120 and 121 out of 410 days: Very Punny Names

Reverse of RRC 141/1. 1944.100.235


Crawford says of this coin:



This type of logic permeates RRC.  Given enough time with the series one starts to think that this type of symbolic language must have been pervasive at Rome.  But is this actually how people thought?  Are the name plays obscure or obvious to their audience? Is it a Roman phenomenon or something much wider?

Yesterday (because of the book review I’m diligently working at), I was thinking about the legacy of Pythagoras.  Not a figure I can say I’ve cared much about in the past, beside mentioning the legendary connection to Numa in some of my classes or this rather fun video. Of course, he shows up on some provincial coins of Samos.  But I was surprised to learn that May thought there might be a fifth century portrait on a coin from Abdera.

Here is what Burkert, Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, 1972, p. 110 says:




I’ve singularly failed to find you an image of this coin.  And after ‘wasting’ a hour and a half plus looking for it (and in the mean time getting rather visually acquainted with the mint of Abdera — what a great series!), I decided that it had nothing to do with the review or the book and so I’d better drop it.  The only tangential connection is this use of visual puns on the moneyer’s name.  Take for instance this beauty:

The moneyer, Dionysas, has the head of Dionysus.  And here’s Python and his tripod:

Silver coin.The British Museum has their whole (?) collection of Abdera coins up with photos.  It’s a great shame its not searchable by inscription and May number.  [The ANS has the May numbers, but few images and the legends are not transcribed.]  A look through the BM collection suggests straight off that not all images are naming puns, even if some certainly are.

Did real people think like this or was this a coin designers’ game?  Enter, Timeaus (via the anonymous author of On the Sublime):

Observe, too, his language on the Athenians taken in Sicily. “They paid the penalty for their impious outrage on Hermes in mutilating his statues; and the chief agent in their destruction was one who was descended on his father’s side from the injured deity—Hermocrates, son of Hermon.”

Or Timeaus via Plutarch:

Indeed, he often lapses unawares into the manner of Xenarchus, as, for instance, when he says he thinks it was a bad omen for the Athenians that Nicias, whose name was derived from victory, declined at first to head their expedition; also that, by the mutilation of the “Hermae,” Heaven indicated to them in advance that by the hands of Hermocrates the son of Hermon they were to suffer most of their reverses during the war; 

This is prophetic, symbolic thinking, not iconography, but nonetheless I detect a similar type of name=symbol association as we find on the coins.  Perhaps we could marshal Timeaus as part of an argument for decode-ability of the logic behind our numismatic symbols.   And perhaps Abdera + Timeaus = some background to just what exactly the Roman moneyers thought they were communicating with their symbolic language.

Update 5/19/14:  An old piece of scholarship that does a fine job of surveying the use of visual puns in media other than coins.




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