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Research Coins: Feature Auction


The Gasvoda Collection of Roman Tessera

CNG 109, Lot: 609. Estimate $300.
Sold for $2750. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

Anonymous issues. temp. Tiberius, AD 14-37. Æ Tessera (20mm, 3.76 g, 11h). Struck circa AD 22/3-37. Laureate head of Augustus (or Tiberius?) right within plain border / XI within plain border. Buttrey 2/XI; Cohen –; Kestner, Tesseren –. VF, green and red-brown patina, smoothed, areas of fill. Rare.

From the Gasvoda Collection. Ex Numismatica Ars Classica 72 (16 May 2013), lot 1470; Gorny & Mosch 147 (7 March 2006), lot 2503.

From the consignor: Tesserae had several possible uses in ancient Rome. The most common proposal is that they were used as gaming pieces, although the specific game, or games, where they would have been employed remains uncertain. The numbered pieces are traditionally thought to have been used for seating assignments at various theatres or arenas, while the erotic pieces (spintriae) were thought to have been related to use in brothels--a theory that is now generally discarded as wishful speculation. The tesserae are numbered I through XVI, so if they were used for seating assignments one can speculate how an arena or theatre might have been divided into sections allowing for these pieces to pass as the “ticket” of the day. In fact, seating tiers that survive often still show the remnants of row numbering. In contrast to this theory, most surviving theatres have been thoroughly excavated by archaeologists and these tessera should have been found in great numbers in and around these excavations, but they have not.

What is clear from the numbered examples below is that they were engraved in good style by someone who clearly had a degree of talent in the field. They also were struck uniformly, something which can’t even be said for the smaller Roman bronze coins of the time. They almost always have on the obverse the head of an emperor surrounded by a linear border, in turn usually surrounded by a wreath. In contrast, the reverse almost always has the number of the piece surrounded by a beaded border, also usually surrounded by a wreath. Building a numbered set takes time as these pieces, although not excessively rare, don’t come up for sale all that often.