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Stranger Games: The Life and Times of the Spintriae (2017) (Board Game Studies Journal 11, pp. 101–121)

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In 2010 a Roman token was discovered in the mud of the Thames near Putney Bridge in London. When the token was discovered to have an erotic image on one side and a Roman numeral on the other, and was identified in a Museum of London press release as
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  Stranger Games: The life and times ofthe  spintriae  Eddie Duggan  ∗ University of Suolk Abstract In 2010 a Roman token was discovered in the mud of the Thamesnear Putney Bridge in London. When the token was discovered tohave an erotic image on one side and a Roman numeral on the other,and was identied in a Museum of London press release as a rare Ro-man “brothel token”, the press reported on the story in the expectedmanner, for example: “A Roman coin that was probably used by sol-diers to pay for sex in brothels has been discovered on the banks of the River Thames” (Daily Telegraph, 4 Jan 2012) and “Bronze discsdepicting sex acts, like the one discovered in London, were used to hireprostitutes—and directly led to the birth of pornography during theRenaissance” (The Guardian, 4 Jan 2012). Even before this particularspate of media interest, these curious tokens have generated confusion,speculation and prurience—often simultaneously. They are of interestto games scholars because the speculation often includes the suggestionthese objects may have had a ludic function, and were used as gamecounters. This paper will look at some of the proposals that have beenoered by way of explanation of these peculiar objects. In 2010 a Roman token was discovered in the mud of the Thames nearPutney Bridge in London. When the token was found to have an eroticimage on one side and a Roman numeral on the other, and was identied in ∗ The author wishes to acknowledge the kind assistance of Eric Matthews in helpingwith the translation of some of the secondary source material from Italian into English,and also for his invaluable support in procuring secondary source material. The title of thispaper, “Stranger Games”, makes a punning reference to a previous paper by the authorentitled “Strange Games”, which was initially presented to the XVII Annual Board GameStudies Colloquium at UCS Ipswich, May 2014 and subsequently published in the  Board Game Studies Journal   as Duggan, E. (2015) “Strange Games: Some Iron Age examplesof a four-player board game?”  Board Game Studies Journal   9 pp. 17–40. A presentationbased on an earlier draft of the present paper, entitled “Stranger Games”, was included inthe program of the XIX Annual Board Games Studies Colloquium hosted at the GermanGames Archive, Nuremburg, April 2016. Board Game Studies Journal 11, pp. 83–103DOI 10.1515/bgs-2017-0005  84  Stranger Games: The life and times of the  spintriae  a Museum of London press release as a rare Roman “brothel token” (Figure1), the British press reported on the story in the expected manner. Forexample: “A Roman coin that was probably used by soldiers to pay for sexin brothels has been discovered on the banks of the River Thames” (Figure2) and “Bronze discs depicting sex acts, like the one discovered in London,were used to hire prostitutes—and directly led to the birth of pornographyduring the Renaissance” (Figure 3). Figure 1:  Museum of London, “Brothel Token” Press Release, January 5, 2012.Source:  http://bit.ly/2x9juvq  Board Game Studies Journal 11, pp. 83–103DOI 10.1515/bgs-2017-0005  Eddie Duggan  85 Figure 2:  Daily Telegraph  , “A Roman coin that was probably used by soldiers topay for sex in brothels has been discovered on the banks of the River Thames”,January 4, 2012. Source:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/8991212/Roman-brothel-token-discovered-in-Thames.html Even before this particular spate of media interest, these curious tokenshave generated confusion, speculation and prurience—often simultaneously.However,  spintria   may be of interest to games scholars because the conjec-ture over their use often includes suggestions that these objects may havehad a ludic function, and were used as game counters. This paper will lookat some of the proposals that have been oered by, inter alia, numismatists,economists, art historians and archaeologists, by way of explanation of thesepeculiar objects. Board Game Studies Journal 11, pp. 83–103DOI 10.1515/bgs-2017-0005  86  Stranger Games: The life and times of the  spintriae  Figure 3:  Jonathan Jones, “Bronze discs depicting sex acts, like the onediscovered in London, were used to hire prostitutes—and directly led to the birthof pornography during the Renaissance” blog post, The Guardian, January 4 2012.Source:  http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2012/jan/04/porn-roman-brothel-tokens-erotic-art One of the most signicant contemporary engagements with the  spintria  is an article by Ted Buttrey in  The Numismatic Chronicle  . While Buttreydescribes the  spintriae   as objects that “defy explanation” (Buttrey 1973,p. 53), he identies two distinct sets of   spintriae  : the rst, of which moreexamples are known, are made of brass and measure 20–23 mm in diameter(Figure 4). The second, of copper, are smaller, 16–19 mm, and the Romannumeral on the reverse is prexed with either the letter “A” or lambda “ Λ ”(Figure 5). Both sets are characterized by an erotic scene of a couple en-gaged in heterosexual copulation or fellation on the obverse while the reversedepicts a Roman numeral, in the range I–XVI, within a circle surroundedby a wreath.Buttrey notes that only two examples of the latter group, with the “A”or “ Λ ” prex, are in the British Museum while the former set is repre-sented with twenty-one examples. A Portable Antiquities Scheme blog postby Kathryn Creed of the Museum of London corroborates Buttrey’s enu-meration as she notes the British Museum “has a collection of around 25 spintriae  ” (Creed 2012). Board Game Studies Journal 11, pp. 83–103DOI 10.1515/bgs-2017-0005  Eddie Duggan  87 Figure 4:  Spintria. Buttrey “Type 5”. BM R.4476. C1st AD. Copper alloy.Diameter: 19 mm. Image ©Trustees of the British Museum Figure 5:  Spintria  . Type 9, Series 2. C16–C 17 copy. Source: Pavlos S. Pavlou,Numismatist [online]. 1 https://www.vcoins.com/en/stores/pavlos_s_pavlou_numismatist/131/product/roman16th_to_17th_cent_ad_copy_of_aespintriaeerotic_sceneretrograde__roman_numerals_vii/222124/Default.aspx 1 The reverse numeral in Figure 5, a C16–17th copy of a  spintria  , is identied as a“Reverse: IIV (retrograde VII)” by the auction site on which the item appears. However,if the tessera is rotated as in Figure 5, “IIV” can be seen as “AII”. Buttrey (1973) refers totwo series of   spintria   in the British Museum collection; the second series is characterizedby the reverse numeral being prexed with the letter “A”. Buttrey identies two examplesof the second series in the British Museum collection; one of the two BM examples (AE224.15) has the same obverse/ reverse pairing as this Renaissance copy: it is labelled “Type9, Series 2”. The other example (AE19 4.23), labelled “Type 10, series 2”, appears to beprexed with a lambda rather than an A, i.e.: “ΛIII” (these examples are also identiedby a handwritten note on a disc of paper in the coin tray). Both are contained in Tray 23(spintriae) and may be seen by appointment with the Coins and Medals Department. Athird example in the same tray in the BM collection (AE23 9.08), apparently overlookedby Buttrey, shows two gures treading grapes on the obverse and A XVI on the reverse.Unfortunately, photography is not permitted in the Coins and Medals study room so thisexample, un-recorded by Buttrey, cannot be shown here. However, the same die-pairinghas been oered for auction. See Appendix A. Board Game Studies Journal 11, pp. 83–103DOI 10.1515/bgs-2017-0005
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