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:






118 and 119 out of 410 days: Pyrrhus and Thetis

Yesterday late afternoon whilst reading about sources for the Pyrrhic Wars for this book review (It’s a really good book thus far! But slow going because I want to look everything up and enjoy the fun along with the author.) I became obsessed with the image of Thetis on the hippocamp. Below is a rather beautiful specimen in trade (cf. ANS Specimen):


This is often attributed to the Locrian mint in Italy c. 279-274 B.C. The obverse is identified as Achilles (Pyrrhus’ ancestor) and the “portrait” is sometimes thought to be assimilated to Alexander or maybe even Pyrrhus himself. Perhaps the best thing to read on Pyrrhus’ use of the Trojan War narrative is Erskine, Troy Between Greece and Rome, p. 157-161. It’s basically a take down of the idea that Pausanias 1.12 can be taken as actual evidence that Pyrrhus used ‘anti-Trojan’ type propaganda against the Romans. The interesting thing is the relationship of Pyrrhus’ coin type to that of Larissa in Thessaly:


There are also an number of illustrated specimens in the ANS collection. Note how on this specimen below the obverse head has the “whale spout” hair style so often associated with Alexander and also the AX monogram on the reverse shield standing for “Achilles”.


What does Pyrrhus have to do with Thessaly? Well it was his next stop after Italy. So Pausanias, and with references at Plutarch, and Diodorus, and the dedicatory inscription he set up is in the Greek Anthology attributed to Leonidas (6.130). Some discussion of his memorable dedication and his choice of sanctuary can be found in Graninger’s Cult and Koinon in Hellenistic Thessaly. The dedicatory inscription in fact emphasizes his decent from Achilles:



Of course, the image was generally popular, a popularity often ascribed to a lost statue group of Scopas thought to be referenced in Pliny. An Attic Red-Figure Bell Krater c. 350 BC in the BM show the basic image. And, the iconography is also known on Italic ceramics as well:

Black glazed pottery askos with a ribbed body and in relief on the top, Thetis or a Nereid on a hippocamp to the left with Achilles spear in right hand and in left a shield, the hippocamp has a fimbriated fish's tail.

Just to make things more confused there are some little understood finds said to be from Thessaly near Larissa including this:


There is a decent discussion here about this comparative evidence as it relates to Thessalian jewelry and gems.

I guess I’ll just have to mug up on the literature on Larissa and Thessalian numismatics starting with:

C. C. Lorber, Thessalian hoards and the coinage of Larissa, In: American journal of numismatics second series, vol. 20, 2008, p. 119-142, pl. 41-46.

Other literature of interest: Lücke, S. 1995. ‘Überlegungen zur Münzpropaganda des Pyrrhos’. In Brodersen, K., and Schubert, C. (eds.). 1995. Rom und der griechische Osten: Festschrift für Hatto H. Schmitt: 171–3. Stuttgart. As well as, Franke, P. R. 1989. ‘Pyrrhus’. CAH2 7.2: 456–85.