The Diadem on Anti-Autocratic Coin Types

(M. Valerius) Messalla. Denarius, 3.69g. (h). Rome, 53 BC. Obv: Helmeted bust of Roma right, spear over shoulder, MESSAL F before. Rx: Curule chair; PATRE COS above, scepter and diadem below, S – C on either side. Crawford 435/1. Gemini XI, lot 374.

This seems to be the earliest coin (c.53BC) in which the symbols of Hellenistic kingship, the diadem and the scepter, are used in such a way as to suggest their rejection in favor of the traditional symbols of Roman power in this case the curule chair.  For this coin, the context is the threat of Pompey assuming sole control of the Roman state.

We see a similar iconographic strategy on a coin of Brutus after the murder of Julius Caesar:

M. Junius Brutus and Casca Longus. Denarius, mint moving with Brutus 43-42, AR 3.81 g. CASCA – LONGVS Wreathed head of Neptune r.; below, trident. Rev. BRVTVS IMP Victory walking r. on broken sceptre and holding palm branch over l. shoulder and broken diadem with both hands. Crawford 507/2. NAC 51, lot 113.

The question in my mind is should a similar interpretation also apply to this type:

Denarius, mint moving with Brutus and Cassius 43-42, AR 3.90 g. C·CASSEI·IMP Laureate head of Libertas r. Rev. M·SERVILIVS – LEG Crab, holding aplustre in its claws; below, rose and untied diadem. Crawford 505/3. Ex SKA Bern 1, 1983, 254 and NAC 9, 1996, 763 sales. NAC 63, lot 530.

The auction houses invariably photograph this specimen with the orientation shown above, but Crawford had his plates printed at the 90 degree rotation of the reverse:


Crawford is silent on the symbolism of diadem saying only: “Part of one issue of Cassius records his capture of Rhodes after a battle at Myndus, opposite the island of Cos; the rose of Rhodes and crab of Cos both figure, together with an aplustre as a symbol of victory” (p. 741).  I must say, the aplustre doesn’t seem very victorious to me as it is clutched in the claws of the crab.  Or perhaps its just Cos offering the naval victory to Cassius…

I also think I prefer symbolically the crab and aplustre read as over and above the more diminished Rhodian rose and the diadem, just as the curule chair symbolically sits over the diadem and sceptre in the first type above.

The Cassius coin is often connected to this quote from Plutarch’s Life of Brutus:

“Cassius, having taken Rhodes, behaved himself there with no clemency; though at his first entry, when some had called him lord and king, he answered that he was neither king nor lord, but the destroyer and punisher of a king and lord.”

I’m not sure this is specifically the allusion the die engraver was aiming at but it is certainly a reflection of the same rhetorical impulse.

1/17/16: on Crabs on coins:

73 out of 410 days: Pompey and Freedmen

Romans had a practice of granting manumission to some slaves.  Those receiving such grants held a separate status from the citizens, i.e. free men.  As freedmen they had more limited legal rights and defined obligations to their former masters, now their patrons.   That’s pretty basic, but the social function of this group certainly evolved over time and we might think about the attitudes and social conditions that preceded the evolution of the imperial freedmen.  I came across two passages today that got me thinking along those lines:

 These things I have heard; I have heard also that this theatre was not erected by Pompey, but by one Demetrius, a freedman of his, with the money he had gained while making campaigns with the general. Most justly, therefore, did he give his master’s name to the structure, so that Pompey might not incur needless reproach because of the fact that his freedman had collected money enough for so huge an expenditure.


While these men kept up their conflict, Pompey, too, encountered some delay in the distribution of the grain. For since many slaves had been freed in anticipation of the event, he wished to take a census of them in order that the grain might be supplied to them with some order and system. This, to be sure, he managed fairly easily through his own wisdom and because of the large supply of grain; but in seeking the consulship he met with annoyances and incurred some censure.

These passages would need to be contextualized by say Sulla’s mass manumission of the so called Cornelii, some 10,000 individuals, or the power he gave to Chrysogonus.  

The basic moral seems to be that benefiting too many freedman or one freedman too much is viewed with suspicion.  On the other hand our imperial sources may be reading too much of their present social reality back on to their accounts of the Republic.   

Contrast how Plutarch does not mention distributions to freedmen, but instead emphasizes that there was so much grain available it was give to foreigners as well — yet another group whose influence was a site of socio-political anxiety in the Late Republic.  Cf. the careers of Theophanes of Mitylene and Balbus.

I was getting a little lost in the literary accounts of 56-55 BC.  This post is just a little break to try to return to the coins.

71 out of 410 days: What’s in a Name?

Gold coin.This coin of Pompey is probably a small issue struck as a commemorative piece and/or gift on the occasion of his second triumph.  The choice of legends are particularly revealing about both the date of issue and also the impression Pompey wished to convey. Three passages are needed for context.  First, Granius Licinianus 36.2.4:

And Pompeius, when he was 25 years old and still a Roman knight – something which no-one had previously done – celebrated a triumph as pro-praetor from Africa, on the fourth day before the Ides of March. Some writers say that on this occasion the Roman people were shown elephants in the triumph. But when he came to enter the city, the triumphal arch was too small for the four elephants yoked to his chariot, although they tried it twice.

I include this for how it emphasizes his having served with Praetorian imperium as a private citizen and because it shows the close connection between Elephants and Africa in the Roman mind.  Next up is Plutarch, Life of Pompey 13.4-5.

[When Sulla] perceived that everybody was sallying forth to welcome Pompey and accompany him home with marks of goodwill, he was eager to outdo them. So he went out and met him, and after giving him the warmest welcome, saluted him in a loud voice as “Magnus,” or The Great, and ordered those who were by to give him this surname. Others, however, say that this title was first given him in Africa by the whole army, but received authority and weight when thus confirmed by Sulla. Pompey himself, however, was last of all to use it, and it was only after a long time, when he was sent as pro-consul to Spain against Sertorius, that he began to subscribe himself in his letters and ordinances “Pompeius Magnus”; for the name had become familiar and was no longer invidious.

Here we get some accounts of how Pompey came to be called ‘the Great’, its connection to his African campaign, and when he himself embraced the name.  What’s missing from this passage are the associations with Alexander which were well known in antiquity and today.  Finally, Cicero, For the Manilian Law 62.6-7 (cf. Cicero, Phillipics, 11.18-19):

What was ever so unusual, as, when there were two most gallant and most illustrious consuls, for a Roman knight to be sent as proconsul to a most important and formidable war? He was so sent—on which occasion, indeed, when someone in the senate said that a private individual ought not to be sent as proconsul, Lucius Philippus is reported to have answered, that if he had his will he should be sent not pro consule, but proconsulibus.

The final statement puns on the double meaning of pro consule: it can be translated either ‘not instead of one consul, but instead of both’ or ‘not with the rank of proconsul, but instead of both consuls’.  Its this controversial appointment, again as a private citizen, that the reverse legend celebrates and associates with the triumphal figure.


Today was the long slog through typing in the text I wrote long hand yesterday and adding citations and edits as appropriate.  Lots of progress just not inspiring.   I have between three and six more coin types I want to incorporate into the chapter all of which I’ve written about here on the blog at one time or another.   Tomorrow, fresh, longhand, I could have something like a full rough draft.

Memories of Sulla

Sulla himself emphasized his title of “Imperator”, or later on a smaller issue “Dictator”, on the coins made in his life time in his name. Neither role appears on the remarkably numerous posthumous commemorations he receives on the coins. Q. Pompeius Rufus is celebrating his maternal and and paternal grandfathers, the consuls of 88 BC. And it is the shared consulship itself that receives emphasis. The two are treated as equals.

Yet, his paternal grandfather of the same name was murdered as consul, allegedly by Pompieus Strabo, Pompey the Great’s father, when he went to take over Strabo’s army as his duly assigned province of Italy. That sort of murder surely created some tension between their descendants. The two headed type was produced by far fewer dies than the curule chairs (according to Crawford — I’ll want to check the accuracy of this). The later gives even more emphasis to the legal office and authority of each ancestor, along with indications of their priesthoods. It tries to invoke Sulla and Rufus as exempla of law and order.

Sulla’s son, Faustus, takes a very different approach:

He refers to his father only as FE(E)LIX, the remarkable agnomen, adopted upon his Civil War victories in 82 BC, meaning something like ‘Blessed’, not dissimilar from the meaning Faustus’ own name. The imagery of one type harkens back to Sulla’s first success, the surrender of Jugurtha, while just Marius’ quaestor, an image that served as his father’s seal and the famous Bocchus monument. The rest recalls his divine patronage, an issue we’ve talked about before. He may also be trying to emphasize a close relationship between Pompey, his close ally, and his father.

This type shows Venus Victrix to whom Pompey dedicated the very next year his huge theatre complex and an image of Pompey’s seal ring, but of course it was a seal ring very close to Faustus’ father’s and Venus played a prominent role in his father’s life as well.

[I’m going to skip talking about RRC 480/1 as you can read about it in my earlier post to which I put a link above, even though it properly fits into this topic. I’m also skipping over the Sulla-Hercules connection as all I’d be doing at this point is parroting Crawford.]