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Domitian's Alexandrian Arch


David Atherton

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About a decade after Domitian made the coinage reforms at Rome that increased the fineness of the denarius, the Alexandrian mint underwent a similar overhaul. Standards were raised producing a finer style coinage with completely new types. My latest coin is one of those new types. It ticks a couple of major boxes for me: it's an architectural type and a Domitianic Alexandrian - personally it doesn't get much better!

 

 

RPC2708.jpg.fef1c042db6d4490724d5d4f1409b4b6.jpg
Domitian
Æ Drachm, 21.63g
Alexandria mint, 94-95 AD
Obv: ΑΥΤ ΚΑΙϹ ΘƐΟΥ ΥΙΟϹ ΔΟΜΙΤ ϹƐΒ ΓƐΡΜ; Head of Domitian, laureate, bearded, r.
Rev: Triumphal arch; date LΙΔ
RPC 2708 (6 spec.). Emmett 257.14. Dattari-Savio 542-3.
Ex Harlan J Berk BBS 225, 30 November 2023, lot 505. Ex Shimmer, 1986, lot 118.

'He erected so many and such huge vaulted passage-ways and arches in the various regions of the city, adorned with chariots and triumphal emblems, that on one of them someone wrote in Greek: "enough!" '- Suetonius, Life of Domitian, 13.2.

Thus we begin with a pun. Some nameless wag scrawled 'ARCI' on one of Domitian’s many arches, punning on the similarity between arcus (‘arch’) and the Greek arkei (‘enough’). Suetonius thought the joke clever enough to pass it along in his Life of Domitian. Domitian was a builder and he did indeed erect many arches throughout the city of Rome and the wider empire. This remarkable drachm struck at Alexandria for Domitian features a grandiose triple-span triumphal arch. The exact location of the structure is unknown. Some scholars have argued it represents a local Alexandrian arch (Price-Trell 1977, Vogt 1924, Handler 1971). F. Kleiner on the other hand convincingly proposes it to be a triumphal arch erected in Rome commemorating Domitian's victory over the Germanic Chatti. That it's a triumphal arch is fairly sound. The rooftop central figure of the emperor driving a triumphal quadriga pulled by six horses, flanked by twin trophies with defeated captives makes it fairly clear the arch was erected with a triumph in mind. The type first appeared on Alexandrian tetradrachms in 86, just a few years after the victory over the Chatti making a connection to that triumph very appealing. How accurate is the depiction? We simply do not know. Quite possibly the Alexandrian engravers based the composition on generic stock triumphal types, perhaps augmented by written descriptions, paintings, or sketches. The arch did not survive antiquity, but it is replicated on drachms of Trajan and Hadrian, likely repurposed for their own needs (whether it was located in Rome or Alexandria) and seemingly escaped damnatio memoriae destruction. Luckily, the coins survive to give us an idea of what this impressive monument may have looked like.

 

In hand.

 

The provenance 'Shimmer, 1986' is puzzling to me. I assume this was a pre internet auction house? At any rate, I cannot find any info online about it. Any help would be appreciated!

As always, thank you for looking!

Edited by David Atherton
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Great coin! I got another arch type from that sale (in my opinion, they clearly received a fine collection of architectural types, with they would've said whose). I'll share it momentarily.

5 hours ago, David Atherton said:

The provenance 'Shimmer, 1986' is puzzling to me. I assume this was a pre internet auction house? At any rate, I cannot find any info online about it. Any help would be appreciated!

It's hard to research minor provenances when the name is also a word! But this one seems to appear nowhere else I can see. I would consider the possibility of spelling error or variant, or autocorrect mistake (either on the consignor's written tag or as cataloged by HJB Ltd).

There was a Schimmer in Nürnberg (solo catalogs began late 1990s). He was one of the principals at Nürnberg Münzauktion (eventually taking it over).
Nürnberg M
ünz. did have their Auktion No. 16 on 18 Okt 1986. Could be the consignor just recorded it as Schimmer (same as people used to refer to CNG as Victor England).

I see other possible misspellings in Fitzwilliam but none as close as Schimmer (e.g., Simmermacher, Schimmel, Simmons, Eimer, Timmerman). The big worry might be that someone mistook the date for a name (i.e., a Summer 1986 catalog and lost the seller name).

Edited by Curtis JJ
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Fantastic coin David, congrats on another amazing addition to your collection. I have one not as nice as yours.

 

Egypt, Alexandria. Domitian. A.D. 81-96. AE drachm (34.7 mm, 23.61 g, 11 h). Alexandria mint, Struck A.D. 95/6. [AVT KAIC ΘЄ] OVIOC ΔOMIT [CЄB ΓЄPM], laureate head of Domitian right / Frontal elevation of triumphal arch; L - IE ( yr. 15 = A.D. 95/6 ). Emmett 257.15. Near VF / VF, very dark green smooth patina. Scarce (Emmett "frequency" 2). RPC II, 2728.
From the D. Thomas Collection; Wz Group CEM; Ex Walter Niggeler Collection; Ex Bank Leu/Munzen und Medallien.

Domitianarch(2).jpg.d1926e7a4159012b250b1ed04e8abb80.jpg

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Great example of a fascinating type! I am looking forward to getting one of these. I bought a different Alexandrian Drachm from the same sale (Lot 507) -- but of a somewhat related type.

I particularly like these for the sculptural groups atop the arches, with the trophies and captives.

image.jpeg.2f5ba707c9a4c870d820d0e610bbaeab.jpeg

I'll post this coin separately at some point, explaining everything interesting about it, but for now it's interesting to note similarities/differences from the OP coin reverse, showing the Arch of Domitian.

Trajan also issued coins showing the exact same Triumphal Arch of Domitian, during numerous years. (In fact, my coin was mistaken for one of those in both the sale catalog and RPC III 4337.2, which actually also listed my coin as specimen 2, until I sent a correction; now moved to 4287.3.5.)

Trajan also issued a second, different type of arch for Year 12. It has the same sculptural group & decorated triangular pediment. However, the structure itself is different: Instead of three arches and two small square "windows" w/ statues, it has four Cointhian columns. (Notice the decorated capitals.)

image.jpeg.6026361b158c4e2923dbe06aa7920875.jpeg

Most important, it has an enigmatic legend in the exergue, which is unfortunately missing on my specimen: ΒΑΛAΝΗΟΥ. But it can be recognized from the shape of the structure. Mine is now cited as RPC 4287.3, specimen 5 (ex Wetterstrom, Johns Hopkins, K&G 27.205). (It's very curious that they would issue two such Arch types that year, and only use this odd legend the one time, ever. RPC 4287.1's Note gives background; the clearest image is RPC 4287.2, spec. 4 [Jungfleisch].)

Edited by Curtis JJ
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12 hours ago, Curtis JJ said:

Great coin! I got another arch type from that sale (in my opinion, they clearly received a fine collection of architectural types, with they would've said whose). I'll share it momentarily.

It's hard to research minor provenances when the name is also a word! But this one seems to appear nowhere else I can see. I would consider the possibility of spelling error or variant, or autocorrect mistake (either on the consignor's written tag or as cataloged by HJB Ltd).

There was a Schimmer in Nürnberg (solo catalogs began late 1990s). He was one of the principals at Nürnberg Münzauktion (eventually taking it over).
Nürnberg M
ünz. did have their Auktion No. 16 on 18 Okt 1986. Could be the consignor just recorded it as Schimmer (same as people used to refer to CNG as Victor England).

I see other possible misspellings in Fitzwilliam but none as close as Schimmer (e.g., Simmermacher, Schimmel, Simmons, Eimer, Timmerman). The big worry might be that someone mistook the date for a name (i.e., a Summer 1986 catalog and lost the seller name).

Thank you! I think you may be on to something with the provenance being a misspelling of some sort. I like the Schimmer/Nürnberg Münz theory. Maybe with this new avenue of approach I can dig up something with Nürnberg Münz Auktion No. 16, 18 Okt 1986?

Superb research Curtis!

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4 hours ago, Curtis JJ said:

Great example of a fascinating type! I am looking forward to getting one of these. I bought a different Alexandrian Drachm from the same sale (Lot 507) -- but of a somewhat related type.

I particularly like these for the sculptural groups atop the arches, with the trophies and captives.

image.jpeg.2f5ba707c9a4c870d820d0e610bbaeab.jpeg

I'll post this coin separately at some point, explaining everything interesting about it, but for now it's interesting to note similarities/differences from the OP coin reverse, showing the Arch of Domitian.

Trajan also issued coins showing the exact same Triumphal Arch of Domitian, during numerous years. (In fact, my coin was mistaken for one of those in both the sale catalog and RPC III 4337.2, which actually also listed my coin as specimen 2, until I sent a correction; now moved to 4287.3.5.)

Trajan also issued a second, different type of arch for Year 12. It has the same sculptural group & decorated triangular pediment. However, the structure itself is different: Instead of three arches and two small square "windows" w/ statues, it has four Cointhian columns. (Notice the decorated capitals.)

image.jpeg.6026361b158c4e2923dbe06aa7920875.jpeg

Most important, it has an enigmatic legend in the exergue, which is unfortunately missing on my specimen: ΒΑΛAΝΗΟΥ. But it can be recognized from the shape of the structure. Mine is now cited as RPC 4287.3, specimen 5 (ex Wetterstrom, Johns Hopkins, K&G 27.205). (It's very curious that they would issue two such Arch types that year, and only use this odd legend the one time, ever. RPC 4287.1's Note gives background; the clearest image is RPC 4287.2, spec. 4 [Jungfleisch].)

A wonderful Trajanic example! Interesting to see the differences in the arch between Domitian's earlier type and your Trajan specimen. Two different arches or two different visions?

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1 hour ago, David Atherton said:

Two different arches or two different visions?

It's a good question and different people have come down differently on the question over the past century-plus (without arriving at any great answers).

In favor of the same is the identical decoration from the pediment up.

However, as Kleiner (1989, NC) noted in his article on "An Arch of Domitian in Rome on the Coins of Alexandria", most of the Alexandrian architectural types are "stock images" representing buildings not in Alexandria that the engravers had never seen. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42667571

Against it being the same, BOTH images were used in Trajan's RY 12 coinage:

https://rpc.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/coins/3/4337.2.2 & https://rpc.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/coins/3/4287.2

315256.jpg.24f5caa3ecd127f4e1700ff5373d8590.jpg 57166.jpg.85108d949729db2160521d156bbb4a57.jpg

The "traditional" Domitianic type Triumphal Arch was issued for Trajan at least in Years 12, 13, 14, 16, 20, always looking pretty much the same as Domitian had it. Why would they have two different ones in that one year (only)?

Even more curiously... For the "column type" only, there is a cryptic inscription. The most popular reading seems to be BALANHOY. (Jungfleish has it "POΛANOHΣ(?)" in his Sotheby 1972 sale catalog, based on the reverse above.)

I don't have a strong opinion either way (I just like coins that represent a debate!).

But one theory is that it references the Balanium or baths of the Traiani Thermae. From RPC, "It is surely no coincidence that the great Thermae Traiani in Rome were dedicated precisely in summer 109, perhaps paid for by the spoils of the Dacian War; so it seems possible that these coins depict part of those baths." If so, the stock images of trophies/captives would represent the Dacians.

(Looking at the reconstructions of the massive bath complex, there are walls all the way around, arches, various buildings and courtyards, and lots of different architectural features. Not having any particular expertise, it doesn't sound far-fetched that this might be the entrance or something.)

Whatever the explanation, one curious detail is that the word seems to be in the genitive case (e.g., of ΒΑΛAΝEION), which seems weird. Perhaps along the lines of "the gates of" or "the opening/celebration of the baths"? I don't know, just a speculation.

It never repeats anywhere in Roman coinage. I haven't searched that hard, but I can't find it as a recorded building inscription either, but I've just googled around a bit. There don't seem to be any other depictions of baths/bath complexes on Roman coins (there is the Nymphaeum coinage of Severus Alexander, which isn't actually that different).

An interesting mystery! And something to keep digging into, which is the point for me!

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1 hour ago, Curtis JJ said:

It's a good question and different people have come down differently on the question over the past century-plus (without arriving at any great answers).

In favor of the same is the identical decoration from the pediment up.

However, as Kleiner (1989, NC) noted in his article on "An Arch of Domitian in Rome on the Coins of Alexandria", most of the Alexandrian architectural types are "stock images" representing buildings not in Alexandria that the engravers had never seen. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42667571

Against it being the same, BOTH images were used in Trajan's RY 12 coinage:

https://rpc.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/coins/3/4337.2.2 & https://rpc.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/coins/3/4287.2

315256.jpg.24f5caa3ecd127f4e1700ff5373d8590.jpg 57166.jpg.85108d949729db2160521d156bbb4a57.jpg

The "traditional" Domitianic type Triumphal Arch was issued for Trajan at least in Years 12, 13, 14, 16, 20, always looking pretty much the same as Domitian had it. Why would they have two different ones in that one year (only)?

Even more curiously... For the "column type" only, there is a cryptic inscription. The most popular reading seems to be BALANHOY. (Jungfleish has it "POΛANOHΣ(?)" in his Sotheby 1972 sale catalog, based on the reverse above.)

I don't have a strong opinion either way (I just like coins that represent a debate!).

But one theory is that it references the Balanium or baths of the Traiani Thermae. From RPC, "It is surely no coincidence that the great Thermae Traiani in Rome were dedicated precisely in summer 109, perhaps paid for by the spoils of the Dacian War; so it seems possible that these coins depict part of those baths." If so, the stock images of trophies/captives would represent the Dacians.

(Looking at the reconstructions of the massive bath complex, there are walls all the way around, arches, various buildings and courtyards, and lots of different architectural features. Not having any particular expertise, it doesn't sound far-fetched that this might be the entrance or something.)

Whatever the explanation, one curious detail is that the word seems to be in the genitive case (e.g., of ΒΑΛAΝEION), which seems weird. Perhaps along the lines of "the gates of" or "the opening/celebration of the baths"? I don't know, just a speculation.

It never repeats anywhere in Roman coinage. I haven't searched that hard, but I can't find it as a recorded building inscription either, but I've just googled around a bit. There don't seem to be any other depictions of baths/bath complexes on Roman coins (there is the Nymphaeum coinage of Severus Alexander, which isn't actually that different).

An interesting mystery! And something to keep digging into, which is the point for me!

As I previously mentioned in the OP, I am inclined to agree with Kleiner that this represents an arch erected in Rome by Domitian to mark his Chattan victory, though it is odd the type would surface on the Alexandrian coinage! If that is the case, it's not difficult to imagine it later becoming a 'stock' type at the Alexandrian mint, recycled for Trajan and Hadrian. Differences in the later rendering of the structure could be an engraver's whim? But, as you say, an interesting mystery!

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7 hours ago, David Atherton said:

As I previously mentioned in the OP, I am inclined to agree with Kleiner that this represents an arch erected in Rome by Domitian to mark his Chattan victory, though it is odd the type would surface on the Alexandrian coinage! If that is the case, it's not difficult to imagine it later becoming a 'stock' type at the Alexandrian mint, recycled for Trajan and Hadrian. Differences in the later rendering of the structure could be an engraver's whim? But, as you say, an interesting mystery!

I think that can't be ruled out, but the really mysterious part is the legend in the exergue (unfortunately worn away on mine). That has to be the answer, if anyone ever figures it out.

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