Month: February 2012

Basic Numismatics: A Quick Guide to the Study of Ancient Coinage

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Numismatics the study of coinage, and is a wonderfully useful tool in the archaeologist’s and historian’s toolbox. One of the best things for an archaeologist to find while digging is a coin. The reason is simple; it can instantly provide some date for the layer they are digging. Additionally, coins provide information for trade, economy, social organisation, mythology, ideologies, personages, leadership, military, important events, and the list goes on.

Parts of coins

So to analyse ancient coinage there are some terms that one must first understand:

Obverse of Coin of Julius Caesar, died 44BC

The Obverse: The obverse is the heads side or the front of the coin. Roman Imperial coins usually display the head of the Emperor or a significant relative. It can be difficult to identify the obverse on a Greek coins because of the images depicted.

The Reverse: The reverse is the opposite side of the coin to the obverse. It is the tails side or back of the coin. Roman Imperial coins usually display some sort of propaganda on the reverse, while Republican coins depict a theme glorifying a certain ancestor. Again with Greek coins it can be more difficult to identify.

Legend: This refers to the inscription on the coin excluding mint characters. It typically runs round the exterior edge of the coin but there are exceptions.

Reverse of a Roman Coin Showing a Goddess Holding Ears of Wheat

The legend can contain abbreviations, particularly on Roman coins, which are significant to the analysis of the coins. Some of the most common are:

AVG = Augustus

C or CAES = Caesar

COS = Consul

IMP = Imperator/Commander

PERP or PP = Perpetuus/Continuous

P F = Pius Felix/dutiful to the gods, the state or one’s family

P M = Ponifex Maximus

P P = Pater Patriae/Father of his country

S C = Senatus Consulto/by degree of the state

S P Q R = Senatus Populusque Romus/The Roman Senate and People

For a more detailed discussion of these terms, have a look at

Field: The field is a flat undecorated area which sometimes contains mint or control marks, which are a sequence of letters or symbols indicating who produced the coins.

Exergue: The exergue is a space at the bottom of the reverse which often separated from the image by a line. Sometimes this space houses part of the legend or a mint mark.

Type: The central design on the reverse which is generally surrounded by the legend and on top of the exergue.

Important Terms to Remember when Researching and Analysing

AE: AE is often found in the description of coins and is an abbreviation meaning that the coin is of a base metal or alloy (eg. Copper or bronze). When used alongside a number it refers to the size of the coin. This measurement is done in millimetres of the diameter of the coin but does not represent the millimetres themselves but a certain category which they belong to. For instance, with Roman coins, AE1 are alloy coins over 25mm  and AE2 are 21-25mm etc.

AR: Is an abbreviation indicating that the coin is made of silver derived from the Latin ‘argentum’ meaning silver.

AU: Is an abbreviation indicating that the coin is made from gold derived from the Latin ‘aurum’ meaning gold.

Brockage: Refers to a coin which has been mis-struck and the reverse image appears incuse on the obverse of the coin.

Restoration: Refers to an issue of a coin which replicates a previous coin with few minor changes. Often this is to keep the reverence of previously depicted persons by keeping coins in circulation.

Serrated/Serratus: Refers to a coin with a notched edge.

Transverse: Something held at an angle in the image.

For a full glossary of Ancient Coin terms please see

Interested in learning more?

Recommended Books

Watson Hands, A., Roman Coins: Elementary Manual (1903)

Metcalf, W., Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage (2012)

Hill, G.F., A Handbook of Greek and Roman Coins (1899)

Howgego, C., Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces (2007)

Jenkins, G.K. Ancient Greek Coins (1990)

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The Fall of the Ancient Olympics: The Theodosian Code

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It is a common idea in modern authored histories of the Olympic Games that Theodosius I literally abolished the Olympic Games through specific edicts.  Was this the product of historians projecting the laws of Theodosius on such a prestigious event and hence claiming direct prohibition, or did Theodosius really literally ban the Olympic Games in his edicts?

Theodosius I

The idea that Theodosius I literally banned the Olympic Games is firstly discredited by there being no direct references to the Ancient Olympic Games in the Theodosian Code.[1]  The Theodosian code was based on the enforcement of the Christian faith and on the ideologies of Christian dogma.[2]  Spivey explains that “There was nothing in the Christian faith that actively underminded the practice of athletics.”[3]  An assessment of this suggests that Theodosius I would not have paid particular attention to athletic events, such as the Olympic Games, when authoring his edicts but rather to the ideas and activities that surrounded the ‘pagan’ faiths which governed such events.

Theodosius I was the first emperor to “prohibit the whole established pagan religion of the Roman state.”[4] Hillgarth comments that by the time of Theodosius the church was a part of the “political and social structure of the oppressive empire.”[5] It was necessary for Theodosius to prohibit the traditional pagan practices in order to fully establish his dominance over the empire.  Young explains that around 391AD Theodosius issued an edict “that all pagan temples be closed.”[6]  These edicts against the worship of the pagan/Ancient Greek faith led to the decline in many areas of traditional Greek life such as the Olympic Games.

Despite the debate, the title of the ‘Olympic Games’ continued to be used elsewhere after the decline of Olympia.  Downey asserts that the “Olympic Games at Antioch must have ranked among the most important of the local festivals of the Roman East.”[7]  The idea that the title was adopted by games at Antioch and continued throughout the time of Theodosius’ edicts suggests that the Games at Olympia as an event were not prohibited; otherwise events that carried the name elsewhere would have been inclined to dismiss the title and the associations surrounding it as a heresy.  However, the Games at Antioch were not prohibited until the early sixth century AD long after the Theodosian code had been established. The Olympiakon stadium itself was still in use till the sixth century.


Theodosius I banned the pagan practices associated with the Olympic Games and made Christianity the primary religion of the Empire for a number of reasons.  Greenslade comments that “Theodosius…crowned the work of Constantine,”[8] attempting to create a unified Empire “with a unified faith.”[9] Theodosius attempted this partly  in the hope that his laws would decrease the pagan religions and standardise Christianity.  Theodosius was also subject to the Judaic and monotheistic ideas of Christianity.  Williams and Friell explain that the new Christian regime inherited the “jealous, militant monotheism of Exodus, as well as pre-eminent Judaic concern with the law.”[10]  The pagan religion was hence a heresy.

Though Theodosius does not target the Games specifically, his laws contributed to the eventual downfall of the Games at Olympia due to the prohibition of pagan practices.  It appears that this point can be held as a source for histories blaming Theodosius for the prohibition of the Olympic Games.  Downey assesses that the laws affected the character of the Games but, though many pagans such as in the letters of Libanius saw the Games as unaltered, the festival could no longer be seen as in honour of Olympian Zeus and lost some of their traditional Greek identity.[11]  Fowden specifies that the “externals of the pagan cults were dismantled.”[12]

Hillgarth explains that Theodosius I banned the use of areas of pagan worship such as temples and sanctuaries in XVI, 1, 2 (380).[13]  Theodosian code cites that “their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches,”[14] and that all pagan sites of worship should be abandoned in sight of the law and the new Christian dogma.  Young explains that the focal point of Olympia was the sanctuary of Zeus and the “renowned temple of Olympian Zeus.”[15]  The Olympic Games focused significantly on becoming closer to the gods, to be the very best, and the sanctuary was an important and essential part of this ancient Greek ideal.[16]

Reconstruction of the inside of temple of Zeus at Olympia

The Sanctuary of Zeus played a significant part in the Olympic festival as seen through the excavation of hundreds of votive offerings in and around it.[17]  However, with the introduction of Theodosius’ code in the late fourth century, important sanctuaries and temples were forced into closure, including that at Olympia.  Finley explains that the edict “was followed at Olympia almost immediately by the conversion of one of the more suitable buildings into a Christian church, and it is unthinkable that the games were permitted to coexist with a Christian community and Christian worship.”[18]

Theodosian code states that “no person at all, of any class or order whatsoever of men or of dignities,…shall sacrifice an innocent victim to senseless images in any place at all or in any city.”[19]  As much of traditional Greek festivities and Games included sacrifice to the gods as a key aspect, the prohibition of such acts would have had a direct effect on events such as the Olympic Games.

The extent of sacrificial activity at Olympiacan be seen through excavations of the altar in the sanctuary of Zeus.  Over the many centuries of use the Altar became a mound containing large deposits of bone and ash left by offerings to the gods.[20]  Sacrifices were especially important to the worship of Olympian Zeus as he was “hekatombaios – deserving of a hundred oxen.”[21]

Archaeological evidence suggests that not only did Theodosius I not literally ban the Olympics, but that his edicts weren’t completely complied with at Olympia.  Young explains that though Theodosian law prohibited the use of places of worship such as the sanctuary of Zeus, Zeus’ temple and his Olympic Games may well have lasted beyond the 391 edict and into the fifth century.[24]  Archaeological evidence in some cases wouldn’t date the end of the Ancient Olympics at Olympia to Theodosius I at all but rather a significant decline, the termination of the Games being attributed to the time of his successor Theodosius II. Hillgarth also assesses that the edicts of Theodosius I were not complied with, and uses as his evidence the stricter later laws being set out by succeeding Emperors, “culminating to the threat of the death penalty in 435”[25] years after Theodosius I’s reign.

The idea that Theodosius did not literally ban the Olympic Games is also supported by the circumstances under which the 293rd Olympiad of 392 did not take place.[26]  Koromilas assesses that the decline of Olympia’s Games was not due to Theodosian law but rather to the sanctuary no longer existing, and that there were several factors apart from the expansion of Christianity over a long period of time which led to its downfall.[27]  Young agrees with this assessment, stating that Olympia had become inhospitable and was subject to earthquakes, floods and the flight of barbarians.[28]

In most modern histories the prohibition of the Olympic Games is attributed to the Emperor Theodosius in the fourth century.  However, this theory is largely discredited through the study of Theodosian law.  Theodosius I did not ban the Olympic Games specifically but rather the pagan practices that were associated with them.  Theodosius evidently did ban the pagan practices that were associated with the Games in response to Christian dogma and the desire to create and control a unified empire under one religion.

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[1] Young, D.C., A Brief History of the Olympic Games (Cornwell, 2004), p.136

[2] Spivey, N., The Ancient Olympics (New York, 2005),  p.204

[3] Ibid., p.204

[4] Hillgarth, J.N., Christianity and Paganism, 350-750: The Conversion of Western Europe (Pennsylvania, 1969), p.45

[5] Ibid., p.46

[6] Young, op.cit., p.136

[7] Downey, G., The Olympic Games at Antioch in the Fourth Century AD, in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol.70 (1939, p.428

[8] Greenslade, S., Church and State fromConstantine to Theodosius (London, 1976), p.30

[9] Williams, S. and Friell, G., Theodosius: The Empire at Bay (London, 1994), p.47

[10] Ibid., p.47

[11]Downey, op.cit., p.434

[12] Fowden, G., Bishops and Temples in the Eastern Roman Empire A.D. 320-435 (1978)

[13] Hillgarth, op.cit., p.46

[14] Theodosian Code, XVI, 1, 2, (380) in Hillgarth, J.N., Christianity and Paganism, 350-750: The Conversion of Western Europe (Pennsylvania, 1969),, p.46

[15] Young, op.cit., p.60

[16] Tyrrell, B., The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture (Illinois, 2004), p.4

[17] Raschke, W.J., The Archaeology of the Olympics (Wisconsin), p.21

[18] Finley, M.I., and Pleket, H.W., The Olympic Games (London, 1976), p.13

[19] Hillgarth, op.cit., p.46

[20] Spivey, op.cit., p.131 – the deposits are an important indication of the sheer number of sacrifices that were conducted over a long period of time

[21] Ibid., p.131

[24] Young, op.cit., p.136

[25] Hillgarth, op.cit., p.45

[26] Koromilas, M., On the Stadium (2004)

[27] ibid

[28] Young, op.cit., p.137

A Shaky Beginning: Parkinson’s Disease in Ancient History

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After finding out that an average of 30 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease every day in Australia I started to wonder how long humans have known and dealt with the disease. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system resulting in decreased motor skills due to the death of dopamine-generating cells. Symptoms include tremors and rigidity, gait, slowness in movement, cognitive issues, sensory and emotional issues, sleep problems and depression. With over 80,000 people in Australia living with Parkinson’s, it is almost certain that you know someone affected by it.

Mucuna Pruriens Bak

The oldest surviving reference to what could be Parkinson’s is in the traditions of Ancient India, with the treatment of the disease in the ‘Ayurveda’, an ancient system of medicine dating from around 5000-3000 BC. Gourie-Devi explains in his ‘Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease in ‘Ayurveda’: Discussion Paper’ that the neurological disorders in the Ayurveda are thought to be due to an imbalance of ‘vata’. Parkinson’s is believed to be what is described as kampavata which bears a strong resemblance to the clinical features of Parkinson’s. The Ayurveda’s description of kampavata includes tremors, stiffness, depression and a depletion of movement. The Ancient Indians prescribed a number of drugs to battle the symptoms of the disease, some of which scientists have come back to review today. These include the root of Withania somifera, the seed of Mucuna Pruriens Bak, Root of Sida Cordifolia and the fruit of Hyocyamus reticulatus. In recent years, the experimentation with Mucuna Pruriens Bak has resulted in significant improvement in trial patients. This is recorded in Vaidya Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease with the Cowhage Plant – Mucuna Pruriens Bak.

The Chinese appear to be the next to make descriptions suggestive of Parkinson’s Disease. These date to around 425 BC. Zhen-Xin Zhang (2006) asserts that traditional Chinese medicine recommended an antitremor pill which is still used to this day in the traditional sphere. He suggests that based on the evidence provided by Zhang Zihe, in the first recorded case of Parkinson’s Disease in the manuscript Ru Men Shi Qin, the disease was first described in China around 2400 years ago.

Nestor and Telemachus

There are several references to ailments that are very similar in symptoms to Parkinson’s in the Ancient Greek literature. We cannot for certain say that these were Parkinson’s but the similarities suggest that the Ancient Greeks and later the Romans had knowledge of similar ailments and the known symptoms. Homer tells in the Odyssey that King Nestor suffers from symptoms which are typical of Parkinson’s and hence can no longer compete in athletic contests. Erasistratus of Keos describes in the third century BC a freezing that occurs such in Parkinson’s when he describes ‘paradoxos’: a type of paralysis which effects a person when walking by making them stop suddenly and being unable to continue, which wears off after some time. Dioscorides also mentions in his Materia Medica that beaver testicles are helpful in the treatment of lethargical problems, tremblings and convulsions alongside neurological and diseases of the nerves, when prepared with vinegar and roses. Celsus describes a similar ailment in his de Medicina Octo Libri and Galen is often said to give the first definite definition in his description of disorders of motor function. Galen, in his On Tremor, Palpitation, Convulsion and Shivering even distinguishes between the different forms on the basis of their origin and appearance.

The Byzantine period and following Medieval period saw the likes of Paul of Aigina (625-690AD) and Ibn Sina (980-1037AD) who provide further discussion of ‘shaking palsies’. The first definitive study of Parkinson’s Disease in Western medicine though is ascribed to its namesake, the English doctor James Parkinson. James Parkinson published a detailed description in An Essay on the Shaking Palsy in 1817.

There is unfortunately a limited awareness of Parkinson’s Disease in modern society. If you would like to find out more about Parkinson’s for yourself, family or friends, then please go to which provides information, support, helplines and ways you can help.

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Female Heroism in Ancient Greek Literature

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In order to evaluate to what extent there is a concept of ‘female heroism’ in ancient Greek literature it is necessary to look at female literary figures in ancient Greece and their qualities. There are several definitions of a heroine that provide us with a basis from which to evaluate the concept of ‘female heroism’.  Lyons asserts that a heroine is a “heroized female personage or recipient of heroic honours.” This definition is in some ways similar to definitions of male heroes yet female heroic figures in literature were very rarely seen in the same light. Even in the Oxford English Dictionary does it describe heroines as being, in ancient mythology, a female intermediate between a woman and a goddess; a demi goddess who has cult paid to them and are worshipped, a woman distinguished by courage, fortitude or noble achievements; “the chief female character in a poem, play or story”; the woman in whom the interest of the piece is centred.  Definitions of male heroism however include, “a great warrior”, “a man of superhuman qualities”.

The Flight of Medea

The concept of female heroism in Ancient Greek literature displays that heroines would not act as male heroes would, and they had less significantly recognised qualities.  This indicates that this concept was stunted due to lack of diversity in characters.  Harris and Platzner assess that heroines don’t often “go on quests or engage in combat with monsters or gods”.  An evaluation of Ancient Greek sources such as Euripides’ Hecuba and Iphigenia, suggests that the main role of the female hero was that of sacrifice.  The female heroic figure is excessively seen with this quality of self sacrifice, such as with Polyxena.  Euripides explains that Polyxena is self-sacrificial in nature for the sake of her people.  As Euripides  asserts that through her sacrifice to Achilles, the Greeks were finally able to set out on their voyage to Troy and the awaiting war.  However Polyxena also expresses more masculine qualities of wishing to obtain her honour and spirit by insisting on dying with dignity, not as a slave, so she can be a willing sacrifice.

Iphigenia also shows this willingness and quality of self sacrifice when she is sacrificed so the Greeks can leave Troyafter the Trojan War in Euripides7.  She sacrifices herself for the good of her people and accepted it as such, even though at the last moment she is spirited away by the gods.  This quality of self sacrifice is very rare in male heroic figures in Ancient Greek literature.  An evaluation of this quality indicates that the majority of female heroic figures were sacrificed and achieve honour quicker than their male counterparts; this illustrates one reason why their roles in literature are smaller; they achieve their purpose quicker.

Helen being taken from Troy

The female heroic character in Greek literature was however more than sacrificing.. Most female heroic figures also expressed qualities of wisdom, cunning and dignity.  Pomeroy explains that “Aristotle judged it inappropriate for a female character to be portrayed as manly or clever” but analysis of characters like Penelope and Nausicaa in the Odyssey, indicates that female heroic figures could, and did, hold these essentially masculine qualities.  Homer explains that Penelope outwitted her suitors for years by weaving and unravelling a huge web, displaying a cunning mind and, in so doing, keeping her dignity.  Nausicaa also shows these qualities. Homer explains that she kept her distance from Odysseus, even when she rescued him, for knowledge of the destructive powers of talk and never lost her honour.  Through this assessment we can see that the concept of female heroism did exist as evident in the actions and qualities of certain figures in relation to their portrayal in texts. But this concept of heroism is more passive in some respects to the male literary heroes, their quests and obviously heroic actions.

The concept of female heroism is also evidently used by the poet to transmit a deeper meaning. Euripides’ works use female figures such as Helen to portray a higher purpose.  Though Helen is a figure of questionability in regards to being a heroic figure or not, she can be assessed as portraying heroic qualities such as beauty and self sacrifice of love and family in Euripides.  Euripides portrays Helen as the catalyst, the trigger that started the Trojan War, which if hadn’t taken place; all those heroes would not have done those deeds and achieved a heroic status. Homer however illustrates Helen differently, showing her more as a seductive character, but uses her in the same manner.  This indicates that the concept of female heroism includes that of contribution to greater events, which is ultimately the reason why Helen can be seen as a literary heroine, as she is fulfilling the role of a ‘helper maiden’.

The female heroic figure is most often free from male assistance in her quest to achieve status.  The majority of female heroic characters are independent.  Harris and Platzner assess that this is particularly highlighted in “victorious heroines”, these are heroines who are able to “Retain their independence and to pursue their goals aggressively and yet remain within the context of gender-coded behaviour”.  Such heroines include Nausicaa and Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey.  An assessment of these figures suggests that both of these women were able to achieve their goals and not lose their honour and dignity, through their own means.  This idea is even portrayed in the so called “brides of death”, like Iphigenia, who are able to keep their dignity and obtain status through their own willingness to be sacrificed for a cause.

This independence is also shown from the point of comparison between male heroic figures and female heroic figures.  Pomeroy assesses that it is female characters who help male heroes.  Pomeroy expresses this idea by outlining the many heroic female figures that helped male heroes, “Ariadne, who helped Theseus slay the Minotaur; Medea, who helped Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece; and Nausicaa, the advisor of Odysseus…”.  An evaluation of this suggests that while male heroes require female assistance at times, female heroes do not require male assistance, making them independent from their counterparts and highlighting the concept of female heroism in Ancient Greek literature.

Odysseus and Nausicaa

The extent of the concept of female heroism is greatly diminished in literature though, due to it not being the dominant force that the concept of male heroism is.  Ancient Greece was a male dominated society and literature was written for males by males in order to inspire males, hence the concept of male heroism was by far much more established. Pomeroy analyses that “the mythology about women is created by men and in a culture dominated by men”, due to this, the role of the female in literature is usually submissive and modest.  Pomeroy assesses that it is only through the influence of Bronze Age literature that the Ancient Greek poet or writer could not ignore strong female characters.  Even so, the majority of female literary characters were seen as submissive to men. For instance, many accepted it when their own male relatives decided to sacrifice them.  Iphigenia in Euripides accepts her father’s decision to sacrifice her, indicating a submissive side with a sense of duty, though she also seen as self-sacrificing and honourable.

The concept of female heroism is important in terms of the purpose the female heroes portrayed.  In ‘Lycurgus against Leocrates’ Euripides expresses that “if women bring themselves to act like this, men should show towards their country a devotion which cannot be surpassed, not forsake it and flee, as Leocrates did, nor disgrace it before the whole of Greece.”  If women were willing to sacrifice themselves for their people and countries, so should men or else they were cowards.  Male heroes of the Polis were there to inspire, influencing the people and infusing them with their qualities as a reflection of heroic attributes.  Female heroes had a similar purpose to those heroes of the Polis, except they were to inspire the male heroes more than the people.  Through heroines in Euripides, Homer and Apollodorus; for instance Iphigenia and Polyxena, the authors are trying to bestow these self sacrificing qualities on their readers, the male heroes and the males in society.  They are also expressing the heroine’s lack of pride and ego which men are often governed by.

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