Journal article Open Access

Contested Affordances: Ancient Roman Coins, Economic Cycles, and Changing Socio-Political Contexts

Elisabeth & Sven Günther

Art Style | Art & Culture International Magazine


Money, trust, transactions – these three keywords that seem to describe our (post) modern age, have been the motor of most societies ever since. Coins embody abstract concepts of value, measure, legal tender, and exchange; and these concepts, by framing the production, use, and receptions of the coins, shape and even reshape the coins’ materiality and thus their affordances. This holds especially true for ancient times. Flans of bronze, silver, and gold were minted into coins by workers, using engraved dies that “coined” images and legends into the surface and thus made them valid currency. Yet, there occurred, at times, overstrikes, countermarks, scratches, erasures, graffiti, drills – and the metal coins preserve and store all such alterations until now, what makes them readable like a “biography”. This unfolds narrations of ever-changing affordances and thus stimulates modern research with questions about the interdependencies of institutions, human interactions, and the material qualities of things that have impact on human life. Not surprisingly, the primary affordance of coins is to serve as money. Acceptance and trust are two basic conditions to guarantee money’s smooth circulation and thus enable economic transactions and exchange. Ruptures in this system challenge the affordances of coins, but also create new affordances, as we will show in three case studies from the Roman imperial period. In all these cases, coin denominations and regional limits of coin circulation are key factors for challenging and re-creating affordances. This brings us back to the overall ruling monetary function of coins, being the backbone and mirror of financial, political, and socio-economic systems. Nonetheless, reflecting and discussing the material and visual aspects of coins and their impact on us makes us think afresh about our relationship with the world, all the more in our modern, increasingly virtualized society.

Art Style, Art & Culture International Magazine is an open-access, biannual, and peer-reviewed online magazine that aims to bundle cultural diversity. All values of cultures are shown in their varieties of art. Beyond the importance of the medium, form, and context in which art takes its characteristics, art is considered the significance of socio-cultural, historical, and market influence.
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