290 out of 410 days: The Impression Elephants Make

From L. Ambrosini, ‘Un donario fittile con elefanti e Cerbero dal santuario di Portonaccio a Veio’. Image links to PDF with more images and references.


I ended up at this article by way of this coin type from Etruria:

ETRURIA. Val di Chiana. Æ 18 mm (4.68 gm). Head of an African right / Elephant right with bell hanging from neck, Etruscan letter below. SNG ANS 36. SNG Morcom 44. HN Italy 69.
From catalogue: Commentary on this enigmatic issue has focused on the significance of the elephant, which appears to be Indian rather than African. This zoological observation seems to rule out a reference to the Carthaginian elephants and thus poses a challenge to dating this coin to the time of the Second Punic War. Yet E.S.G. Robinson, in NC 1964, pp. 47–48, proposed an interpretation that overcomes these difficulties. He submitted that the association of the elephant with an African head, probably representing the animal’s driver, points to an African origin. Rather than dating the coin issue to the time of Hannibal’s invasion, Robinson drew attention to the disaffection of Rome’s Etruscan allies in 208–207, centered on the town of Arretium, and suggested that the coin types expressed the seditious hope that Hasdrubal would arrive to reinforce his brother. In these historical circumstances, the elephant was a symbol, perhaps copied from earlier coin types, rather than a portrayal from life.

There are a number of these coins in the ANS collection and also a good selection in the acsearch.info database.  The main publication is:

Baglione, M.P. 1976. Su alcune serie parallele di bronzo coniato. In Contributi introduttivi allo studio della monetazione etrusca. Atti
Convegno Napoli 1975: 153-180. Roma.

Baglione records 158 known specimens at that time, the vast majority in public collections.  Baglione endorses (if I’ve read the Italian right!) Robinson’s dating and notes that W. V Harris, Rome in Etruria and Umbria (Oxford 1971) p. 140 also follows Robinson’s interpretation. I’m wary of dating by type alone and would like some new good hoard or excavation evidence to confirm this hypothesis.  I’d also think a little die study might be of use to get an idea of the size of the issue: it seems at first glance that we’re looking at multiple dies for each letter under the elephant (four different Etruscan letters are well attested) and a number of obverse dies.   Elephants do appear elsewhere in the Second Punic War on the coinage of rebelling Italic communities.  The most impressive example being the aes grave of Meles in Samnium which copy the Barcid silver coinage (Robinson, Essays Mattingly, 1956: 40, fig. 3A; HN Italy 441-42 (but no illustrations)).

I’m more interested in the unusual votive offering.    Ambrosini draws the parallel with the famous plate in the Villa Giulia (inv. 23949) with a depiction of a war elephant and her cub.  There is a second similar plate from maybe Sardinia that I can’t put my hand on a reference at this moment. from Corsica:


Roma mediorepubblicana; Aspetti culturali di Roma e del Lazio nei secoli IV e III a.C (Rome 1973), no. 33 = Villa Guilia and no. 34 = Corsica.

The votive offering confirms the theme of elephant and cub in a military context.  That, of course, made me think of that passage in Dionysius that I quoted in a previous post about how the Roman’s wounded a cub to gain a tactical advantage over Pyrrhus’ use of elephants.

Update 3-19-2018:

Note that Cassius Dio believes that Etruria was recruited by Pyrrhus. But this account has been dismissed by scholars.

Let us remember that Ptolemaic Egypt supplied not only the elephants but also some 9,000 troops, both cavalry and infantry.

The Roar of the Boar?

Reverse of RRC 18/4. 1969.83.420
Reverse of RRC 18/4. ANS 1969.83.420

The coin above is just there as a reminder that boars do appear on early Roman coinage in other contexts.  The main point of this post is put up this curious theory about the elephant and pig currency bar (RRC 9/1):



Taken from p.462 of Borba Florenzano, Maria Beatriz ‘Aes signatum bars, signa and coins: emblematic objects and apotropaism’ from XII. lnternationaler Nurnismatischer Kongress, Berlin 1997 (2000), 460-465.

My earlier post about military standards is here.  I don’t really believe the rest of Maria Beatriz Borba Florenzano’s framing of the issue in terms of Roman religious thinking and this rationalizing view doesn’t account for the other folkloric accounts of elephants and pigs, but it is still an intriguing thought…  And who doesn’t love a bit of Ennius now and again.  Unfortunately for her argument and for our own hope of some answer to the pig problem, Skutsch pretty much tore apart Nenci’s reading of this line in his BICS 1977 article.

I would just note in comparing the boar above to our friend the sow below, that both are represented with an impressive line of bristles down their backs.  I do think, however, the two engravers have carved the animals in such away as to plainly distinguish their genders. And, I have my doubts that the legions would use the female, instead of the male, as their totemic creature… 


269 out of 410 days: Do you believe the pig story?

There comes a day in every young numismatist’s life when he or she asks the question is the pig story true?   Did the anyone, let alone the Romans, ever use pigs in battle against elephants?  Would it work?   And if it worked wouldn’t everyone have used it?  Fighting elephants was certainly the opposite of fun.

First off, let’s throw out the idea of Roman flaming pigs (regardless of what the video games offer you as options).  That is bad scholarship at least when it comes to the Roman account.  Here’s some of that bad scholarship (p. 87ff) and another one (p. 202). Don’t believe everything you read it books, even books with footnotes.  Lamentably, or admirably, Wikipedia is actually far better at reviewing the sources, than apparently some university presses.  Here’s the War Pig entry.

So why do numismatists think that pigs and elephants should date the above currency bar to the Pyrrhic War? Because of these two sentences in Aelian (on the nature of animals, 1.38):

 Ὀρρωδεῖ ὁ ἐλέφας κεράστην κριὸν καὶ χοίρου βοήν. οὕτω τοι, φασί, καὶ Ῥωμαῖοι τοὺς σὺν Πύρρῳ τῷ Ἠπειρώτῃ ἐτρέψαντο ἐλέφαντας, καὶ ἡ νίκη σὺν τοῖς Ῥωμαίοις λαμπρῶς ἐγένετο.

Ariete cornuto et suis grunnitu abhorret elephas. Sic Romanos Pyrrhi Epirotarum regis elephantos in fugam vertisse dicunt, victoriamque amplam ex eo bello retulisse.

The elephant fears the horned ram and the grunting of a pig. Thus, the Romans are said to have routed the elephants of Pyrrhus, king of the Epirotes and brought about brilliant victory for themselves.

I put up the Latin as that’s more readily available online for those who want to check out context. My translation is based on the Greek (not that it makes a huge difference).

This is not great historical evidence. And everyone gets so hung up on the pigs that they ignore the mention of rams completely. Aelian followed Pliny and other writers for most of his little anecdotes.  Pliny has squealing pigs and elephants, but no Pyrrhus. Let’s put this in context: Pliny is also our earliest source for elephants being afraid of mice.  And common on, did you really need a Mythbusters episode to debunk that?

The whole thing sounds like some marvelous tale.  And in fact it’s found in the some of the Alexander Romances:


The ‘secret’ of the elephant’s fear of a pig is attributed to Porus, the Indian King.

There is a better attested version of the elephant and pig story in Hellenistic history, but no Romans in sight.  Again, our sources are late and known for being magpies of wonderful tales:

 At the siege of Megara, Antigonus brought his elephants into the attack; but the Megarians daubed some swine with pitch, set fire to it, and let them loose among the elephants. The pigs grunted and shrieked under the torture of the fire, and sprang forwards as hard as they could among the elephants, who broke their ranks in confusion and fright, and ran off in different directions. From this time onwards, Antigonus ordered the Indians, when they trained up their elephants, to bring up swine among them; so that the elephants might thus become accustomed to the sight of them, and to their noise.

Aelian knew this story too (Latin trans.).

If it weren’t for the currency bar I’d throw the whole story out.  Dionysius offers some perfectly plausible accounts of the Roman tactics against elephants in the Pyrrhic War:

Outside the line they stationed the light-armed troops and the waggons, three hundred in number, which they had got ready for the battle against the elephants. These waggons had upright beams on which were mounted movable traverse poles that could be swung round as quick as thought in any direction one might wish, and on the ends of the poles there were either tridents or swordlike spikes or scythes all of iron; or again they had cranes that hurled down heavy grappling-irons. 7 Many of the poles had attached to them and projecting in front of the waggons fire-bearing grapnels wrapped in tow that had been liberally daubed with pitch, which men standing on the waggons were to set afire as soon as they came near the elephants and then rain blows with them upon the trunks and faces of the beasts. Furthermore, standing on the waggons, which were four-wheeled, were many also of the light-armed troops — bowmen, hurlers of stones and slingers who threw iron caltrops; and on the ground beside the waggons there were still more men.

When Pyrrhus and those with him had ascended along with the elephants, and the Romans became aware of it, they wounded an elephant cub, which caused great confusion and flight among the Greeks. The Romans killed two elephants, and hemming eight others in a place that had no outlet, took them alive when the Indian mahouts surrendered them; and they wrought great slaughter among the soldiers.

Elephants left a big impression on the Roman mind.  Of this there is no doubt.  But if pigs worked so well why not use it as a tactic elsewhere?

I find myself asking myself about the provenance of the BM specimen (acquired 1867 from the Sambon Collection).  Are there other specimens of this type of currency bar?  Are there more of them? Any with a decent archaeological provenance?  Is it all just to good to be true?

What aid did Ptolemy render to Pyrrhus?

reverse of ANS 1997.9.159
Gold stater, Taras, c. 280 BC. ANS 1997.9.159. Vlasto 35. HN Italy 983.

There is a tight series of gold issues from Pyrrhus’ arrival in Tarentum (HN Italy 983-992).  They share common controlmarks and are signed by the same magistrates.   A variety of denominations are known: stater, 1/2 stater, 1/4, 1/3, 1/8, 1/10, 1/12, and 1/16.  A variety of dieties appear on the obverse, Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Heracles.  The reverses types include a biga, a dolphin rider,  a biga of dolphins, an owl, and on three denominations an eagle, such as that illustrated above.

This eagle bears much in common with an eagle to appear at the end of the century on Roman gold:

RRC 44/3. ANS 1967.153.4.

Here is a link to a variety of illustrated specimens of the Roman issue. When writing about this issue Meadows has made a very strong case that the iconography reflects Ptolemaic support.  I give only a little quote here (1998: 128):


Could it mean the same thing at Tarentum?  I think it very likely indeed.  Hammond 1988 makes a strong case that the Ptolemy that sent military aid to Pyrrhus for his campaign in Italy was Philadelphus base on this portion of Justin:

11 Nor was Pyrrhus of Epirus neglected by him, a king who would be of great assistance to whichsoever side he attached himself, 12 and who, while he desired to spoil them one by one, sought the favour of all. 13 On going to assist the Tarentines, therefore, against the Romans, he desired of Antigonus the loan of vessels to transport his army into Italy; of Antiochus, who was better provided with wealth than with men, a sum of money; and of Ptolemaeus, some troops of Macedonian soldiers. 14 Ptolemaeus, who had no excuse for holding back for want of forces, supplied him with five thousand infantry, four thousand cavalry, and fifty elephants, but for not more than two years’ service. 15 In return for this favour, Pyrrhus, after marrying the daughter of Ptolemaeus, appointed him guardian of his kingdom in his absence; lest, on carrying the flower of his army into Italy, he should leave his dominions a prey to his enemies.

The relationship between Ptolemy II and Pyrrhus has been documented at more length by Adams 2008.

The numismatic evidence strengthens the claims of both Hammond and Adams AND suggests that it was far more than troops and elephants that Ptolemy II sent to Italy.

Update 4/6/2014: I was very happy to read this paragraph in  2013 paper supporting a Pyrrhic dating for the eagle type at Taras on the silver.[Image links to full paper.]

Capture HN Italy 933



Postscript 5 March 2014.  If one is worrying about the use of the ‘Ptolemaic’ eagle in Italy, then this type of Larinum (c. 210-175, HN Italy 626) should also be thrown into the mix.  Inspired by the Roman gold in all likelihood:

Reverse of Bronze triens, Larinum. ANS 1944.100.2090. Image links to both ANS specimens of this type.

I’ve discussed coins of Larinum from this period before, here.  And of course:

RRC 23/1; Double unit, Neapolis (?) after 276 or Messana (?), Æ 14.35 g. ROMANO Head of Minerva l., wearing Corinthian helmet decorated with griffin; behind, helmet. Rev. ROMA – NO Eagle standing l. with open wings on thunderbolt. From the RBW collection. Follow link for important discussion and references.  Cf. also coins of Mamertinoi (a nice specimen).  Contra Mattingly 2004: 103 who makes too much of the angle of the eagle’s head to my mind.

A. Burnett, The Beginnings of Roman Coinage, AIIN 36 (1989): 33-64, at 37 says:




Update 11 March 2014: Just a note to self.  Consider also the coinage of Alba Fucens, Latin colony of 303 BC.  HN Italy identifies three types, all silver obols (241, 243, and 244) that have Athena in a Corinthian helmet and an eagle on a thunderbolt, dating to c. 280-275.  Crawford CMRR p. 47 sees the issue and those of Norba and Signia as likely struck to pay troops in the War against Pyrrhus.

Silver obol, Alba Fucens. ANS 1944.100.2059. SNG ANS.1.112.

The Stazio and Mertens’  literature is on order from ILL. The Italian Wikipedia has an article on the Monetaziono di Alba Fucens. There is an odd specimen in trade that I’d like to understand what’s going on with the mark behind the eagle better, looks like a fillet or maybe a striking artifact of some kind, image #1 and image #2.  Also see HN Italy p. 11 and 180 for a little discussion of how the eagle and fulmen have been interpreted as symbols of Alexander the Molossian.  I’d like to learn more about this coin type as well sometime.  It’s a small bronze (Athena, Attic Helmet/close winged eagle and MOΛOΣΣΩN).   

Update 4/4/2014:


Update 5/26/14:

The scholar who seems to be most actively writing about Eagles on Coins in Italy is Carroccio.  Most of his relevant papers are online with obvious titles, but the note the issue also comes up in his 2008 piece on Moneta Apula… also online on academia.edu.

213 out of 410 days: Mars or Achilles?

I’ve been writing too much to write here.  Rather ironically it is a brain befuddled by a respiratory infection that brings me back to blogging.  I have already talked about the second coin type illustrated above.  It was produced by Pyrrhus and is said to represent his claim to have Achilles as an ancestor.  Thus the obverse is usually identified as Achilles.

The top coin is a Roman didrachm (RRC 25/1).  There is a another series (RRC 27) that is usually dated a little after with a similar head:


The Roman coins are invariably identified as Mars.  The logic is really no more complicated than this: Helmet = War Deity –> Male War Deity = Mars.  This Mars just happens to be beardless as compared to earlier bearded Mars:


[This is by our best reckoning the first silver Roman coin.]  Or late bearded Mars like these beauties:

Obverse of RRC 44/2. 1980.109.150

But if we go back up and look the ‘beardless Mars’ of the Roman coin and the ‘Achilles’ of the Pyrrhus coin, I think you’d agree we’d be hard pressed to actually claim there is any iconographic difference.  They match pretty well in their rugged Hellenistic faces and even share the gryphon motif of the helmet.  We need not make too much of that.  Gryphons appear on Corinthian helmets in this position on and off in Hellenistic coinage, regularly enough that we don’t need to attribute special significance to it.  Here’s a specimen from Syracuse.  And a gold Alexander stater of Sidon.

Are the two separate identifications warranted even with the close iconography?  Probably.  The Achilles attribute rests on the Thetis image on the reverse and the mythical connection.  If Rome copied the image or they simply share some common prototype there is no reason to think that it would be mean anything other than male war god, i.e. Mars to a Roman audience.

Update 2/5/2014:  A. Burnett, The Iconography of Roman Coin Types in the Third Century BC. Numismatic Chronicle 146 (1986) 67-75:






118 and 119 out of 410 days: Pyrrhus and Thetis

Yesterday late afternoon whilst reading about sources for the Pyrrhic Wars for this book review (It’s a really good book thus far! But slow going because I want to look everything up and enjoy the fun along with the author.) I became obsessed with the image of Thetis on the hippocamp. Above is the ANS specimen of coin of Pyrrhus with this reverse type. Below is a rather beautiful specimen in trade:

This is often attributed to the Locrian mint in Italy c. 279-274 B.C. The obverse is identified as Achilles (Pyrrhus’ ancestor) and the “portrait” is sometimes thought to be assimilated to Alexander or maybe even Pyrrhus himself. Perhaps the best thing to read on Pyrrhus’ use of the Trojan War narrative is Erskine, Troy Between Greece and Rome, p. 157-161. It’s basically a take down of the idea that Pausanias 1.12 can be taken as actual evidence that Pyrrhus used ‘anti-Trojan’ type propaganda against the Romans. The interesting thing is the relationship of Pyrrhus’ coin type to that of Larissa in Thessaly:

There are also an number of illustrated specimens in the ANS collection. Note how on this specimen below the obverse head has the “whale spout” hair style so often associated with Alexander and also the AX monogram on the reverse shield standing for “Achilles”.

What does Pyrrhus have to do with Thessaly? Well it was his next stop after Italy. So Pausanias, and with references at Plutarch, and Diodorus, and the dedicatory inscription he set up is in the Greek Anthology attributed to Leonidas (6.130). Some discussion of his memorable dedication and his choice of sanctuary can be found in Graninger’s Cult and Koinon in Hellenistic Thessaly. The dedicatory inscription in fact emphasizes his decent from Achilles:



Of course, the image was generally popular, a popularity often ascribed to a lost statue group of Scopas thought to be referenced in Pliny. An Attic Red-Figure Bell Krater c. 350 BC in the BM show the basic image. And, the iconography is also known on Italic ceramics as well:

Black glazed pottery askos with a ribbed body and in relief on the top, Thetis or a Nereid on a hippocamp to the left with Achilles spear in right hand and in left a shield, the hippocamp has a fimbriated fish's tail.

Just to make things more confused there are some little understood finds said to be from Thessaly near Larissa including this:


There is a decent discussion here about this comparative evidence as it relates to Thessalian jewelry and gems.

I guess I’ll just have to mug up on the literature on Larissa and Thessalian numismatics starting with:

C. C. Lorber, Thessalian hoards and the coinage of Larissa, In: American journal of numismatics second series, vol. 20, 2008, p. 119-142, pl. 41-46.

Other literature of interest: Lücke, S. 1995. ‘Überlegungen zur Münzpropaganda des Pyrrhos’. In Brodersen, K., and Schubert, C. (eds.). 1995. Rom und der griechische Osten: Festschrift für Hatto H. Schmitt: 171–3. Stuttgart. As well as, Franke, P. R. 1989. ‘Pyrrhus’. CAH2 7.2: 456–85.