The front (obverse) of A Roman Republic coin called a denarius shows the Latin abbreviation PISO·CAEPIO·Q and the laureate head (laurel-leaf crowned) Saturn, the god of generation, plenty, wealth, agriculture, and the treasury, among other things.
Let me paint the scene: I’m in this little Ottoman house built into the cliffside in Istanbul. I’m trying to write a book. I’m on sabbatical and a bit lonely and miserable and deep in the weeds. I come across one particular coin and it says: “For the purchase of grain by authorization of the senate,” in Latin abbreviations. Roman coins speak to us more than other coins, but this one in particular is rock solid, clear on what the heck it was made for and why it mattered. I got really excited because I was worried about how we went about quantifying what the Roman state was paying for.
It’s for grain supply, and it’s not that we can get down to exact amounts but even just ballpark—is this a big number, is this a small number? What is the state investment? And how are they doing it? At this point, if I knew how many of this coin—made by these very specific people who put their name on the coin for a very specific food crisis—were made, I could figure out how much was spent at this historical moment in 100 B.C. What an amazing data point for getting some comparative figures about their expenditures.
The coins were also interesting because the person signing it tried to block anybody selling any food at reduced rates for the poor, and even was against voting rights, and disrupted voting whenever someone was trying to help poor. So he’s trying to look like he’s meeting people’s needs, but we know from the literary record that that wasn’t his agenda at all. So it’s also that little added scandal or mystery about the coin.