Them Birds

Reverse of RIC II, Part 1 (second edition) Vespasian 954. 1944.100.41630

This ‘restoration’ issue of Vespasian takes its inspiration from this republican type (RRC 287/1):

The birds seem to have changed.  Crawford calls the ones on the prototype ‘non-descript’ but the birds on the Vespasian aureus seem to be pretty certainly eagles.  Did the republican engraver just do a bad job of representing the species or has the Imperial engraver ‘improved’ the type for symbolic reasons.  The republican specimens can have some pretty misshapen birds on them:

The literary sources only have woodpeckers associated with the wolf and twins narrative (Ovid, Fasti 3.37 and 54).  One type of woodpecker with a crest was known as Mar’s Woodpecker hence the connection (Pliny NH 11.44).  But that doesn’t mean other birds aren’t found in art.  More than I want to list here. But just as a taster.  Here’s an eagle on a glass paste to which we might compare the Ostian Altar:

Ulvinden med Romulus og Remus. Hellenistisk-romersk paste

And another glass paste with a ‘non-descript’ bird on a grape vine (NOT the ficus Ruminalis then):

Opaque blue glass oval engraved gem

This last is a pretty common type of image.  Sometimes the grape vine has a bird, sometimes not.

Then there are the other republican coins (RRC 39/3 and 235/1) and that mirror we discussed ages ago that should be brought into the discussion but I’ll leave it there for now.  Except for just wondering if this weird BM gem with a mysterious head in the scene might not be Roma’s head, like a reverse scaling of the Roma plus wolf-and-twins motif above:

Sard gem engraved with Faustulus, with a tunic, skin cloak and staff, finding the she-wolf and Romulus and Remus under a rock, above which is a tree and a helmeted head (?).

Update 2/5/2014:  The important bibliography on this is 

A. Dardenay, Les intailles républicaines figurant la louve romaine: essai d’identification des modèles iconographiques.  Pallas 76, 2008, 101-113.

Of course, I had this on file the whole time but didn’t remember the relevance until today….

227 out of 410 days: Confusing Omens, Confusing Cities

Reverse of RRC 472/1. 1944.100.3525


I used to think I was the only person who might mess up Lanuvium and Lavinium.  NOT SO! Apparently Dionysius of Halicarnassus made the same mistake when he told this story:

While Lavinium was building, the following omens are said to have appeared to the Trojans. When a fire broke out spontaneously in the forest, a wolf, they say, brought some dry wood in his mouth and threw it upon the fire, and an eagle, flying thither, fanned the flame with the motion of his wings. But working in opposition to these, a fox, after wetting his tail in the river, endeavoured to beat out the flames; and now those that were kindling it would prevail, and now the fox that was trying to put it out. But at last the two former got the upper hand, and the other went away, unable to do anything further.5 Aeneas, on observing this, said that the colony would become illustrious and an object of wonder and would gain the greatest renown, but that as it increased it would be envied by its neighbours and prove grievous to them; nevertheless, it would overcome its adversaries, the good fortune that it had received from Heaven being more powerful than the envy of men that would oppose it. These very clear indications are said to have been given of what was to happen to the city; of which there are monuments now standing in the forum of the Lavinians, in the form of bronze images of the animals, which have been preserved for a very long time.

Why should we assume he’s wrong?  Or at least that the attribution of this prophecy is disputed? Whelp.  The obverse of the above coin looks like this:

Obverse of RRC 472/1. 1944.100.3525


That’s Juno Sospita, the patron goddess of Lanuvium!  The moneyer’s family is well known for celebrating their connection to this city on their coins.  If there was a statue that looked like the reverse, it probably stood in that forum, not at Lavinium.  Add in this tantalizing bit of Horace:

Bk III: XXVII Europa

 Let the wicked be led by omens of screeching

from owls, by pregnant dogs, or a grey-she wolf,

hurrying down from Lanuvian meadows,

or a fox with young:

And we can be pretty sure that Lanuvium that claimed the she-wolf and by extension the eagle as prodigies of its foundation.  

It’s also a nice example of the wolf as a non-Roman, but still Latin, symbol, one that is morphed into a proto-Roman symbol through its alignment to the Aeneas narrative.

Pity its too late for the book.  Thank goodness for this blog as a thought dumping space.

[Refs found at Crawford 1974: 482]


219 out of 410 days: The Roman Pound

Update: since writing this post some 5 years ago I’ve continued to work on the problems of the pound. Related posts.

I also recommend Riggsby’s Mosaics of Knowledge (OUP 2019).



My concerns about Duncan-Jones’ potential overconfidence in his knowledge of the exact weight of the Roman pound (322.8 grams) and thus his reading of Pliny’s famous statement about 84 denarii to the pound (Money and Gov. 1994: 214-215; NC 1995: 110), led me to the publication of the above objects.  It also made me very sad to have missed this conference.

Anyway, the thing about the big post-Constantinian weight above that seems striking to me is just that its weight, or more accurately its Mass.  1645 g.  It’s high.  And given things like corrosion we’d generally expect these things to be a little on the light side.  It is clearly marked with its standard: 5 pounds.  That makes 329 g to the Roman pound!  See this recent discussion about the problem from a Byzantine perspective.  A conservative ball park is usually 325 to 327 g for the Late Roman/Byzantine pound.  

It’s a huge shame that the weight doesn’t have provenance: no mention of who current owns it and only very vague references to the eastern Mediterranean as to its find spot.

Here’s Pliny’s quote just so you have it:

In spurious coin there is an alloy of copper employed. Some, again, curtail the proper weight of our denarii, the legitimate proportion being eighty-four denarii to a pound of silver. In consequence, a method was devised of assaying the denarius: the law ordaining which was so much to the taste of the plebeians that in every quarter of the City there was a full-length statue erected in honour of Marius Gratidianus. (Pliny, Natural History 33.132)

218 out of 410 days: Civic Virtues

This little coin, a silver sesterius of 45 BC or there about, has me worried about the chronological limits of my book project.  Yes, stopping in 49BC to leave the discussion of Caesar and the Civil Wars to another book does make good sense.  However, a good number of post-49BC coins are intimately thematically related to earlier coins in the series.  The issue of Palikanus taken as a whole is a good illustration of the “republican” characteristics of some of these later issues.

The above coin was thought to show a money pot or olla and a banker’s tessarae.  This at least was Wiseman’s suggestion, based on the banking interests of the moneyer’s family.

Wiseman, T. P. (1971) New Men in the Roman Senate, 139BC-AD14. Oxford p. 85-6.

His idea is largely endorsed by Crawford and even to an extent by Zehnacker.

Zehnacker, H. (1972) ‘La Numismatique de la République romaine: bilan et perspectives’, ANRW I.I (Berlin), 266-96, at 284: “En tout cas, l’appartenance au monde de la finance expliquerait trés bien le mélange caractéristique chez les monetales de noms illustres—des cadets de famille qui ont préféré l’argentaux honneurs—et de noms quasi inconnus—de parvenus”

Based on the themes of the rest of the series as a whole, I think L. R. Taylor’s original suggestion of voting urn and ballot is far more likely (VDRR p. 226).  The series celebrates:

Libertas and the Tribune’s Bench on the Rostra:

Obverse of RRC 473/1. 1944.100.3528

Reverse of RRC 473/1. 1944.100.3528

Honor and a Curule Chair flanked by Grain:

Obverse of RRC 473/2b. 1944.100.3533

Reverse of RRC 473/2b. 1944.100.3533

Then on the quinarius, Felicitas and Victory:

Given that all the other elements in the series celebrate civic virtues, even popular virtues, interpreting the smallest denomination in the series as a banking advert seems a bit of a stretch. A voting theme would harmonize much better.

All that said, there was a temple of Ops (wealth) in Roman.  If its not voting being represented, I’d go with another divine personification before assuming a reference to a family banking business.

Also the use of the genitive on all these is types is striking.

Perhaps I’ll just need to include a flash forward to work a few of this series in.

Update 24 January 2014:  So I was re-reading Witschonke 2012 on the possible uses of control marks at the Roman mint.  Really the very best thing on the subject.  Speculative in places by necessity, but logical and solid reasoning throughout.  It depends on the important work of Stannard (Metallurgy in numismatics vol. 3 1993: 45-68 pl 1-2) on the evidence for mint practices revealed by gauging, namely that the mint worked in batches.  What if money pot and tessarae (if that’s what they are) aren’t banking icongraphy but in fact minting iconography?   A claim to the rigorous control of the issue.  A celebration of Juno Moneta.  Something like this coin of c. 46BC:


213 out of 410 days: Mars or Achilles?


I’ve been writing too much to write here.  Rather ironically it is a brain befuddled by a respiratory infection that brings me back to blogging.  

I have already talked about the second coin type illustrated above.  It was produced by Pyrrhus and is said to represent his claim to have Achilles as an ancestor.  Thus the obverse is usually identified as Achilles.

The top coin is a Roman didrachm (RRC 25/1).  There is a another series (RRC 27) that is usually dated a little after with a similar head:


The Roman coins are invariably identified as Mars.  The logic is really no more complicated than this: Helmet = War Deity –> Male War Deity = Mars.  This Mars just happens to be beardless as compared to earlier bearded Mars:


[This is by our best reckoning the first silver Roman coin.]  Or late bearded Mars like these beauties:

Obverse of RRC 44/2. 1980.109.150

But if we go back up and look the ‘beardless Mars’ of the Roman coin and the ‘Achilles’ of the Pyrrhus coin, I think you’d agree we’d be hard pressed to actually claim there is any iconographic difference.  They match pretty well in their rugged Hellenistic faces and even share the gryphon motif of the helmet.  We need not make too much of that.  Gryphons appear on Corinthian helmets in this position on and off in Hellenistic coinage, regularly enough that we don’t need to attribute special significance to it.  Here’s a specimen from Syracuse.  And a gold Alexander stater of Sidon.

Are the two separate identifications warranted even with the close iconography?  Probably.  The Achilles attribute rests on the Thetis image on the reverse and the mythical connection.  If Rome copied the image or they simply share some common prototype there is no reason to think that it would be mean anything other than male war god, i.e. Mars to a Roman audience.

Update 2/5/2014:  A. Burnett, The Iconography of Roman Coin Types in the Third Century BC. Numismatic Chronicle 146 (1986) 67-75:






204 out of 410 days: How much work is involved in a die-study?


Yes, 30 seconds is an arbitrary number.  Many comparisons will be much faster, after much longer.  And, no consideration is given to the collection of the images for comparison.  But,the numbers a still good to think when consider what sorts of studies are feasible until a meaningful type of machine assist is developed or just the work involved in any individual project.

So for instance, I supervised a masters thesis that was a die study of 383 specimens.  If the student had take a full 30 seconds on each comparison that would have been nearly 153 8-hour work days, nearly half a year.  Not counting the write up.   [The chart above using 24-hour days.]  Obviously, on the republican series certain variations within a type, especially control marks when present, can speed up a die study, but even such sorting requires individual consideration and intense record keeping.   Without such control marks limiting the number of comparisons required, De Ruyter’s 1996 study of the Coins of L. Julius Bursio would have required upwards of 5,287,700 unique comparisons (NC 156: 79-147).