Hercules Revived

Denarius 19/18, Rome. Moneyer M. Durmius. M DVRMIVS – III VIR Bust of young Hercules to r., wearing diadem and carrying club on r. shoulder. Rev. CAESAR AVGVSTVS SIGN RECE Kneeling, bare headed Parthian to r. holding signum to which is attached a vexillum marked X. 3,82 g. RIC 314. BMC 59. C. 433b. Ex L. A. Lawrence Coll., Auction Glendining, London, 7 December 1950, lot 359. UBS auction 78, lot 1299.

My favorite thing about numismatic databases are the things that pop up that I wasn’t looking for.  This is a great example.  There aren’t many known specimens, but there are two in the British Museum (example 1, example 2). Its obverse clearly echoes a much earlier republican didrachm (RRC 20/1).

Anonymous moneyer. AR Didrachm (6.85g) minted at Rome, 270-265 BC. Diademed head right of young Hercules, with long sideburn; club and lion’s skin over right shoulder. Reverse : ROMANO. She-wolf standing right, head reverted, suckling the twins Romulus and Remus. Sear 24; RSC 8; Craw 20/1; Syd 6. Provenance: The Hunter Collection; Ex Superior Stamp & Coin, NYINC Auction, December 8-9, 1995, lot 847. Ira and Larry Goldberg auction 72, lot 4115.

It’s always interesting to see an awareness of earlier types surfacing after such an extended period–over two centuries regardless of how one wishes to date RRC 20/1.  That said, it also raises questions about why this earlier type might have been attractive in this moment under Augustus.  Hercules is usually associated with his rival Antony.  As is Hellenistic Kingship. The connotations of the obverse type seem at odds with the Augustan program.  Perhaps this explains its rarity? Perhaps the moneyer thought better of the design choice?  A choice which at first which might have been attractive simply because of its antiquity and Augustus’ own rhetoric of conservative restoration?

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.

311 out of 410 days: Greek Coins in the West


So I was reading Pere Pau Ripollès’ fascinating ‘The X4 Hoard (Spain): Unveiling the Presence of Greek Coinages during the Second Punic War’ (2008) this morning. I fervently wish I’d read it before now.  The problem with real publication, rather than this blogging non-sense, is its not easy after the fact to rethink and amend and correct your former ideas.  Also real publication takes a very long time, so by the time it is out there for the world one’s intellectual engagement with the content has already moved on to something else or ‘evolved’ as Mr. Obama’s position has done on some issues.  I’m thinking about my piece in this book.  I’ll put a clean copy up on academia.edu one of these days.

Anyway.  Pere Pau Ripollès goes along way towards illuminating circulation of Greek coinage in the Western Mediterranean.  He tentatively still supports Crawford’s 1985 thesis that any Greek coins arrived with the Romans, although saying ‘this may be too categorical’.  I’m inclined to see the evidence he collects as requiring this hypothesis to be seriously re evaluated.  As he himself says in his conclusion the Greek coinage found in the hoards of Sicily are more similar to those in Spain than either is to Italy where there is a greater dearth of such Eastern coinages in the hoards.

One of the coins in Hoard X4 that he publishes is of the same type as that illustrated above.


This coin type, Crawford suggests, is the inspiration for the prows on Roman bronze series (See RRC p. 42 esp. n. 5; earlier post).  It’s nice then to see that some specimens did in fact reach the Western Mediterranean relatively swiftly after its production.

I also note the rendering of the ram on this type (red circle above) is not unlike that found on the Athlit Ram.

And, while were talking about things I said in print I no longer believe, I can’t stand by a 260s date for the Heracles and Wolf and Twins didrachm after all the reading I’ve done for this new book.  It fits better at the end of the First Punic War.  I’m not sure how much that messes with my use of it as comparative evidence in the chapter linked above, but it does have some impact…

294 out 410 days: Obverse Legend Variants on Mercury Type at Suessa

Historia Numorum Italy no. 448 is listed with just one legend PROBOM. (P is actually closer to a Π with a short right leg. Note open form of R. These features consistent throughout).  A specimen with clearly this legend is illustrated in the plates. Most of the specimens in trade are from different dies with variant readings:







The meaning of the legend is unclear.  HN Italy suggests it comes from probus, meaning valid.  Although the basic meaning ‘honest, good’ seems fine to me too.

It is connected to a similar legend at Beneventum on a type, the imagery of which is a mirror image of RRC 15/1 (HN Italy 440):

SAMNIUM, Beneventum . 265-240 BC. Æ 20mm (7.03 gm). BENVEN-TOD, laureate head of Apollo left / PR-O-P-OM, horse prancing right; pentagram above. SNG ANS -; BMC Italy pg. 68, 1; Sambon 193; SNG Morcom -; Laffaille -. Image from CNG.

The correct resolution of the legend may be aided by consideration of the variant spellings observed.

Beneventum became a Latin colony in 268 and Suessa in 313.  These coins are associated with the First Punic War.  Hercules wrestling the Nemean Lion is a common enough artistic theme, known especially at the mint of Heraclea Lucaniae and occasionally at Tarentum.

Addendum.  I wasn’t really happy with the probum meaning ‘approved’ as it seemed a strange thing to me to write on a coin.  Out of keeping with typical legends (ethnics, magistrates, mint marks, the very occasional labeling of the image).  I even tried to convince myself Probus could be an epithet or title for Mercury or something.  I didn’t manage.  Just a red herring.  But … then I remembered the inscriptions on the Egadi rams of a roughly contemporary date.

Egadi 1: C(aios) Sestio(s) P(ublii) f(ilios) / Q(uintos) Salonio(s) Q(uinti) [f(ilios)] / SEX VIROEN[-?–] / probave[re].


Egadi 4& 6 have identical texts: M(arcos) Populicio(s) L(ucii) f(ilios) / C(aios) Paperio(s) Ti(berii) f(ilios) / Q(uaestores) p(robavere)

We’ll known more once the inscriptions are published on there own, but for now the use of the probo, probare, probavi on the rams is enough to let me think probum on the coin is more plausible than I first thought.

Want to know more?! Read Prag.

[Disturbingly, if you google image search, ‘Beneventum Apollo Coin’, the first image that returns of the coin is hosted on some satanic-esque website obsessed with pentagrams.  Reminded me of a time a student of mine unwittingly submitted a project full of images from some awful white power website. Appropriation of the past to support modern ideologies is a dangerous thing, especially on the intertubes.]

287 out of 410 days: Tripods, Libertas, Victory

RRC 498/1. C. Cassius with M. Aquinus. Aureus, mint moving with Cassius 43-42, AV 8.41 g. M·AQVINVS·LEG· – LIBER – TAS Diademed head of Libertas r. Rev. C·CASSI – PR·COS Tripod with cauldron, decorated with two laurel branches. B. Cassia 12. C 2. Bahrfeldt 56. Sydenham 1302. Sear Imperators 217. Calicó 63.

I was thinking about tripods in a totally different framework when I came across the very smart work of Carsten Hjort Lange (again!).  In his 2009 book, Res Publica Constituta, he gives a new reading of the famous plaque from the Palatine in light of the use of tripods on the coinage of 42 BC (p. 172ff).  A great read, but too long to extract here just follow the link!

Greek influences

I also came across a reading of the Tripods on the Coins of Herod (same time frame) that I thought delightfully sensible:

Obverse of Bronze Coin, Jerusalem, 40 BC – 4 BC. ANS 1944.100.62799
From p. 110 of The Coins of Herod: A Modern Analysis and Die Classification edited by Donald Tzvi Ariel, Jean-Philippe Fontanille (Brill 2011). Image links to google books.

Further non-numismatic support for the idea that the tripod could be a general symbol of victory can be found here.

146 out of 410 days: M. Volteius M.f



M. Volteius produced a series of five denarii on the theme of the Roman Ludi in 78BC (so Crawford and Hollstein, but contra Hersh and Walker who date the series to 75BC).  Ludi is usually translated as “games”, but are better thought of as religious festivals.  We’ve already talked about one of these coins regarding architectural issues. The series still remains problematic:

T. P. Wiseman (“The games of Hercules”) offers a new interpretation of a series of denarii issued by the moneyer M. Volteius in 78 BCE. The coins were recognized by Mommsen as representing a series of games, and later scholars have followed this line of thinking, though there is disagreement about which games are depicted. Particularly problematic is the appearance of Hercules on one of the issues. Literary sources do not record Herculean games on par with those of Ceres, Apollo and the Magna Mater, who also appear on the coins, although there is epigraphic evidence of smaller scale, local games in honor of Hercules (CIL 12.984 and 985) in the late republic. Wiseman’s solution is that, at the time of the issue, there were games in honor of Hercules celebrated under the direction of the aediles, probably at the instigation of Sulla. Wiseman proposes, furthermore, that the games were demoted to the local level as part of the Sullan backlash of the early 60s, hence their absence from the literary sources.

Also noted by Crawford is the lack of clarity of which divinity is intended by the helmeted and wreathed head on the obverse of the Cybele coin; he lists Attis, Corybas and Bellona as early suggestions.  Wisemen in his 2000 chapter seems to endorse an idea originating with Alföldi and tentatively exploited and contextualized by Fishwick 1967, namely that the goddess is the Cappadocian Goddess Ma usually associated with Bellona or in Plutarch with ‘Selene, Athena, or Enyo’.  Fishwick’s piece shows the imperial epigraphic references to Bellona elided with Virtus and the close association of that cult with the Magna Mater.  Crawford himself on p. 307 of RRC vol 1 seems to suggest that Bellona is intended on Volteius’ coinage.  The divinity on the obverse should within the logic of the series be one honored alongside Cybele.  Three gods only have attributes on the reverse: Jupiter is paired with his temple, Hercules with the boar, Apollo and the tripod, but Ceres in her chariot is represented with the Father Liber who shares her festival.  So Cybele in her chariot ought to have a similar companion on her obverse?

A standard reading would suggest that Volteius is promising personal largesse at such Ludi if selected as an aedile.  This becomes a little bit more problematic when we consider that the Ludi he honors are put on by both curule and plebian aediles.  It is hard to think he is actively “campaigning” for both. The selection is also not complete: the Floralia and the Plebian Ludi are both missing.  More over the types honor the divinities but do not in anyway recall the spectacles or other public benefits of the ludi as some other ‘promotional’ coin types do.

Also confusing is the inscription of the Apollo coin:

S C D T is resolved by Crawford as stips collata dei thesauro or something similar recalling the original funding by individual contributions of this festival.   It is hard not to see the SC as more readily read as Senatus Consulto as appears on so many other coins.  This would leave the question of the DT.  Dumtaxat is the most common resolution of this abbreviation in Latin inscriptions, usually preceding a number or measurement being translated ‘precisely’.   There are far fewer of the Apollo coins surviving that any of the others in the series.

145 out of 410 days: Argos Panoptes?

Obverse of RRC 348/6. 2012.34.10

This as of L. Rubrius Dossenus (c. 87 BC) has, instead of the standard Janus, a janiform head combining Hercules and Mercury.  Alföldi connects this image, not to the palestra hermerakles imagery representing sound mind and sound body, but instead to a rather unusual vase image.  (See yesterday’s post for bibliographical citation).

Update 7/1/2020: Crawford judged Alföldi’s interpretation implausible in his 1984 Edinburgh catalogue. See McCabe for summary.



The thing to notice is that the body of the figure is covered in eyes.  This is the standard means of depicting Argos Panoptes, the giant covered in uncountable eyes set to guard Io and killed by Hermes.  He is the mythological representation of the ever vigilant watcher.

A more recent monograph on the Polygnotos painter questions whether the standard identification of the figures (i.e. Hermes slaying Argos to free Io) on this most unusual vase are correct given how much it diverges from the standard representation:


Maybe this is not Hermes or Io, I grant their iconography isn’t typical, but Panoptes is surely intended on the vase given how his body is covered with eyes.  Perhaps we’re not seeing the right Argos Panoptes narrative here; the scholia on Euripides knew of other adventures in which he was a more positive protector, even if the vast majority of literary accounts are on Io.  There is even an early suggestion that Argos only had 4 eyes like a Janiform god:

Hesiod or Cercops of Miletus, Aegimius Frag 5 :
“And [Hera] set a watcher upon her [Io], great and strong Argos, who with four eyes looks every way. And the goddess stirred in him unwearying strength: sleep never fell upon his eyes; but he kept sure watch always.”

Is Alföldi’s suggestion plausible?  Maybe.  The vase certainly isn’t the standard representation but it is of Italic origin and we may be missing other key evidence.  That said, the vast majority of viewer would have been more familiar with the palestra imagery. Cf.  Cicero’s reference to wanting such a statue (ad Att. 1.10.3):


We imagine this would be something like this:

Double-Headed herm Bust

Or like this one in the Boston MFA Collection:

That it is the two individual deities combined in one image which is intended on the coin seems to me to be more likely, given that the inclusion of the attributes of both in the design.  This is not that visible on the specimen, but is noted by Crawford and can be seen on this coin of Andrew McCabe:


See how a club and caduceus jut out on either side below the chin and above the shoulder.

Why did Alföldi find the Argus explanation so attractive?  It allowed him to connect the coin to contemporary politics especially the vigilance of the Marians in anticipation of Sulla’s return.  (He dates the series to 86 BC.)

All that said it is also possible the Cicero/Palestra theory is a red herring.  Cicero might not have meant double herms but instead statues like this:

A little later aside (11/11/13): In that way that so often happens, I came across an odd coin with slightly similar imagery today.  Perhaps, I noticed it because I’d been looking at these janiform/bifrons heads yesterday.  I’m putting it up just so I have a note of it, should it ever prove relevant:

Another potential piece of comparative evidence (found 23/12/13):

Listed on Flickr as:

Janus-herm with addorsed head of Pan [or Zeus Ammon?] and Hercules, Marble, Roman, 1st c. CE; George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, 51.2002.10; Springfield, Massachusetts,  Gift from the Estate of Dr. Melvin N. Blake and Dr. Frank Purnell

Update 30/1/2014: Discussing Janiform head could also lead to an investigation of this sort of object:

Terracotta aryballos (oil-bottle) in the form of two heads, one male, one female. An imitation of an East Greek type.

3/22/14 update: Compare the coinage of Volaterrae with the image of Argos on the vase painting above. Note in particular the hat and the club:

Etruria, Volaterrae, Dupondius circa 225-215, æ 259.55 g. Janiform head, wearing pointed cap. Rev. FELAQRI Club; on either side, mark of value II. H. pl. 83, 1. Syd. 305. TV 85. Ex CNG 29, The Thurlow collection, 1992, 69 and NAC 10, 1997, 287 sales.

Also of interest is the iconography of the Etruscan god, ‘Culsans’:



Note that the official museum catalogue website describes the headdress on this statue as a wild animal skin.

53 out of 410 Days: One of a Kind

There is only one of these coins known.  It’s in Berlin, although a modern photo is not available on their website.  One coin and thus just one set of dies isn’t much evidence to go on.  It’s dated purely on stylistic and prosopographical grounds to c. 83 BC.   The RRC entry says it represents a triumphator.  The figure in the quadriga holds a trophy and palm branch(?) and seems to have some sort of spiky substantial head piece on.  Holding a trophy is not typical triumphal iconography.  In fact the only references to a triumphator holding a trophy in his triumphal chariot in the republican period which I know of is Plutarch’s Marcellus, and that is in connection with his dedication of the spolia opima.  Flower has argued that his is the only historically likely case of this type of dedication, a view nuanced by Beard 2007: 292-295.  I’m not ready to say that the figure in the chariot is Marcellus, esp. not without some connection between the moneyer and Marcellus or some other identifying characteristic.   Marcellus and his spolia opima do appear latter on coins (RRC 439/1; 50 BC).

The motif of chariot and trophy is not alien to the republican series:

90 BC, RRC 342/4-6 Minerva in a ‘fast’ quadriga holding trophy

Reverse Image

130 BC, RRC 255/1 Hercules in a ‘slow’ quadriga hold trophy

Reverse Image

131BC, RRC 252/1 Mars in ‘fast’ quadriga holding trophy

Reverse Image

134 BC, RRC 244/1 Mars in ‘fast’ quadriga holding trophy

Reverse Image

(Cf. also RRC 306/1 Mars naked trophy over shoulder and RRC 353/3 Naked warrior standing on cuirass next to trophy)

Both the laurel wreath and the bead and reel borders have plenty of precedents on the series, neither in any helpful pattern I can see (notes below).

The three-quarters profile chariot is unusual as is the lack of indication of motion in the horses, neither slow, nor fast, just still.  The stillness and the palm branch and the laurel wreath are the best arguments for seeing this as triumphal.

The head on the obverse is usually identified as Jupiter but it isn’t a typical representation of him.  My first reaction when looking at the head type is to see it as Hercules, but this may be overly influenced by his later iconography during the high empire.  This sort of image:

All in all my thoughts tend in a conservative and reductive direction.  I’m not sure we can be certain of the identity of the figures depicted on either the obverse and reverse type.  The unexplained elements I’d want answered are regarding the headgear and also the long flowing drapery off the figure and out the back of the chariot.  Isn’t the latter usually associated with a female deity?  I’d also want an explanation for why this palm branch is more “S” shaped instead of a single fluid arch such as Victory normally holds.  Perhaps its the 3/4 perspective or perhaps its some other attribute:


Given its low production its hard to see it as a large, or significant, or influential issue.  A curiosity, but perhaps not historically meaningful?

Similar border types (post 49BC types excluded)

Laurel Wreath Borders: RRC 232/1 – 138BC (chunkier, fixed bottom tie); 290/6 – 114/113BC (Unica – non vide); 324/1 – 101BC (distinct central stem); 329/1 – 100BC (loose thin, but same V execution); 336/1 -92BC (loose thin, but same V execution, not all v’s close: some become more parallel); 342/3a – 90 BC (non vide); 402/1- 71 BC (Pompey Aureus – perhaps most stylistically similar but lacks definitive dot at top join of Vs); 411/1a -64 BC (more leaf like, space at bottom); 418/1-2 – 61BC (more leaf like with berries and tie at bottom).

Bead and Reel:  RRC 97/1a&b Luceria, 211-208BC; 103/1a Apulia 211-210BC; 236/1 (occasionally?!) 137BC; 366/2 82-81 N. Italy and Spain; 384/1 79BC; 392/1 75 BC; 409/1&2 67 BC

Update 30 November 2013: Compare the radiate crown on this representation of Jupiter below.  The triumphator is said to have dressed like the statue of Jupiter on the Capitoline who is dressed in regal costume.   Can’t be bothered to look up the reference but surely in Beard or Versnel.