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Exceptional Erotic Tessera

403785. Sold For $14500

Anonymous issues. temp. Tiberius, AD 14-37. Æ Tessera (22.5mm, 6.02 g, 6h). Struck circa AD 22/3-37. Heterosexual erotic scene: man kneeling left on on couch, while woman lays on her back; curtain behind / VII within wreath. Campana, Spintriae series 13, obv. die D28, rev. numeral VIII corr. (orientation of obv.); Simonetta & Riva scene 8, dies B/– (unlisted rev. die); Buttrey 3 (unlisted rev. numeral). Near EF, green patina with light earthen deposits, minor breaks in patina. Extremely rare – only three examples known for this obverse scene.

For centuries, numismatists have been puzzled by a curious series of bronze tokens bearing on their reverse numerals from I to XVI. The obverse types on these tokens vary dramatically, bearing not only portraits of Augustus, Tiberius, and Livia, but also various erotic scenes, heterosexual and (possibly) homosexual, or bigas, maenads, capricorns, and other scattered mythological figures. The most prominent theories suggest that they were tickets for entrance to the theater or the games, and the numerals represented sections in the stands, or that they were brothel tokens, with the obverse representing a chosen “product” and the reverse the price. However, both of these theories seem unlikely when one considers that the two seemingly divergent themes are joined by die links to the numeral reverses.

Alberto Campana (“Le Spintriae: Tessere Romane con Raffigurazioni Erotiche,” in La Donna Romana Imagini e Vita Quotidiana [2009], pp. 43-96) has published a new die study of the erotic pieces, recording eight specimens with at least basic find spot information, most notably a sealed tomb in Modena, firmly dated to the mid-late Julio-Claudian period, as well as other examples found around the Roman world in Palestine, Gaul, Germany, and Britain, often in areas of military interest. He notes that these tesserae are primarily struck in orichalcum, a metal more valuable than regular copper or bronze. Considering the find spots and the metal used in the tokens, Campana suggests that they were luxury gifts given by the Imperial house to important military figures for use in some now-forgotten board game, possibly a variant of duodecim scripta, a game resembling modern backgammon (“Les spintriae et leur possible fonction ludique,” in Archeothema 31 [2013], p. 66).