The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

What are ancient coins doing at the Folger Shakespeare Library?

Thanks for the great guesses at the identity of the November 2019 Crocodile. It’s tempting to pick one at random and just run with it (“Why yes, it is King Lear’s lost button!”) but in fact, Robin Swope’s guess that it’s an old coin is correct. It is, in fact, a bronze prutah of Porcius Festus, Roman procurator of Judea. It’s dated the 5th year of Emperor Nero’s rule, which means it’s from 58 or 59 CE.1

Prutah of Porcius Festus, 58 or 59 CE. Obverse: NEP WNO C in laurel wreath (Folger Coin Env. 704). Photo by Erin Blake

The U-shapes around the outside are stylized laurel leaves forming a wreath around the emperor’s name, written in Greek letters.

Prutah of Porcius Festus, 58 or 59 CE. Reverse: KAICAPOC LE around palm branch (Folger Coin Env. 704). Photo by Erin Blake

The other side shows a palm leaf surrounded by the word “Caesar” (again, in Greek letters) and the reignal date (the fifth year of Nero’s reign, represented by “E”, the fifth letter of the alphabet). It is one of ten ancient coins in the Folger collection.

Ancient coins might seem a little out of scope for an institution whose collection development policy calls for “primary source materials in the following areas”

  • English civilization in all its aspects from the Tudor and Stuart periods
  • English drama in the eighteenth century
  • Shakespeare-related material to the present
  • European civilization in the Renaissance and early modern period, especially as it helps illuminate English civilization

For most of the coins, the reason for being at the Folger beomes clear once you take a closer look:

Denarius of Julius Caesar, 47 or 46 BCE. Reverse: CAESAR alongside Aeneas carrying Anchises and the Palladium (Folger Coin Env. 701). Photo by Erin Blake.

This isn’t just a random Roman coin, it’s a Julius Caesar coin. Julius Caesar is a character in one of Shakespeare’s plays, therefore the coin falls under the collection development category “Shakespeare-related material to the present.”

Other Shakespeare characters whose real-life ancient coins are in the Folger collection include Cymbeline, Brutus, Octavius, and Marc Antony. Like the prutah in this month’s Crocodile Mystery, the Julius Caesar coin was acquired by Emily and Henry Folger at an auction in 1910. The auction catalog and bidding notes show that they got the prutah (lot 99) for $1.00, which was also their maximum bid. The silver denarius of Julius Caesar (lot 95) was secured for $1.60. In all, the Folgers acquired fourteen coins at that auction, most of them Elizabethan.

Catalogue of Ancient and Modern Coins, Medals, Paper Money, Documents. Old Newspapers, Weapons, Egyptian, Greek and Roman Antiques, Etc. to be sold Monday, January 17th, 1910, by The Merwin-Clayton Sales Company, New York. (Folger Case File 2024). Photo by Erin Blake.

Other ancient coins in the Folger collection originate with James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (1820–1889). He assembled a collection of objects meant to serve as real-life “illustrations” to Shakespeare’s life and works. Many still have their original hand-lettered boxes, like this one:

Ides of March Denarius, 43 or 42 BCE. Obverse: BRVT IMP L PLAET CEST around head of Brutus (Folger H-P Reliques no.64). Photo by Erin Blake

The coin appears as item 64 in the 1852 catalog Some account of the antiquities, coins, manuscripts, rare books, ancient documents, and other reliques illustrative of the life and works of Shakespeare in the possession of James Orchard Halliwell.2

Excerpt from page 102 of Some account of the antiquities, coins, manuscripts, rare books, ancient documents, and other reliques illustrative of the life and works of Shakespeare in the possession of James Orchard Halliwell. Brixton Hill, 1852. (Folger PR2933.H3 H18 copy 2). From a PDF scanned by someone who wishes to remain anonymous.

Image transcription:

An interesting coin of Marcus Brutus, BRVT. IMP. L. PLAET. CEST., Head of Marcus Brutus, reverse, EID. MAR., a cap of liberty between two daggers.

This exceedingly rare coin is an interesting illustration of Shakespeare’s Julius Cresar, being a denarius struck by Brutus, immediately after the murder of the emperor, and commemorating that event. The obverse shows the head of Brutus. The reverse (a representation of which is here given) has the cap of liberty (the pileus, given to slaves when emancipated, and hence used all a type of liberty) between two daggers, an allusion to Cresar’s death; the inscription is EID. MAR., an abbreviation of the “Ides of March”, of which the emperor had been forwarned.

On the whole, this is an extremely curious and interesting illustration of Shakespeare. Some doubt has been thrown upon its authenticity; but Mr. Brumell, an eminent collector, gave £4 : 12 for this identical coin, at Mr. Stephenson’s sale at Norwich.

Was Halliwell-Phillipps right in thinking that the coin is an authentic Roman artifact? Who knows. Does it matter? No, not in terms of the coin’s place in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection. Whether it is genuinely Roman or not doesn’t change its value as Victorian Shakespeareana. It is preserved at the Folger because a 19th-century collector genuinely used it as a physical illustration to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  

What about our Crocodile Mystery, though? Porcius Festus certainly isn’t mentioned in the works of Shakespeare, so why did the Folgers bid on this coin at auction? The answer begins to emerge when you see that the auction catalog describes the prutah as a “Widow’s Mite” in reference to the New Testament parable (Mark 12:41-44), where a “mite” is the smallest possible denomination of Judean coin, in other words, a prutah. The final piece of the puzzle comes from pages 53 to 55 of New Facts Regarding the Life of Shakespeare (London: Thomas Rodd, 1835). There, J. Payne Collier describes a draft of a never-issued 1609/10 warrant for the creation of a theater company. “Widows Mite” appears in list of thirteen plays in a marginal note in the draft. Several of the plays, including “Widow’s Mite,” are otherwise unknown. Collier writes “Of course it is impossible even to guess at the authors,” then goes on to do exactly that, concluding “perhaps more than one proceeded from the pen of Shakespeare.”

And that, dear readers, is what ancient coins are doing at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

  1. The Folger also has a bronze prutah issued in year 2 of the First Jewish Revolt (67–68 CE), which is perhaps the coin Robin had in mind in her comment last week? Both coins have always been housed in paper envelopes in open-top boxes, though, not loose in a drawer. When I first came to the Folger in 2000, the envelopes and boxes lived in a free-standing locked metal cabinet inside the vault. After a vault renovation in 2002 provided built-in cabinets (with glass-fronted shelves on top and drawers below) the coins moved into the new drawers.
  2. He did not add “Phillipps” (his wife’s surname) to his name until 1872.

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