DETAIL: This is a very handsome and fairly rare silver denarius produced in the city of Rome itself in 200 A.D. The coin is in good condition, evidencing only very light wear from circulation in ancient Rome, however there is in evidence some modest porosity (fine surface pitting consequence of being buried for millennia) on the reverse side. The flan (edge) is a bit irregular (as was typical for coins produced during this era), and the strike was just a little bit left of dead center. Nonetheless all legends and themes are quite distinct, and unlike most coins of the era, the planchet (blank coin) was generously sized, and as a result the entirety of both the legends as well as the thematic elements are present and complete. It is without a doubt a very nice strike, much better than average.
The obverse of the coin depicts the head of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, depicted with laureate crown; and although a portion of the legend is missing due to the slightly undersized nature of the coin, it was originally accompanied by the legend “SEVERVS AVG PART MAX”. “SEVERVS” of course refers to the Emperor’s name, “Lucius Septimius Severus”. The suffix “AVG” was an abbreviation for Augustus. The term “Augustus” is Latin for “majestic” (thus the honorific salutation “your majesty”). However the term “Augustus” in the common vernacular of the Roman Empire became synonymous with the Emperor. The first "Augustus" (and first man counted as a Roman Emperor) was Octavius, Julis Caesar’s nephew and heir. Octavian was given the title of Augustus by the Senate in 27 B.C. Over the next forty years, Caesar Augustus literally set the standard by which subsequent Emperors would be recognized, accumulating various offices and powers and making his own name ("Augustus") identifiable with the consolidation of these powers under a single person. Although the name signified nothing in constitutional theory, it was recognized as representing all the powers that Caesar Augustus eventually accumulated.
Caesar Augustus also set the standard by which Roman Emperors were named. The three titles used by the majority of Roman Emperors; “Imperator”, “Caesar”, and “Augustus” were all used personally by Caesar Augustus (he officially styled himself "Imperator Caesar Augustus"). However of the name "Augustus" was unique to the Emperor himself (though the Emperor's mother or wife could bear the name "Augusta"). But others could and did bear the titles "Imperator" and "Caesar". Later usage saw the Emperor adding the additional titles “Pius Felix (“pious and blessed”) and “Invictus” (“unconquered”) in addition to the title “Augustus”). In this usage, by signifying the complete assumption of all Imperial powers, "Augustus" became roughly synonymous with “Emperor” in modern language. As the Roman Empire began splintering, Augustus came to be the title applied to the senior Emperor, while the title “Caesar” came to refer to his “junior” sub-Emperors.
The “PART MAX” is an abbreviation for “PARTHICVS MAXIMA”, referring to Severus’s victories against the Parthians, and in particular the fall of Ctesiphon, the crowning achievement of Severus’s Parthian War. In 197 A.D. Severus had raised three new legions were raised to quiet Rome’s unsettled eastern Mesopotamian frontier. The Roman armies easily swept through upper Mesopotamia, traveling down the Euphrates to sack Seleucia, Babylon and Ctesiphon, which had been abandoned by the Parthian king Vologaeses V. On 28 January 198 Severus took the victorious title Parthicus Maximus. The victories in Mesopotamia were followed by tours of eastern provinces, including Egypt, and Severus promoted both of his sons: Caracalla to the rank of Augustus and Geta to the rank of Caesar.
The emperor is depicted “laureate”, or wearing a wreath or crown composed of laurel, or “bay leaves”. This wreath of laurel leaves is an attribute of the Graeco-Roman God Apollo, and is a symbol of victory. In Greek Mythology, Apollo fell in love with the legendary mountain nymph Daphene. Daphene, anxious to escape Apollo’s amorous interests, asked the Gods of Olympus to change her into a bay tree. Thereafter Apollo always wore a laurel wreath made from the leaves of her sacred tree to show is never failing love for her. Apollo also declared that wreaths were to be awarded to victors, both in athletic competitions and poetic meets under his care.
Laurel wreaths became the prize awarded in athletic, musical, and poetic competitions. For instance by the 6th century B.C., the winners of the ancient Greek Pythian Games (forerunner of the Olympics and held every four years at Delphi) were awarded a wreath of laurel leaves. Ancient Greek coins from at least as far back as the second century B.C. depict laurel wreaths worn by not only Apollo, but also Athena, Saturn, Jupiter, Victory (Nike), and Salus. Eventually the custom of awarding a wreath of laurel leaves was extended from victors of athletic events to the victors of military endeavors. The symbolism was inherited (or mimicked) by the Romans, to whom the bestowal of a laurel wreath became the sign of a victorious general acclaimed by his troops.
After defeating Pompey, the Roman Senate not only voted Julius Caesar Imperator for life, but also awarded him the right to wear the laurel wreath in perpetuity. From that point on it is said that Julius Caesar always appeared in public laureate, and all of his coinage depicted Julius Caesar wearing the laurel leaf crown. Thus the laurel leaf crown became associated not only with the victorious general, but became a symbol of the office of Caesar and Imperator. There were other types of wreaths in Graeco-Roman Mythology as well. Dionysus was oftentimes depicted either with a wreath of ivy or with a wreath composed of grape leaves. Zeus was oftentimes depicted with a wreath of oak leaves, and wreathes of roses became associated with Aphrodite. As well, funeral wreaths became a Roman custom, and were often carved into the decorative elements of a sarcophagus.
Lucius Septimius Severus was born in 146 AD at Leptis Magna in Africa (near Carthage) to noble parents. It is believed that he was made Senator by Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 172 A.D. He was reputed to be a soldier of outstanding ability, and was promoted through a series of increasingly important commands. One of those commands under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius was of the legion based at Emesa, Syria. Emesa was an important religious center/city sited on the trade route between Palmyra and Antioch. And it was there in 187 A.D. that Septimius Severus was to meet Julia Domna, the daughter of the High Priest of the Sun God Elagabal. In 187 A.D. Julia Domna was married Lucius Septimius Severus as his second wife (his first had died). Julia Domna and her sister Julia Maesa were the beginning of four generations of “Syrian Princesses” which were the power behind the Roman Throne. Of Julia Maesa’s two daughters, Julia Soaemias was the mother of future Emperor Elagabalus; Julia Mamaea was the mother of future Emperor Alexander Severus.
After the death of Marcus Aurelius, as semi-fictionalized by the movie “Gladiator”, his despotic son Commodus became Emperor of Rome. At the death of Commodus in 192 A.D., Septimius was governor of Upper Pannonia and commander of the legions in Pannonia and Illyria (appointments he had received from Commodus in 191 A.D., after having served as Consul in 190 A.D.). He swore allegiance to the new emperor, Pertinax. However Pertinax was murdered the following year, and the Praetorian Guards publicly announced that they would elect as the new emperor whomsoever would pay them the highest price. Didius Julianus, a wealthy Senator, offered 25,000 sestertii (for each of the Praetorian Guards), and was proclaimed emperor.
Incensed at the events in Rome, a number of Roman Legionary Armies proclaimed their commanders as emperor. Eventually there were four "emperors" laying claim to the throne, Septimius Severus (the commander of the legions in Pannonia), Clodius Albinus (the commander of the legions in Britain), Pescennius Niger (the commander of the legions in Syria), and Didius Julianus (who had purchased his emperorship). Septimius gained the allegiance of Albinus by naming him Caesar (and presumed successor) and left him in command of Britain. Septimius Severus then advanced on Rome and beheaded Didius Julianus after Didius had been emperor for a mere 66 days.
The following year Septimius's troops defeated Niger's troops in a series of several battles in Provincial Syria, and Septimius executed Niger. In 195 A.D. Septimius betrayed Albinus by declaring his own son (and not Albinus) Caesar and his successor. Consequentially Septimius engaged Albinus in a civil war which climaxed in a particularly bloody battle at Lugdunum in Gaul (present day Lyons, France). After his army was defeated in battle by Septimius's army, Albinus committed suicide.
Septimius Severus’s relationship with the Roman Senate was never good. He was unpopular with them from the beginning, having seized power with the help of the military. Severus ordered the execution of dozens of senators on charges of corruption and conspiracy against him, replacing them with his own favorites. He also disbanded the Praetorian Guard and replaced it with one of his own, made up of 50,000 loyal soldiers camped in and around Rome. Although his actions turned Rome into a military dictatorship, he was popular with the citizens of Rome, having stamped out the moral degeneration and rampant corruption which prevailed during the reign of Commodus. When he returned from his victory over the Parthians, he erected a triumphal arch that still stands and bears his name to this day.
Septimius Severus spent much of his reign conducting military campaigns in different parts of the empire, as well as visiting the provinces. In 208 A.D. he campaigned in Britain against barbarians of the north, and made repairs to Hadrian's Wall. He died in York on February 4, 211 A.D. Septimius was succeeded by his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, who were named co-Augusti. According to historical accounts of the time, his deathbed advice to his two sons was, “agree with each other, give money to the soldiers, and scorn all other men." However upon his death, the rivalry between Caracalla and Geta became public. Caracalla, the eldest, arranged to have his wife murdered that same year.
The two Emperors lived in separate palaces and each had their own guard. In December 211, Caracalla convinced their mother, Julia Domna, to call Geta for a reconciliation meeting in her residence. It was a trick. In his mother's house Caracalla's soldiers attacked Geta and Geta died in their mother's arms. She was not allowed to mourn for her killed son. A massacre of Geta's supporters followed, and Roman Historian Cassius Dio relates that 20,000 people were killed. Caracalla was himself was murdered five years later in 217 AD, at which time Septimius's surviving wife, and mother of Geta and Caracalla, Empress Julia Domna, committed suicide by starving herself to the death. If you’d like to learn more about Septimius Severus, there are a few good starting points here, here and here.
The reverse of the coin depicts the Roman Goddess of Victory, known as “Nike” to the Greeks. The reverse of this coin depicts the Roman Goddess Victoria, or Victory (known to the Greeks as “Nike”), advancing left wearing flowing robes and a diadem; holding a riboon aloft which is streaming backwards over a shield set forward. However the reverse legend of the coin, “P M TR P VIII COS II P P”, actually has little to do with Nike, it is rather a recitation of the various accolades and titles held by the fortunate Septimius Severus. “P M” is an abbreviation for “Pontifex Maximus”. As Augustus, an acclamation or title oftentimes attributed to the Emperor was that of as “Pontifex Maximus”, literally "greatest bridgemaker", the significance being that he was the chief priest of the Roman state religion. From 382 A.D. onwards this title has been held by the Pope in Rome. Prior to Octavious Augustus Julius Caesar (in the Roman Republic) the Pontifex Maximus was the head of the pagan Roman Religion, the most important of the priests (pontifices) of the sacred college (Collegium Pontificum). However with the establishment of Empire, Julius Caesar, then Octavius Augustus, and then each Roman Emperor afterwards held the title Pontifex Maximus himself, as the Roman Emperor became deified, i.e., a living god and the apex of the Roman religion.
The reverse legend continues, “TR P VIII”, an abbreviation for Tribunicia Potestas (the “VIII” indicates the eighth term). As Augustus, an acclamation or title oftentimes attributed to the Emperor was that of Tribunicia Potestas, literally "tribunician power”. As such the Emperor he had personal inviolability (sacrosanctitas) and the right to veto any act or proposal by any magistrate within Rome, the authority to convene the Senate, and the right to exercise capital punishment in the course of the performance of his duties. Of course constitutionally Tribunes were meant to represent the common man, the plebians. Since it was legally impossible for a patrician to be a tribune of the people, the first Roman "Emperor", Caesar Augustus, was instead offered of the powers of the tribunate without actually holding the office. This formed one of the main constitutional basis of Augustus' authority, and the power was generally “renewed” annually by successive Emperors.
The abbreviation “COS II”, an abbreviation indicating (the second) term as Consul. As Augustus, an acclamation or title oftentimes attributed to the Emperor was that of Consul. As Consular Imperium (Imperial Consul) he had authority equal to the official chief magistrates within Rome. He had authority greater than the chief magistrates outside of the city of Rome, and thus outranked all provincial governors and was also supreme commander of all Roman Legions. Originally “Consul” was the highest elected office of the Roman Republic (ultimately it was an appointed office under the Empire). Under the Republic two consuls (with executive power) were elected each year, serving together with veto power over each other's actions.
The office of consul was believed to date back to the traditional establishment of the Republic in 509 B.C. Consuls executed both religious and military duties. During times of war, the primary criterion for consul was military skill and reputation, but at all times the selection was politically charged. Initially only patricians could be consuls, but later the plebeians won the right to stand for election. With the passage of time, the consulship became the penultimate endpoint of the sequence of offices pursued by the ambitious Roman. When Octavius Augustus, heir to Julius Caesar, established the Empire; he changed the nature of the office, stripping it of most of its powers. While still a great honor and a requirement for other offices, about half of the men who held the rank of Praetor would also reach the consulship.
However under the Empire, Emperors frequently appointed themselves, protégés, or relatives without regard to the requirements of office. For example, the Emperor Honorius was given the consulship at birth. One of the reforms of Constantine the Great was to assign one of the consuls to the city of Rome and the other to Constantinople. When the Roman Empire was divided into two halves on the death of Theodosius I, the emperor of each half acquired the right of appointing one of the consuls. As a result, after the formal end of the Roman Empire in the West, for many years thereafter there would be only one Consul of Rome. Finally in the reign of Justinian the consulship was allowed die; first in Rome in 534 A.D.; then in Constantinople in 541 A.D.
Finally the legend ends with the abbreviation “PP”. "PP" stands for “Pater Patriae”, literally "father of the country", also sometimes seen as “Parens Patriae”, meaning "Father of the Fatherland". It does not imply a great role in the foundation of the state (such as “George Washington Father of America”) so much as a great contribution to the preservation and integrity of the state. Like all official honorific titles of the Roman Republic, the honor of being called pater patriae was conferred by the Roman Senate. It was first awarded to the great orator Marcus Tullius Cicero for his part in the suppression of the Catilinarian conspiracy during his consulate in 63 BC. It was next awarded to Julius Caesar, who as dictator was sole master of the Roman world. The Senate voted the title to Caesar Augustus in 2 BC, but it did not become an “automatic” part of the “bundle” of the Imperial powers and honors (Imperator, Caesar, Augustus, Princeps Senatus, Pontifex Maximus, tribunicia potestas); The Senate eventually conferred the title on many Roman Emperors, often only after many years of rule (unless the new Emperor were particularly esteemed by the senators, as in the case of Nerva); as a result, many of the short-lived Emperors never received the title. In the case of Severus Alexander, the Senate rather incongruously awarded the title as soon as he ascended the throne at age 12 1/2.
“Nike” to the Greeks, was “Victoria” or “Victory” to the Romans. To the Greeks Nike was the personification of victory. She could run and fly at great speed, and was the constant companion of Athena. Daughter of Pallas and Styx, by whom she was brought to Zeus to assist him in his struggle with the Titans. Thereafter she remained with Zeus on Mount Olympus. Nike was represented as a woman with wings, dressed in a billowing robe, oftentimes with a wreath of victory, a palm frond of similar significance, and/or a scepter or “Hasta Pura”. Victoria was oftentimes shown placing a wreath atop the emperor’s head. Nike was also portrayed on Roman coinage bearing a shield, inscribing a shield, or erecting a trophy.
The wreath of laurel leaves is an attribute of the Graeco-Roman God Apollo, and is a symbol of victory (see description previously above). In Roman coinage the palm tree, or a palm frond, served as a symbol of victory. Palm branches were born before a victor on his reception at the gate of a city and used along the parade route of a triumphant general’s (or emperor’s) victory/triumphal ceremony. It could also be used to signify the duration and permanence of the empire, because the palm lives a long time, and on occasion the palm was used to denote joy (hilaritas), abundance, equity, piety, health, felicity, and fecundity as the palm constantly fructifies as long as it lives. The palm was also a numismatic symbol of Phoenicia and Judaea, not only on coins struck by the Romans after the conquest of Judaea, but likewise on much older medals, formerly coined by the Jews themselves.
A “hasta pura”, a ceremonial lance (spear, pike) without an iron head, oftentimes with a knob at the end, the forerunner of the standard pilum issued to Roman soldiers. The hasta was derived by the Roman from the Etrurians, who called it a “corim”. By the Sabines it was called a “quiris”, their king called “coritos” as the spear was to them an attribute of royalty. The Hasta was the symbol not only of power, fortitude and valor, but also of majesty and even divinity. It is one of the insignia of the Gods, and of the Emperors and Augustae after their apotheosis, implying that they had become objects of worship. It is generally found in the hands of female divinities, as the war-spear is in those of warriors and heroes.
In the coinage of Republican Rome she was often depicted driving a biga. A “biga” was a two-horse (creature) version of the “quadriga”. The quadriga was a chariot drawn by four horses (or in myth four of various other forms of animals), and was used ceremonially for the triumph parade of a general or emperor, in a consular procession, to convey the victor(s) of public games, and also in the funeral procession of an emperor. In mythology it was often used as a conveyance by various deities. A triumph was a ceremonial procession of both civil and religious significance granted by the Senate to an especially able general who had won a significant victory. The triumph parade proceeded through the city of Rome itself to publicly honor the general and to display/parade the glories and trophies of Roman victory, and the general was given the title of “Imperator”. As the empire declined, Nike (or “Victory” or “Victoria”) was oftentimes portrayed in these and other more militaristic characters.
Victoria oftentimes appeared in reliefs on the spandrels of triumphal arches, such as the Arches of Augustus, Septimius Severus, and Constantine. Statues of her abounded in Rome, the most famous of which was brought from Tarentum, and which Augustus dedicated in memory of his victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra at Actium. The Roman Emperor Augustus also had an altar to Victoria installed in the senate building with a statue of Victoria standing with one foot on a globe. Victoria also made frequent appearances on the reverse of Roman coins through the third century. In depictions as Nike in Greek art she was oftentimes depicted carrying a “kithara” (lyre) and “phiale” (cup); alternatively a “thymiaterion” (a ceremonial incense burner) and a flower; or pouring a libation from a phiale or “oinichoe” (jug) over an altar. Occasionally Nike would be depicted carrying a sash draped over her arm. She was also represented in sculpture in connection with the Olympian deities who grant victory; and thus was often portrayed as a small trophy or statue being presented by Zeus or Athena.
The Romans borrowed this theme as well, and the Goddess Roma (closely associated with the Greek Goddesses Minerva and Athena) is often depicted holding a statue of Victory. Oftentimes the statue is depicted holding the wand of Mercury (the Greek God Hermes); also known as a “cauduceus”, an allusion to her role as herald of victory. The cauduceus was originally an enchanter’s wand, a symbol of the power that produces wealth and prosperity, and also an emblem of the influence over the living and the dead. But even in early times it was regarded as a herald’s staff and an emblem of peaceful intercourse. It consisted of three shoots, one of which formed the handle, the other two being intertwined at the top in a knot. The place of the latter two intertwined shoots was eventually taken by serpents and was an attribute of Asclepius, the Graeco-Roman God of Medicine.
The cult of Victory is dated back to 294 B.C., when the Consul L. Postumius Megellus built a temple to the goddess on the Palatine. The Roman Emperor Augustus had an altar to Victoria installed in the senate building with a statue of Victoria standing with one foot on a globe. The cult of the Goddess Victoria was one of the last Roman (pagan) cults to succumb to Christianity when in 382 A.D. her statue was taken down by Emperor Gratianus. There’s some wonderful ancient Graeco-Roman depictions of Nike/Victoria here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here; and if you’d like to learn more about the history of the goddess and her cult, there’s a couple of excellent starting points here and here.
Your purchase includes, upon request, mounting of this coin in either pendant style “a” or “d” as shown here. Pendant style “a” is a clear, airtight acrylic capsule designed to afford your ancient coin maximum protection from both impact damage and degradation. It is the most “politically correct” mounting. Style “d” is a sterling silver pendant. Either pendant styles include a sterling silver chain (16", 18", or 20"). Upon request, there are also an almost infinite variety of other pendants which might well suit both you and your ancient coin pendant, and include both sterling silver and solid 14kt gold mountings, including those shown here. As well, upon request, we can also make available a huge variety of chains in lengths from 16 to 30 inches, in metals including sterling silver, 14kt gold fill, and solid 14kt gold.
HISTORY OF COINAGE: Coins came into being during the seventh century B.C. in Lydia and Ionia, part of the Greek world, and were made from a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver. Each coin blank was heated and struck with a hammer between two engraved dies. Unlike modern coins, they were not uniformly round. Each coin was wonderfully unique. Coinage quickly spread to the island and city states of Western Greece. Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.) then spread the concept of coinage throughout the lands he conquered. Ancient coins are archaeological treasures from the past. They were buried for safekeeping because of their value and have been slowly uncovered throughout modern history. Oftentimes soldiers the night before battle would bury their coins and jewelry, hoping and believing that they would live long enough to recover them, and to return to their family. Killed in battle, these little treasure hoards remain until today scattered throughout Western and Eastern Europe, even into the Levant and Persia.
As well, everyone from merchants to housewives found the safest place to keep their savings was buried in a pot, or in some other secretive location. If they met an unexpected end, the whereabouts of the merchants trade goods or the household’s sugar jar money might never be known. Recently a commercial excavation for a new building foundation in London unearthed a Roman mosaic floor. When archaeologists removed the floor, they found 7,000 silver denarii secreted beneath the floor. Even the Roman mints buried their produce. There were over 300 mints in the Roman Empire striking coinage. Hoards of as many as 40,000 coins have been found in a single location near these ancient sites. Ancient coins reflect the artistic, political, religious, and economic themes of their times. The acquisition of ancient coins is a unique opportunity to collect art which has been appreciated throughout the centuries.
Coins of the Roman Empire most frequently depicted the Emperor on the front of the coins, and were issued in gold, silver, and bronze. The imperial family was also frequently depicted on the coinage, and, in some cases, coins depicted the progression of an emperor from boyhood through maturity. The reverse side of often served as an important means of political propaganda, frequently extolling the virtues of the emperor or commemorating his victories. Many public works and architectural achievements such as the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus were also depicted. Important political events such as alliances between cities were recorded on coinage. Many usurpers to the throne, otherwise unrecorded in history, are known only through their coins. Interestingly, a visually stunning portrayal of the decline of the Roman Empire is reflected in her coinage. The early Roman bronze coins were the size of a half-dollar. Within 100-150 years those had shrunk to the size of a nickel. And within another 100-150 years, to perhaps half the size of a dime.
ROMAN HISTORY: One of the greatest civilizations of recorded history was the ancient Roman Empire. In exchange for a very modest amount of contemporary currency, you can possess a small part of that great civilization in the form of a 2,000 year old piece of jewelry. The Roman civilization, in relative terms the greatest military power in the history of the world, was founded in the 8th century (B.C.). In the 4th Century (B.C.) the Romans were the dominant power on the Italian Peninsula, having defeated the Etruscans and Celts. In the 3rd Century (B.C.) the Romans conquered Sicily, and in the following century defeated Carthage, and controlled the Greece. Throughout the remainder of the 2nd Century (B.C.) the Roman Empire continued its gradual conquest of the Hellenistic (Greek Colonial) World by conquering Syria and Macedonia; and finally came to control Egypt in the 1st Century (B.C.).
The pinnacle of Roman power was achieved in the 1st Century (A.D.) as Rome conquered much of Britain and Western Europe. For a brief time, the era of “Pax Romana”, a time of peace and consolidation reigned. Civilian emperors were the rule, and the culture flourished with a great deal of liberty enjoyed by the average Roman Citizen. However within 200 years the Roman Empire was in a state of steady decay, attacked by Germans, Goths, and Persians. In the 4th Century (A.D.) the Roman Empire was split between East and West. The Great Emperor Constantine temporarily arrested the decay of the Empire, but within a hundred years after his death the Persians captured Mesopotamia, Vandals infiltrated Gaul and Spain, and the Goths even sacked Rome itself. Most historians date the end of the Western Roman Empire to 476 (A.D.) when Emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed. However the Eastern Roman Empire (The Byzantine Empire) survived until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 A.D.
At its peak, the Roman Empire stretched from Britain in the West, throughout most of Western, Central, and Eastern Europe, and into Asia Minor. Valuables such as coins and jewelry were commonly buried for safekeeping, and inevitably these ancient citizens would succumb to one of the many perils of the ancient world. Oftentimes the survivors of these individuals did not know where the valuables had been buried, and today, two thousand years later caches of coins and rings are still commonly uncovered throughout Europe and Asia Minor. Roman Soldiers oftentimes came to possess large quantities of “booty” from their plunderous conquests, and routinely buried their treasure for safekeeping before they went into battle. If they met their end in battle, most often the whereabouts of their treasure was likewise, unknown. Throughout history these treasures have been inadvertently discovered by farmers in their fields, uncovered by erosion, and the target of unsystematic searches by treasure seekers. With the introduction of metal detectors and other modern technologies to Eastern Europe in the past three or four decades, an amazing number of new finds are seeing the light of day 2,000 years or more after they were originally hidden by their past owners. And with the liberalization of post-Soviet Eastern Europe, new markets have opened eager to share in these treasures of the Roman Empire.
HISTORY OF SILVER: After gold, silver is the metal most widely used in jewelry and the most malleable. The oldest silver artifacts found by archaeologists date from ancient Sumeria about 4,000 B.C. At many points in the ancient world, it was actually more costly than gold, particularly in ancient Egypt. Silver is found in native form (i.e., in nuggets), as an alloy with gold (electrum), and in ores containing sulfur, arsenic, antimony or chlorine. Much of the silver originally found in the ancient world was actually a natural alloy of gold and silver (in nugget form) known as “electrum”. The first large-scale silver mines were in Anatolia (ancient Turkey) and Armenia, where as early as 4,000 B.C. silver was extracted from lead ores by means of a complicated process known as “smelting”. Even then the process was not perfect, as ancient silver does contain trace elements, typically lead, gold, bismuth and other metals, and as much as a third of the silver was left behind in the slag. However measuring the concentrations of the “impurities” in ancient silver can help the forensic jewelry historian in determining the authenticity of classical items.
From Turkey and Armenia silver refining technology spread to the rest of Asia Minor and Europe. By about 2,500 B.C. the Babylonians were one of the major refiners of silver. Silver “treasures” recovered by archaeologists from the second and third millenniums demonstrate the high value the ancient Mediterranean and Near East placed upon silver. Some of the richest burials in history uncovered by archaeologists have been from this time frame, that of Queen Puabi of Ur, Sumeria (26th century B.C.); Tuankhamun (14th century B.C.), and the rich Trojan (25th century B.C.) and Mycenaean (18th century B.C.) treasures uncovered by Heinrich Schliemann.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the skin of their gods was composed of gold, and their bones were thought to be of silver. When silver was introduced into Egypt, it probably was more valuable than gold (silver was rarer and more valuable than gold in many Mesoamerican cultures as well). In surviving inventories of valuables, items of silver were listed above those of gold during the Old Kingdom. Jewelry made of silver was almost always thinner than gold pieces, as indicated by the bracelets of the 4th Dynasty (about 2,500 B.C.) queen Hetephere I, in marked contrast to the extravagance of her heavy gold jewelry. A silver treasure excavated by archaeologists and attributable to the reign of Amenemhat II who ruled during the 12th Dynasty (about 1900 B.C.), contained fine silver items which were actually produced in Crete, by the ancient Minoans. When the price of silver finally did fall due to more readily available supplies, for at least another thousand years (through at least the 19th dynasty, about 1,200 B.C.) the price of silver seems to have been fixed at half that of gold. Several royal mummies attributable to about 1,000 B.C. were even entombed in solid silver coffins.
Around 1,000 B.C. Greek Athenians began producing silver from the Laurium mines, and would supply much of the ancient Mediterranean world with its silver for almost 1,000 years. This ancient source was eventually supplemented around 800 B.C. (and then eventually supplanted) by the massive silver mines found in Spain by the Phoenicians and their colony (and ultimate successors) the Carthaginians (operated in part by Hannibal’s family). With the defeat of Carthage by Rome, the Romans gained control of these vast deposits, and mined massive amounts of silver from Spain, stripping entire forests regions for timber to fuel smelting operations. In fact, it was not until the Middle Ages that Spain’s silver mines (and her forests) were finally exhausted.
Although known during the Copper Age, silver made only rare appearances in jewelry before the classical age. Despite its infrequent use as jewelry however, silver was widely used as coinage due to its softness, brilliant color, and resistance to oxidation. Silver alloyed with gold in the form of “electrum” was coined to produce money around 700 B.C. by the Lydians of present-day Turkey. Having access to silver deposits and being able to mine them played a big role in the classical world. Actual silver coins were first produced in Lydia about 610 B.C., and subsequently in Athens in about 580 B.C. Many historians have argued that it was the possession and exploitation of the Laurium mines by the Athenians that allowed them to become the most powerful city state in Greece. The Athenians were well aware of the significance of the mining operations to the prosperity of their city, as every citizen had shares in the mines. Enough silver was mined and refined at Laurium to finance the expansion of Athens as a trading and naval power. One estimate is that Laurium produced 160 million ounces of silver, worth six billion dollars today (when silver is by comparison relatively cheap and abundant). As the production of silver from the Laurium mines ultimately diminished, Greek silver production shifted to mines in Macedonia.
Silver coinage played a significant role in the ancient world. Macedonia’s coinage during the reign of Philip II (359-336 B.C.) circulated widely throughout the Hellenic world. His famous son, Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.), spread the concept of coinage throughout the lands he conquered. For both Philip II and Alexander silver coins became an essential way of paying their armies and meeting other military expenses. They also used coins to make a realistic portrait of the ruler of the country. The Romans also used silver coins to pay their legions. These coins were used for most daily transactions by administrators and traders throughout the empire. Roman silver coins also served as an important means of political propaganda, extolling the virtues of Rome and her emperors, and continued in the Greek tradition of realistic portraiture. As well, many public works and architectural achievements were also depicted (among them the Coliseum, the Circus Maximus). In addition many important political events were recorded on the coinage. You can Romaan coins which depicted the assassination of Julius Caesar, alliances between cities, between emperors, between armies, etc. And many contenders for the throne of Rome are known only through their coinage.
Silver was also widely used as ornamental work and in other metal wares. In ancient cultures, especially in Rome, silver was highly prized for the making of plate ware, household utensils, and ornamental work. The stability of Rome’s economy and currency depended primarily on the output of the silver mines in Spain which they had wrested from the Carthaginians. In fact many historians would say that it was the control of the wealth of these silver mines which enabled Rome to conquer most of the Mediterranean world. When in 55 B.C. the Romans invaded Britain they were quick to discover and exploit the lead-silver deposits there as well. Only six years later they had established many mines and Britain became another major source of silver for the Roman Empire. It is estimated that by the second century A.D., 10,000 tons of Roman silver coins were in circulation within the empire. That’s about 3½ billion silver coins (at the height of the empire, there were over 400 mints throughout the empire producing coinage). That’s ten times the total amount of silver available to Medieval Europe and the Islamic world combined as of about 800 A.D.
Silver later lost its position of dominance to gold, particularly in the chaos following the fall of Rome. Large-scale mining in Spain petered out, and when large-scale silver mining finally resumed four centuries after the fall of Rome, most of the mining activity was in Central Europe. By the time of the European High Middle Ages, silver once again became the principal material used for metal artwork. Huge quantities of silver from the New World also encouraged eager buyers in Europe, and enabled the Spanish to become major players in the late Medieval and Renaissance periods. Unlike the ores in Europe which required laborious extraction and refining methods to result in pure silver, solid silver was frequently found as placer deposits in stream beds in Spain’s “New World” colonies, reportedly in some instances solid slabs weighing as much as 2,500 pounds. Prior to the discovery of massive silver deposits in the New World, silver had been valued during the Middle Ages at about 10%-15% of the value of gold. In 15th century the price of silver is estimated to have been around $1200 per ounce, based on 2010 dollars. The discovery of massive silver deposits in the New World during the succeeding centuries has caused the price to diminish greatly, falling to only 1-2% of the value of gold.
The art of silver work flourished in the Renaissance, finding expression in virtually every imaginable form. Silver was often plated with gold and other decorative materials. Although silver sheets had been used to overlay wood and other metals since ancient Greece, an 18th-century technique of fusing thin silver sheets to copper brought silver goods called Sheffield plate within the reach of most people. At the same time the use of silver in jewelry making had also started gaining popularity in the 17th century. It was often as support in settings for diamonds and other transparent precious stones, in order to encourage the reflection of light. Silver continued to gain in popularity throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and by the 20th century competed with gold as the principal metal used in the manufacture of jewelry. Silver has the highest thermal and electrical conductivity of any metal, and one of the highest optical reflectivity values. It has a brilliant metallic luster, is very ductile and malleable, only slightly harder than gold, and is easily worked and polished. When used in jewelry, silver is commonly alloyed to include 7.5% copper, known as “Sterling Silver”, to increase the hardness and reduce the melting temperature. Silver jewelry may be plated with 99.9% pure ‘Fine Silver’ to increase the shine when polished. It may also be plated with rhodium to prevent tarnish. Virtually all gold, with the exception of 24 carat gold, includes silver. Most gold alloys are primarily composed of only gold and silver.
Throughout the history of the ancient world, gemstones were believed capable of curing illness, possessed of valuable metaphysical properties, and to provide protection. Found in Egypt dated 1500 B. C., the "Papyrus Ebers" offered one of most complete therapeutic manuscripts containing prescriptions using gemstones and minerals. Gemstones were not only valued for their medicinal and protective properties, but also for educational and spiritual enhancement. Precious minerals were likewise considered to have medicinal and “magical” properties in the ancient world. In its pure form silver is non toxic, and when mixed with other elements is used in a wide variety of medicines. Silver ions and silver compounds show a toxic effect on some bacteria, viruses, algae and fungi. Silver was widely used before the advent of antibiotics to prevent and treat infections, silver nitrate being the prevalent form. Silver Iodide was used in babies' eyes upon birth to prevent blinding as the result of bacterial contamination. Silver is still widely used in topical gels and impregnated into bandages because of its wide-spectrum antimicrobial activity.
The recorded use of silver to prevent infection dates to ancient Greece and Rome. Hippocrates, the ancient (5th century B.C.) Greek "father of medicine" wrote that silver had beneficial healing and anti-disease properties. The ancient Phoenicians stored water, wine, and vinegar in silver bottles to prevent spoiling. These uses were “rediscovered” in the Middle Ages, when silver was used for several purposes; such as to disinfect water and food during storage, and also for the treatment of burns and wounds as a wound dressing. The ingestion of colloidal silver was also believed to help restore the body's “electromagnetic balance” to a state of equilibrium, and it was believed to detoxify the liver and spleen. In the 19th century sailors on long ocean voyages would put silver coins in barrels of water and wine to keep the liquid potable. Silver (and gold) foil is also used through the world as a food decoration. Traditional Indian dishes sometimes include the use of decorative silver foil, and in various cultures silver dragée (silver coated sugar balls) are used to decorate cakes, cookies, and other dessert items.
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