Friday, January 18, 2013

Sarah Bond: The Tale of the Leather Asses: Numa Pompilius and Leather Coinage




A wealthy Roman by the name of Valentinus came into possession of an illustrated codex for the year 354 CE. Beyond the lists of consuls, bishops, and kings it transmits, the codex preserves the work of the renowned calligrapher Furius Dionysius Filocalus and immaculate full-page illustrations. However, what caught my eye was a passage from the so-called Chronography of 354 that discusses the reign of the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius (c. 715-673 BCE, if regal dates can even be trusted). 

Numa Pompilius regnavit ann. XLI.  pontifices, virgines Vestales, instituit.  hic duos menses ad X menses Romuli instituit, Ianuarium diis superis, Februarium diis inferis.  hic prior hominibus adinvenit grabata mensas sellas candelabra.  congiarium dedit scortinos asses et militibus donativum aere incisum dipondium semis.

Pompey the Great (57-48 BCE), denarius, with an
obverse depiction of Numa Pompilius. 


“Numa Pompilius reigned for 41 years.  He established the pontiffs and the vestal virgins.  He added two months to the 10 months of Romulus, January with more days and February with less.  He was the first among men to devise beds, tables, chairs and candelabra.  He gave a largess of leather asses and a donative to the soldiers of half a dupondium of engraved metal.”


Leather scraps from Roman Sussex.
The word scortinus comes from the root word scortum, which means hide (not to be confused with the same word, which can be applied to harlots and prostitutes), but what does the Chronographer means by leathered asses? (NB: This is a type of Roman coin. The singular being an as.) Moreover, is it possible that Romans even used such types of currency?

As Michael Crawford has established, there are no coin finds in Rome before the third century BCE, and in all likelihood, coinage took flight in Rome no earlier than the late fourth century BCE (1985: 17). Crawford is quick to point out that the dearth of evidence in the archaeological record does not mean a definitive absence overall, it simply is a deficiency of archaeology that things made of perishable material can and do perish. As archaeologists, we rely heavily on the survival of materials, even when in reality early coins may have been made out of materials that do not survive to the present day.

Beyond the material problems, there are also textual ones. Later historians often anachronized their coinage onto the early Roman state and tied its invention to the Regal Period. Pliny the Elder attributed bronze coinage to Servius Tullius (NH. 33.42-4), while Varro said Tullius minted silver coins. Later, Isidore of Seville (16.18.10) would note that the invention came under Numa Pompilius—as had our Chronography of 354. Isidore reasoned that coins were named nummi from Numa, so this is perhaps the root of the confusion.

Still, what of these leather coins? Could they have been real, and, even if Numa used them, is there any other evidence for their usage in antiquity? A passage from Seneca’s De Beneficiis hints that some, particularly the Spartans, did use leather coins: “A man is said to be in debt, whether he owes gold pieces or leather marked with a state stamp, such as the Lacedaemonians used, which passes for coined money” (5.14). According to Aristides (III. To Plato: in Defense of the Four, 104), Carthage adopted a peculiar type of leather currency, perhaps with an object wrapped in leather or another hide and then sealed—though some have suggested they merely traded hides as currency. Ancient historians have been highly critical of the use of leather coinage overall, even though it is clear that in times of financial emergency in particular, leather currency was used.  

In China, under the Han dynasty there is a tale of the use of hides as currency. When the coin devaluation got out of hand, the controlled population of white deer within the imperial park were killed and their hides cut into one foot squares to be used as currency (Qian 1993 [rev.]: 63). 

Billon denaro of Frederick II, Palermo mint (1198-1208). 
In the middle ages, there are in fact numerous instances of the practice. Constantine V may have issued leather coinage to his troops in 743, and the coinage of William I of Sicily (1154-1166) is said to have replaced gold with leather money—although this is based on a later, sixteenth century, source that may or may not be reputable (Grierson and Travaini 1998: 127). Another Sicilian king, Frederick II, allegedly issued leather money during the siege of Faenza (1241-2), as described in two Florentine chronicles. Short on money, Frederick minted coins to give his troops with his image; later he redeemed them for gold. There also appears to be reliable accounts of medieval coin hoards in Britain with leather coinage—though only forgeries exist today. 

Although scholars may argue now and again about whether leather money existed, this will be a difficult argument to conclude unless there is new supporting textual or archaeological evidence uncovered. Difficult but not unheard of. After I informed a friend of the leather shoes found at the British fort of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s wall discussed by Beth Green at the AIA-APA in Seattle, he remarked that this was “A lucky coincidence! I had no idea we had ancient leather.” Indeed, hopefully one day the arid environment of Egypt or perhaps the waterlogged areas of Britain will yield us some leather coins. Until then: I will remain on the fence, but it is worth noting that money can be made of any material, as long as others have faith in it’s meaning. Copper, paper, gold, shells, or leather: money only requires trust and mutual agreement to function as currency.

Further Reading:

Michael H. Crawford, Coinage and Money Under the Roman Republic (Berkeley, 1985). 

Sima Qian, trans. Watson, Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty II (Columbia, 1993 [rev.]). 

Michele Renee Salzman, On Roman Time: The Codex-Calendar of 354 and the Rhythms of Urban Life in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, 1990). 

2 comments:

David Cohea said...

Fascinating. One wonders if the transubstantiation of value is always a matter of turning lead--any old lead-- to gold. And it puts a new spin on Apuleius' The Golden Ass: I mean, there truly is gold in them thar equus africanus asinus.

Jeff Smith said...


Nice post love reading it

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