239 out of 410 days: Lessons Learned, Again


This morning I started weeping as I read about the Agonalia.

Simon Price was an amazing scholar, a brilliant teacher and one of most kind and humane men I’ve ever known.  He gave me my first teaching job.  Back summer term of 1997 I had a series of undergraduate tutorials with him on Roman religion.  I’d been to his lectures the previous term and was in awe of all the rich materials, tidbits of evidence from here and there he marshaled together into a captivating narrative, a narrative that showed something of all the questions left to be asked.  He’d stand by the window in his black robe and look out of the room as he talked, making sense of the patchwork quilt of sources he’d assembled on a single handout.

The tutorials were good, but it was summer and Oxford was full of distractions.  I found the way of thinking about the history of religion, very different from reading Polybius.  The Isis essay was fine, a novelty really, but boy did I struggle the week on Ovid’s Fasti.   He wanted me to answer the question what use is this poem to the historian.   I thought I’d never read anything quite so dull.

This morning I started by reading the Fasti.  I love every bit of it.  Like a sibylline book, every time I read it, it seems new  again and perfectly relevant to my project at hand.   I never seem to be able to see or understand or remember a passage of it until the moment I need it.  Simon was right, of course.  He tried to teach me to read it.  At least I got there eventually.

I regret most fervently never writing to him before he passed away about what he meant to me. Or just to say thank you.  If there is someone you should write to, trust me it will be better to do it now, than redraft the letter over and over again in your mind for all the years to come.

A Divine Explanation

I just ordered up via ILL a piece of German scholarship which from the abstract seems to redate some early Roman coins (aes grave with a prow and the quadrigati) and connected them with the events of 241BC. I’ll reserve judgement on that until I see the article. However, it also reminded of this portion of Ovid’s Fasti, calendar of the Roman year in poetic form:

I spoke these words to the god [sc. Janus] who holds the key.

‘Indeed I’ve learned much: but why is there a ship’s figure

On one side of the copper As, a twin shape on the other?’

‘You might have recognised me in the double-image’,

He said, ‘if length of days had not worn the coin away.

The reason for the ship is that the god of the sickle

Wandering the globe, by ship, reached the Tuscan river.

I remember how Saturn was welcomed in this land:

Driven by Jupiter from the celestial regions.

From that day the people kept the title, Saturnian,

And the land was Latium, from the god’s hiding (latente) there.

But a pious posterity stamped a ship on the coin,

To commemorate the new god’s arrival.

I myself inhabited the ground on the left

Passed by sandy Tiber’s gentle waves.

Here, where Rome is now, uncut forest thrived,

And all this was pasture for scattered cattle.

My citadel was the hill the people of this age

Call by my name, dubbing it the Janiculum.

Asses did stay in circulation for a very very long time and were minted very sporadically during the late Republic. Ovid’s Augustan age testimony provides evidence that worn base metal coins had become the norm but that the types were generally known. The prow however did not hold a particular meaning for a contemporary viewer. Ovid has the god explain that the prow commemorates Saturn’s arrival. This would have seemed plausible because Saturn was the god of the treasury, even if it is unlikely to have been the original inspiration. Crawford suggests the visual inspiration comes from this beautiful type of Antigonos Doson, c.227 BC (See RRC p. 42 esp. n. 5):

Reverse Image

Naval imagery first appears on Roman coins, unsurprisingly, when they become more adept as a military power. And it has even been argued that naval imagery on aes signatum commemorated the very battle in which the bronze itself was captured in the form of rams, armor, and other spoils from the Carthaginian enemies. However awareness of symbolism slips away as particular images stop resonating with contemporary audience, hence Ovid’s deduced explanation.