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Tokens from the Roman Empire

10 January 2017 by Denise Wilding

PhD student Denise identifying Roman coins

Denise identifying Roman coins © Portable Antiquities Scheme

I’m a PhD student at Warwick University and a member of a European research project investigating the role tokens played in everyday life in the ancient world. My focus is on the Roman period and I am currently looking at tokens from Egypt. As part of my research I visited the World Museum collections…

Below is one of my favourite tokens from my visit. It is made from lead and depicts Nilus, the god of the Nile, with a palm branch and cornucopiae. The token is very worn but we know from other examples that Nilus leans on a hippo or a crocodile. On the other side there is an Ibis, the sacred bird of Egypt and the date of manufacture in regnal years.

 Side 1: Nilus reclining with palm and cornucopiae, side 2: The sacred ibis

Side 1: Nilus reclining with palm and cornucopiae, side 2: The sacred ibis

Tokens like this are interesting but we do not know exactly what they were used for. They could have been tax receipts, a low denomination currency or used for exchange of rations. Much of my research will involve trying to figure out the tokens’ purpose. Different types most probably had different uses. For example, the Nilus  is also on larger tokens with much more detail and made through striking from the same period. It may be therefore that the large tokens with Nilus had a different purpose to the smaller ones.

The collection here at Liverpool also includes two Spintriae. These are commonly known as ‘brothel tokens’, although we do not have much evidence to suggest that was their function (Buttery 1973). They are common in Rome during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, but we also find them in small numbers in the Roman provinces. Spintriae may have been used in a game, similar to a pack of cards.

A spintria in the collection at Liverpool World Museum. (Photo credit: National Museums Liverpool)

A spintriae in the collection at Liverpool World Museum.

You can read more about the Token communities project on the Token Community’s website and you can follow them on Twitter at @ancient_tokens and World Museum at @world_museum.

You can also view World Museum’s antiquities collections online.

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