290 out of 410 days: The Impression Elephants Make

From L. Ambrosini, ‘Un donario fittile con elefanti e Cerbero dal santuario di Portonaccio a Veio’. Image links to PDF with more images and references.


I ended up at this article by way of this coin type from Etruria:

ETRURIA. Val di Chiana. Æ 18 mm (4.68 gm). Head of an African right / Elephant right with bell hanging from neck, Etruscan letter below. SNG ANS 36. SNG Morcom 44. HN Italy 69.
From catalogue: Commentary on this enigmatic issue has focused on the significance of the elephant, which appears to be Indian rather than African. This zoological observation seems to rule out a reference to the Carthaginian elephants and thus poses a challenge to dating this coin to the time of the Second Punic War. Yet E.S.G. Robinson, in NC 1964, pp. 47–48, proposed an interpretation that overcomes these difficulties. He submitted that the association of the elephant with an African head, probably representing the animal’s driver, points to an African origin. Rather than dating the coin issue to the time of Hannibal’s invasion, Robinson drew attention to the disaffection of Rome’s Etruscan allies in 208–207, centered on the town of Arretium, and suggested that the coin types expressed the seditious hope that Hasdrubal would arrive to reinforce his brother. In these historical circumstances, the elephant was a symbol, perhaps copied from earlier coin types, rather than a portrayal from life.

There are a number of these coins in the ANS collection and also a good selection in the acsearch.info database.  The main publication is:

Baglione, M.P. 1976. Su alcune serie parallele di bronzo coniato. In Contributi introduttivi allo studio della monetazione etrusca. Atti
Convegno Napoli 1975: 153-180. Roma.

Baglione records 158 known specimens at that time, the vast majority in public collections.  Baglione endorses (if I’ve read the Italian right!) Robinson’s dating and notes that W. V Harris, Rome in Etruria and Umbria (Oxford 1971) p. 140 also follows Robinson’s interpretation. I’m wary of dating by type alone and would like some new good hoard or excavation evidence to confirm this hypothesis.  I’d also think a little die study might be of use to get an idea of the size of the issue: it seems at first glance that we’re looking at multiple dies for each letter under the elephant (four different Etruscan letters are well attested) and a number of obverse dies.   Elephants do appear elsewhere in the Second Punic War on the coinage of rebelling Italic communities.  The most impressive example being the aes grave of Meles in Samnium which copy the Barcid silver coinage (Robinson, Essays Mattingly, 1956: 40, fig. 3A; HN Italy 441-42 (but no illustrations)).

I’m more interested in the unusual votive offering.    Ambrosini draws the parallel with the famous plate in the Villa Giulia (inv. 23949) with a depiction of a war elephant and her cub.  There is a second similar plate from maybe Sardinia that I can’t put my hand on a reference at this moment. from Corsica:


Roma mediorepubblicana; Aspetti culturali di Roma e del Lazio nei secoli IV e III a.C (Rome 1973), no. 33 = Villa Guilia and no. 34 = Corsica.

The votive offering confirms the theme of elephant and cub in a military context.  That, of course, made me think of that passage in Dionysius that I quoted in a previous post about how the Roman’s wounded a cub to gain a tactical advantage over Pyrrhus’ use of elephants.

Update 3-19-2018:

Note that Cassius Dio believes that Etruria was recruited by Pyrrhus. But this account has been dismissed by scholars.

Let us remember that Ptolemaic Egypt supplied not only the elephants but also some 9,000 troops, both cavalry and infantry.

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