Thursday, 2 June 2016

A rose by any other name: contemporaneous numismatic idiom

Roman Republican Victoriatus
photo: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
Last night, my friend Robert of Calgary Coin Gallery phoned me up to tell me about the discovery of the remains of letters from early Roman London. One in particular caught his attention and The Independent gives the best account of it:

"“I ask you, by bread and salt, that you send as soon as possible the 26 denarii in Victoriati [older coins with higher silver content] and the 10 denarii of [the man] Paterio.” The total amount was the Roman equivalent of around £3500 – and the need for it seems to have warranted a plea from the heart (“by bread and salt”, probably meaning metaphorically “in the name of our friendship”)."
His main interest was with the term "Victoriati" as no clear explanation was offered in any of the news reports. He wondered about the debasement of coins under Nero and the earlier coins of better silver (as the article seems to imply) but also whether this might refer to a common copper alloy of Nero depicting the figure of Victory. In early Imperial Britain, troops were paid in copper alloy coins and there was a general shortage of coins from Rome. Lugdunum was an important mint for Gaul, and I wondered about the coins of Tiberius from there with their depiction of the Altar of Lugdunum which featured two Victories in the design. First, though, I thought of the coins depicted above. As I have little knowledge of Roman Republican coins I was thinking of it as an equivalent of the later quinarius, but Robert told me that it was struck using an early Greek weight standard. I also knew that because of the money shortage in both Gaul and Britain, Republican coins were commonly being used very late there. I suggested that he post the problem (including the cryptic remark "10 denarii of Paterio") to Moneta-L and he did that right away. Another friend of ours (Terry Cheeseman from Edmonton, Alberta) responded and one of his suggestions validated and clarified my first thoughts. He said that in the mid-Republic, the usage of the Victoriatus was replaced with the quinarius. So here we have a strong possibility of an early British Roman idiom which retained the subject matter of the original coin, even though the types had changed.

Later, David L. Tranbarger of Siesta Key, Florida agreed with this idea citing (with caveats) this Wikipedia entry on the Victoriatus. In the same article we see a misuse of ancient idiom with  "the coin was intended as a replacement for the drachma or half-nomos". Nomos had been identified (although the author and the circumstances are unknown to me) as the name of a denomination in ancient Greek Italy. Presumably, some inscription had been found referring to a nomos of Taras (or some other city there). The word is the singular of νόμισμα ‎(nómisma) and that means:

"for current money, coin, usage, lit. "what has been sanctioned by custom or use," from νομίζειν ‎(nomízein), to use customarily, itself from νόμος ‎(nómos), usage or custom, omitting -ίζειν) and adding -ισμα" (Wiktionary).
There is more confusion from Wikipedia:
"Nomisma (Greek: νόμισμα) was the ancient Greek word for "money" and is derived from nomos (νόμος) "anything assigned, a usage, custom, law, ordinance"
Again, we have a use (from Aristotle) of idiom. In Greek, "money" is χρήματα, and its etymology is:
"chréma: a thing that one uses or needs" (Strong's Concordance, and cited from Homer down in its plural usage)
None of these definitions refers, at all, to any single coin denomination and a "nomos" of Taras is still a didrachm and the Byzantine "Nomisma" is still a solidus. In English, the two usages are given as "coin" official currency and "token" used as an unofficial replacement for a coin.

If we do not translate the idiom, and just translate the words much can get lost. My favourite example of this is with Aristophanes' comedies, especially some dialogue in Thesmophoriazusae (The poet and the Women). To get the same effect from the comedy as did the Athenian audiences, you really need one of the translations like that of George Theodoridis from 2007 which includes the line: "Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit! Utter crap!". ["Bombalobombax" in the actual text] In school versions, you are more likely to get the direct translation and the lost idioms and actual words are not going to seem that funny to the students. What made the original Athenian audience laugh and be shocked must be balanced with what modern audiences require for the same, otherwise there is no real translation.

John's Coydog Community page


  1. hi john,very interesting.NOMOS a word we use today for law or as a rule of law.xrimata is still the word we use in modern greek for money.ancient greek is alive and kicking in modern greek.i cant think of any other language that has a continuous time line of over 3000 years spoken by millions of people.yes you may get a form of OLD Aramaic spoken in the odd village hear or there but nothing on the scale of greek.

    1. Hi Kyri,

      And it such a "nuanced" language checking the etymology of almost any word opens up all sorts of interesting things and many philosophical and mythological concepts. It's far beyond "this means that".