Numismatics as a Science
Numismatics is the science studying the coins and the objects connected with them. It is an auxiliary branch of archaeology. In fact, in the academic world numismatics and epigraphy – the discipline decoding the inscriptions found on a solid base, such as the metal and stone in tombstones and monuments, – are often part of the same subject. As a result, numismatics is a supporting science, which is essential to get to know and complement effectively the archaeological studies, or the history of ancient civilizations. Thanks to the coins and other objects, it is possible to determine the age of the archaeological sites with little margin of error.
In order to understand the trade and economy, as well as the often-forgotten daily life and people of ancient times, we must start with a thorough study of the coin. This explains the importance of numismatics, which provides us with very useful information. The study of the characteristics of the coin, such as the quantity and quality, the state of preservation, the weight, the metal used in order to produce it, the iconography, or the place where it was found… gives us a lot of information about the people who produced it. The finding of coins far from the place of production gives us key data to value the mobility, efficiency and the trade capability of the human groups. I would also like to mention that the finding of larger or smaller sets of coins forming a treasure or concealment tells us about the context in which they might have been produced – invasions, social and political crisis, thefts or smuggling….
The Importance of the Coin as an Element of Political
and Religious Dissemination
Coins were practical and easily manipulated, they were meant to circulate and were used by everyone everywhere. Besides, everyone trusted them, as they had the seal or mark of the authority producing them. Coins were highly regarded, not only because of their acceptance – in some cases, they were wanted at global level at their own time, as it happened with the Roman denarius or the piece of eight of the Spanish Empire, – but also because they were a very efficient way to accumulate a fortune, due to their characteristics and durability. We must also bear in mind that the armies were paid with coins (mostly silver coins), so until recently the money in the form of coins played a very significant role in the society.
Massive production, circulation and acceptance made the coin a very powerful political and religious dissemination tool. This has been systematically exploited from the striking of the first Greek coin until now, when hot euros keep falling into a container of the Royal Mint. But this is even more relevant when it comes to the ancient coins, which circulated in times when the information broadcasted was limited to the latest gossip announced in the squares or agora. One example of this is the Roman coin, of which huge amounts with different topics were regularly and steadily minted. They were beautiful coins showing very realistic portraits of the emperors, their wives and heirs. These characters can also be seen on the reverses, wearing clothes and showing features of gods and allegories, or performing the function of priests, commemorating military victories, counting and celebrating the titles they owned, or deified after their death.
Besides, many coins were minted with a commemorative or foundational purpose, consolidating the idea of the coin as a distinguishing mark in the user and pointing out a sense of belonging to a home country or territory. This message was especially useful, when the authority had to deal with an extensive empire or with territories very distant to one another, which happened with the Iberian Peninsula and the Indies, or Rome and its provinces. In fact, one of the first things a territory does, when it intends to rise or become independent, is minting its own coin.
Let’s think about the impact and influence of the coins in the citizens, especially the ones living in the provinces and viceroyalties, far away from the capital, whose inhabitants did not count with today’s means of transport, information and communication.
Numismatics as a Hobby
Numismatics is an enriching hobby, which helps us understand the history in a linear way, as it is a chronological and methodical study of the coins. In general, the expert in numismatics focuses on a period, a civilization or a type of coining in order to carry out a research. As a result, he can provide us with very interesting information concerning the historical moment to which the coin belongs and widens the knowledge of this period in a visual and tangible way.
Although the interest in numismatics has increased much in the past few years, mainly thanks to the internet, we consider that everything started shortly before the Renaissance. That was a time when numismatics and the classical world were highly valued, especially among intellectuals, aristocrats and kings. Hence the proverb saying that numismatics is a kings’ hobby. For instance, the famous Italian humanist Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), an enthusiast of Cicero and Titus Livius, and who later became an inspiration for authors such as Garcilaso de la Vega and William Shakespeare, felt great attraction towards the Roman world and was himself a collector of ancient coins.
We also have Alfonso of Aragon (1481-1500), king of Naples and husband of Lucrecia Borgia, who was a fan of ancient coins. Alfonso collected Roman coins and his favourite ones were those of the emperor Augustus. The king’s collection, kept in an ivory chest, was usually carried along, whenever the king made a trip.
According to the Roman historian Suetonius, the Roman emperor Augustus collected coins and enjoyed offering them as a present to his friends: “During Saturnalia, and on any other occasion he considered appropriate, he often distributed presents, such as clothes, silver and gold; on other occasions, he shared out all kind of coins, even ancient, of the times of the kings, and foreign coins too…”.
He probably inherited that taste for numismatics from his father, who was an argentarius (money changer). Due to this fact, he had access to many different coins. Note that in Ancient Rome ancient coins were already considered a prestigious exotic object, a present fit for a king.
As mentioned above, internet has meant a revolution as far as the access to information and content creation is concerned, which has obviously been good for numismatics. Currently, we have access to a lot of specialised information. Apart from the works made by famous experts, we cannot forget the blogs and websites of independent researchers. Thanks to the visibility and tools provided by the internet, the distance between professionals and clients has become shorter and now everyone has the chance to see and take part in prestigious national and international auctions, which used to be out of reach for most of us.
So, what do we have to bear in mind, if we decide to start out in numismatics? First, note that anyone can have a numismatic collection. It is not necessary to be a millionaire or own a PhD. But, as in any other discipline, we should have some basic knowledge and, as numismatics covers such a large and complex time period, we should also decide which period or type of coin we want in our collection. Although it may sound as a cliché, because it is repeated over and over again, we should have bought the book before we buy the coin and make sure that we buy from good professionals – we do have them in Spain, actually they are among the best. In a short and simple article like this one, it is very difficult to talk properly about the numismatic market and its hidden details. There are many blogs with sections entirely dedicated to this topic in an entertaining and effective way.
In short, when we talk about numismatics, we do not just speak about a hobby, but a very important science, an enriching and challenging discipline which can be very satisfying.