Update 1-28-23: Please do not cite this post. My published views on this topic can be found in my 2021 article (full unformatted text; publisher’s link).
This post is dedicated to the most estimable Prof. Kellogg, who has taught many to always listen to the sacred chickens.
These fabulous currency bars appear in many a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate the Roman practice of divination prior to battle via the consumption of grain by sacred chickens. If the birds eat, the gods are happy for the Romans to engage in combat. The most famous incident is the Sea Battle of Drepana (249BC) when Claudius Pulcher is said to have been so enraged that the birds wouldn’t eat that he cast them into the sea, saying: ‘If they won’t eat, let them drink!’. Anyway, great story and thanks to this excellent account by another blogger, I’ve got no need to review the sources here.
The idea that the bars show sacred chickens is only loosely endorsed by Crawford, who with uncharacteristic ambivalence, records the type as ‘two chickens facing each other and apparently eating; between, two stars’. He is more definite in vol. 2, p. 218:
The Callimachus epigram is of interest:
Euaenetus, who set me up, says – for I know not – that in return for a victory of his I am offered – a bronze cock – to the Tyndaridae : I believe the son of Phaedrus, son of Philoxenides.
φησὶν ὅμεστήσας Εὐαίνετος （οὐ γὰρ ἔγωγε
γινώσκω） νίκης ἀννί μετῆς ἰδίης
ἀγκεῖσθαι χάλκειον ἀλέκτορα Τυνδαρίδηισι:
πιστεύω Φαίδρου παιδὶ Φιλοξενίδεω. (Greek from Perseus)
This ἀλέκτωρ isn’t a sacred chicken, but a cock! A symbol of virility and bellicosity. Look again at the currency bars above, those birds have some impressive combs and plumage, visible even with corrosion on the bars. The kicker is when we look at the pattern of coin iconography at Roman colonies and allied communities struck in the 1st Punic War, notice the combination of star and cock:
There are also coins of this same type from Caiatia (HN Italy 433) and Telesia (HN Italy 457). Discussion can be found in Crawford’s Coinage and Money (1985), p. 47. They all seem to be carved by a single die engraver and I’d not be surprised to find obverse die links. As a group they are all are overstruck by Neapolis coins from the 250s (Taliercio III,a; cf. discussion by Burnett and Crawford 1998 in essays for M. Jessop Price).
Anyway, the iconographic choice on the currency bars probably has less to do with religious ritual and more to do with selecting a symbol of military prowess. The head-down, two cock rendering of the motif probably has more to do with the design challenges of the oblong bar. The two birds echo the double design of the other side.
And, just by-the-by. the Latin for chicken, as in sacred chicken, is pullus, which is well distinguished from the gallus, or cock.
Notice the stance of these two fighting cocks and the imperial eagle above.