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Tesserae Nummulariae: Creating a Typology of Graphic Display on Portable Latin Labels

Lindsay Holman

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The paper aims to explore the changes in graphic design on a distinct but largely overlooked category of inscription, so-called tesserae nummulariae. Previous study has subordinated their presentation to analysis of the texts. However, the form and orientation of the inscriptions have the potential to shed light on the production, reception and perhaps even the function of these tesserae. Moreover, a variant type has emerged from ongoing excavations at Magdalensberg (Austria), which provides a rare opportunity to examine how cultural preferences dictated changes in graphic design. Tesserae nummulariae are rectangular labels made of ivory or bone, with inscriptions on all four sides. Rudolf Herzog formulated the term in 1919, arguing that these tesserae were used by financial officials, such as nummularii, to certify either the amount or quality of coinage in a bag of money; his theory has since been favored by others (Andreau 1985). The tesserae bear two names, one in the nominative of a slave or freedman (seemingly) on the first side, and the other of an elite Roman family on the second side. Unlike many portable inscriptions, these tesserae have an exact date, with a day and month recorded on the third side and the names of both consuls on the fourth side. For the entire span attested to date (96 BCE to 88 CE) there is a standard formula for the inscriptions. Thus, it is possible to create an absolute chronology for the changes in graphic display over time, since eighty percent of these tesserae bear an exact date. Out of the over 180 examples so far known, I have examined and photographed 110. There can be no doubt that, whatever their function, the tesserae were produced with a clear intent to display one side. On one end of the body they have a head, where there is a hole drilled through. Its precise placement is dependent upon the period in which the tessera was made. Typically, the hole is drilled from the second through to the fourth side, so that either the first or third side would be visible when attaching the tessera to the object concerned. Moreover, there is an intentionality to the orientation of the inscriptions, the spacing and pigmentation of the letters, and any additional incised decoration. The graphic display and physical shape of the tesserae evolve over time, with three successive stages identifiable. The provenance of the tesserae is primarily Italian; other examples come from Western European provinces, with a few notable outliers (AE 1967.486 from Ephesus and AE 1968.619 from Hadrumentum). However, a distinct subtype, with text on only two sides and additional decoration on the other two, has emerged at Magdalensberg, a Celtic settlement within the later province of Noricum (Gostenčnik 2005; Piccottini 1991). These examples do not bear a date, but have all been recovered from occupation levels dated from the mid first century BCE to the mid first century CE (Gostenčnik 2013). This paper not only considers the ways in which the graphic design of tesserae nummulariae developed in three distinct stages, but also puts forward the social and functional explanations for these shifts. Despite its exceptional character in some respects, the Magdalensberg type provides an instructive test case for the adaptations by local production outside of the Roman Empire. The Magdalensberg type further assists evaluation of how cultural norms dictate changes in decoration and content while the form is adapted. Cultural adaptations are again evident when making comparisons with other groups of rectangular tesserae made for different purposes, such as tribal and gaming tesserae. My examination of the changes in layout of the text of tesserae nummulariae and additional decoration seeks to illuminate how regional differences attest to consideration for the intended users’ reception.

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Graphic Display: Form and Meaning in Greek and Latin Writing

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