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Exploring the Enlightenment through Numismatic Antiquarianism

Ordinary Meeting of Fellows (Fellows and Guests Only)

"Exploring the Enlightenment through Numismatic Antiquarianism", by Dr Bernhard E. Woytek, FSA.

Ancient coins have been collected and carefully looked at since the late medieval period, as we learn from several manuscript sources. First important steps towards a scholarly analysis of Greek and Roman coinages were taken in the course of the 16th century, when humanists like Wolfgang Lazius (1514‒1565) from Vienna and Adolph Occo (1526‒1606) from Augsburg saw the need for more comprehensive catalogues of ancient ‒ especially Roman ‒ coins and attempted to gather information on as many types as possible for their pioneering publications.

However, the true foundations for modern numismatic research were laid only during the Enlightenment: especially in the 18th century. In this period, the scholarly interest in coins was growing in many parts of Europe, a tendency reflected in England especially in the activities of the Society of Antiquaries and its members, such as Charles Combe (1743‒1817) and Martin Folkes (1690‒1754). At that time, the critical spirit of classical scholars (and collector-scholars) like Joseph Pellerin (1684‒1782) and Joseph Eckhel (1737‒1798) radically transformed the subject and paved the way for a new understanding of ancient coins. Eckhel’s Doctrina Numorum Veterum, published in eight volumes in Vienna from 1792 to 1798, is a cornerstone of the discipline in this respect and may safely be regarded as the most influential numismatic work of the 19th and 20th centuries: in 1901, Ernest Babelon famously called it “toujours notre grammaire”.

Recent research projects in Vienna, conducted in the framework of the new international initiative Fontes Inediti Numismaticae Antiquae (FINA), take a new approach to numismatic antiquarianism by analysing, through their correspondence, the networks of prominent Austrian scholars who shaped Enlightenment numismatics: apart from Eckhel, currently the letters of his teacher Joseph Khell (1714‒1772) and of Erasmus Froelich (1700‒1758) are being studied, a polymath who inter alia published innovative works on numismatic methodology and on Greek coins. These documents shed new light also on the different ways in which the intractable problem of how to establish an order ‒ or a “system” ‒ for ancient coins was approached: an order that should be scholarly sound, and not only take into account practical aspects that were often dear to keepers of larger collections.

By carefully tracing the development of the systematic treatment of ancient coins in the course of the eighteenth century, a change in perspective becomes possible. What happened in numismatic research may be shown to be just a mirror of the developments in Enlightenment scholarship in a broader sense. The advances in numismatics reflect, in a nutshell, larger trends, and can therefore in turn be used to better understand the Enlightenment as a global phenomenon.

Location: Burlington House