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Volume 1, Issue 4
  A STRANGE FANTASY Caracalla Overstruck on Menander    By: David MacDonald

Laureate head of Caracalla right.
Liberalitas standing to front, head left, holding cornucopiae and globe
Weight: 2.36 g  Axis: 7  Struck over a drachm of Menander.1

The coin illustrated above appears to be a denarius of Caracalla (A.D. 198-217) overstruck on a drachm of the Indo-Greek ruler Menander (ca. 165-130 B.C.).  The inherent improbability of such an overstrike provokes immediate suspicion.  Menander’s drachms are the most common Indo-Greek silver coins and are known to have remained long in circulation,2 but it is unlikely a well-preserved example made its way to Rome after some three and half centuries and even less likely that such a coin would have been overstruck by the Roman mint. Roman overstrikes from the time of Caracalla are virtually non-existent, and a drachm of Menander, struck to a lighter standard than the Roman denarius,3 would have been inappropriate for overstriking in any event.

In fact, the coin is a fantasy, a modern forger’s dies struck over an ancient drachm.  The style of Caracalla’s portrait, while skillfully executed, seems not quite correct for a genuine coin.   Moreover, the ties of the laurel wreath at the back of Caracalla’s head are absent.  It is apparent that the die has been heavily polished, producing a surface on the coin unlike that normally encountered on genuine denarii.

Denarii of Caracalla with the reverse type LIBERALITAS AVG VI are uncommon but do occur in some numbers.4  The style of the reverse could pass as genuine, but for a curious error.  Liberalitas regularly holds a cornucopiae and abacus, but here the abacus is replaced by a globe.  The reverse die, like the obverse, had been highly polished before the coin was struck.  The host coin, a drachm of Menander, appears to have been a legitimate ancient coin.

Little remains of the obverse, just a few distorted, flattened letters above Caracalla’s head.  It is not apparent which of the three obverse types of Menander the drachm originally bore, draped bust right wearing diadem, draped bust right wearing helmet, or heroic bust left wielding spear and wearing aegis.  Much more of the reverse is visible, virtually the entire figure of Athena striding left with shield and spear and a portion of the kharosthi legend.

There is one more unusual feature.  A circular area of slightly different color in apparent in the field of the obverse between Caracalla’s mouth and the legend, slightly overlapping the legend, and at exactly the corresponding area of the reverse, in the field between Liberalitas’ shoulder and the cornucopiae, slightly overlapping both of those features.  Close examination under high magnification shows that this area is not due to corrosion or uneven alloy, but rather it is a plug.  The Menander drachm had been holed at some time and was plugged prior to being overstruck with the false Caracalla dies.  A holed and plugged drachm of Menander is even today of little value and thus an excellent candidate for a low-cost effort to produce a strange “rarity.”

I have not been able to trace other examples of the false Caracalla dies.  I would welcome information from anyone who can cast more light on this strange fantasy.

1.  The coin was acquired about fifteen years ago and does not seem to be a product of the recent wave of eastern European forgeries, but I have not been able to check all of the recent eastern European forgeries.
2. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written in the first century A.D., attests (chapter 47) to the long circulation of Menander’s drachms.
3. The weight of Caracalla’s denarii was not carefully regulated, but most specimens weigh about 3.0 g and are seldom much lighter.  Menander’s life-time drachms were consistently struck at about 2.45 g, while posthumous issues in his name decl;ine to about 2.40 g.  This coin weighs just 2.36 g.
4. Denarii similar to this example, but on reverse Liberalitas holds abacus: Gorny and Mosch Giessener Münzhandlung Auktion 108 (3 April 2001) lot 1932; similar but obverse legend divided ANTONINVSPIVS AVGBRIT and on reverse Liberalitas holds abacus: Auktionhaus H.D. Rauch GmbH Auktion 75 (6 May 2005) lot 600; Dr. Busso Peus Nachfolger Auktion 393 (31 October 2007) lot 598; Gorny and Mosch Giessener Münzhandlung Auktion 176 (10 March 2009) lot 2398; similar but obverse legend divided ANTONINVSPIVS AVGBRIT and on reverse Liberalitas holds abacus and globe at feet l.: Fitz Rudolf Künker GmbH & Co. KG Auktion 71 (12 March 2002) lot 1062;  Jean Elsen & ses Fils S.A. Auction 92 (9 June 2007) lot 249; similar but obverse legend ANTONINVSPIVSAVG: RIC 158; Cohen 128; similar but division of obverse legend not noted ANTONINVSPIVSAVGBRIT: RIC 216.


Copyright notices: Article and text Copyright 2009 by David MacDonald. Photograph copyright owned by respective owners and used with permission .

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