Sambuca, Siege Engine and Musical Instrument


One of my favorite activities when teaching Hellenistic warfare is to have students try to draw the siege engine that Polybius describes for the siege of Syracuse.  The passage is below.  I think its a useful way to build students ability to visual and engage with the text they are reading.  Anyway.  I’ve been wanting a Republican period image of a sambuca for many years to add to the lesson plan.  And Lo! The musical instrument appears as control mark on the Papius series.  I could get really obsessed with the Papius symbols.  Must resist today.

4 1 Meanwhile Marcellus was attacking Achradina from the sea with sixty quinqueremes, each of which was full of men armed with bows, slings, and javelins, meant to repulse those fighting from the battlements. 2 He had also eight quinqueremes from which the oars had been removed, the starboard oars from some and the larboard ones from others. These were lashed together two and two, on their dismantled sides, and pulling with the oars on their outer sides they brought up to the wall the so‑called  “sambucae.” 3 These engines are constructed as follows. 4 A ladder was made four feet broad and of a height equal to that of the wall when planted at the proper distance. Each side was furnished with a breastwork, and it was covered in by a screen at a considerable height. It was then laid flat upon those sides of the ships which were in contact and protruding a considerable distance beyond the prow. 5 At the top of the masts there are pulleys with ropes, and when they are about to use it, they attach the ropes to the top of the ladder, and men standing at the stern pull them by means of the pulleys, while others stand on the prow, and supporting the engine with props, assure its being safely raised. After this the towers on both the outer sides of the ships bring them close to shore, and they now endeavour to set the engine I have described up against the wall. 8 At the summit of the ladder there is a platform protected on three sides by wicker screens, on which four men mount and face the enemy resisting the efforts of those who from the battlements try to prevent the Sambuca from being set up against the wall. 9 As soon as they have set it up and are on a higher level than the wall, these men pull down the wicker screens on each side of the platform and mount the battlements or towers,10 while the rest follow them through theSambuca which is held firm by the ropes attached to both ships. 11 The construction was appropriately called a Sambuca, for when it is raised the shape of the ship and ladder together is just like the musical instrument.

BM 2002,0102.3986, RRC 408/1

Tessera Nummularia and Control Marks



If you’ve read more of this blog than is probably good for your health, you might remember me wondering previously about the possibility that some of our tesserae that are usually attributed to bankers might actually be part of mint operations and the batch control system. I came back to that idea when was reading about this one found in Ostra.  Notice how instead of names or dates as are often found on these it has two symbols.  Reminded me of control marks.  Here’s a translation of the paragraph in the publication of this tessera about the symbols.

The two symbols, the altar burning and lightning, which appear on the card Ostra are not new: they are present, along with other symbols (palm branch, caduceus, dolphin, trident, crown, lightning) on other Tessera Nummularia  (4). The presence of such symbols is found, however, on other classes of objects: first stamps on amphorae from the eastern Mediterranean (5). In this case, the symbols used have been set in relation to the origin of the jars themselves (from Rhodes: caduceus, dolphin, trident, crown, palm branch, from Cnidus: altar, caduceus, trident, from Thasos: caduceus, wreath, from city ​​of Pontus: thunderbolt, caduceus, dolphin, trident, crown, branch). Closer to Tessera Nummularia, and probably not only geographically, is a class of small clay disks found in Taranto among the evidence from the Greek colony (6). Even the symbols on them are similar, a name-probably that of a civil servant rather than that of the manufacturer – an indication of the weight or quantity of the coins she, as well as two holes that are rightly supposed to use these objects similar to that of the Tessera Nummularia . We finally add a significant amount of lead seals from Rome and Lyon (7).”



Here is a link to a pdf of the first item under no. 6, the Les disques de Tarente. I’m not sure they really offers that close of a parallel…

Wiseman, T. P. (1971) New Men in the Roman Senate, 139BC-AD14. Oxford p. 85-6 noticed that the names on the tessera often correspond to moneyers.  He collects a list of known argentarii and faeneratores in his appendix C:



Philip Kay has an up to date summary of the issues:



The chapter length treatment by Andreau, Banking and Business in the Roman World, 1999, chapter 7  is still the most detailed discussion. Here’s a sample:



The first and third arguments are weak, esp. the latter as no evidence is given.  Four in true is by far the strongest.  But #2 is almost strong enough to make the case on its own.  Here’s Lewis and Short sv. specto definition I.B.3:

To examinetrytest: (argentum) dare spectandum, Plaut. Pers. 3, 3, 35: ut fulvum spectatur in ignibus aurum, Tempore sic duro est inspicienda fides, Ov. Tr. 1, 5, 25; cf.: qui pecuniā non movetur … hunc igni spectatum arbitrantur, as having stood the test of fire,Cic. Off. 2, 11, 38; cf. spectatio, I. B., and spectator, I. B.—


Representing the Defeated Enemy, or the Appropriation of Symbols

First a little context:

To my mind one of the most interesting aspects of the secondary marks on the early denarius, victoriatus and related issues is when they begin to experiment with different types of secondary symbols.  Most of the secondary symbols that appear on the coinage of the Hannibal War had already been in use as control marks on the didrachm series with Roma and Victory (RRC 22): cornucopia, crescent, caduceus, anchor, rudder, dolphin, star, pentagram, club, corn-ear, wreath, and so on…. These are relatively common symbols into which its dangerous to read too much particular meaning.   Other issues are signed by the responsible magistrates, most certainly on Sardinia (RRC 63-65) and Sicily (RRC 7475).    I particularly like how we can see the development towards longer abbreviations on Sardinia. The praetor of 211 BC just uses the first letter of his nomen, ‘C’ for L. Cornelius Lentulus (RRC 63).  The praetor of 210 uses two letters, ‘MA’ for P. Manlius Vulso (RRC 64).  And finally in 209, the praetor C. Aurunculeius uses three letters ‘AVR’ (RRC 65).  We don’t know the position or identity of the Sicilian magistrates, C.VAR and C.AL, but c. 209-208 they choose to use their praenomen initial, as well as an abbreviation of their nomen.  This type of signing of issues by junior officials will become standard at Rome in the future.  We can look to the signed Egadi rams for a possible comparable phenomenon.  On other issues the letters seem to be used to designate the place of issue rather than a magistrate, such as at Luceria, Canusium and Corcyra (RRC 97-98A, 100, 101).  The place names and magistrates names may simply be thought of as functional elements for the purposes of identifying the source and/or authority behind the issue.  We need not read them as acts of self-aggrandizement.

Then there are the other abbreviations the resolution of which is more controversial: are they indicating magistrates or places? (e.g. RRC 92-95).   We can easily find places to match the abbreviations, but then fitting those places as possible mints into the historical narrative of the Hannibalic War becomes very problematic.  I’m not proposing to resolve these difficulties here.

It has long been recognized that the wheat-ear functions as symbol of Sicily on certain issues.   More interesting are some of the more ‘creative’ symbols used by the Sicilian mint, one’s we’re not absolutely positive about their identification.  A possible bit-drill (so Hersh for RRC 77) and measuring stick (RRC 78) and the pick-ax that might be a canting pun (RRC 73), but also isn’t that different from the ceremonial hammer found on coins from central Italy (RRC 59).   Then there is also the very odd serrated issue of denarii with a wheel (RRC 79).  Did the Sicilian mint have a fashion for practical tools as symbols?  Why?

On to the meat of the matter:

The Sicilian symbols help us see that there was room for experimentation with the range of symbols.  The introduction of three new symbols onto the coinage stand out in particular: the torque, the falcata, and the carnyx and shield.  None of these elements are typical elements in Hellenistic art, but are instead identifying attributes of Roman enemies, especially elements that the Roman troops actually encountered on the battlefield.  Both the torque and the carnyx appear frequently enought on the republican series and other media to make them familiar symbols to numismatists and art historians alike.  That said, their first appearance on the coinage is noteworthy.  These issues borrow a symbol of the enemy and display it on the coinage like a trophy of war, the appropriation of the symbol representing the defeat of the fearsome aggressor.   The torque victoriatus is very rare (RRC 91/1a; two in the BM and one in trade). Frankly, if we didn’t have a preconceived idea of what a torque looked like it would be a difficult symbol to decode, looking rather like an omega.   The carnyx and Gallic shield is far more common and the iconography beyond dispute (RRC 128; examples in trade, ANS specimens).  The falcata is called a knife by Crawford, but as one independent scholar has recognized, the republican coins are clearly representing the typical Iberian weapon.

File:Falcata íbera (M.A.N. Madrid) 03.jpg
Discovered in 1867 in Almedinilla (Province of Córdoba, Andalusia, Spain). Now in the National Archaeological Museum of Spain.

The falcata is depicted in Iberian funerary art as well (Blázquez 1988: 506; cf. Osuna relief).  It’s two occurrences on Roman coins should be seen as akin to depictions of carnyx, i.e. as appropriated symbols of the defeated enemy.


Reverse of RRC 120/1. 1988.82.15
Reverse of RRC 120/1. ANS 1988.82.15.
Reverse of RRC 109/1. 1991.7.3
Reverse of RRC 109/1. ANS 1991.7.3.

All of this is important because, taken together, these three types represent a critical development in the ‘money as monument’ phenomenon at Rome.  Just as actual torques, carnyces, shields, and falcatae were displayed in Rome as the spoils of war –dedicated in temples and hung on the houses of the generals as lasting testimony to the victories — so too the alien symbols on the coinage testify to the defeat of a specific formidable foe.

This is perhaps a natural evolution from, say, the display of enemy ship rams on war monuments and their appearance on the coins.

The later evolution of this phenomenon is well discussed by Claire Rowan.

On this topic also see this newer post.

218 out of 410 days: Civic Virtues

This little coin, a silver sesterius of 45 BC or there about, has me worried about the chronological limits of my book project.  Yes, stopping in 49BC to leave the discussion of Caesar and the Civil Wars to another book does make good sense.  However, a good number of post-49BC coins are intimately thematically related to earlier coins in the series.  The issue of Palikanus taken as a whole is a good illustration of the “republican” characteristics of some of these later issues.

The above coin was thought to show a money pot or olla and a banker’s tessarae.  This at least was Wiseman’s suggestion, based on the banking interests of the moneyer’s family.

Wiseman, T. P. (1971) New Men in the Roman Senate, 139BC-AD14. Oxford p. 85-6.

His idea is largely endorsed by Crawford and even to an extent by Zehnacker.

Zehnacker, H. (1972) ‘La Numismatique de la République romaine: bilan et perspectives’, ANRW I.I (Berlin), 266-96, at 284: “En tout cas, l’appartenance au monde de la finance expliquerait trés bien le mélange caractéristique chez les monetales de noms illustres—des cadets de famille qui ont préféré l’argentaux honneurs—et de noms quasi inconnus—de parvenus”

Based on the themes of the rest of the series as a whole, I think L. R. Taylor’s original suggestion of voting urn and ballot is far more likely (VDRR p. 226).  The series celebrates:

Libertas and the Tribune’s Bench on the Rostra:

Obverse of RRC 473/1. 1944.100.3528

Reverse of RRC 473/1. 1944.100.3528

Honor and a Curule Chair flanked by Grain:

Obverse of RRC 473/2b. 1944.100.3533

Reverse of RRC 473/2b. 1944.100.3533

Then on the quinarius, Felicitas and Victory:

Given that all the other elements in the series celebrate civic virtues, even popular virtues, interpreting the smallest denomination in the series as a banking advert seems a bit of a stretch. A voting theme would harmonize much better.

All that said, there was a temple of Ops (wealth) in Roman.  If its not voting being represented, I’d go with another divine personification before assuming a reference to a family banking business.

Also the use of the genitive on all these is types is striking.

Perhaps I’ll just need to include a flash forward to work a few of this series in.

Update 24 January 2014:  So I was re-reading Witschonke 2012 on the possible uses of control marks at the Roman mint.  Really the very best thing on the subject.  Speculative in places by necessity, but logical and solid reasoning throughout.  It depends on the important work of Stannard (Metallurgy in numismatics vol. 3 1993: 45-68 pl 1-2) on the evidence for mint practices revealed by gauging, namely that the mint worked in batches.  What if money pot and tessarae (if that’s what they are) aren’t banking icongraphy but in fact minting iconography?   A claim to the rigorous control of the issue.  A celebration of Juno Moneta.  Something like this coin of c. 46BC: