Dioscuri: Obligatory Coins.

I was feeling pretty good about this first day.  I’ve read a little (about gems), I’ve written a little, I’ve chipped away at the to-do list on the mirror.  I’ve kept the procrastination under reasonable control (who doesn’t need to know a little more about burning wild parsnips?!).  I even have exciting new evidence that I’ve not yet worked into my argument (expect to hear more about Pliny’s preface to his Natural Histories soon).   Still there are no coins.   If this BOOK is too be written I must have something to say about the coins each and every day until the BOOK is done.  

I picked this coin because it represents the Dioscuri, AKA Castor and Pollux.  This also happens to be what my partner named our cats.  So these are the other Dioscuri in my life:



There are lots of Dioscuri all over Roman republican coinage, especially on the most commonly produced denomination, the denarius.  So when one thinks Dioscuri on coins its usually this image that comes to people’s minds:

Notice how in both representations the Dioscuri are wearing conical caps–their most distinctive attribute.  This latter image is so common that its boring.  Boring coins aren’t bad.  In fact boring coins are really helpful because if we get too focused on the images and what the images might mean we miss all sorts of other questions.  How many were made? Where were they found?  When were they made? What were they used for? How were they made?  The pictures are really seductive.  They promise to give us answers if we can just crack their visual code, but visual codes are slippery.  Slippery in the same way as language, especially poetry.  Meanings get layered.  They shift in the mind of the creator.  They shift in the minds of audience, ancient and modern.  They shift out of convenience, political expedience.  They shift with cultural contexts: class, gender, political enfranchisement, age, ethnic self-identification, etc…  And they layer the means up: both/and NOT either/or.   There are huge tracts on semiotics and media studies and art history and more that could all be brought to bear on any numismatic image.   But even if we mapped the intersections and disconnections between the dioscuri of the first coin and dioscuri of the second coin we’d be missing most what the coins can tell us.  We’d be reading the coins through the history, not the history through the coins.  Why is the first one cast? What type of base metal is it made out of?  How does it fit into a denomination system?  Why is the denominational system of the earlier period more complex that that of later periods?  How is value indicated? Could the two coins be exchanges one for the other?  If they are made out of different materials via different techniques and share very little markings in common, why do we want to put them under the same broad label of Republican coinage?

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