Metapontum and early Latin Coinage

Crawford’s suggestion of a Metapontum as the mint for the first Roman didrachm is very much out of favour.  Here’s the relevant footnote in RRC vol. 1 p. 46 n. 9 third (!) paragraph:


Here’s Vagi in the brilliant new Essays Russo 2014 (p. 80):


And so we find Russo’s son also following his father in the catalog of the JD collection part II:

 We have decided to share Rutter’s opinion who in Historia Numorum Italy attributes these coins to the Naples mint contrary to Crawford who assigns them to the mint of Metapontum. That said however, we have decided to refer to the coin as an obol and not as a litra as suggested by both Rutter and Crawford. The reasons for this decision are very simple: we obviously agree that this coin belongs to Crawford’s series 13, which was intended for trades with Magna Grecia. On this basis, it seems only logical that we refer to it as an obol and not a litra. Its weight and its general appearance are consistent with coaeval obols of Camapianian mints such as: Fistelia, Peripoloi Pitanai and Allifae, which most probably were circulating along with this coin.

JD collection of Roman Republican Coins.
Obol, Neapolis 320-300, AR 0.66 g. Head of Mars r., wearing Corinthian helmet; behind, oak spray (?). Rev. Head of horse r.; behind, corn ear and before, ROMANO downwards. Fiorelli Annali 1846, p. 23 and pl. I, fig, 29. Garrucci pl. 77, 18. Bahrfeldt RN 1900, pp. 33-34, 31 and pl. 26, 1 (possibly this obverse die). Sydenham 2. Crawford 13/2. Historia Numorum Italy 267.

So I got thinking about this because of how Norba borrows Metapontum’s type for its obol during the Pyrrhic War:

HN Italy 248

There is only one of these coins known, but it comes with a good archaeological provenance. The original report is online here. And also here.

L. Cesano, Monete rinvenute negli scavi di Norba, in NSA 1904, 423-426

PANVINIROSATI, FRANCO. Moneta unica di Norba. In: Archaeologia Classica, Vol. 11 (1959), pp. 102-107, pi. 40.

On sacred context, but not the coin itself:  S. Quilici Gigli, Norba: la topografia del sacro, in Ostraka 20, 2012, pp. 411-419.

Vagi makes a very plausible explanation for the corn-ear with the horse head to allude to the Festival of the October Horse, a harvest festival in honor of Mars.  Metapontum is a red herring for the Roman series, but what does Metapontum have to do with the Latin obols?  Why do we find her type borrowed on the coins of Norba?

Also RRC 13/2 as an obol perhaps helps set a precedence that influenced the denominational choice for the Latin mints (Norba, Signia, and Alba Fucens) of the Pyrrhic War.

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.