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Joseph Hilarius Eckhel

German numismatist, b. January 13, 1737, d. May 16, 1798

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Eckhel t2 JOSEPH HILARIUS, German numismatist, b. January 13, 1737, at Enzesfeld near Pottenstein, in Lower Austria, where his father, Johann Anton Eckhel, was steward to the Prince of Montecuculi; d. May 16, 1798. In 1745 he was sent to study in Vienna in 1751 was admitted into the Society of Jesus, and thirteen years later was ordained priest. He had studied humanities in Leoben and philosophy in Graz, besides mathematics, Greek, and Hebrew. The first fruit of his literary labors, produced in his twenty-first year, was an “Exercitium grammaticum in prophetiam Obadae”. This he published as an appendix to the “Institutiones linguae sacrae” of P. J. Engstler. After his ordination, and probably for some time before, he was professor at the Jesuit gymnasia at Leoben and Steyer; probably also at Judenburg, and finally at the college of Vienna, where he taught poetry and rhetoric, and acquired a mastery of Latin, which he handled with ease and elegance. We still possess two rather comprehensive odes from his pen, “Plausus Urbis” and “Plausus Ruris”. He left, besides, two German poems written for special occasions, in the style of that period, and a speech of the same nature delivered on the occasion of the journey of Emperor Joseph II to Italy.

How he became a numismatist, Eckhel himself has told us in the preface to his “Numi veteres anecdoti”. Whilst teaching at the Academic Gymnasium he became interested in its cabinet of coins, which was under the supervision of his fellow-Jesuit, P. Khell. The collection, containing principally Greek coins, had attained considerable size, through the exertions of the learned Erasmus Fröhlich, who had edited a catalogue of most of the ancient coins; Eckhel set to work selecting the coins which were as yet unknown and unedited, and added thereto the unedited coins of the choice collections of Count Michael Viczayand Paul Festetics. Forced by ill-health to abandon teaching, he devoted himself entirely to numismatics and archaeology. With the permission of his superior he went to Italy in 1772 for his further education. In Bologna and Rome he studied all the accessible coin collections, but found his richest treasures in Florence. Raimundo Cocchi, prefect of the Archducal Museum, received him most cordially and obtained for him the commission to arrange the coins which had been collected by Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici, and which had afterwards been very considerably increased. Cocchi, who died shortly after this, recommended Eckhel to the Archduke Peter Leopold, who in turn introduced him to his mother, the Empress Maria Theresa. Meanwhile (1773) the Society of Jesus was suppressed, and Eckhel, like his brethren, was secularized. Returning to Vienna through the South of France in January, 1774, he was delighted to be entrusted by the empress with the task of transferring the collection which belonged to the university college of the Jesuits, to the court cabinet, where, however, it received a separate place. In March of the same year, having acquired an excellent reputation as a numismatist, he was named director of the cabinet of ancient coins, with Duval as his superior. After the latter’s death (1775) he received sole charge. Eckhel was commissioned to deliver bi-weekly lectures on numismatics in the coin cabinet. In the fall of 1775 he was promoted to the chair of antiquities and of the historical auxiliary sciences in the university. In the same year his first numismatic publication appeared.

J. von Bergmann writes of Eckhel’s official work: “Eckhel, as is everywhere evident, was an expert administrator of the treasure committed to his charge. Without much ado, without ostentation, he wrote only what was needful and regarded merely that which was essential. Besides his very simple accounts and some reports written during the twenty-four years of his incumbency, only a very few documents concerning the collection of antique coins are in existence. He enriched the cabinet without advertising it.” He obtained the means for these acquisitions from the proceeds of the sale of duplicates of gold and silver coins. The duplication of examples resulted from the amalgamation of the collection of Francis I with that of the imperial family. Moreover, the series of the Persian and Parthian kings were transferred from the Oriental to the ancient department. The collection of Duke Charles of Lorraine, that of the Count of Ariosti, and a selection of coins from the collections of suppressed monasteries were added. By means of embassies and lucky finds the coin cabinet acquired important additions (e.g. those of Osztropataka and Szilagy-Somlyo). As a professor in the university Eckhel lectured on ancient numismatics. His delivery is described as being simple, clear, instructive, inspiring, and often abounding in humor. He was highly respected by his pupils. That he also enjoyed high repute among his colleagues is attested by his appointment as dean of the philosophical faculty in 1789. However, he soon resigned this position.

The first numismatic work published by Eckhel was “Numi veteres anecdoti ex museis Caesareo Vindobonensi, Florentino Mani Ducis Etruriae, Granelliano nunc Casareo, Vitzaiano, Festeticsiano, Savorgnano Veneto aliisque” (Vienna, 1775, in two 4to sections with 17 copperplates). “Catalogus Musei Caesariensis” (Vienna, in two large folio parts with numerous illustrations) followed four years later. Eckhel had given the collection entrusted to him an entirely new arrangement, discarding the time-honored alphabetical order, and substituting quite a new system. He divided ancient numismatics into two departments: the first contained the coins minted by cities other than Rome, arranged according to the geographical situation of the countries as far as this was possible; the second comprised all the coins of the Roman Empire. First come the important but crude asses, then the unclassified pieces with the inscription Roma. They are followed by those of the various families, emperors, and empresses, all arranged as far as possible in chronological order. Those whose date could not be exactly obtained are placed after each emperor as unclassified in alphabetical succession. “By this method”, says Eckhel, “the author was enabled to rectify countless errors which Mezzabarba had forced upon us in his General Catalogue” (Imperatorum Romanorum numismata, Milan, 1683). And to make these corrections principally led him to prepare this catalogue for print. In it he gives an account, not on outside authority, but from personal observation and after lengthy and painstaking research, of everything instructive which so numerous a collection presents. The work was written in Latin and, “contrary to the present ornamental style, in the simplest language”. This catalogue was followed by “Sylloge II, numorum veterum anecdotorum Thesauri Caesarei” and “De scriptio numorum Antiochae” (1786), then by the classical work “Doctrina numorum veterum”, in eight volumes (1792-1798). Friedrich Kenner-says of this: “Misguided dilettantism had produced most mischievous results in the field of numismatics. Lack of system, want of critical judgment, and the disorderly arrangement of the literature had begotten confusion and distrust, which prevented numismatics from taking the place among other sciences to which it was entitled. With his naturally critical eye, Eckhel mastered all the literature of his subject, eliminated errors and forgeries with the help of his profound learning, and then combined the results into an organic whole in his `Doctrina numorum veterum’…. Eckhel has become the founder of the scientific numismatics of classical antiquity and taken his place alongside of his contemporaries, Heyne and Winckelmann. Numismatics, hitherto despised, he changed into a kind of encyclopedia of classical antiquities, which includes extensive and much-used sources for other branches of archaeology.” The addenda to this work which Eckhel entered in his manuscript copy were edited by his successor, Steinbüchel.

By command of Emperor Joseph II, Eckhel wrote an excellent manual, “Kurzgefasste Anfangsgründe zur alten Numismatik” (Vienna, 1787; 2nd ed., 1807). The work appeared in a Latin translation in 1799 and in a French revision in 1825. He edited, besides, “Choix des pierres gravées du Cabinet Impérial”. Furthermore, a number of smaller treatises still exist in manuscript form. His “Inscriptions veteres” was used by Theodore Mommsen. He also left an extensive correspondence with the most prominent representatives of his branch of learning (Abbé Barthélemy, R. Cocchi, Cousinéry, L. Lanzi, G. Marini, F. Séguier, and others).

Eckhel died shortly after the completion of his “Doctrina”. He was, as Bergmann writes, “a man of firm and decided character, serious, but at the same time cheerful, indulging in sarcastic, and at times heated, attacks on cant and literary arrogance. He used his extensive learning to correct thousands of blunders committed by other writers, and was modest and not at all disputatious in his controversies. He spoke as he thought and acted as he spoke.” Later scholars rank Eckhel’s scientific importance equally high. On the first centenary of his birth a medal was struck (by Manfredini) with the inscription, SYSTEMATIS. REI. NVMAR??. ANTIQUAE. CONDITORI. The distich which Michael Denis dedicated to his dead friend will vindicate its own truth:

Eckhelium brevis hora tulit, sed diva Moneta

Scripts viri secum vivere secla jubet.



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