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.

79 out of 410 days: Trial by Snake

This is the coin type at the heart of the chapter I need finish by the end of the month. I don’t expect to write too much about it here as I seem to like to keep my free writing and the formal writing separate. Yesterday was mostly looking at possible (and impossible!) epigraphic references to other members of the moneyer’s family, the gens Mamilia. Today I was chasing up the references from an old article that suggested the type is all about the moneyer showing support for the Italians. Not an idea I’m ready to support, but the references he cited were all fascinating. Here’s the best of the lot:

In the bodies of these people there was by nature a certain kind of poison, which was fatal to serpents, and the odour of which overpowered them with torpor: with them it was a custom to expose children immediately after their birth to the fiercest serpents, and in this manner to make proof of the fidelity of their wives, the serpents not being repelled by such children as were the offspring of adultery. This nation, however, was almost entirely extirpated by the slaughter made of them by the Nasamones, who now occupy their territory. This race, however, still survives in a few persons who are descendants of those who either took to flight or else were absent on the occasion of the battle. The Marsi, in Italy, are still in possession of the same power, for which, it is said, they are indebted to their origin from the son of Circe, from whom they acquired it as a natural quality. But the fact is, that all men possess in their bodies a poison which acts upon serpents, and the human saliva, it is said, makes them take to flight, as though they had been touched with boiling water. The same substance, it is said, destroys them the moment it enters their throat, and more particularly so, if it should happen to be the saliva of a man who is fasting

The other references also mention snake taming, but they’re not quite as fun (Pliny NH 25.11, Serv. Aen. 7.750, Sil., Ital. Pun. 8.495-510). I find it hard to believe that Mamilius is claiming kinship with the Marsi as fellow offspring of Circe via the coin, but who doesn’t like a good snake story?! It made me think of the ritual being shown on this coin:

Propertius 8.4 helps us understand the image:

Lanuvium, from of old, is guarded by an ancient serpent: the hour you spend on such a marvellous visit won’t be wasted; where the sacred way drops down through a dark abyss, where the hungry snake’s tribute penetrates (virgin, be wary of all such paths!), when he demands the annual offering of food, and twines, hissing, from the centre of the earth. Girls grow pale, sent down to such rites as these, when their hand is rashly entrusted to the serpent’s mouth. He seizes the tit-bits the virgins offer: the basket itself trembles in their hands. If they’ve remained chaste they return to their parents’ arms, and the farmers shout: ‘It will be a fertile year.’

This seems to be part of cult of Juno Sospita, or at very least it took place in close proximity with her sanctuary and it is her head on the obverse of the coin. Here’s some recent scholarship with references. The cult at Lanuvium is rightly contextualized by the accounts of the powers to charm snakes linked to Circe and her ilk (Medea, Angitia, etc) and the origins of various Italic peoples and associations with specific Italian topography.


The original wire transfer is still lost. I spent a horrible time on the phone with HSBC. Again. We’re investigating other services… I took a break to write this post largely because I need to tamp down my rage to get back to writing properly.

67 out of 410 days: Poetry and other Evidence

Reading for leisure is complicated when one reads as a primary professional obligation. As early as my undergraduate days I rationed novel reading by imposing strict rules: 1) only on weekends or school breaks, 2) never, ever start a book after 4 pm [to avoid being up all night]. Now, I read fewer novels, and usually old “friends”, sometimes from childhood, who’ve been read many times before. When I read something new, I like a guarantee of plot resolution. Somewhere in grad school I picked up poetry as a means of leisure reading that stands repetition and is low on time commitment. My tastes run highly rhythmic: Fenton, Auden and honest: Sexton, Addonizio.

What I haven’t read enough of is Greek or Latin poetry. Somewhere the ‘historian’ label interfered with my perception of such literature as particularly useful or engaging. A old well-grooved prejudice. One that protects poetry as a modern pleasure thoroughly divorced from my professional concerns. This is ridiculous. Ovid, Martial, Propertius and their friends tell us far more about the landscape of Rome itself and the attitudes and preoccupations of the people who inhabited it than Cicero. Or, if not more, than differently, with nuance and layers of meaning. Rich depths for the historian to plumb. With playful and pleasurable language to boot. Heck, Cicero in the pro Archia even tells us the value of the poetic perspective on history. I even like such literature, as literature.

I think, perhaps, a graduate seminar ‘Latin Poetry for Historians’ would be a fabulous course to develop post sabbatical. Something that honors the genre as an art form, while also exploring the diversity of the evidence it offers, and the complications of deploying such evidence.