by it being one volume when that volume is large enough to cause physical damage when dropped on one’s foot? There is a point where we have to realize that it might be better to admit defeat and break the book into, lets say, four parts which would obviously make it even more expensive. This is the first of many decisions I’m glad I didn’t have to make.

People will obviously ask how this book compares to RIC (The Roman Imperial Coinage in ten volumes some of which got split into more than one section). The answer is: “It doesn’t!” ERIC II is no reworking of RIC it never was intended to be (read the Preface for details). While most of its entries are taken directly from RIC and RIC numbers are quoted wherever possible, this is not an RIC clone. If ERIC has an ancestor it would be Cohen from the 19th century (in French and in eight volumes, am I seeing a pattern here?) but even that is a bit of a stretch. Cohen listed every coin known to exist in that day. Since then many more have been discovered. ERIC II consists of lists of types and legends that exist followed by an even longer list of permutations of the combinations that exist. Added to that are really excellent photographs of most of the “types” (not all made it). Someone will ask, “How many coins are illustrated in the book?” The answer is, “Almost none!” The vast majority of the illustrations do not show whole coins but merely individual sides of a coin. There may be (random example – Trajan Decius) five obverses and twenty-three reverses but you are left to figuring out which photos went together (if you care). Unlike the lists, the images do not show coins as much as they illustrate a typical coin having the characteristic, for example, “Victory walking left with wreath and palm”. It was not considered important for you to know what that coin looked like on the other side since the image represents all versions and denominations that shared the listed characteristics. Here we meet another of those decisions I’m glad was not up to me. Including all 23 matching obverses would have made the book even bigger (we don’t need that) and more expensive ($150 is really not bad for a numismatic book even approaching this size but we never want to suggest making anything cost more). The book lists 37 Decius reverses but only photographs 23. This is not anything to criticize since most of the ones missing are rarities included from previous catalogs and it would be altogether impossible to track down each and every one of the medallions, aurei and special issue coins that ever existed (do some even still exist or was the only one lost in the bombings of World War II?). The author did a good job tracking down and obtaining photographs of the most types you will be likely to see. There are exceptions where common coins are missing but there are many really unusual things shown and shown well. All coins are shown in the same size which means that denarii are about twice life size while early sestertii are reduced to the same diameter as the denarii. Some later sestertii, by chance, come out about life size. I know how hard it is to keep correct life size on a book (see the photos I did for Victor Failmezger’s Late Roman Bronze book for proof and I was taking all the photos). Trying to size photos supplied from various sources would be really difficult. I am not sure I disagree with the decision made to keep them all the same and the enlargement does make the little coins look nice!

I was less thrilled by some of the coins selected to represent their type. There are many really beautiful Extremely Fine coins included thanks to the author receiving cooperation from some of the really big names among ancient coin dealers. The weaker points are equally likely to be the more common coins. In many cases the most common coins are not at all common well struck with full legends. It hurts me to see a coin in my meager collection of photos that could have added or upgraded an illustration for its type. In a few cases, the author sought out cooperation from a private collections but this could have been done in more places. Big name auction houses have great photos of great and rare coins. Common coins deserve to be shown in as good condition as could be found, too. In most cases, this was done well. The section on the emperor Philip I and family is obviously better for the assistance of Jim Shaffer (who is credited on those pages).

I mention Philip because he also serves to illustrate what I consider to be a serious fault with the book. In an attempt not to be just another RIC, ERIC II almost goes out of the way to avoid being educational. Any beginning collector faces a few very common problems early in the game and one of these is how to tell coins of Philip I from Philip II. Both used the same legends as Augustus. Both were shown with busts right, left, radiate, laureate, cuirassed etc. Where in the listing is the new collector to get any help separating the coins of the two? I admit that there is some controversy on the attribution of some of these coins but I would have been happy even with a mention of the problem somewhere on the Philip pages. I find it a bit beyond belief that an Encyclopedia of the coins of the two Philips could be written without the word “beard” even being mentioned.

That brings us to the question of what ERIC II is and is not. It is not formally educational in the sense of RIC but there is a lot of information there to be gleaned out by those willing to apply some effort to apply the evidence shown in the lists and on the photos. It is not a formal numismatic survey of coinage issues but a list of thousands of individual coins. There is even a lot of really interesting information presented in the chapter heading biographies. I have not fact checked or even read all of these yet but the one on Septimius Severus (my favorite emperor) says he died “at the ripe old age of 89” in 211 AD which does not compute with his usual statistic of being born in 145 AD). I never thought of Septimius being all that old (211-145=66). I’ll need to do some research here and elsewhere to confirm things I learned in ERIC II before I take them as gospel. I’d write this off as a typo except for the fact that I take offense at 66 being called ‘ripe old’. Septimius was taken ‘in his prime of life at only 66’.

What ERIC II ‘is’ is a list of coins that exist so lets try it out and see if we can find some coins. To do this, I selected a few coins from my collection and ran them through the process as I understood it. The results may show my faults as much as the book’s and I will point out that I own and use RIC so I may come with a set of prejudices not a problem to the target audience of the book. I avoided coins I considered particularly special or rare thinking it would be asking too much to expect them to be in the book. I will report on the process below.

My first selected example is certainly fair because it is a reverse type illustrated in the ERIC II plates. The coin is Septimius Severus type 135, Victory standing left on globe holding wreath and palm. Not only is my coin the same type but it came from the same reverse die as the illustrated coin (since ERIC II doesn’t show obverses, we can only assume they match as well?). The type was not listed in ERIC I nor in RIC so it is new material for this edition. To find a coin in ERIC II we must compare it in four ways to separate lists. First, my coin has a laureate head right so I went to the ‘Busts’ list and found it listed as number B03. My coin has the obverse legend IMP CAE L SEP SEV PERT AVG COS II (the common Emesa mint legend) which appears in the ‘Obverses’ list as O20. Next we looked up the reverse legend VICT AVG in the list of ‘Reverses’ finding it listed as number R331. Finally, from style and the obverse legend I know the coin is Emesa mint so the code list tells me M2. That makes my coin:

B03 O20 R331 T235 M2

All that remains is to look up that code combination and get the ERIC II listing number. Here is where I really disagree with a decision that was made. The coins are catalogued within their denominations alphabetically starting with the Bust. After the very few B02 (head left) coins comes seven pages of B03 head right listings. That is no problem. Next we find quite a few O20 legend coins but many coins are missing a few letters so it is not always obvious whether a coin is really an O20 or one of the two dozen minor spelling variations on the standard Emesa legend listed under ‘Obverses’ among the total of 90 Septimius legends. Knowing the series really helps but the target audience of the book is not people who already know the series. Within the O20 section we find the listings for R331. My example is missing a letter so it could be either R331 or R325 but since the ERIC II plate photo of the type shows that letter and the dies match, I am comfortable assuming R331 is correct. All that is left is to scan down within the list finding three entries B03 O20 R331 until we come to T235. It is not there. Either I have done something wrong or the coin illustrated as T235 did not get into the list. This is a rare coin so I am starting to feel bad using it but the three types listed B03 O20 R331 are also pretty scarce coins. The more distressing part is the most common VICT AVG coin (R331) is T216 which is also missing here. Wondering what I have done wrong, I scanned through all of the listings and found T235 listed as B03 O81 R361 T235 M4 which is a typo for T234, an illustrated coin. Typos happen so that is not a problem; leaving out the illustrated coin is a little more serious; leaving out the common type is worse. I think I’ll just chalk my first effort up as a loss and move on.

I would feel a whole lot better if the alphabetical order priority had been based on the type (or even reverse legend as did Cohen) which would make it easier to find errors caused by misreading part legend or unclear coins. At least by sorting type first, the typo would have stood out placing the Rome mint later period coin in the Emesa section where it would have stood out like a sore thumb. Starting with the bust type and obverse legends makes no sense whatsoever to me. The list would be much easier to use if you could match up the types to the photos or text listings and work back through the legends and minutia of busts where reading errors are more likely to lead you astray.

‘Easy to use’ is not the phrase in my mind as I move to a second coin. I’ll pick something easier. My favorite coin of Nero is the type commemorating the closing of the door on the temple of Janus. My example is a copper as with laureate head right, IMP NERO CAESAR AVG GERM / PACE P R VBIQ PARTA IANVM CLVSIT. Looking at the photos (really nice photos this time) I see that I need to specify that the doors are on the right side of the temple so the coin codes out as B07 O03 R35 T42. Scanning down the lists the exact combination is shown as #476 adding the information that the combination only comes from M4 or Rome mint. This was too easy; I’m starting to like the book. I also notice that the listing continues across a four inch gully adding the date of 66 (AD) and RIC I 347. The RIC listing is printed in gray rather than black indicating that the listing is made on the basis of a prior book but that the author has not actually confirmed the existence of the coin. Most of ERIC II is quoted from listings in RIC, Cohen and other great scholarly works on these coins and it is nice to see the bold type indicating confirmation of the coin. I did not like that four inch gap making it necessary to use a straight edge across the page to be sure you get the right line. Some later periods fill in some of this space with mintmark, other information or longer reference lists so it would not work to put two columns on a page. If we must have blank space I’d prefer to see it on the sides with the occasional notes at the right rather than down the middle. The page might look less well balanced but it would be easier to use.

Since many of the people that might want to buy ERIC II collect late Roman coins, I feel I should run a sample of a coin with mintmarks and see how it goes. The coin of the moment is an AE3 of Crispus with a fancy left facing bust and the Jupiter standing reverse. Again my discomfort with minutia of late Roman bust types makes me really sorry that ERIC II keys on that characteristic first so I started with the photos and selected the one that matched best. Since both legends were clear I then had a string B?? O18 R26 T32 M6. Late Roman listings include a new column showing the mintmark and field letters/devices. It was relatively easy to find the string matching the part I had plus the wreath/A/SMK making my coin a B49 and ERIC II number 723. The trouble I had with the bust types was not ERIC’s fault since these were copied from other references using the standard terms of the hobby. ERIC is an organized listing based on various standard works with many new coins added. It is not intended to be a whole new study of the huge subject. I’d certainly call this a successful operation working well enough to find my coin.

Earlier, I suggested an avoidance of being educational where it would help. My next example brought that up again. I wanted to look up an URBS ROMA wolf and twins commemorative universally accepted as issued by Constantine the Great and his kids for a few years before and after dad died. RIC splits these by weight according to whether they were issued alongside the 2 soldiers 2 standards or 2 soldiers 1 standard types. While probably accurate, this split between RIC volumes VII and VIII never was very user friendly for beginners. ERIC II handled this by placing all together not with Constantine or his sons but back in the ‘Anonymous’ section with other numismatic orphans like quadrantes of the 2nd century and the pornographic tesserae with the large Roman numerals on the reverse. You may find your coin keys out to two different listings with one referenced to RIC VII and the second to RIC VIII which is completely in line with the RIC split. The first listings are the heavy ones (matching two standard types) and the last are the lighter (issued with one standard coins). A note explaining the reason for the double listings would have been expected in an educational book but this is a list.

While the wolf and twins got full coverage, one of my favorite issues, the Coins of the Great Persecution (now usually placed with Maximinus II), were squirreled away with only one photo each (including a particularly poor example of one of the two most common ones) and captions but no detailed catalog of existing variations. Rubbing salt in my wound was the half page of blank paper left at the bottom of page 1199 exactly where that catalog would fit. I’m trying to assemble a set by officina and variety of the two common types. This listing is a little better than that in RIC where they were omitted altogether when the authors of Volumes VI and VIII each thought they belonged to the other. I lost interest in cataloging the wolf but you can do yours if you look between Romulus Augustus and Arcadius.

Like Cohen, ERIC II considers coins of the Eastern Empire (after Theodosius I split the Empire up between his kids) to be Byzantine. Cohen left them out altogether; ERIC II included Arcadius as the first of 250 pages of Byzantine issues taking the Roman series all the way to 1453 AD. A sudden thought: Why not stick something else in so the coverage of the end of the Byzantines under Constantine XI in now on page 1450 could end on page 1453 to match the year? What could we stick in? How about expanding the page 1451 coverage of the Anonymous Christ folles now consisting of just four coins with no identifications beyond the note that these four are the main types known? Perhaps the identification of the coins to reigns is too controversial? Perhaps using old fashioned terms like Classes A, B, C and G (the four shown) would require too much explanation? Coins showing a portrait of Christ have a following in the Christian market. Do these extremely popular and common types deserve coverage even beyond the half page of blank space now occupying page 1451? The author is obviously no fan of anonymous coins.

Perhaps you have sensed that I was disappointed in many aspects of ERIC II. However I do believe that it would be a great help to many collectors – particularly those who will be buying high grade examples of high value coins. It will do less for those owning coins difficult to attribute even to a ruler with certainty. I’m not yet sure that the book is worth $150 to me but I already have a rather extensive library of coin books, I am not a Roman only collector and I have a decent familiarity with online resources that enables me to find much of what I want to know for free. Collectors new to the hobby wanting to know what is available could benefit from the book. For collectors desiring a catalog of everything that the book covers (including Byzantines but not Republicans), the price strikes me as a bargain. If you only collect a small range of issues (perhaps the 12 Caesars) you might be as well off buying a volume of RIC or BMC (British Museum Catalog) but a set of other comprehensive books to cover the whole period of ERIC II would cost ten times as much and be nearly that much heavier. I do consider ERIC II more than the equal value of $150 worth of any other beginner level catalog listings (Sear, VanMeter, Vagi). Sear is very nice in many ways but not as complete and has not reached the end of the Empire yet (let alone Byzantine). The part already released sells for more than ERIC II and we really don’t know what we will have when the last volume appears.

The pictures are beautiful. The only better sources of as many pictures are online sites like Wildwinds or ACSearch. There are enough of them to give a good idea of what is available but sometimes I wish I had more than one version of a type when the style is considerably different from the one selected. This is most obvious when the chosen plate coin is an aureus and you are trying to match up a bronze nominally of the same type. There is also the matter of various mints having such different style that a Rome mint coin and its Eastern version poorly match each other. At the least I would like to have seen illustrations of a typical coin from branch mints during the period that the distinction was made by style not by mintmark. Personally I wish that both sides of every coin had been shown but I realize that this would have a downside that might make the book less desirable in other ways. It is hard to review a book according to how well it fits the needs of someone else. I loved the anecdotal parts including the box on each ruler discussing how difficult or expensive it would be to add that ruler to your collection.

I regret the typos and other errors but I did not seek out the ones that I found. It seems they sought me out and made me crazy with frustration. Nowhere near all I found made it into this review. Too many typos and other errors were missed in the proofreading. Proofreading and fact checking this book would be a monumental task (years for one person). Should it have been delayed again and again as updates piled up or was the author right to be proud of the achievement and turn it loose on the world? Owners will want to write in corrections as problems are found. I regret most the decisions like the plutoing of anonymous coins and the seeming aversion to opportunities to be a little educational where it would help without being painful. New collectors needing help understanding basics of the identification of the Philips, the shared legends of Caracalla and Elagabalus or the Maximi(a)nus mess will need to look elsewhere for assistance.

I loved the Preface. In it the author summed up the ultimate truth of the matter when he said that only an ‘insane idiot’ would undertake a project like this. You can’t argue with such logic. Still it is a pleasant type of insanity that produces a book so pretty even if there are low points in the proofing and decisions that were made exactly the opposite of the way you would have done your book. The fact remains that it was not my book and I should not expect it to meet my every wish.

Here is the question: Do you need ERIC II? Perhaps. Do you need to know yet another catalog number for your coins? Are you the sort that lives to have cross reference numbers for every coin you own? Do you agree with the author’s implication that the individual coin is what counts but an overall understanding of the big picture is secondary? Do you want RIC numbers but don’t want to buy RIC? I really don’t care what number is assigned to a coin but I love to see other related information and how the coins fit in with other coins to make the numismatic history of the times. If you find that boring or beyond your level of interest, perhaps ERIC II is everything you have been wanting.

Don’t get me wrong: There is a lot of information in the book. There is a lot of interesting material sandwiched between all those columns of numbers. The non-numismatic anecdotal information is fun. I wish there were more background numismatic information beyond the lists and the comments on how much it will cost to add the coin to your collection.

No coin book, no website, no personal conversation can be relied upon to be without error and ERIC II has weak spots that will require critical evaluation rather than slavish acceptance. It is an admirable effort with much more good than bad. Of course, I wish it were perfect; I wish errors were harder to find. Who wouldn’t? I hope enough people out there are still buying coin books to make writing them less than total and complete idiocy. I can think of hundreds of worse uses for $150 than buying this book. I encourage each of you to consider whether this huge effort fits your needs. While it costs twice as much as ERIC I, it is more than twice as good so owners who liked the old version may be expected to love the new one. There is a lot of information present even if some of it requires more work to extract than we might like. There are errors - possibly a lot of them - but how many good listings are we willing to give up for fear of finding one of the problems? No one will be writing a better book of its kind anytime soon so if you want anything remotely like this work, get it while you can.

It was a big book and the review is no dwarf either. If anyone who has read this far has specific concerns, I'd be happy to discuss them as long as I still have the galley for reference. I'm not offering to look up each and every coin in your collection and provide and ERIC II number but the fact remains that we will not really know if the book is good for us until we have used it extensively and determined what effect it had on our daily collecting activity.

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(c) 2010 Doug Smith