292 out of 410 days: Signia

Kombination af to masker og et vildsvinehoved. Romersk ringsten
Combination of two masks and a wild boar’s head. Roman ringstone, 100-300 Cornelian. 1,1 x 1,6 cm. Inventory number: I1538. Thorvaldsens Museum.

Sometimes I tell myself I’m too obsessed with the connection between gems and coins.  And then one of my hunches pays off and the obsession comes back full swing.  In case the above image doesn’t set off exciting alarm bells in your head, allow me to remind you what the coins of Signia, a Latin Colony, during the Pyrrhic War looked like:


Latium, Signia. Obol circa 280-275, AR 0.64 g. Head of Mercury r., wearing petasus; below neck, dolphin r. Rev. Mask composed of Silenus head l., and boar’s head r.; below, SEIC. Campana CNAI 1b (this reverse die). BMC 3 (this reverse die). Historia Numorum Italy 343 var.

[I link to this particular specimen just so I can point out that it reappeared back on the market with a brand new patina, all nice and shiny and toned just one year later, and fetched a much higher price.  I think it looked just lovely before some one decided to ‘fix’ it.]

Let me assure you that the gem above is by no means a one off.

Beazley Archive Reference Number: 716; Description: Heads of a BOAR and a man conjoined. Inscribed in Greek THIE. Current Collection: Walters Art Museum, Baltimore: 42.1070; Previous Collections: Story-Maskelyne, M.H.: The Marlborough Gems (1870): no. 716. Material: Jasper

And based on descriptions without images the Thorvaldsens Museum has a number more similar gems, Inventory numbers: I1537,  I1539,  I1722, I1536.   The last two are of particular interest as they are glass pastes which suggests the image had resonance with members of a variety of different social classes.

This particular type even made the BBC!

Roman intaglio
From a 30 March 2010 article ‘Guernsey, the Roman Empire’s trading post’. Image links to article.

What the heck does it mean?  Was it the badge of some particular noble?  Or like grylloi is it a humorous, apotropaic emblem? Or a philosophic meditation on the theme of man and beast?  Or all these things?  or something else entirely?

OR! the penny drops!  Is it a visual pun?!  Signia in Latin is also the plural form of the neuter noun meaning: standard, seal, sign, signal, proof, indication from the verb signo to mark, stamp, designate, sign, seal.  The type chosen is a very very common seal type.  [This is why I blog by the way. It took writing the whole damn post for that penny to drop and me to make the obvious connection.]  This is a really exciting idea to me.  Name puns are all over Roman Republican coinage to show its early early adoption is Latium is especially good. I think it provides a missing link of sorts between the ideas I explored in this earlier post discussing Republican habits, the Abdera series, and Timeaus.  [I’ve talked about puns a lot on this blog, but that post is the best of the lot I think.]

For follow-up later: Henig has some clever things to say about gems usually.  There are two possibly related gems (CG72 and CG 354)  in the Fitzwilliam that he’s written up in his 1994 catalogue.  Must get those pages from ILL…  Strangely none returned in BM, Met, or Boston MFA searches all of which have robust gem collections.

As an aside, I find it funny that Mercury on the obverse is wearing a necklace or similar band.  At first I thought at first it might be an unfortunate die break, but it shows up on a different die as well, but not all of the dies.  Also what the heck does Mercury have to do with dolphins?  Could it have anything to do with bizarre composite deity on the coins of Bursio who has wings and a trident (RRC 352/1)?  I doubt it.  But finding any representation Hermes or Mercury with any nautical attributes is tricky.

Update 4/11/2014:  If more canting types from Italy are sought, consider Rutter’s note at HN Italy 446, an obol of  the Saunitai with a javelin head on the reverse, σαύνιον = javelin.  He gives a date of c. 325.

Update 7/12/2017:

Another example of this gem type from Gori:


cf. also this other Gori plate.


286 out of 410 days: Cocks, Victory and Virility

Gem of glass paste imitating sard, engraved with a terminal figure of Hermes, before which stands a youth holding a wreath and palm-branch in his left hand, and a cock on his right.
Gem of glass paste imitating sard, engraved with a terminal figure of Hermes, before which stands a youth holding a wreath and palm-branch in his left hand, and a cock on his right. BM 1923,0401.420; Gem no. 2794

I was writing up my thoughts for the book on the symbolism of the cock on coinage during the First Punic War this morning.  [An issue touched upon in an earlier post, here.]  The idea that in the Greek world the cock need not be directly linked to Hermes, but more generally be a symbol of bellicosity and manliness, is well summarized by this book.




This might help explain the pairing of cock and Minerva (Athena) on coins of Suessa, Teanum, et al (for images see earlier post).  But I was still playing around with the Mercury association in my mind, when I came across the glass paste above.

Here we see the epitome of manhood, the victorious young athlete standing before a terminal Herm.  He has his prize crown and palm-frond and in thanksgiving for his victory he offers the god a cock. [Just like the victor in the Callimachus epigram quoted in the previous post!] The cock symbolizes at once his victory and his virility.  A Herm’s most notable feature was its phallus.  Although we are often think of Mercury (Hermes) as first the god of commerce, we must remember he ended up as such by his status as the fecund god, the wealth-bringer.   Just as cock is slang for male genitalia today, so in the ancient world the cock encapsulated a similar semantic range of meaning as the phallus: power, especially masculine power, the (pro)creative power that leads to wealth and to overcoming one’s adversaries.

Anyway, the glass paste is a ‘gem’ of a summation of the symbolism of the cock, so I thought I’d share. Okay, back to my other writing.

Post Script. 

When two cocks appears facing each other on gems it is most often a representation of a cock fight, thus a type of agonistic scene, often with victory imagery incorporated into the design:

Gem with two cocks and a palm branch. [Arachne image database]

Gem with two cocks one being crowned by victory.  [Arachne image database]

Gem with one cock on a rudder with a palm branch. [Arachne image database]

But also relevant are images where the are associated with martial symbolism:

Gem with military standards, cocks, and stars, flanking scorpion grasping a cresent.  [Arachne image database]

This is a good image showing the early association of the cock and Athena:

Vase in the Beazley Archive.

Other relevant bibliography:  Hoffmann 1974.