When a Coin is Worth a Thousand Histories

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Left: “Alexander the Great” (c. 325–323 BCE), metallic tetradrachm; right: “Septimius Severus for Iulia Domna” (198–211 CE), sestertius (all images © KHM-Museumsverband)

VIENNA — The look successful splendid precocious alleviation shows a consecutive chemoreceptor and deep-set, almond-shaped eyes. It depicts the caput of the demigod Heracles clad successful the tegument of the mythological Nemean lion, which made him immune to the weapons of mortals. It is the obverse of a tetradrachm struck for Alexander the Great successful Babylonia astir 325–323 BCE, toward the extremity of his reign and life. Around the size of a United States quarter, it was worthy 4 times a man’s regular wages, and it could astir apt beryllium utilized to acquisition horses oregon weapons.

Heracles’s caput successful the metallic coin, which was besides utilized to wage mercenaries oregon tribute to overseas powers, bears a striking resemblance to aboriginal portrayals of Alexander. Regardless of whether it represents an apotheosis of the ruler — historians inactive statement it — it is simply a magnificent instauration to Around the World successful 80 Coins, an accumulation connected presumption astatine the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna done January 2024 that tells the stories of past gods, queens, and everyone successful between. 

Installation presumption of Around the World successful 80 Coins astatine Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum

The amusement takes its evident inspiration from Jules Verne’s classical caller Around the World successful 80 Days. In the fictional story, archetypal published successful French successful 1872, traveling astir the globe successful conscionable nether 3 months had go imaginable acknowledgment to the opening of a caller railway successful India. 

Olympias, Alexander’s mother, is the taxable of the archetypal sheet successful the gallery, which besides features a bronze coin from the Molossian kingdom successful what astir corresponds to modern Albania, wherever she was a princess. She is besides typical of a broader taxable successful an accumulation that is arsenic overmuch astir numismatics arsenic it is astir women arsenic makers of history. Of the 16 panels successful the amusement — each presenting 5 uncommon coins illustrating the themes of rulers and conflict; travel; and the arts — six are devoted to women, including 1 astir the Beatles boasting coinage portraying Queen Elizabeth II arsenic the sovereign of the (still) wide Commonwealth. 

Left: “Cleopatra VII” (36 BCE), tetradrachm; right: “Augustus” (28 BCE), denar

Interestingly, nary of the coins displayed present picture the heads. A funny 1 is the commemorative Canadian dollar of 1958, issued connected the centennial of the instauration of British Columbia, showing successful the reverse a gangly totem with mountains successful the background. In 1964, 3 of these coins (plus an further 25 cents) could person bought a summons for the Beatles performance successful Vancouver. 

If lone due to the fact that they are excessively adjacent to our times, immoderate visitors whitethorn walk little clip successful the Beatles conception and take to linger elsewhere successful the hall. Next to Olympias, who would person been doomed to obscurity were it not for her son, is Cleopatra, perchance history’s astir celebrated queen. Those looking retired for her legendary illustration mightiness beryllium disappointed by the alternatively worn 1 illustrated successful a bronze coin successful this display. But a denarius — a modular Roman coin of the epoch — much than makes up for it with an intriguing crocodile displayed nether the fable “AEGYPTO CAPTA,” oregon “Egypt captured.” The coin is simply a root of numismatic mystery connected the symbolism of the crocodile, whose scales are intelligibly disposable successful this coin struck successful 28 BCE, 2 years aft Cleopatra committed suicide. 

Left: Silver barroom from Carinthia; right: “City Republic of Siena” (c. 1200), denaro

The pieces displayed successful a conception dedicated to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are meant to exemplify the travails of his freelance career, touring Europe for gigs. He was paid successful coins similar the Louis d’or connected display. These were the golden coins minted nether Louis XVI, the past king of France who was guillotined successful 1793, 2 years aft Mozart died successful Vienna successful 1791 astatine the property of 35. Mozart owed portion of his occurrence to his enterprising father, who had started searching for lucrative placements for his lad by the clip helium was conscionable six years old, yet household letters uncover complaints of the losses incurred “through predominant currency exchanges.” 

“Wǔzōng (Külüq Khan)” (1310–131), 10 cash, China, Yuan dynasty

Before the azygous currency, speech rates successful the European portion were a occupation that dogged different German-speaking traveler featured astatine the Kunsthistorisches exhibition. As helium made his travel from Passau successful southeast Germany to Rome successful 1204, the high-ranking bishop Wolfger von Erla adjacent carried metallic ingots with him, similar the ones exhibited here, which helium exchanged successful Siena — astatine the clip an autarkic city-state successful Italy — for astir 1,462 denari. (At the time, a bully brace of shoes successful the Tuscan metropolis outgo 30 denari.) His trip, astatine a clip erstwhile question was unsafe and lone undertaken for intent arsenic opposed to leisure, paid off: The Pope agreed to marque him the Patriarch of Aquileia. 

Marco Polo could not beryllium missing from this exhibition. The astir celebrated traveler of each times dealt successful a myriad of currencies arsenic helium traveled crossed 2 continents from Venice, wherever helium paid with the grossi, each the mode to China on the Silk Road, wherever helium utilized the qian, currency coins whose distinctive quadrate spread successful the mediate are said to correspond Earth (whereas a circular signifier mostly symbolizes heaven). More instantly applicable successful regular transactions, the spread allowed the coins to beryllium strung connected laces oregon ribbons, making them easier to carry. China was besides the archetypal state to people insubstantial wealth astir the twelvemonth 1000 CE. 

Obverse and reverse of “Ardashir III” (c. 629–30), drachma

Two of the coins basal retired for the ornate headgear and coifs of the figures formed successful them. One shows King Ardashir III of the Sasanian Empire wearing an extraordinarily oversized winged and crenelated crown. This coin whitethorn person been utilized by Chinese monk Xuanzang — the taxable of 1 of the displays — erstwhile helium arrived successful the oasis metropolis of Bamiyan successful what is present Afghanistan and the tract of 2 elephantine 6th-century Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban successful 2001. Xuanzang was connected a pilgrimage to India, the birthplace of Buddhism. 

The different coin with a singular caput connected it is simply a humble Roman sestertius, a 4th of a denarius, oregon capable wealth to bargain 2 loaves of breadstuff astatine the time. It features Empress Julia Domna, woman and parent of emperors, known for her grandiose yet tragic beingness — 1 of her sons, aboriginal emperor Caracalla, murdered his member successful his mother’s arms, injuring her arsenic well. Her elaborate hairstyle is represented successful loving item successful this coin, 1 that inspired a manner passim the Roman Empire.

The wheels of past whitethorn crook connected specified stories, made by those who struck their names connected these metallic pieces, but also by the unnamed radical who utilized them for breadstuff and different transactions ample and small, present agelong forgotten but for the coins they exchanged.

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Avedis Hadjian is simply a writer and writer based successful Venice. He is the writer of Secret Nation: The Hidden Armenians of Turkey. His enactment arsenic a analogous has taken him to Eastern Europe, the former...

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