The Diadem on Anti-Autocratic Coin Types

(M. Valerius) Messalla. Denarius, 3.69g. (h). Rome, 53 BC. Obv: Helmeted bust of Roma right, spear over shoulder, MESSAL F before. Rx: Curule chair; PATRE COS above, scepter and diadem below, S – C on either side. Crawford 435/1. Gemini XI, lot 374.

This seems to be the earliest coin (c.53BC) in which the symbols of Hellenistic kingship, the diadem and the scepter, are used in such a way as to suggest their rejection in favor of the traditional symbols of Roman power in this case the curule chair.  For this coin, the context is the threat of Pompey assuming sole control of the Roman state.

We see a similar iconographic strategy on a coin of Brutus after the murder of Julius Caesar:

M. Junius Brutus and Casca Longus. Denarius, mint moving with Brutus 43-42, AR 3.81 g. CASCA – LONGVS Wreathed head of Neptune r.; below, trident. Rev. BRVTVS IMP Victory walking r. on broken sceptre and holding palm branch over l. shoulder and broken diadem with both hands. Crawford 507/2. NAC 51, lot 113.

The question in my mind is should a similar interpretation also apply to this type:

Denarius, mint moving with Brutus and Cassius 43-42, AR 3.90 g. C·CASSEI·IMP Laureate head of Libertas r. Rev. M·SERVILIVS – LEG Crab, holding aplustre in its claws; below, rose and untied diadem. Crawford 505/3. Ex SKA Bern 1, 1983, 254 and NAC 9, 1996, 763 sales. NAC 63, lot 530.

The auction houses invariably photograph this specimen with the orientation shown above, but Crawford had his plates printed at the 90 degree rotation of the reverse:


Crawford is silent on the symbolism of diadem saying only: “Part of one issue of Cassius records his capture of Rhodes after a battle at Myndus, opposite the island of Cos; the rose of Rhodes and crab of Cos both figure, together with an aplustre as a symbol of victory” (p. 741).  I must say, the aplustre doesn’t seem very victorious to me as it is clutched in the claws of the crab.  Or perhaps its just Cos offering the naval victory to Cassius…

I also think I prefer symbolically the crab and aplustre read as over and above the more diminished Rhodian rose and the diadem, just as the curule chair symbolically sits over the diadem and sceptre in the first type above.

The Cassius coin is often connected to this quote from Plutarch’s Life of Brutus:

“Cassius, having taken Rhodes, behaved himself there with no clemency; though at his first entry, when some had called him lord and king, he answered that he was neither king nor lord, but the destroyer and punisher of a king and lord.”

I’m not sure this is specifically the allusion the die engraver was aiming at but it is certainly a reflection of the same rhetorical impulse.

1/17/16: on Crabs on coins:

287 out of 410 days: Tripods, Libertas, Victory

RRC 498/1. C. Cassius with M. Aquinus. Aureus, mint moving with Cassius 43-42, AV 8.41 g. M·AQVINVS·LEG· – LIBER – TAS Diademed head of Libertas r. Rev. C·CASSI – PR·COS Tripod with cauldron, decorated with two laurel branches. B. Cassia 12. C 2. Bahrfeldt 56. Sydenham 1302. Sear Imperators 217. Calicó 63.

I was thinking about tripods in a totally different framework when I came across the very smart work of Carsten Hjort Lange (again!).  In his 2009 book, Res Publica Constituta, he gives a new reading of the famous plaque from the Palatine in light of the use of tripods on the coinage of 42 BC (p. 172ff).  A great read, but too long to extract here just follow the link!

Greek influences

I also came across a reading of the Tripods on the Coins of Herod (same time frame) that I thought delightfully sensible:

Obverse of Bronze Coin, Jerusalem, 40 BC – 4 BC. ANS 1944.100.62799
From p. 110 of The Coins of Herod: A Modern Analysis and Die Classification edited by Donald Tzvi Ariel, Jean-Philippe Fontanille (Brill 2011). Image links to google books.

Further non-numismatic support for the idea that the tripod could be a general symbol of victory can be found here.

A Liberal Roman?

P. Licinius Nerva’s coin is pretty famous.  At least as an illustration of how the Romans voted.  It seems to celebrate voting reforms that protected the secrecy of the ballot, namely the voting bridges and the urn.  It dates to circa 110 BC [Mattingly, 113/112 Crawford].  It is a unusual coin, one of only a handful that refer directly to the rights of the citizen body that were under contemporary discussion.


With the Saturninus coin of the last post we don’t seem to have any reflection of his ‘radical’ views or concerns over agrarian policies and the grain supply.   This is often the case when we have coins of a known  historical figure.  Memorable deeds usually happened well after a man’s moneyership.  

We only know about one other incident in Nerva’s life.   As governor of Sicily he began mass emancipation of slaves claiming to be held illegally.  In the end that didn’t turn out so well for him and he probably ended up butchering those he originally freed or intended to free, but even so the initial decision is pretty radical in Roman term.  I suspect many of his peers would have thought him very very stupid indeed for trying such a thing.

Here’s Diodorus’ account (36.3 from Photius’ epitome).  Note how the initial impetus is problems with recruitment of soldiers in Asia to fight in Northern Italy!




The Epitome of Cassius Dio put a different spin on the affair.  [I am inclined to put more emphasis on the Diodorus account.]:

Publius Licinius Nerva, who was praetor in the island, on learning that the slaves were not being justly treated in some respects, or else because he sought an occasion for profit, — for he was not inaccessible to bribes, — sent round a notice that all who had any charges to bring against their masters should come to him and he would assist them. 2 Accordingly, many of them banded together, and some declared they were being wronged and others made known other grievances against their masters, thinking they had secured an opportunity for accomplishing all that they wished against them without bloodshed. The freemen, after consultation, resisted them and would not make any concessions. 3 Therefore Licinius, inspired with fear by the united front of both sides and dreading that some great mischief might be done by the defeated party, would not receive any of the slaves, but sent them away, thinking that they would suffer no harm or that at any rate they would be scattered and so could cause no further disturbance. But the slaves, fearing their masters because they had dared to raise their voices at all against them, organized a band and by common consent turned to robbery.

Connecting ideology behind the coin to the ideology to his actions as propraetor seems a stretch, I admit! That said, most everyone is happy to do it to some degree for the Brutus coins of c. 54 BC.