RRC 2/1 and Agathocles

Again, this is a more polished piece of text.  And again, was originally drafted for a longer version of my forthcoming ANS-CUP book.  That longer version wasn’t right for the series and ended up in the “archive” (meaning my languishing files of unpublished academic writing).  I then thought that this might be part of a series of articles on early Roman History and Coinage, but last January as I started really working on revising existing drafts of the material and polishing for publication, I decided that this particular material just wasn’t ‘substantial’ enough for a peer-reviewed journal and I’ve no interest in writing a second book type treatment.  I’m moving on in my interests for writing and research for formal publication.

BUT… all that said, I like this piece (but not as must as the last post on RRC 1/1) AND some of you may well like it too!

RRC 2/1 and Agathocles

The so-called ‘second’ issue is only known from one specimen in the collection of the National Gallery in Naples (fig. 3).  Similar to the first issue, it is unlikely to have been struck on any significant scale considering its poor survival rate.  Without the aid of specific find spot information, die comparisons, and other numismatic methodologies based on the analysis of groups of coins, we only have the features of the single specimen to try to reconstruct an appropriate historical context.  Two features lend themselves to possible comparison, the form of the apparently Latin legend and the rendering of the reverse design.  The former is the basis for most modern interpretations, but the latter is also of interest to the historian.[1]


FIGURE 3:  Naples 113828.  No provenance recorded. c. 300 BCE, Bronze, 6.14 grams (?), 19 mm. [2]   Obverse: Head of Minerva (Athena) in Attic Helmet decorated with hippocamp, Reverse: Man-Faced Bull in profile, above star, in exergue [R]OMANO.  Illustrated at 2:1 scale.   Image after Gàbrici 1904: pl IV.4, now in the public domain.


FIGURE 4:  ANS 1944.100.2376.  Bequest of E.T. Newell. c. 400-385 BCE, silver didrachm, 7.26 grams.   Obverse: Head of Athena in Attic Helmet decorated with owl and olive wreath, Reverse: Man-Faced Bull in profile, NΩΛΑΙΩΝ above, ΛΕ in ligature between legs.  Illustrated at 2:1 scale. ANS SNG 559 = Rutter 1979: Nola 9 = NO4 and NR7 = NH Italy 603.  Image courtesy of the American Numismatic Society.

The specimen in question employs well-known South Italian types: a head of Athena in an Attic Helmet (Minerva to a Roman audience perhaps) which is strongly associated with Thurian coins, and a walking man-headed bull that recalls the exceptionally common use of man-faced bulls by Neapolis mint on coinage in its own name and on coins struck in the name of other cities.  The particular rendering of the Athena obverse shares parallels with didrachms struck c. 400-385 BCE at the Neapolis in their own name and in that of Hyria and Nola (fig. 4).[3] These didrachms nearly all have a full bodied, man-faced bull in profile on the reverses.  Gàbrici in the original publication of the Roman specimen noted the hippocamp (a winged horse with serpentine fish tail) as helmet decoration was unusual, especially on Campanian coins, although in style and fabric the Roman coin is similar to other Campanian issues.[4]  Although not stylistically similar, I would note that a hippocamp also appears on the Attic helmet of Athena on the diobols struck at Arpi likely between 320 and 275 BCE, an ally of Rome at this time.

The Roman bronze also shows its man-headed bull in full profile, whereas the Neapolis mint typically renders the full-bodied man-headed bull on its bronze coinage with a three-quarter profile head and with Apollo on the obverse.  The only exception to the three-quarter profile on the Neapolis bronzes is an unusual type dated c. 300 BC.[5]  Like the Roman coin, it also places the ethnic in the exergue, but it surrounds the fairly typical laureate head of Apollo with a circle of dolphins and places a trident over the bull.  The circle of dolphins recalls the coinage of Syracuse, and with the trident suggests an emphasis on naval prowess.  On stylistic grounds we might hypothesize that the die for the Roman coin was carved at the Naples mint at about the same time as this specimen with Syracusan influences.  The same Syracusan imagery, particularly the head surrounded by dolphins, is also seen on the precious metal coins of Neapolis.[6]  This motif is used on some Siculo-Punic tetradrachms down to c. 300 and also on the tetradrachms of the early part of Agathocles’ reign in Syracuse, c. 317-305.[7]  Both imitate earlier Syracusan types of the fifth and late fourth century.[8]

The likely historical context for both these precious metal issues and the bronze coin type from Neapolis is Agathocles’ political and military engagement with Southern Italy at the very end of the fourth century and beginning of the third.  Unfortunately, our historical understanding of this engagement is severely hamstrung by the loss of Diodorus’ continuous narrative after 302 BC, although optimistic reconstructions have been attempted.[9]  Our fragmentary sources do suggest regular campaigning, especially along the coastlines, c. 300-294 BC.[10]  Trogus says that Agathocles was inploratus (beseeched, begged, implored) to come to Italy, but does not specify by whom and then goes onto talk about his engagement with the Bruttii.  A passage of Strabo suggests that Tarentum is likely to have been the beseecher.  And, yet how Tarentum might have benefited from Agathocles’ war with the Bruttii is not at all clear.  Trogus leaves us in media res with Agathocles leaving the Bruttian campaign unexpectedly to return to Sicily on account of illness.  We pick up the narrative a year or two later with Diodorus.  Agathocles captures Corcyra from Macedonian forces and then ‘returns’ to the forces he’s left in Italy only to find his Etruscan and Ligurian mercenaries have been behaving badly towards his son.  He kills two thousand mercenaries and for some reason, unclear from the text, this alienates the Bruttii.  A botched attempt to capture the town leads to a night attack that sends Agathocles once again back to Syracuse.  C. 295 he’s back in Italy capturing Croton and giving Iapygians and Peucetians ‘pirate’ ships.  C. 294 he’s in the territory of the Bruttii besieging Hipponium, the future Vibo.  And both years Stilpo, his naval captain, is harassing the Bruttian coastline.  These data points are very minimal, but it is probably not too much of a stretch to take the Tarentine gold staters mentioned above as confirmation of the Tarentine/Agathocles relationship mentioned by Strabo.

It is logical to slip the Neapolis coins in this same 300-294 BC window and hypothesize some sort of diplomatic arrangement between Neapolis and the Syracusan king.  The silver has three different known initials on it suggesting perhaps issues over a number of years (HN Italy 576).  Bronze types have naval imagery on them (HN Italy 577 trident, 578 dolphin) and the literary sources suggest that Agathocles seems particularly eager to control shipping lanes in the course of his Italic and concurrent campaigns.  We should thus probably locate these Neapolis coins fit in this same c. 300-294 BC window and hypothesize some sort of diplomatic arrangement, between Neapolis and the Syracusan king, perhaps a naval agreement given the naval imagery on the bronze coinage and the prowess of both communities in maritime affairs.

So where does that leave the unique Roman bronze (RRC 2/1)?  Given we have no available hoard evidence and only a single known specimen, and the likelihood that the same engraver produced the dies for HN Italy 577 and 578 and RRC 2/1, the campaigns of Agathocles in Italy are some of our best dating evidence for RRC 2/1, c.300-294BC.  I am not suggesting any particular Roman role in this hypothesized Neapolis-Syracuse alliance, only that it was concurrent with Rome’s own relationship with Neapolis.

The date of this second bronze issue is, however, typically derived from the date of Rome’s first silver coinage, an issue of didrachms with a bearded Mars in a Corinthian helmet on one side and the head of a bridled horse on the reverse (fig. 5).  This is based primarily on a similarity in legends; both are read as ROMANO.  This, however, is not enough for a certain connection between the two issues.  They bear no other shared iconographic elements.  Whereas RRC 2/1 is exceptionally rare and completely based on preexisting iconographic models, RRC 13/1 has a distinctively Roman iconography and has a wide well-documented distribution.   There is no reason to rule out a potential historical context for either coin issue because it cannot be made to fit the other.  Rather, there are good reasons for treating them as separate numismatic expressions.

[1] Thompson 1957: 141 discusses parallel types.

[2] Crawford’s data preferred here, but Gàbrici 1904: 100 records “diam. mm. 20. Peso gr. 10,15, poco usata.”

[3] Cf. Rutter 1979: plate 44, die-transference D with discussion on p. 68-76.

[4] Gàbrici 1906: 100.

[5] HN Italy 577; pace Rutter who identifies 573 as the prototype for RRC 2/1.  In doing so he considers the star the key point of comparison not the rendering of the man-faced bull.  577 (= Taliercio IIa6) is closer in theoretical weight standard to Crawford’s weighing of RRC 2/1, but 573 (=Taliercio transition I-IIa) is closer to Gàbrici’s.  I am indebted to Nick Molinari, a co-creator of manfacedbulls.wordpress.com, for drawing my attention to 577.  Other published specimens of this same type include: SNG France 884-8; SNG ANS 462-4.

[6] HN Italy 576, cf. also gold issue of Tarentum (HN Italy 952-954) linked by Rutter to Cleonymus and the events of 303-302 BCE (Diod. 20.104).

[7] Siculo-Punic: Jenkins 70, 101, 188 among others; Agathocles: SNG ANS 633, 640, among others.

[8] Burnett 1977: 109-10.

[9] cf. Meister 1984, Nebu 2010.  Meister, I believe, may have been led astray by his belief in the so-called ‘Philinus’ Treaty, on which Eckstein 2010.  A better approach at the reconstruction may be possible from the hoard evidence, cf. Spadea 2011.

[10] Trog. 23.1-2 cf. Strabo 6.3.4; Diod. 21.2-4 and 8; Consolo Langer 1990, esp. 157-162.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s