By Peter Thonemann
Cambridge (2015) p/b 230pp £20.99 (ISBN 9781107451759)
This volume splendidly inaugurates a new Cambridge University Press series (‘Guides to the Coinage of the Ancient World’), edited by Andrew Meadows. It is hard to think of a better guide to Hellenistic coinage on this scale. T. takes the reader from Alexander the Great to the second triumvirate, with a brief glance forward to reflections of Hellenistic coinage in the coinage of Parthians, Sasanians, and indeed modern Britain. At the same time he guides the reader through the globalization of coin types that Alexander’s empire brings, through the ways in which coins construct identities at the level of the city, the federation, the kingdom, and the whole Hellenistic world, through the patterns of coin issue and their implications for coin use and its economics, and into the ideological freight carried and its limits, as Rome reproduced existing types. The reader is brought up to date with the latest numismatic scholarship and made to see the arguments in action through the 255 coins that are illustrated. All this done with a light touch and a lively style that make this book quite a page-turner.
What’s not to like? Apart from the extremely ugly cover, and the purist decision to show all coins at their actual size, which makes details hard to discern (presumably numismatists never travel without a magnifying glass), the odd thing about this book is T.’s decision to sub-title it ‘Using Coins as Sources’. This invites the question, sources for what? The answer is, primarily, sources for understanding coinage. T. likes the trope of inviting us to imagine that other sources don’t exist, so as to illustrate the ways in which coinage does, and does not, straightforwardly reflect the narrative of history; but the degree to which he uses what else we know about history to illustrate choices made on coins is quite restricted. Gender history makes no impact here: there are no ‘women’ between ‘weight standards’ and ‘wreathed coinages’, no ‘queens’ between ‘quantification’ and ‘quinarius’ in the index, although T. illustrates a number of coinages portraying or issued by queens and tells us when this first occurs (pp. 151–3). Religious history is equally absent, though images of gods, goddesses, temples, and equipment associated with gods and cult figure large on the coinage. As for art history, only the direction of the reader in the Further Reading to Pollitt’s Art in the Hellenistic Age and Smith’s Hellenistic Royal Portraits hints that coins might have a place there. More remarkably still, T. is not interested in coins as sources for economic history; he is interested in the extent to which the issuing of coins was part of economic policy (probably generally not), but not in what these coins enabled or caused. Although coin hoards are repeatedly mentioned, there are no maps of their distribution and no discussions of what different sorts of hoards might tell us about the changing economy.
T. is marvellous on the Hellenistic world of coinage, but there is a much wider Hellenistic world for which these coins can be used as sources.
Robin Osborne—King’s College, Cambridge