Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Frank L. Holt's "When Money Talks"

Frank L. Holt is Professor of History at the University of Houston. His books include The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man's Wealth Shaped the World, Lost World of the Golden King: In Search of Ancient Afghanistan, and Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan. In addition to his large body of academic work, Holt is also a prolific writer for the public, with essays appearing in Newsweek, American Scientist, Archaeology, History Today, Archaeology Odyssey, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Saudi Aramco World, and other widely read publications.

Holt applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, When Money Talks: A History of Coins and Numismatics, and reported the following:
Every academic discipline has dark corners in need of illumination. Numismatics (the study of coins) is no exception. Page 99 of When Money Talks reveals the “sad legacy of racialized numismatics” emanating from the work of eugenicists Sir Francis Galton and Sir Flinders Petrie. Both men studied coin portraits to measure in the faces of ancient rulers their intelligence and aptitude. Plying the pseudoscience of physiognomy and phrenology, they encouraged scholars to help map racial and criminal types using the kinds of eyes, lips, ears, and foreheads illustrated on coins. These efforts could allegedly show how wise was Augustus, how witless was Claudius, how wicked was Nero, and how wanton was Cleopatra. Page 99 points out that the dangers of such thinking project both forward and back -– that the still-current belief in the predictability of character, for instance relying on facial appearances to screen job applicants for future employment, has a similarly unfortunate corollary in accepting the likeness on a coin as reliable evidence for an ancient person’s character and personality. Page 99 gives the example of King Antimachus, an ancient Greek about whom we know nothing beyond his coinage; nevertheless, numismatists continue to read into his portrait a complete personality profile. They assess the king’s sense of humor, intelligence, and religious beliefs based solely on his smile. These ‘facts’ then support a narrative of the king’s reign that reads more like a bad novel than good numismatics. Typical of the book, this page includes a photograph of the coin in question.

Page 99 fairly represents one important aspect of this book, namely its necessary critique of poor methodologies still sometimes practiced in numismatics. On the other hand, the book offers fulsome praise for the scholars and collectors whose innovative approaches and industry have made numismatics such an important contributor to the humanities and the social sciences. It highlights the achievements of many numismatists ranging from Aristotle and Jesus to Joseph Eckhel and Philip Grierson. There are lighter moments, too, that reference Harry Potter, The Beatles, movie pirates, and TV sit-coms. Funded by a Public Scholars grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the aim of the book is to introduce a discipline often ignored or misunderstood to a wide-ranging audience. Numismatics may sound mind-numbing, but it certainly is not. For all its faults, as page 99 attests, it is a subject of interest to anyone who has ever held a coin and wondered about its history.
Learn more about When Money Talks at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Treasures of Alexander the Great.

--Marshal Zeringue