Agathocles, Neapolis, Tarentum and Rome, c. 300-294 BC

“287. Apollo right, four dolphins surrounding, dotted border / MFB right with head in profile, trident above, NEOΠOΛITΩN in ex. (Sambon 650). Circa 300-275 BC. Æ 18mm (7.25 gm). Laureate head of Apollo right; four dolphins around / Man-headed bull standing right; trident above. SNG France 884; SNG ANS 463; HN Italy 577.(Source: Classical Numismatic Group: )” From:

It’s the day before classes begin.  And, I’m very happy to have gotten most of my class prep for the semester out of the way earlier this month.  The transition from Istanbul to Brooklyn was temporarily all consuming, along with other personal matters of a rather happy sort.  Anyways, I’m not sure the future of this blog post-sabbatical, but today it seems useful once again.  Here’s hoping in between classes and meetings there will be many more moments to obsess about coins.

Back in March Nick Molinari pointed out to me the coin above and how it is a good parallel to RRC 2/1. That lead me to put a note about in my book manuscript.  Yesterday, I came across the passage and found a marginalia by a helpful reader “explain or cut”.  I realized I hadn’t really thought it through it myself.

Of course, the most unusual feature of the above coin isn’t the profile instead of 3/4s head of the man-faced bull, but instead the dolphin wreathing the obverse head as commonly found on the coinage of Syracuse.  Here’s Andrew Burnett on the phenomenon in silver (SNR 56 (1977); image links to full article):


Here’s a link to images of the silver (see nos. 455-459) from Neapolis  and an example of the Tarentine gold staters.  The problem comes with trying to reconstruct what the heck Syracusan imagery is doing on the coinages of these two cities at this particular time.  Our historical understanding of Agathocles policy is Southern Italy is severely hamstrung by the loss of Diodorus’  continuous narrative after 302 BC.  Meister in the CAH VII part I, p. 405ff. does his best to reconstruct a narrative but its perhaps over full.  He’s convinced that Agathocles is trying to build a series of alliances against Carthaginian power: “a carefully considered plan lay behind the Syracusan ruler’s Italian policy – he clearly aimed to consolidate the entire forces of the western Greek world under his hegemony for the planned new confrontation with Carthage” (p. 406).  True? False? We just don’t have the sources to make this kind of claim.  I suspect that Meister is too influenced in this by his belief in the so-called Philinus Treaty, in which Carthage promised to stay out of Italy and Rome out of Sicily c. 306 BC.

What do we know?  There seems to be near continuous campaigning by Agathocles or his generals, c. 300-294 BC.  Our first source is Trogus 23.1-2.  He says that Agathocles was inploratus (beseeched, begged, implored) to come to Italy, but doesn’t specify by whom and then goes onto talk about his engagement with Brutti.  A passage of Strabo suggests that Tarentum is likely to have been the beseecher (6.3.4):


And yet how Tarentum might have benefited from Agathocles’ war with the Brutti is not at all clear.  Trogus leaves us in media res with Agathocles leaving the Bruttian campaign unexpectedly to return to Sicily on account of illness.  We pick up the narrative a year or two (?) later with Diodorus 21.2-3.  Agathocles captures Corcyra from Macedonian forces and then ‘returns’ to the forces he’s left in Italy only to find his Etruscan and Ligurian mercenaries have been behaving badly towards his son.  He kill 2000 mercenaries and for some reason this alienates the Brutti (whom he’s subsequently subdue?!).  A botched attempt to capture the town leads to a night attack that sends Agathocles once again back to Syracuse.  c. 295 he’s back in Italy capturing Croton and giving Iapygians and Peucetians ‘pirate’ ships (Diod. 21.4). c. 294 he’s in the territory of the Brutti besieging Hipponium, the future Vibo (Diod. 21.8).  And both years Stilpo his naval captain is harassing Bruttian coastline (21.4 & 8). [Link to Diodorus]

These data points are really minimal.  It’s probably not too much of a stretch to take the Tarentine gold staters as confirmation of the Tarentine/Agathocles relationship mentioned by Strabo.  There are other examples of the Tarentine’s referring to their foreign allies on their coins, although these are invariably controversial in interpretation.

It’s logical to slip the Neapolis coins in this same 300-294 BC window and hypothesize some sort of diplomatic arrangement between Neapolis and the Syracusan king.  The silver has three different known initials on it suggesting perhaps issues over a number of years? [A die study would clear up that question.] Bronze types (that illustrated above and HN Italy 578) have naval imagery on them (trident and dolphin respectively) and we can notice that Agathocles seems particularly eager to control shipping lanes in the course of his Italic and concurrent campaigns.  So perhaps we might speculate that the arrangement with Neapolis was related to some sort of naval agreement.

As primarily a Romanist my real question is how does Rome particularly fit into this mess?  My feeling is the RRC 2/1 is likely to have been engraved at Neapolis by the same engraver who did HN Italy 577 and 578 in roughly the same time frame.  The  rendering of the legends and the man-faced bull are the primary points of the overlap.  And the absence of this profile man-faced bull otherwise on the Neapolis speaks for a tight chronology.  So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the campaigns of Agathocles in Italy are some of our best dating evidence for RRC 2/1, c.300-294BC, given we have no available hoard evidence and only a single known specimen.


Update 8 January 2015:  Just ILL-ed Spadea, Roberto. “Crotone tra i Dionisi ed Agatocle.” pp. 107-120 in Krise und Wandel : Süditalien im 4. und 3. Jahrhundert v. Chr. : internationaler Kongress anlässlich des 65. Geburtstages von Dieter Mertens, hrsg. von Richard Neudecker. Wiesbaden : Reichert, 2011.   This uses hoard evidence from 2005 to look at Agathocles impact on Croton.  Tangentially related but always good to see hoards being worked into the historical narrative.

For a reconstruction of Agathocles’ Italian engagements that emphasizes tensions with Rome, see Decebal Nebu, “Agathocles and the Italic Powers at the Beginning of the 3rd Century B.C.” Revista Pontica  43 (2010): 37-50.

317 out of 410 days: Private Commerce at the start of the Hannibalic War

 He further embittered the senate against him by his support of C. Claudius; he alone of all the members was in favour of the measure which that tribune introduced. Under its provisions no senator, no one whose father had been a senator, was allowed to possess a vessel of more than 300 amphorae burden. This was considered quite large enough for the conveyance of produce from their estates, all profit made by trading was regarded as dishonourable for the patricians. The question excited the keenest opposition and brought Flaminius into the worst possible odium with the nobility through his support of it, but on the other hand made him a popular favourite and procured for him his second consulship.  (Livy 21.63.3-4)

This passage not incorrectly gets cited widely as evidence about restrictions on Senators engaging in commerce (exempli gratia).  Nothing wrong with that.  The same chapter of Livy gets discussed most often for the narrative tradition that blames Flaminius for the disaster at Lake Trasimene in the Hannibalic War.  Flaminius brings down divine wrath by not following proper religious procedures in his second consulship, because he’s afraid the nobles angered by his restriction of their potential financial gain will block his leaving for his province by claiming bad auspices.  Thus, he sneaks out to his province as a privatus.   So, by extension the disaster at Trasimene is all a result of a consul supporting popular legislation.  Moral of the story: a factious nobility is a threat to the well-being of the state.  Not a bad Augustan age moral really.

But here’s my question.  Why, oh why, did some tribute or the electorate in general care a rat’s ass about senators engaging in commerce? What the heck made this legislation ‘popular’ in any sense? Why at this moment in time?  The Gauls had been quieted.  The Adriatic shipping ways were strongly in Roman control.  Sicily and Sardinia had standing governors.  The Romans still probably thought at this moment that imminent war with Carthage and the Barcids would be fought in Spain and Africa.  Is this Livy’s interpretation of a list of legislation, elections, and events?  Or someone else’s?  Perhaps restrictions on senatorial commerce could be seen as popular with the equites if there is any grounds for understanding them as a merchant class at this point in time, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that reading.

[I got here as I was ruminating on the state of finances at Rome during the early years of the Hannibalic War.]

Literary Topoi and Historical Facts

From: Miles, R. (2011). Hannibal and Propaganda. In Dexter Hoyos (Eds.), A Companion to the Punic Wars, (pp. 260-279). Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

This passage above suggests that it is a ‘fact’ that one of Pyrrhus’ advisors made such a comparison. The story is known from Cassius Dio (9.40.27):

The same man, when, upon his retreat, he beheld the army of Laevinus much larger than it had been before, declared that the Roman legions when cut to pieces grew whole again, hydra-fashion. This did not, however, cause him to lose courage, but he in turn arrayed his forces, though he did not join battle.


and Plutarch:

It is said, too, that Cineas, while he was on this mission, made it his earnest business at the same time to observe the life and manners of the Romans, and to understand the excellences of their form of government; he also conversed with their best men, and had many things to tell Pyrrhus, among which was the declaration that the senate impressed him as a council of many kings, and that, as for the people, he was afraid it might prove to be a Lernaean hydra for them to fight against, since the consul already had twice as many soldiers collected as those who faced their enemies before, and there were many times as many Romans still who were capable of bearing arms.

Appian pulls these two traditions together:

The Senate made answer to Cineas as Appius advised. They decreed the levying of two new legions for Laevinus, and made proclamation that whoever would volunteer in place of those who had been lost should put their names on the army roll. Cineas, who was still present and saw the multitude hastening to be enrolled, is reported to have said to Pyrrhus on his return: “We are waging war against a hydra.” Others say that not Cineas, but even Pyrrhus himself said this when he saw the new Roman army larger than the former one; for the other consul, Coruncanius, came from Etruria and joined his forces with those of Laevinus.

Appian makes clear that bon mot was not a fixed point in the received tradition.  He knew it from at least two different sources with different variations.  We can’t be sure if Appian’s sources were riffing on Silenus’ motif or faithfully recording an actual piece of rhetoric from the time or if the metaphor is just so pervasive that it provides a nice plausible exclamation in any history.

Heck.  There are dozens upon dozens of popular histories to day that still use the metaphor.  The loose use of the metaphor is found in many earlier Greek works including Plato’s Republic, p426E.

All that said, this Florus passage (going back to a lost bit of Livy?) might be the best evidence that some lost historian made something of the Pyrrhus = Hercules, Rome = Hydra symbolism on a more meaningful level that a simple metaphor.

For Pyrrhus said, “I plainly see that I am sprung of the seed of Hercules, when I see all these heads of foes cut off springing up again from their blood as they sprang from the Lernaean hydra.”

Perhaps tellingly for the attribution to Pyrrhus, Plutarch uses it when discussing the actions of Alexander.

The use of metaphor in relationship to Pyrrhus is not irrelevant to a discussion of Silenus, but I’d hesitate to move it from a conversation about the historiographical tradition and into one about propaganda.

Note also how the hydra in Pyrrhus tradition is not a negative characterization of Rome, not emphasizing her monstrosity or destructive capacity, but instead resilience and depth of martial resources, especially her manpower base.  It’s a complement.

286 out of 410 days: Cocks, Victory and Virility

Gem of glass paste imitating sard, engraved with a terminal figure of Hermes, before which stands a youth holding a wreath and palm-branch in his left hand, and a cock on his right.
Gem of glass paste imitating sard, engraved with a terminal figure of Hermes, before which stands a youth holding a wreath and palm-branch in his left hand, and a cock on his right. BM 1923,0401.420; Gem no. 2794

I was writing up my thoughts for the book on the symbolism of the cock on coinage during the First Punic War this morning.  [An issue touched upon in an earlier post, here.]  The idea that in the Greek world the cock need not be directly linked to Hermes, but more generally be a symbol of bellicosity and manliness, is well summarized by this book.




This might help explain the pairing of cock and Minerva (Athena) on coins of Suessa, Teanum, et al (for images see earlier post).  But I was still playing around with the Mercury association in my mind, when I came across the glass paste above.

Here we see the epitome of manhood, the victorious young athlete standing before a terminal Herm.  He has his prize crown and palm-frond and in thanksgiving for his victory he offers the god a cock. [Just like the victor in the Callimachus epigram quoted in the previous post!] The cock symbolizes at once his victory and his virility.  A Herm’s most notable feature was its phallus.  Although we are often think of Mercury (Hermes) as first the god of commerce, we must remember he ended up as such by his status as the fecund god, the wealth-bringer.   Just as cock is slang for male genitalia today, so in the ancient world the cock encapsulated a similar semantic range of meaning as the phallus: power, especially masculine power, the (pro)creative power that leads to wealth and to overcoming one’s adversaries.

Anyway, the glass paste is a ‘gem’ of a summation of the symbolism of the cock, so I thought I’d share. Okay, back to my other writing.

Post Script. 

When two cocks appears facing each other on gems it is most often a representation of a cock fight, thus a type of agonistic scene, often with victory imagery incorporated into the design:

Gem with two cocks and a palm branch. [Arachne image database]

Gem with two cocks one being crowned by victory.  [Arachne image database]

Gem with one cock on a rudder with a palm branch. [Arachne image database]

But also relevant are images where the are associated with martial symbolism:

Gem with military standards, cocks, and stars, flanking scorpion grasping a cresent.  [Arachne image database]

This is a good image showing the early association of the cock and Athena:

Vase in the Beazley Archive.

Other relevant bibliography:  Hoffmann 1974.

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

Tyche of Capua, Turreted Roma

File:Capua Æ Biunx 130018.jpg
Campania, Capua. 216-211 BC. Æ Biunx (25mm, 18.20 g). Bust of Tyche or Fortuna right wearing crown of turrets; strigil and two stars (mark of value) behind Horseman galloping right, with lance pointed forwards; w:murex shell below. SNG ANS 203; SNG France 488; SNG Morcom -; HN Italy 485. From the Tony Hardy Collection. Ex Italo Vecchi II (12-13 September 1996), lot 73.

So I wish I has a slightly better picture of this Capuan type (above) to set next to this Roman uncia (39/5):


They share detailed similarities right down to the rendering of the turrets, the necklace and drapery.  There is another related Capuan type as well, but it’s of a small denomination and has fewer parallels:

Campania, Capua. c216-211 BC. AE Uncia. Turreted female head right, thunderbolt on headdress; pedum behind, star below / Warrior on horseback right, holding long spear pointed forwards; star behind, murex shell below. BMC 11-12.

I’ve blogged about the problems with Roman coin and its interpretation previously.