99, 100, 101 out of 410 days: The first Imperator, or ‘EMBRATUR’

Obverse Image

Back on 14 August 2013 I was rambling on about Sulla’s numismatic peers especially in relation to the use of the self-identifier IMPERATOR.  I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the first instance of this honorific on coins being attributed to Fimbria.  Not that after murdering his commander and taking his army and sacking Troy I thought he wasn’t an arrogant enough @$$hole to do so.  [I really dislike Fimbria: he’s my least favorite Roman and they were generally a bad lot.]  It’s just he didn’t strike me as very creative or trend-setting.  Why would Sulla be copying him?  Did they really come up with it each independently?  Well, turns out we have C. Papius C. f. Mutilus to thank for this innovation.  Yup.  That’s right.  One of the most notable of the Social War generals.   A Samnite enemy of Rome eventually defeated by Sulla.  His coinage is pretty famous too:

So it doesn’t really say Imperator as that’s Latin.  It says, reading right to left, EMBRATUR, in Oscan, but the title has the same meaning in a  very closely related language and cultural milieu.

The coins struck in Mutilus’ name use the same types as those used by the Marsic confederation and are clearly part of the same series, but Mutilus’ ability to use the coinage for the promotion of his own standing and especially his honorific title clearly had a lasting impact.

[A. Burnett raises the possibility of Mutilus inspiring Sulla briefly in general terms on p. 170 of his ‘The coinage of the Social War’ In Coins of Macedonia and Rome: Essays in Honor of Charles Hersh, edited by A. Burnett, U. Wartenberg, and R. Witschonke, 165-172. London: Spink)]


I’m rushing to finish a chapter prior to leaving for Turkey and am generally frantic, but this observation was so fun I couldn’t not share!

97, 98 out of 410 days: Unknown Proverbs

Nicolo gem engraved with an elephant emerging from a snail-shell.

This isn’t the gem I wanted to post. There is another type. I took notes on it when working through the German gem publications, but can’t seem to find an image to share here. It has a stork (or a crane) holding a set of scales in its beak. The scales hold an elephant and a mouse, but the balance is tipped heavily towards the mouse, not the elephant. It feels like it must represent a parable or proverb, something familiar and funny and prosaic, just out of grasp.

I did find a stork with scales, but those balance pans are empty.

Like the much more common elephant-coming-out-of-a-snail-shell motif, the out-of-balance-scale motif seems both to derive its humor from the unexpected and also to convey a message about proportions:

  • good things come is small packages
  • don’t make a mountain of of a molehill

Then there are sayings about specks and logs if we want slide into Jesus sayings.

Human misperception of proportions is a site of collective and individual anxiety. We know yesterday we misjudged the relative size of some matter in our lives and know that today we are just as likely to be doing the same, just as obliviously.

And sometimes even when all reasonable measurements (the scales) and the testimony of trusted outside observers (the stork), we still want to insist the ‘elephant’ in the room MUST be weightier than that damn mouse.

Reflecting last night on the past few days and my skewed perceptions of reality over that same time frame, I felt a bit like a wobbly stork who by shifting from leg to leg can upset the reading of the balance pans. One moment publication deadlines seem like the most important thing in the world, the next its a social and bureaucratic minutia of leaving the country for 10 months.

Friday I took a day away from writing and went to the Herodotus conference at Columbia and got to be a historiographer for a day. Fabulous conversations. No fisticuffs, as the inimitable Tom Harrison entreated at the opening. But hugely enjoyable cross theatre debate on whether Herodotus is lying at 2.143.

Friday Night/Saturday Morning we hosted dear friends and helped them book their tickets to see us for the passover break. If this were only a food blog, I could tell you about the menu. Alas.

Saturday I wrote late into the evening.

Sunday we went cycling with Turkish friends and then to PA for a huge family send off.

Monday we spent more time with SDA’s family and friends as I started to twitch from lack of academic engagement and an impending sense of doom. Not my finest moment.

From this precise moment I have six hours of uninterrupted work time until we must begin a hideous afternoon of travel shots, medical consultations, bank branch visits and other horrors. I can do something with six hours. Time for the stork to switch legs.


What does the Elephant in the Snail Shell mean? I’ve no idea. Maybe a mash up of

  • Don’t judge a book by its cover.


  • Mighty oaks from little acorns grow

I ILL-ed M. Henig, “The Elephant and the Sea-shell”, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 3 (1984), 243-247 out of pure curiosity. There are however other things crawling out of snail shells on antique gems besides elephants, including sea monsters, and humans:


This image reminds of all the hilarious Diogenes the cynic gems.

Anyway. Enough fun. Just one final proverb for today:

Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.

Update 27 February 2014: see also newer post on similar iconography.

95, 96 out of 410 days: Divine Abstractions

There is a good deal of concern and attention paid to the divine honors given to the personification of abstract concepts.   The habit has it origins in the Hellenistic period.  Think of the Nikes we’ve seen, not to mention much more famous examples:

Victory of Samothrace

All of these turn the idea of ‘winning’ into a goddess who can not only be represented in art but also given cult honors, from temples to sacrifices to prayers and hymns.  The Romans took this practice to great heights.  Click on that link “care and attention” above for discussion.   Of course they did not have a monopoly, but we usually think of them influencing their neighbors.  We’ve seen the Locrians representing Pistis (= Fides = Loyalty) crowning Roma before.  Strangely that coin isn’t usually discussed in context of the coin above also minted at Locri.  It represents (and labels as such) the goddess Eirene (= Peace).  The style of the reverse is modified from the coin of a neighboring town:

Reverse Image

Yes that’s a Nike on this AR Stater, Terina, Bruttium, 400 BC-356 BC.  The bird is a rather different attribute. Something to chase up another time…

What the Eirene coin does is contextualize the Pistos / Roma coin by letting us know that the Locrians are already well versed in thinking about abstract divinities: they don’t need the Romans to help with that.

Pax won’t show up on Roman coins until 82/81 BC at the earliest:

The identification of the obverse here is far from certain.  The first secure appearance isn’t until 44 BC and the is a very rare coin indeed:

Pax may not have had a cult site in Rome until the Ara Pacis!

Odysseus Alone

Carnelian ring stone

There are many iconographic representations Odysseus/Ulysses with other characters or indications of setting that link him to a specific narrative: Sirens, Argos, Diomedes and Dolon, the Palladion, etc… However, it seems on gems that if you’re going to have just Odysseus/Ulysses all by himself, there are two main ways he can be represented (three if we count just a bust, but I’m leaving those aside today). One is with a walking stick and legs crossed. A rather upright example is given above (Cf. A glass paste in Munich no. 1375). Most of these cross legged Odysseus’ are more bent over and their staffs tend to be more crooked.

Gem of glass paste imitating sard, engraved with Odysseus as a beggar, with a pointed cap, chiton and crooked staff, standing to the right with his legs crossed.

Another example with an image on-line here, and also here (also cf. Munich 488 and 1374). Often the cross-legged Odysseus is described as ‘in the guise of a beggar’ this seems fairly apt, esp. when the figure is hunched over and the staff is crooked. I’m not sure, however, that the top image is ‘as a beggar’ it may just be Odysseus as traveler… that is if the traveler iconography can actually be distinguished from the beggar iconography.

The other solo Odysseus is with a cup. A LARGE cup.

Gem of glass paste imitating sard, engraved with Odysseus bending forward to the right, holding out a cup; he wears a pileus, short chiton and a sword at his side.

Another online image here (Cf. Munich 1369-1371). I’m under the impression that this might be a wee bit more common on glass pastes that on precious stones, i.e. “faux” gems of lower cost. Whereas the traveller/beggar Odysseus certainly appears on both. Why is he holding out the cup? Is this a begging action? Or might it be related to the comic Odysseus of the stage:

Or the wiley Odysseus who tricks Polyphemus with drink:

Post Script. I note that in the Wyndham Cook Collection no. 160 depicts a solo Odysseus as Archer with a legend resolved in the Catalog as ‘Nicander’.

92, 93, 94 out of 410 days: Fight or Flight

I’m trying to tamp down the panic of leaving the country for ten months.  I no longer wake up with coins in my mind: its all logistics and I’ve not slept straight through the night for days.  I wake up with the ‘what ifs’ and ‘must remembers’ and cold sweats.  

Monday I finished section two of the current chapter by moving two large epigraphic-ish topics (1,200 words plus) into an appendix to keep my narrative flow smooth.  

Tuesday morning I realized I really should have ordered images of gems for section three from other museum collections, oh say two months ago.  They both went out Wednesday. No word back.

Yesterday, I fought with HSBC over my lost 720 dollar wire transfer and tried two other wire transfer services both of which went better than HSBC but resulted in prohibitive fees on the Turkish bank end.

I when to the doctors (at long last, I hate doctors, not unlike Cato) and scheduled even more check-up, preventive medicine type things.  I researched the cost of out of pocket medical care in Turkey.  (Totally affordable from an American perspective, no surprise.)

I finalized a going away party.  I went running.  I cooked.  Apparently, I cook when stressed.  

I dealt with messy little bits of college matters that reared their hydra-like heads even on sabbatical.

I felt guilty for ignoring my blog.

Bad Neighborhoods

Today I’m worrying over the Turris Mamilia, or the Tower of the Mamilii.  Really there are only three pieces of evidence.

1) Passages in Festus.  The reference is under the entry for the October Horse:

“October Horse” is the name of the horse which is annually sacrificed to Mars on the Campus Martius in the month of October. It is the right- hand horse of the winning pair in a chariot race. There used to be an  intense struggle for its head between the inhabitants of the Subura and those of the Sacra Via: the latter hoping to affix it to the wall of the Regia, the former to the Mamilian Tower. And the tail of the same animal is conveyed to the Regia, with speed enough for the blood to drip from it to the hearth, for partaking in a divine service.

(Here’s a  French translation.)

2) The fact that some members of the gens in the third century had the cognomen ‘Turrinus’.   Refs can be found here and here.

3) An inscription, CIL 6.33837 = ILS 7242:  “M. Octavius M. l. Attalus centurar[ius] a t. M.”  where the t.M. is taken to be a reference to the Turris Mamilia as a topographical marker.

This is not a lot of evidence. Frankly its not absolutely clear that all three pieces of evidence refer to the same ‘tower’.  What we make of it all pretty much depends on how one wants to think about the Festus passage.  Is this tower an ancient and embedded part of the religious ritual? Is this proof of the Mamilii being part of the archaic Roman landscape on par with the ancient kings?  Is some ancient power struggle between two claimants to the throne crystalized in this annual rite?   Or was the tower just any old third-century landmark in an otherwise squalled, hot and dirty neighborhood?   A point of focus in the district that was co-opted into the ritual contest for convenience sometime after its building presumably well after the origins of the religious festival itself?

None of the other sources on the October horse and the battle for its head emphasized the Mamilii in anyway, although we do hear about the Subura participants in this contest from Plutarch.

89, 90, 91 out of 410 days: a Sea of Sukkot

My neighbors have finished the High Holidays and booths (sukkah singular, sukkot plural) have been appearing in every spare space that is open to the sky in preparation for the beginning of Sukkot this coming Wednesday.  The singing will go on long into the evening from inside the booths.  There will be large citron fruits and palm branches and myrtle and willow too.   I can see just one remaining unconstructed sukkah in a neighbor’s yard.  In just a few hours the hammering is sure to begin.  

It’s a good time of year to be outside, to be with family and friends.

The weekend SDA’s family came into the borough Saturday, a lovely time.  Sunday I had a little freak out about moving to Turkey for 10 months.  An attack of the what-ifs.  I find answering the question ‘Why are you going?’ exhausting.  Even to myself.  Also the question ‘aren’t you nervous about Syria…’  I am nervous about many things.  Money, my ability to write efficiently there, the stress of everyday activities, and isolation.  But not about Syria.  

So I made Foccacia.  

The most academic things I did was haggle with a street vendor for eight Loebs.  He threw in the ninth (Horace) for free.  And, wrote a sentence or two about the turris Mamilia more on that here later perhaps.


Sukkot always reminds me of the line in 2 Maccabees 1:9.  This book has a few letters from Jews in Judea writing to Jews in Egypt appended to the beginning.  The book as a whole is a testament to the Divine assistance to the Maccabean restoration of the temple (i.e. in contrast with 1 Maccabees which is more a history of the new dynasty).   The one line urges the Jews in Egypt to celebrate the feast of Booths in Chislev.  The ‘real’ feast of booths is the one now in Tishri.  The letter seems to be drawing a parallel between the establishment of the new holiday Chanukah and the activities and traditions of Sukkot. Borrowing the Torah-endorsed legitimacy of the latter for the former.