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Sophists: Public Identity and Roman Provincial Coinage

Sinja Küppers

Duke University

Sophists are commonly analyzed through literary texts and epigraphy. However, sophists also minted coinage under the Roman Empire, some of which even bears the title ‘sophist’ as part of the issuer’s identification on the reverse. This was the exception, not the rule: only coinage from Smyrna attests the title ‘sophist’. In this paper, I argue that far from being the default choice for sophists, the inclusion of the title ‘sophist’ should be understood as a deliberate way to advertise (cf. Howgego 2005:1) and capitalize on public identity: to recruit students, to secure tax exemption and to claim a share of local family prominence. In cities in which one could not capitalize on the public identity as sophistes, I argue that the title ‘sophist’ is lacking on coinage. Thus, Roman Provincial Coinage (RPC) suggests that while sophists travelled all over the Mediterranean, geography still mattered to sophists when advertising their public identity as sophistai.

            I base my analysis on Münsterberg’s catalogue (1915) of RPC issued by sophists and Stebnicka’s revised version (2006), which encompasses 14 sophists minting in eight cities, mostly in Asia Minor, including Smyrna, Phokaia, Hypaipa, Hierapolis, Pergamon, Byzantion, Thyateira, and Apollonia in Illyria. To this list of sophists minting coinage I add Tiberius Klaudius Pardalas (e.g. RPC IV 3184), “an expert in rhetoric” (Arist. or. L 27) – unnoticed by Stebnicka. Only four sophists, Proclus, Attalus, Rufinus the elder and Rufinus the younger, issued coins inscribed with the title ‘sophist’ (in total 29 coin types) in Smyrna. 

            Since Smyrna competed with the neighboring sophistic centers Ephesos and Pergamon for students from the surroundings, coinage was a powerful medium of self-promotion that likely affected the decision of students of rhetoric where and with whom to study. Through coinage the sophists’ identity was hence intermeshed with the identity of the cities they taught in. Rufinus the elder for instance taught rhetoric in Smyrna and advertised himself as sophist on coinage from Smyrna. 

In addition, the coinage bearing the title ‘sophist’ reinforced the sophists’ claim to ateleia by publicly attesting their position: in the case of Rufinus the younger, the emperors Septimius Severus and Caracalla confirm in an inscription from Smyrna (Puech 234) Rufinus’ exemption from liturgies on account of being a sophist under the condition that Rufinus willingly assumes the position of a strategos. The inscription dates to the same time as Rufinus’ coinage (c. 198-202 AD), which documents him as a strategos and sophist on the reverse while showing the emperors’ busts on the obverse (cf. Klose LVI 1, 7). 

Furthermore, sophists publicly reinforce their local family history and affiliation with the city through minting coinage. Attalus associates himself in this vein with the prominence of his father Polemon while emphasizing their common affiliation with Smyrna and Laodicea on homonoia medallions (cf. Klose LXXX C a 2, XLVI 34-36). The prow type issued by father and son is particularly evocative of their local status since the inhabitants of Smyrna bestowed Polemon and his descendants the right to board a sacred trireme as part of an annual ritual procession (cf. Philostr. VS531; Bennett 260). 

            Beyond that, the mention of the title ‘orator’ on Athenodorus’ coinage in Hypaepa (cf. RPC III 2024) shows that it is conceivable that the title ‘sophist’ could be used on coins minted in places different from Smyrna, especially when sophists are honored as ‘sophists’ in inscriptions around the Mediterranean. Menander and Athenaius offer an explanation for the omission of the title ‘sophist’ on coins: they are both honored as sophists in Ephesian inscriptions while minting coinage without the title ‘sophist’ in Hypaepa and Thyateira. Thus, they provide evidence for a break between where sophists minted coinage and where they gained special merits for the city as sophistai

            This paper appeals in particular to scholars interested in Imperial Roman History, Greek rhetoric and oratory, the Second Sophistic, space and identity, Numismatic and the Digital Humanities.  

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Second Sophistic

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