Sabine Pass

Reverse of Silver Decoration, Houston (Tex.), 1863. 1909.350.1


Sometimes there is a danger of learning something completely unrelated to Greco-Roman antiquity when using a coin database.  I searched “Sabine” expecting to return RRC 344/1 [I was thinking about the iconography of two figures carrying two other figures].  Which the search did, but I also got back a handful of medals like the one above.

The Second Battle of Sabine Pass took place on September 8, 1863, and was the result of a Union expedition into the Confederate state of Texas during the American Civil War. It has often been credited as the most one-sided Confederate victory during the conflict.  …

… In recognition of the victory, local residents smoothed off Mexican dollars, stamped them with the battle and date, plus individually the name of each soldier, hung them on green ribbons and presented them to the troops. Approved by the Confederate Congress, the Davis Guards Medal is believed to be the only official military decoration issued by the CSA [wikipedia]

Needless to say anything that rare and historic is likely to inspire forgeries.   A number of the specimens in the ANS collection have notes saying such and such cast doubt on the authenticity of the specimen.  Here are all the ANS specimens together.  Interestingly only the ones with soldiers’ names are listed as possible forgeries.

The coin conversion is particularly interesting to me.  I’d also love to know who and when named the pass and the adjoining Sabine Lake.  The habit of naming places with Classical allusions is one I associate most strongly with New England, especially Upstate New York.

Catanaean Brothers


I’m trying to make up my mind whether I think RRC 308/1 represents one of the Catanaean Brothers as most scholars think or if I am swayed at all by Evans’ claim that it is really Aeneas. Above is a coin of Catana showing the brothers.  Here is the Republican coin:

Reverse of Silver Denarius of M. HERENNI, Rome, 108 BC - 107 BC. 2002.46.104

There two literary accounts of the  brothers.  One is Hyginus’ list .  I give the two proceeding entries and the two after for context:


Xanthippe, when her father Mycon was shut up in prison, nourished him with her own milk.
Tyro, daughter of Salmoneus, killed her sons on account of her father.
In Sicily when Mount Aetna first began to burn, Damon rescued his mother from the fire, and Phintias his father, too.
Aeneas, likewise, in Troy bore out from the fire his father Anchises on his shoulders, and rescued Ascanius his son.
Cleops and Bitias were sons of Cydippe, a priestess of Argive Juno.


The juxtapostion and connection of the brothers with Aeneas suggests that in the Augustan period at least they were linked together.  This makes sense in light of Sextus Pompeius Pius’ coin type:

Reverse of RRC 511/3a. 1937.158.342

The other literary source is the anonymous poem Aetna.  The story serves as its closing climax:

Once Aetna burst open its caverns and glowed white-hot: as though its deep-pent furnaces were shattered, a vast wave of fire gushed forth afar upborne by the heat of the lava-stone, just as when the ether lightens under the fury of Jupiter and plagues the bright sky with murky gloom. Corn-crops in the fields and acres soft-waving under cultivation were ablaze with their lords. Forests and hills gleamed red. … They think they have escaped, but the fire catches them: it consumes its prisoners’ booty: and the conflagration feeds itself, set on sparing none or only the dutiful. Two noble sons, Amphinomus and his brother, gallantly facing an equal task, when fire now roared in homes hard by, saw how their lame father and their mother had sunk down (alas!) in the weariness of age upon the threshold. Forbear, ye avaricious throng, to lift the spoils ye love! For them a mother and a father are the only wealth: this is the spoil they will snatch from the burning. They hasten to escape through the heart of the fire, which grants safe-conduct unasked. O sense of loving duty, greatest of all goods, justly deemed the surest salvation for man among the virtues! The flames held it shame to touch those duteous youths and retired wherever they turned their steps. Blessed is that day: guiltless is that land. Cruel burnings reign to right and left. Flames slant aside as Amphinomus rushes among them and with him his brother in triumph: both hold out safely under the burden which affection laid on them. There — round the couple — the greedy fire restrains itself. Unhurt they go free at last, taking with them their gods in safety. To them the lays of bards do homage: to them under an illustrious name has Ditis allotted a place apart. No mean destiny touches the sacred youths: their lot is a dwelling free from care, and the rightful rewards of the faithful.

Can you represent just one Catanaean brother? There are other coins of Catana that show just one brother and parent per side, but they are still both there…


What would the contemporary Roman have seen?  Perhaps either narrative?  I’m not willing to follow Evans wholeheartedly but some doubt seems warranted.


nec sanctos iuvenes attingunt sordida fata: /securae cessere domus et iura piorum.

The Loeb translation of the poem really doesn’t do justice to the last line and the thematic emphasis of the last word.  PIUS.

234 out of 410 days: Dressing up as Mercury


A great image.  I’m putting it up here just as I don’t want to forget it.  I enjoy how both aspects of Mercury are emphasized: bringer of wealth (purse), as well as bringer of peace (caduceus).

The image is from Galinsky, Venus, Polysemy, and the Ara Pacis Augustae, AJA 96.3 (1992): 457-75, at p. 473.  Here’s what it says there about:


230 out of 410 days: Minotaurs on Roman Legionary Standards



Here’s the Pliny quote:

The eagle was assigned to the Roman legions as their special badge by Gaius Marius in his second consulship. Even previously it had been their first badge, with four others, wolves, minotaurs, horses and boars going in front of the respective ranks; but a few years before the custom had come in of carrying the eagles alone into action, the rest being left behind in camp. Marius discarded them altogether. Thenceforward it was noticed that there was scarcely ever a legion’s winter camp without a pair of eagles being in the neighbourhood.

Horses, Wolves, Boars are all featured on the Republican coin series.   Not so much, minotaurs …  It’s not really an argument, but surely something went wrong in Pliny’s account or the manuscript or something… Very strange.  But then there is the Festus to back it up…

MINOTAURUS. The figure of the Minotaur was among the military insignia, because the projects of the general should not be less mysterious than the labyrinth which held this monster. The Minotaur, it is said, was the fruit of the love of Pasiphae, wife of King Minos, and a bull. But others say that Taurus was just the name of her lover.

A little background on Roman Military Insignia.

Update 8/12/2016:  The thing to read on this subject is:


Contemplative War Goddesses

File:Acropole Musée Athéna pensante.JPG

One difference (besides the birds) between the Vespasian restoration and the Republican original discussed the other day  is certainly the posture of the goddess Roma herself.  On the imperial aurei she sits erect with a shorter scepter.  On the republican denarii she leans forward and the spear extends far over her shoulder.   She lets it take her weight.  Her arm which holds it rests on her thigh.  Her gaze is seems full occupied by scene before her.   She is at rest, almost a mournful pose, certainly a contemplative one.  In that, it strongly reminds me of the above Greek relief from Athens in the Acropolis Museum.

The gem, an imprint of which can be seen here:, does not have the same contemplative pose.  Like on the aurei she sits upright holding her scepter instead of letting it hold her.   The birds are intermittent.  [A. Furtwängler, Beschreibung der geschnittenen Steine im Antiquarium, Königliche Museen Berlin (1896) Cat. no. 9561.]

There is also this gem [] with Roma and wolf and twins plus tree and Victory, over all a very different composition.


229 out of 410 days: Picus Martius

Linneaus that great classifier of living things called this woodpecker Picus Martius, the Black Woodpecker as it’s generally known.   Its modern scientific name is Dryocopus Martius, picus now being used for another genus of the woodpecker family.

But for the classicist the Picus Martius is an important bird.  Ovid puts Mars’ bird, the woodpecker, as a defender of Romulus and Remus on par with the wolf.  (You’ll notice a theme running over the last few posts…)  Pliny has lots of fabulous anecdotes about the bird and its importance in auguries and how it will defend certain flowers or how its beak can be worn as a charm against wasps.  Among other things at NH 11.123 it is described as having a tufted head.

…per medium caput a rostro residentem et fulicarum generi dedit,cirros pico quoque Martioet grui Balearicae, sed spectatissimum insigne gallinaceis, corporeum, serratum…

Not – to be sure – an uncommon trait for woodpeckers and one can see why Linneaus thought the Black Woodpecker a good candidate for Mars’ totemic bird.  I’m sure I’m not the first to deduce this, but I think this is the more likely candidate:

File:Picus viridis sharpei 039.jpg

Today, this beauty is the Picus Viridis or European Green Woodpecker.  The first reason I came to this conclusion was largely based on typical range of the two birds.  The Black is rarely spotted below the Appenines today, where as the Green is known throughout the Italic Peninsula.  Then there is this bit of Virgil:

There Picus, the Horse-Tamer, sat, holding the lituus, the augur’s

Quirinal staff, and clothed in the trabea, the purple-striped toga,

and carrying the ancile, the sacred shield, in his left hand,

he, whom his lover, Circe, captivated by desire, struck

with her golden rod: changed him with magic drugs

to a woodpecker, and speckled (sparsit) his wings with colour.

Of course how do we know that this Picus is Martius Picus?  Well this seems likely from Servius’ commentary:

fabula autem talis est. Picum amavit Pomona, pomorum dea, et eius volentis est sortita coniugium. postea Circe, cum eum amaret et sperneretur, irata eum in avem, picum Martium, convertit: nam altera est pica. hoc autem ideo fingitur, quia augur fuit et domi habuit picum, per quem futura noscebat: quod pontificales indicant libri. bene autem supra ei lituum dedit, quod est augurum proprium: nam ancile et trabea communia sunt cum Diali vel Martiali sacerdote.