Literary Topoi and Historical Facts

From: Miles, R. (2011). Hannibal and Propaganda. In Dexter Hoyos (Eds.), A Companion to the Punic Wars, (pp. 260-279). Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

This passage above suggests that it is a ‘fact’ that one of Pyrrhus’ advisors made such a comparison. The story is known from Cassius Dio (9.40.27):

The same man, when, upon his retreat, he beheld the army of Laevinus much larger than it had been before, declared that the Roman legions when cut to pieces grew whole again, hydra-fashion. This did not, however, cause him to lose courage, but he in turn arrayed his forces, though he did not join battle.


and Plutarch:

It is said, too, that Cineas, while he was on this mission, made it his earnest business at the same time to observe the life and manners of the Romans, and to understand the excellences of their form of government; he also conversed with their best men, and had many things to tell Pyrrhus, among which was the declaration that the senate impressed him as a council of many kings, and that, as for the people, he was afraid it might prove to be a Lernaean hydra for them to fight against, since the consul already had twice as many soldiers collected as those who faced their enemies before, and there were many times as many Romans still who were capable of bearing arms.

Appian pulls these two traditions together:

The Senate made answer to Cineas as Appius advised. They decreed the levying of two new legions for Laevinus, and made proclamation that whoever would volunteer in place of those who had been lost should put their names on the army roll. Cineas, who was still present and saw the multitude hastening to be enrolled, is reported to have said to Pyrrhus on his return: “We are waging war against a hydra.” Others say that not Cineas, but even Pyrrhus himself said this when he saw the new Roman army larger than the former one; for the other consul, Coruncanius, came from Etruria and joined his forces with those of Laevinus.

Appian makes clear that bon mot was not a fixed point in the received tradition.  He knew it from at least two different sources with different variations.  We can’t be sure if Appian’s sources were riffing on Silenus’ motif or faithfully recording an actual piece of rhetoric from the time or if the metaphor is just so pervasive that it provides a nice plausible exclamation in any history.

Heck.  There are dozens upon dozens of popular histories to day that still use the metaphor.  The loose use of the metaphor is found in many earlier Greek works including Plato’s Republic, p426E.

All that said, this Florus passage (going back to a lost bit of Livy?) might be the best evidence that some lost historian made something of the Pyrrhus = Hercules, Rome = Hydra symbolism on a more meaningful level that a simple metaphor.

For Pyrrhus said, “I plainly see that I am sprung of the seed of Hercules, when I see all these heads of foes cut off springing up again from their blood as they sprang from the Lernaean hydra.”

Perhaps tellingly for the attribution to Pyrrhus, Plutarch uses it when discussing the actions of Alexander.

The use of metaphor in relationship to Pyrrhus is not irrelevant to a discussion of Silenus, but I’d hesitate to move it from a conversation about the historiographical tradition and into one about propaganda.

Note also how the hydra in Pyrrhus tradition is not a negative characterization of Rome, not emphasizing her monstrosity or destructive capacity, but instead resilience and depth of martial resources, especially her manpower base.  It’s a complement.

164 out of 410 days: a Dolabella in Sicily during the 2nd Punic War?


For the type illustrated (RRC 73/1) above Crawford does not speculate in RRC as to the moneyer indicated by the pick-axe = dolabra = dolabella.  The use of this symbol as a plausible indication of the moneyer’s cognomen is demonstrated by these coins of Cn. Cornelius Dolabella (RRC 81, redated and relocated by Russo to 130-128 BC in Spain):


The likely moneyer of the earlier coin seems to me to be lurking in plain sight in Zonaras’ epitome of Cassius Dio:

After Marcellus had left Sicily, Hannibal sent a force of cavalry there, and the Carthaginians despatched another. They won several battles and acquired some cities; and if the praetor Cornelius Dolabella had not come against them, they would have subjugated all Sicily. 

This connection or lack of connection may go back to Münzer in RE.  Here is Broughton on the subject:



Here is the Livy in question:

M. Cornelius was commissioned to select the city and territory for them, where he thought best, and 400 jugera in the same district were also decreed as a gift to Belligenes through whose instrumentality Moericus had been induced to change sides. After Marcellus’ departure from Sicily a Carthaginian fleet landed a force of 8000 infantry and 3000 Numidian horse. The cities of Murgentia and Ergetium revolted to them, and their example was followed by Hybla and Macella and some other less important places. Muttines and his Numidians were also roaming all through the island and laying waste the fields of Rome’s allies with fire. To add to these troubles the Roman army bitterly resented not being withdrawn from the province with their commander and also not being allowed to winter in the towns. Consequently they were very remiss in their military duties; in fact it was only the absence of a leader that prevented them from breaking out into open mutiny. In spite of these difficulties the praetor M. Cornelius succeeded by remonstrances and reassurances in calming the temper of his men, and then reduced all the revolted cities to submission. In pursuance of the senate’s orders he selected Murgentia, one of those cities, for the settlement of Moericus and his Spaniards.

Of course, that then would open the sticky issue of how long this Cornelius (Dolabella?) was in Sicily and the chronology of the early denarii.  This passage about the settlement of the Spaniards in Morgantina is critical because we date the start of the denarius to 211 based on deposits found in the excavation of that site below the destruction level.  Dating the issue is problematic.  It appears in four hoards but all closing in the 70s or later.  Crawford justifies his dating thus:

The Sicilian origin of the four issues is adequately attested by their close stylistic link with the issue with corn-ear, their early date both by this link and by their heavy weight-standard [i.e. 4.5 g.]  (RRC vol 1. p. 17)

Badian did not include Zonaras’  Dolabella in his study of the Dolabellae of the Republic. He mentions in passing the consul of 283, but begins properly with the consul of 159, briefly speculating that his father would be the Cn. Cornelius Dolabella who was made Rex Sacrorum in 208 and died in 180 (Livy 27.36.5).  The rex sacrorum could be the same as Zonaras’  Dolabella.  If he were in his early 40s in 211BC in Sicily, he would have then died in his early 70s.

One strike against Livy’s Cornelius being a Dollabella is the praenomen Marcus which is otherwise unattested in this branch of the family.  So if Zonaras or Livy is likely to be wrong it is easy to see why Zonaras has previously been dismissed, being so late and so abbreviated. That said, Dio has access to sources other than Livy. An abbreviated praenomen can be miss-transcribed.  And with the coin as extra weight, I’m tempted to lean away from Livy towards Zonaras on this point.

We, of course, are then right to ask what happened to the M. Cornelius Cethegus credited with suppressing the Sicilian revolts after Marcellus’ departure?  We’d have to leave him in the province that was assigned to him that year in the first place, Apulia (Livy 25.41).

As an aside, I am interested to note that one Wikipedia entry on the gens Cornelii lists this Dolabella with no citation, whereas another excludes him.