RRC 55/1: the origin of the peaked visor in Roman Republican Denarii

By Pierluigi Debernardi

THE variety described in Michael Crawford’s Roman Republican Coinage (RRC) 55/1 is a rare series of early anonymous denarii, exemplified by the D’Ailly specimen (figure E below). A measure of its rarity is given by the fact that the British Museum does not have an example of this variety. The Republican Die Project (RDP) by Richard Schaefer reports five more examples; the one reported here as coin (e) shares the same dies with D’Ailly specimen, while the other four have different dies. This series is then small, but not a “one die” issue. Being eight dies known, the small survival rate of one die per coin is surprising. 1

At first observation, Cr 55 bears similarity to the RRC 53/2 family in that it is found with a peaked visor. It differs however from RRC 53/2 in many features; the most distinctive characteristic of the series is the hair, which is unbound, long and flowing. It is divided into 5 long locks that fall on the shoulders and the neck. There is a hint of a lock of hair on left shoulder, similar to in RRC 75 (see figure c). The griffin tufts are dense and bud-shaped. On the reverse, the horses seem to be distinctively prancing apparently from a sudden slowing command from the riders. The horse and riders’ postures are uncharacteristically leaning backwards. The cape is slim and has a unique V-shape ending.

Recently the coin C has appeared on the market and coin A and B are from Bibliothèque Nationale de France and Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Their main features are fully consistent with RRC 55/1, except for the helmet visor. As can be seen in the photographs, the visors are not peaked, but are made up of three equal bars similar in style to RRC 45/1, and 68/1b (see coins a. and b below). These radically different visors pose some fundamental classification issues, since no other variety demonstrates such a mixture of these visor styles.

Figure 1: Visor evolution, starting from the first die (A) to the final design of the series (E). A, 3.84g, 10.44sg and E, 4.26g, 10.21sg from Bibliotèque Nationale de France; C Inasta35, lot 319, 4.26g, 3:30h, 10.55 SG; D McCabe collection, 3.67g; B S340, 3.98g, 10.34sg Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli; e Peus386, lot 482, 4.06g. On the right, some types helpful for comparison: a, BM R.6778 4.10g 11h; b, 4.71g, 10.53sg from Bibliotèque Nationale de France; c, BM 1860,0328.228 4.47g, 2h.

Some other early issues display similar three bar visors, such as RRC 72 to 76, but the lines in these visors are parallel to each other. The overall style of the anonymous RRC 75/1c (coin c) is fully different and that whole Sicilian mint family must then be excluded from being related in this discussion. The three bar visor is instead somewhat similar to RRC 68/1b (coin b).

The enlargements of the visor area of coins A to E show clearly that the only significant difference is the different length of the visor bars. Note however, that starting from die C the helmet is depicted at an angle to the observer, so that one can see its whole lower edge, including the rear bottom edge. This is an unparalleled detail. Also note the peculiar clockwise rotation of the mark of value X. This feature and the three dimensional depiction of the helmet are lacking in the first two dies of the series (A and B), which are however unmistakably RRC 55 when one considers the hair, the cape and horse style.

Since the visor is the only detail used by Crawford to distinguish the two large anonymous families described in RRC 44 and 53, 55/1 can be seen as the series where the transition from one kind of visor to the other occurred. This can be clearly observed in the visor modifications, die after die, from die A to die E, as shown in the enlargements in the figure. Although worn, Die D, shows the first two upper bars with much reduced length, but still a bit longer than in the final design, which is represented by die E, the final style of Cr 55/1 and the only one reported in RRC. Therefore dies A, B, C, D reported here for the first time, are very important, suggesting a transition within a single series from the early equal bars splayed visor to the peaked visor. The peaked visor was henceforth used in all the successive series. The very first examples to appear in the Adrano hoard2 are Cr 77 and 78; soon after, they were possibly followed by other series with peaked visor: Cr 79, 80, 88/2a, 53, 54, 57, 58, 88/2b, 89 etc. All of these series follow the ones with splayed visor3 and can be positioned in the last decade of the III cent B.C., during the last years of the Second Punic war. 4

1One can infer, from some extensively studied series, such as P.CREPVSI or Q.POMPONI RVFVS, that a typical survival rate is 7 to 10. But it must be taken into account that there is a smaller general interest in the anonymous series and the different time period from the above mentioned series.

2 HERSH 1976, C.A. HERSH, A tri-denominational hoard of early Roman silver coins from Sicily, in ANSMN, 21, 1976, pp. 59-65.

3HERSH 1977, C.A. HERSH, Notes on the chronology and interpretation of the Roman Republican Coinage. Some Comments on Crawford's Roman Coinage, in NC 1977, pp. 21-24.
4 My thanks to Dr. Teresa Giove, curator of The National Archaeological Museum of Naples for her hospitality. I am also sincerely grateful to Michel Amandry, director and curator of Biblioteque Nationale de France (BNF), and Dr. Dominique Hollard, the director of the Roman department in BNF.