Celebrating Voter Protections

A Lex Gabinia of 139 BC began the trend by which Roman political proceeding came to be largely held by secret ballot.  Instead of saying aloud one’s choice, voters would place their clay ballots into an urn.  Voting bridges were introduced to protect the voters from interference from the surrounding crowd.   Overtime more laws were enacted in the same spirit moving most all forms of voting (elections, legislative sessions, trials, etc..) to secret ballot.  What does this have to do with coinage you ask?

First there is the theory that this lack of ability to hold individual voters directly responsible for their actions forced members of the elite to find new ways to influence the voting and win supporters.   The idea is that the huge variation in types that one see emerge in the 130s onward is inspired by the desire of moneyers to promote themselves, their families, or their political allies in the eyes of the voting public.  Harriet Flower has taken this idea a step farther and suggested that the change voting procedure and coin output together with other factors mark the end of the republic dominated by the nobiles and heralds in a new type of republic.   She even suggest that there is pretty radical shift in the audience of the coin iconography from images previous directed to individuals outside the community to an inward target (p. 76).  I find that a challenging idea.  I would rather want to say that all the images on Roman coins were directed at both internal and external audiences.  The main function of the design is to mark the coin as Roman currency, to make it spendable — that is to identify it as legal tender.  The images accomplish that goal in any period.  The shift in images is possible because of the extension and stabilization of Roman hegemony.   The more readily familiar the denarius is the less its design needs to conform to a single type.

I am also concerned with presumption that the secret ballot was about lessening the power of the elites or their influence. I am rather taken by this recent assertion by Crawford:

Crawford, Michael. ‘Reconstructing what Roman republic?’ BICS 54-2 (2011) 105-114, p. 110
Crawford, Michael. ‘Reconstructing what Roman republic?’ BICS 54-2 (2011) 105-114, p. 110

If he is right that elite support for the secret ballot was an attempt to paper over growing divisions amongst the ruling classes, then the diversity of coin type would be symptomatic of those division rather than inspired by the new electioneering needs of candidates for office.  There are many problems of course with seeing coin types as directly forms of electioneering – time in circulation, slow disbursement, as well as others.

What coins can add to the discussion is the long term resonance that such legislation had.

In 51 BC C. Coelius Claudius decides to create a series explicitly commemorating the accomplishments of his eponymous ancestor the consul of 94 BC.  All the other accomplishments alluded to on the type record military victories, the traditional source of gloria for a Roman noble. [The epulum on 437/2 may be an exception but we’ll investigate that another day.]  And, yet of equal note along side the military accomplishments is the plebicite of 107 making treason trials use the secret ballot–notice the ballot behind the portrait head!   There are a number of other coins which commemorate ballots, but those can be saved too.

I’ll close by trying to contextualize Coelius’ series.  The ancestor portrait needs to be thought of as akin to the funeral imagines, ancestor masks worn by younger decedents of similar stature at family funerals.   Those masked descendants would recount accomplishments, just like the coins do.  The masks might have elogia next to them while on display in the family tabularium.  Coelius is using the coins in just same way as that familiar aristocratic ritual.   I bet Flower says something similar in her first book.  I best check…!

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One thought on “Celebrating Voter Protections

  1. Re. Harriet Flowers’ views, I’m not aware of any evidence that demonstrates who the images on coins were directed towards, and whether those they were directed towards actually received the message. At one end of the scale, Michael Crawford’s view as expressed in RRC and elsewhere is that the designs may have been an idle whim of the moneyer in concert with whatever artist was commissioned to realise the design, without any thought, in a marketing sense, as to who the audience was or how it might best be reached. The evidence for this “design is useless” approach comes from innumerable coin types whose designs we cannot figure out ; how then would we have expected internet-free Romans citizens to have been able to interpret? At the other end of the scale, many authors presume that such elaborate designs would not have been established if there weren’t an effective audience for them, and that we should assume the designs could indeed have been interpreted. Both ends of the argument are put into play as if self-evidently true, yet no-one has, so far as I know, found any means to test whether coin designs were effective. In 2012 a conference in Athens was devoted to just this subject of coin types and their meaning. On balance, more warmth than light was cast on the subject, and I feel I know as little today as I ever did. Well, perhaps I know for certain that I’ve no answers to this question.

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