When a Coin is Worth a Thousand Histories

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When a Coin is Worth a Thousand Histories

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

VIENNA — The face in splendid high relief shows a straight nose and deep-set, almond-shaped eyes. It depicts the head of the demigod Heracles clad in the skin 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 in Babylonia around 325–323 BCE, toward the end of his reign and life. Around the size of a United States quarter, it was worth four times a man’s daily wages, and it could probably be used to purchase horses or weapons.

Heracles’s head in the silver coin, which was also used to pay mercenaries or tribute to foreign powers, bears a striking resemblance to later portrayals of Alexander. Regardless of whether it represents an apotheosis of the ruler — historians still debate it — it is a magnificent introduction to Around the World in 80 Coins, an exhibition on view at the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna through January 2024 that tells the stories of ancient gods, queens, and everyone in between. 

Installation view of Around the World in 80 Coins at Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum

The show takes its obvious inspiration from Jules Verne’s classic novel Around the World in 80 Days. In the fictional story, first published in French in 1872, traveling around the globe in just under three months had become possible thanks to the opening of a new railway in India. 

Olympias, Alexander’s mother, is the theme of the first panel in the gallery, which also features a bronze coin from the Molossian kingdom in what roughly corresponds to modern Albania, where she was a princess. She is also representative of a broader theme in an exhibition that is as much about numismatics as it is about women as makers of history. Of the 16 panels in the show — each presenting five rare coins illustrating the themes of rulers and conflict; travel; and the arts — six are devoted to women, including one about the Beatles boasting coinage portraying Queen Elizabeth II as the sovereign of the (still) widespread Commonwealth. 

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

Interestingly, none of the coins displayed here depict the heads. A curious one is the commemorative Canadian dollar of 1958, issued on the centennial of the foundation of British Columbia, showing in the reverse a tall totem with mountains in the background. In 1964, three of these coins (plus an additional 25 cents) could have bought a ticket for the Beatles concert in Vancouver. 

If only because they are too close to our times, some visitors may spend less time in the Beatles section and choose to linger elsewhere in the hall. Next to Olympias, who would have been doomed to obscurity were it not for her son, is Cleopatra, possibly history’s most famous queen. Those looking out for her legendary profile might be disappointed by the rather worn one illustrated in a bronze coin in this display. But a denarius — a standard Roman coin of the era — more than makes up for it with an intriguing crocodile displayed under the legend “AEGYPTO CAPTA,” or “Egypt captured.” The coin is a source of numismatic mystery on the symbolism of the crocodile, whose scales are clearly visible in this coin struck in 28 BCE, two years after Cleopatra committed suicide. 

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

The pieces displayed in a section dedicated to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are meant to illustrate the travails of his freelance career, touring Europe for gigs. He was paid in coins like the Louis d’or on display. These were the gold coins minted under Louis XVI, the last king of France who was guillotined in 1793, two years after Mozart died in Vienna in 1791 at the age of 35. Mozart owed part of his success to his enterprising father, who had started searching for lucrative placements for his boy by the time he was just six years old, yet family letters reveal complaints of the losses incurred “through frequent currency exchanges.” 

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

Before the single currency, exchange rates in the European region were a problem that dogged another German-speaking traveler featured at the Kunsthistorisches exhibition. As he made his journey from Passau in southeast Germany to Rome in 1204, the high-ranking bishop Wolfger von Erla even carried silver ingots with him, like the ones exhibited here, which he exchanged in Siena — at the time an independent city-state in Italy — for about 1,462 denari. (At the time, a good pair of shoes in the Tuscan city cost 30 denari.) His trip, at a time when travel was dangerous and only undertaken for purpose as opposed to leisure, paid off: The Pope agreed to make him the Patriarch of Aquileia. 

Marco Polo could not be missing from this exhibition. The most famous traveler of all times dealt in a myriad of currencies as he traveled across two continents from Venice, where he paid with the grossi, all the way to China along the Silk Road, where he used the qian, cash coins whose distinctive square hole in the middle are said to represent Earth (whereas a round shape generally symbolizes heaven). More immediately relevant in daily transactions, the hole allowed the coins to be strung on laces or ribbons, making them easier to carry. China was also the first country to print paper money around the year 1000 CE. 

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

Two of the coins stand out for the ornate headgear and coifs of the figures cast in them. One shows King Ardashir III of the Sasanian Empire wearing an extraordinarily oversized winged and crenelated crown. This coin may have been used by Chinese monk Xuanzang — the subject of one of the displays — when he arrived in the oasis city of Bamiyan in what is now Afghanistan and the site of two giant 6th-century Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Xuanzang was on a pilgrimage to India, the birthplace of Buddhism. 

The other coin with a singular head on it is a humble Roman sestertius, a quarter of a denarius, or enough money to buy two loaves of bread at the time. It features Empress Julia Domna, wife and mother of emperors, known for her grandiose yet tragic life — one of her sons, future emperor Caracalla, murdered his brother in his mother’s arms, injuring her as well. Her elaborate hairstyle is represented in loving detail in this coin, one that inspired a fashion throughout the Roman Empire.

The wheels of history may turn on such stories, made by those who struck their names on these metallic pieces, but also by the unnamed people who used them for bread and other transactions large and small, now long forgotten except for the coins they exchanged.

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