Clare Rowan (University of Warwick)
Tokens, Distribution and Value in the Roman World
IG-Farben-Haus, EG 311, 16:15 Uhr
Amongst the small finds from the Roman world are a class of object almost completely forgotten by modern scholars: tokens or “tesserae”. Made of clay, bronze and lead, with a design similar to Roman coinage, these artefacts have not seen significant scholarly attention for more than 100 years. But they are an untapped resource for many aspects of Roman life, particularly attitudes to Roman money and value. Cheaply made lead tokens can carry references to monetary amounts (e.g. an obol, 1000 sestertii, a denarius) and thus represent a particular value, good(s) or service(s) in particular contexts. The images carried on Roman tokens suggests they were used at particular festivals, perhaps a ‘special purpose’ currency created privately for gambling, cultic use, or to manage distributions (e.g. at banquets). The relatively high volume of specimens that are pierced, in addition to the data arising from archaeological contexts, suggests that tokens might later transform into a memento of a particular life event.
Tokens are a class of object that governed the distribution of goods and relations between people, and have been proven to have a powerful impact on society (e.g. Schmandt-Besserat has demonstrated that tokens in the prehistoric era led to the invention of writing and abstract number). Roman tokens also played active roles in forming different communities and maintaining social hierarchy and identity. They also incidentally reveal how Roman coinage shaped the subconscious of its users, and contributed to the visual language of the Roman Empire. These aspects will be explored throughout the paper, which will also present previously unpublished material from museums across Europe.