Sicilian Ears of Wheat

Reverse of RRC 69/6c. 1969.83.264
Reverse of RRC 69/6c. ΑΝS 1969.83.264

“The issue with com-ear occurs in the Serra Orlando hoard; here as on the denarius and bronze the com-ear is a symbole parlant for Sicily.”  (Crawford 1974: 16)  Clearly, the ear of wheat is a symbol of Sicily (Hersh 1993: 141).  But there is some difference between the selection of the symbol because of a canting pun or because already by the Hannibalic War the Romans were thinking of Sicily as a ‘bread-basket’. See, for example, this discussion of the symbol in a chapter on Sicilian identity. Crawford doesn’t explain how he thinks the visual pun works and so what follows is only speculation.

The Latin word for wheat is triticum.  

There is a tradition that the ‘original’ name of Sicily was Trinacria.  “(Τρινακρία/Trinakría, Hellanicus FGrH 51 F 79b), later Sicania (Σικανίη/Sikaníē, Hdt. 7,170; Σικανία/Sikanía, Thuc. 6,2,2) and only then Sicelia (Σικελία). The change of name reflects the successive immigration of the Sicani and Siculi; however, Trinacria is probably an unhistorical construction from the Homeric Thrinacia (Hom. Od. 11,107; 12,127; 12,135; 19,275), taking into account the triangular shape (tría ákra) of the island.” (So Olshausen in Brill’s New Pauly).

Maybe the adjectival form of triticum in the feminine, triticia, is close enough for a canting pun, but I’m not one hundred percent convinced.

Would the name Trinacria be widely known?  Jacoby’ collection of the fragments of Timaeus suggests it was in use in the West (FGrH vol. 3b.566, F164 ln.4)  But when we go to the source text, Diodorus, it’s hard to be sure that particular word was actually Timaeus’ contribution.  [I give the big block quote at the end of this post.]

In Latin authors its mostly used in poetic authors, and not before Catullus.  By contrast the early poets Ennius, Naevius, and Plautus all just use the name Sicilia.

But perhaps Crawford has a different Latin or Greek near homophone in mind which I just have yet realized.

An aside. One of my favorite Turkish phrases is jeton düştü!  The penny dropped!  In this case, perhaps I should say, jeton düşmedi. The penny has not dropped.  I’m not really sure the idiomatic phrase really carries over from English to Turkish but my Turkish teacher seemed to suggest as much and as a numismatist how can I resist using it.

Timaeus, for example, bestowed, it is true, the greatest attention upon the precision of his chronology and had due regard for the breadth of knowledge gained through experience, but he is criticized with good reason for his untimely and lengthy censures, and because of the excess to which he went in censuring he historian given by some men the name Epitimaeus or Censurer. Ephorus, on the other hand, in the universal history which he composed has achieved success, not alone in the style of his composition, but also as regards the arrangement of his work; for each one of his Books is so constructed as to embrace events which fall under a single topic.Consequently we also have given our preference to this method of handling our material, and, in so far as it is possible, are adhering to this general principle. And since we have given this Book the title “On the Islands,”in accordance with this heading the first island we shall speak about will be Sicily, since it is both the richest of the islands and holds first place in respect of the great age of the myths related concerning it.

The island in ancient times was called, after its shape, Trinacria,then Sicania after the Sicani who made their home there, and finally it has been given the name Sicily after the Siceli who crossed over in a body to it from Italy. …


Dioscuri and Desultores


This is a didrachm of one of Rome’s colonies, Suessa Aurunca.  This type is usually dated to the time of 1st Punic War.  The colony had been established in 313 BC as part of the Samnite Wars (Livy 9.28).  The place makes little mark on the literary narrative, appearing in such sleepy contexts as Cato’s recommendation on where to get a wagon or a mill.

The type is identified as a Dioscurus, i.e. either Castor or Pollux without his brother.  My first impression is that it looked rather like a desultor to me.

Obverse of RRC 480/21. ANS 1937.158.296 . Image links to a selection of other coin types also showing desultores.

This got me wondering what we actually know about desultores.  Less than you might think, I can assure you!  And many of our references are metaphorical (e.g. Cicero, Pro Murena 57).   There are only about 13 references in Latin literature.  The only certain testimony we have of their performance is during Julius Caesar’s triumphal games, and here they seem to be performances by elite youth (Suet. Iul. 39).   That they show up on the republican series more than once suggests they were a significant feature of Roman religious festivals or other celebrations, but which and when is up for debate.  Perhaps my favorite reference is their use in a piece of Augustan era Roman jurisprudence by Labeo preserved in the Justinian digest (19.5.20).

What about the Suessa coin above?  Dioscurus or desultor?  The confusion is more understandable when we look at this passage from Hyginus:

LXXX. CASTOR: Idas and Lynceus, sons of Apharesu from Messene, had as promised brides Phoebe and Hilaira, daughters of Leucippus. Since these were most beautiful maidens – Phoebe being a priestess of Minerva, and Hilaira of Diana – Castor and Pollux, inflamed with love, carried them off. But they, since their brides-to-be were lost, took to arms to see if they could recover them. Castor killed Lynceus in battle; Idas, at his brother’s death, forgot both strife and bride, and started to bury his brother. When he was placing the bones in a funeral monument, Castor intervened, and tired to prevent his raising the monument, because he had won over him as if he were a woman. In anger, Idas pierced the thigh of Castor with the sword he wore. Others say that as he was building the monument he pushed it on Castor and thus killed him. When they reported this to Pollux, he rushed up and overcame Idas in a single fight, recovered the body of his brother, and buried it. Since, however, he himself had received a star from Jove [Zeus], and one was not given to his brother, because Jove said that Castor and Clytemnestra were of the seed of Tyndareus, while he and Helen were children of Jove, Pollux begged that he be allowed to share his honor with his brother. This was granted him. [From this comes the expression “redeemed by alternate death”; and even the Romans preserve the practice. When they send out bareback riders, one man has two horses, and a cap on his head, and leaps from one horse to the other, just as Pollux takes turns with his brother.]

Thus, at least to Augustan era eyes, confusing the iconography of the Dioscuri and Desultores was no surprise.   Back to the mid third century.  I think it unlikely to have a Dioscurus without his brother and without another identifying mark like the star.  The palm branch is agonistic imagery and there is no reason that the coin can’t be an agonistic type.

I find myself surprised that the coins of Latin colonies are not more discussed in standard accounts of early Roman coinage.  In some ways the coins of Suessa, at least in the bronze seem to form a missing link of sorts between Rome and Neapolis, producing significant numbers of Apollo/man-faced bull coins that circulated with Neapolis coins [HN Italy 450] and the overstriking at Neapolis with this type of the new design of Minerva (Roma!?) and cock (symbol of fighting prowess, bravery, like a fighting cock or perhaps of Mercury?) [HN Italy 449].  All this musing is a spin off of my reading: “A hoard of bronze coins of the 3rd century BC found at Pratica di mare (Rome)” by Maria Cristina Molinari  in Proceedings to the XIV International Numismatic Congress, Glasgow 2009 (31 August – 4 September, (ed. N. HOLMES), Glasgow 2011

Update 3/28/18:

Desultores are pretty popular on intaglios too…  Notice the close link to the coin type.

Fürtwangler 1896:


BM specimen

Thorvaldsen specimen