Dioscuri and Desultores


This is a didrachm of one of Rome’s colonies, Suessa Aurunca.  This type is usually dated to the time of 1st Punic War.  The colony had been established in 313 BC as part of the Samnite Wars (Livy 9.28).  The place makes little mark on the literary narrative, appearing in such sleepy contexts as Cato’s recommendation on where to get a wagon or a mill.

The type is identified as a Dioscurus, i.e. either Castor or Pollux without his brother.  My first impression is that it looked rather like a desultor to me.

Obverse of RRC 480/21. ANS 1937.158.296 . Image links to a selection of other coin types also showing desultores.

This got me wondering what we actually know about desultores.  Less than you might think, I can assure you!  And many of our references are metaphorical (e.g. Cicero, Pro Murena 57).   There are only about 13 references in Latin literature.  The only certain testimony we have of their performance is during Julius Caesar’s triumphal games, and here they seem to be performances by elite youth (Suet. Iul. 39).   That they show up on the republican series more than once suggests they were a significant feature of Roman religious festivals or other celebrations, but which and when is up for debate.  Perhaps my favorite reference is their use in a piece of Augustan era Roman jurisprudence by Labeo preserved in the Justinian digest (19.5.20).

What about the Suessa coin above?  Dioscurus or desultor?  The confusion is more understandable when we look at this passage from Hyginus:

LXXX. CASTOR: Idas and Lynceus, sons of Apharesu from Messene, had as promised brides Phoebe and Hilaira, daughters of Leucippus. Since these were most beautiful maidens – Phoebe being a priestess of Minerva, and Hilaira of Diana – Castor and Pollux, inflamed with love, carried them off. But they, since their brides-to-be were lost, took to arms to see if they could recover them. Castor killed Lynceus in battle; Idas, at his brother’s death, forgot both strife and bride, and started to bury his brother. When he was placing the bones in a funeral monument, Castor intervened, and tired to prevent his raising the monument, because he had won over him as if he were a woman. In anger, Idas pierced the thigh of Castor with the sword he wore. Others say that as he was building the monument he pushed it on Castor and thus killed him. When they reported this to Pollux, he rushed up and overcame Idas in a single fight, recovered the body of his brother, and buried it. Since, however, he himself had received a star from Jove [Zeus], and one was not given to his brother, because Jove said that Castor and Clytemnestra were of the seed of Tyndareus, while he and Helen were children of Jove, Pollux begged that he be allowed to share his honor with his brother. This was granted him. [From this comes the expression “redeemed by alternate death”; and even the Romans preserve the practice. When they send out bareback riders, one man has two horses, and a cap on his head, and leaps from one horse to the other, just as Pollux takes turns with his brother.]

Thus, at least to Augustan era eyes, confusing the iconography of the Dioscuri and Desultores was no surprise.   Back to the mid third century.  I think it unlikely to have a Dioscurus without his brother and without another identifying mark like the star.  The palm branch is agonistic imagery and there is no reason that the coin can’t be an agonistic type.

I find myself surprised that the coins of Latin colonies are not more discussed in standard accounts of early Roman coinage.  In some ways the coins of Suessa, at least in the bronze seem to form a missing link of sorts between Rome and Neapolis, producing significant numbers of Apollo/man-faced bull coins that circulated with Neapolis coins [HN Italy 450] and the overstriking at Neapolis with this type of the new design of Minerva (Roma!?) and cock (symbol of fighting prowess, bravery, like a fighting cock or perhaps of Mercury?) [HN Italy 449].  All this musing is a spin off of my reading: “A hoard of bronze coins of the 3rd century BC found at Pratica di mare (Rome)” by Maria Cristina Molinari  in Proceedings to the XIV International Numismatic Congress, Glasgow 2009 (31 August – 4 September, (ed. N. HOLMES), Glasgow 2011

Update 3/28/18:

Desultores are pretty popular on intaglios too…  Notice the close link to the coin type.

Fürtwangler 1896:


BM specimen

Thorvaldsen specimen

147 out of 410 days: What’s wrong with “Bread and Circuses”?


Nearly every one knows the Juvenal quote about Bread and Circuses, or thinks they do, especially after the Hunger Games.  First let’s have a bit more context from Juvenal himself:

 if the old Emperor had been surreptitiously

Smothered; that same crowd in a moment would have hailed

Their new Augustus. They shed their sense of responsibility

Long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes; the mob

That used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything,

Curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only,

Bread and circuses. ‘I hear that many will perish.’ ‘No doubt,

The furnace is huge.’

If you’d like to check the Latin, click here. In case you’ve landed on this page and aren’t quite sure who Juvenal is exactly, in short: he’s a poetic satirist living under the Roman empire. Think a potential guest contributor on both Howard Stern and the Daily Show.  This passage finds a dark humor is some ‘facts of life’:

A brutal dictatorship is in power. The citizen body, especially the poor are disenfranchised. They reconcile themselves to their powerlessness in any significant political decision-making and demand only food and … what?  Entertainment?  Spectacle?  Is that what circuses are?

Circuses are part of Ludi specifically the chariot races, but the circus space could be used for other public spectacles as well.  Circuses are part of religious ritual.  They were either part of regular annual festivals honoring a specific divinity or set of divinities, or they were one-off affairs given in thanksgiving to the gods for some benefit to the community as a whole, including military victories, protection from disease, the ascension of a new leader, major anniversaries, or the life of a recently deceased individual. The sacrifices made to put on the ‘games’ (i.e. expenditure of resources) and the participation of the whole community ensured the continuing relationship between the state as a whole and the gods.  The well-being of the city and the empire depended on maintaining divine protection and blessings.

Juvenal seems to be trivializing the common concerns of the man in the street, but are they so trivial? Government is responsible for the basic infrastructure that makes living possible.  Bread is a good start, a fine synecdoche.  Let’s add in clean water, protection of the food supply more generally, perhaps some sanitation and even, if we want to get really radical, building codes and fire brigades to avert urban disasters.   A decent agrarian policy, market regulations, and open shipping lines don’t make great poetry, but they do bake bread!

Circuses, Juvenal’s other synecdoche, or “part for the whole”, stands for the pleasure of the spectator to be sure.  However, that individual pleasure isn’t a choice; it’s an obligation, a civic duty.  After other forms of civic engagement are suppressed, only the ‘circus’ remains a space for political expression.  Moreover, the gods do not take kindly to being shunned.  The well-being of the whole is dependent on complete communal participation.  Atheists, Epicureans, and Monotheists were a dangerous breed.  That type of thinking endangered the stability of state by threatening divine relations through non-participation in the state cult.  The leaders of the state protected the well-being of the city and empire by ensuring divine favor.  “Circuses” and other ritual acts where the means by which such favor was maintained.  How else could natural disaster, plague, or the barbarian hordes be averted?

Life under a brutal regime concentrates the minds of the people on the essentials. Moreover, a savvy autocrat or oligarch knows as much.  He can give “the part for the whole”, cheap grain to mask the inadequacies of the socio economic system.  Hungry people take what they can get.  The Roman with a loaf of bread still wanted access to the means of production and a functioning market place.

Pulling the Juvenal quote into modern discourse out of context has despicable consequences. It trivializes poverty, suggesting gluttony rather than hunger drives the demand for “bread”. Moreover, it obliterates the ways in which all public infrastructure is our common “bread”.  Our private economic resources do not make us independent from the system of government.  We gained those resources within the system of public works and regulations provided by the state, from roads and schools to public defense and the farm bill.  Like it or not, there is no opt-out option, any more than there was for the religious rites of the ancient city.

Within academic discourse the “bread and circus” view of Roman history tends to portray spectacles and food distribution as means of social control or self-aggrandizement on the part of patron.  This is not unrelated to the trivialization just discussed.  Should not the ordinary Roman care about the government’s ability to provide for the needs of the community?  Would not a good leader be judged by his capacity to improve the public infrastructure and to actively seek divine blessings?

Today, I am sitting down to write about ‘popular politics’ in the last 100 years of the republic as presented on coins. I will be trying to escape “Bread and Circuses” thinking.

– Signed a Grateful and Unashamed Childhood Food Stamp and Welfare Recipient

Afterword on Translation.

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.