Simanaitis Says

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TODAY WE CONTINUE WITH TIDBITS gleaned from Michael Kulikowski’s “What the Badger Found,” London Review of Books, February 2, 2023. 

The Drachm. Kurlikowski describes, “… the large silver coin that became ubiquitous was called the drachm, derived from the word for ‘handful,’ and its fraction was the obol, from obeliskoi, ‘spits’ – six obols, a handful, made a drachm. Like everything in the ancient Greek world, the coinage is so varied that it defies summary.” 

An ancient Greek silver drachm, featuring to the obverse the depiction of Alexander the Great as a young Herakles, portrayed wearing the lion’s skin headdress. Image from St James’s Ancient Art.

The Denarius. “The Romans,” Kulikowski says, “did without their own coinage much longer than many other Italian tribes, content with irregular hunks of bronze that had to be weighed to determine their value. At the beginning of the third century bc these were replaced with more or less regular cast bronzes that weighed as much as eight ounces and were marked to show their nominal value. Only during the Second Punic War, which began in 218 bc, did they begin to produce precious metal coinage in the manner of the Greeks. The first silver denarii appeared halfway through the war, in 211.”

According to Merriam-Webster, the word denarius evolved from the coin’s value being worth ten (Latin: decem) asses. 

Image of a denarius (plural: denarii) from Merriam-Webster.

As the republic fractured,” Kulikowski writes, “Julius Caesar became the first living man to see his portrait on a Roman coin; his ideological heir, Mark Antony, and his legal heir, Octavian, followed suit, as did some of their rivals. After Octavian, as Augustus, cemented Caesar’s autocracy behind a façade of republican restoration, ruler portraits, long a feature of Hellenistic monarchy, came to grace the obverse of Roman coinage.”

Coin Etymology. Kulikowski’s analyses take an etymological bent: “This Augustan system survived with only minor changes for more than two centuries, leaving a permanent imprint on our vocabularies: the denarius gives us the French denier, the Spanish dinero and the Arabic dinar, as well as the ‘d’ that stood for a pre-decimal British penny. (The £ symbol is a stylised capital L, from the Latin libra via the French livre, the Roman pound from which 96 denarii were meant to be struck.)”

Mass-produced Coinage. Kulikowski notes, “Ancient Roman coins in particular were mass-produced on a scale that beggars the imagination and shipped to every corner of the empire, ending up as far afield as East Africa and southern India. The Mildenhall Hoard, found in Wiltshire in 1978, probably the most famous Romano-British find, weighed 180 kg and contained more than fifty thousand low-value coins from the third century.”

Mildenhall Treasure in the British Museum. Image by I, Estel from Wikipedia

Hoards” of Coins? “Broadly speaking,” Kulikowski describes, “there are four categories of hoard, each defined by the way it was created: accidental loss, sudden response to an emergency, storage of savings, or deliberate abandonment.”

Whence the Title’s Badger? Kulikowski says, “A Spanish badger made international news last year when it uncovered a hoard of several hundred coins in an Asturian cave. Even for scholars, the fact of the badger was more interesting than the utterly predictable fourth-century bronzes that made up the hoard.” 

Well, you know how scholars are. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023

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