Measuring Sticks, Decempeda, Pertica etc…

Denarius, Sicily circa 209-208, AR 4.48 g. Helmeted head of Roma r.; behind, X. Rev. The Dioscuri galloping r.; below, staff and ROMA in tablet. Sydenham 208. Crawford 78/1. NAC 33 (2006), lot 204.

A while back when I first looked at this type I asked a colleague who works on science and technology in the ancient world and their representations in literature what he thought about Crawford’s suggestion that this “staff” is actually a measuring tool, specifically the decempeda.   He wrote back that he thought it a plausible identification and added:

“It doesn’t have ten divisions, but I don’t think that matters; it’s clearly some kind of ruler. Also called ‘pertica’: see Propertius 4.1.127-130 for association with land confiscation. And ps.-Vergil Dirae (‘Curses’) line 45.”   The key line reads:

nam tua cum multi uersarent rura iuuenci,
    abstulit excultas pertica tristis opes.

Even though many bullocks ploughed your fields, the merciless measuring-rod stole your wealth of land.

What the literary tradition suggests is a generally negative connotation of symbol.  An emphasis on the confiscation aspects of its application.  Could this really be a numismatic symbol?  Is it just a staff?  I’ve been a bit ambivalent, until today.

I was skimming for a good Caesar coin or two in the ANS database for my next class and came across this beauty.  Outside the time frame of my book project, but still very interesting indeed.

Reverse of RRC 525/4c. 1941.131.338
Reverse of RRC 525/4c. ANS 1941.131.338

Here we have a young Ti. Sempronius Gracchus (quaestor designate!) trading on the reputation of his famous name by aligning himself with contemporary land distributions, particularly to Caesar’s veterans.  Notice the Legionary standards set right next to a plow and our measuring stick.

The flip side of confiscations is always distributions.  The power of the measuring stick as political symbol is its appeal to those to benefit from the rearrangement of property holdings.  Its power as a literary device is just the opposite.

What resonance would the symbol have in Sicily c. 209-208BC?  The Romans certainly engaged in some territorial redistributions on the island as rewards to their allies.  I do not want to say RRC 78 refers to any one such confiscation and allocation, but as an illustrative example, I provide a passage from Livy (26.21) that will be quite familiar to numismatists already:

Not the least conspicuous feature of the spectacle was the sight of Sosis the Syracusan and Moericus the Spaniard who marched in front wearing golden crowns. The former had guided the nocturnal entry into Syracuse, the latter had been the agent in the surrender of Nasos and its garrison. Each of these men received the full Roman citizenship and 500 jugera of land. Sosis was to take his allotment in that part of the Syracusan territory which had belonged to the king or to those who had taken up arms against Rome, and he was allowed to choose any house in Syracuse which had been the property of those who had been put to death under the laws of war. A further order was made that Moericus and the Spaniards should have assigned to them a city and lands in Sicily out of the possessions of those who had revolted from Rome. 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 [i.e. Morgantina], one of those cities, for the settlement of Moericus and his Spaniards.

277 out of 410 days: agri quaestorii and Rome’s first issue of cast bronze coins?

RRC 14/1. 358.81g. ANS 1969.83.385. Gift of E.R. Miles.

In CMRR, Crawford first uses the evidence of the Nemi finds to place the RRC 14 finds ‘no earlier than about 280’.  He then goes on: “One may speculate that the need to administer the agri quaestorii acquired in 290 (Lib. Col. 253, 17L; 349, 17 L) played a part in the decision to produce the first issue of cast bronze coinage.” (p.40-41).

To wrap my head around the plausibility of this I turned to Roselaar’s Public Land in the Roman Republic (2010).  She gives a good definition and survey of ager quaestorius (p. 121-127).  On 290 BC she says:


Even if we go ahead and concede the land around Cures was sold shortly after 290, I have a hard time following the logic of how the sale of land is made easier by the creation of coinage.

The other issue muddying the waters regards agrarian issues in this period is the parallel and in precise testimony that M’. Curius Dentatus distributed land. Viris Illustribus has a good mash-up of various accounts.  First after conquering the Samnites he says in a contio  ” I took so much land that it would have become a desert, if I had not taken so many men. I took so many men that they would have starved, if I had not taken so much land.” (33.2)  Then, he gives 14 iugera of land the people (which we do not learn) and only takes so much for himself saying, “there was no one for whom this amount was not sufficient”. (33.5-6)  The latter echoes a pithy saying of his found in Plutarch, but where we are offered no context for it. Valerius Maximus says only seven iugera were given out, but also makes a moral out of the general taking no more than the rest.  Pliny has the very same nugget:

The words, too, that were uttered by Manius Curius after his triumphs and the addition of an immense extent of territory to the Roman sway, are well known: “The man must be looked upon,” said he, “as a dangerous citizen, for whom seven jugera of land are not enough;” such being the amount of land that had been allotted to the people after the expulsion of the kings.

Then at the end of the mini bio in Viris Illustribus (link above) we’re told he’s given 500 iugera by the public for his services (33.10).

And, just to add to the mix we should remember that his campaigns in the Po is said to have led to the founding of the colony of Sena which would have also included land distributions (Polybius 2.19).  The Periochae of Livy don’t have a land distribution, but do have the colonial foundation.

Cato the Elder, and Cicero after him, loved Dentatus as the epitome of the rustic Roman, military man and farmer, happy to conquer everyone in sight and still eat a simple stew from a wooden bowl. [Cincinnatus, anyone!?] The literary sources care FAR more about the bon mot than the distribution.  I don’t think we can nail down a context for it.

Thus, I think this is just a fun rabbit hole with very little promise for finding a context for the aes grave.

That’s not to say Dentatus is completely useless to us when we’re thinking about early contexts for making coins:

6. in the four hundred and eighty-first year from the founding of the City, Manius Curius Dentatus, who held the censorship with Lucius Papirius Cursor, contracted to have the waters of what is now called Old Anio brought into the City, with the proceeds of the booty captured from Pyrrhus. This was in the second consulship of Spurius Carvilius and Lucius Papirius. Then two years later the question of completing the aqueduct was discussed in the Senate on the motion of the praetor. At the close of the discussion, Curius, who had let the original contract, and Fulvius Flaccus were appointed by decree of the Senate as a board of two to bring in the water. Within five days of the time he had been appointed, one of the two commissioners, Curius, died; thus the credit of achieving the work rested with Flaccus. The intake of Old Anio is above Tibur at the twentieth milestone outside the* Gate, where it gives a part of its water to supply the Tiburtines. Owing to the exigence of elevation, its conduit has a length of •43,000 paces. Of this, the channel runs underground for •42,779 paces, while there are above ground. substructures for •221 paces.

I’d not like to connect this aqueduct to any one issue but like the construction of Via Appia, big infrastructure projects and the establishment of colonies are easier if the state has an easy means of making payments.

Map of the course of the Aqua Anio Vetus