284 out of 410 days: Rostra

Egadi Ram 1. Click for link to RPM Nautical Foundation information page.

I was re-reading Tusa and Royal’s ‘landscape of the naval battle at the Egadi Islands (241BC)’ JRA 2012 and it struck me how right Eric Kondratieff was to draw a parallel between the iconography of this currency bar and rostra:

He made the argument for two rostra instead of two tridents on the basis of the Athlit Ram, a much more distant iconographic parallel, but that was before the Egadi Rams all came to light!  All of the Egadi Rams found thus far have a similar design on their driving center (see Tusa and Royal link above for the anatomy of the rams), but 1 provides the best visual parallel.  Given Egadi 1 has no specific provenience, it is harder to contextualize.  Tusa and Royal cautiously say:

“The clear differences in iconography, inscriptions and overall shape, combined with its unknown provenience, make an association of the Egadi 1 ram with the events of the First Punic War somewhat problematic.” (p. 45 n. 92)

And earlier they noted:

“Egadi 1 has the shortest driving center of the Egadi rams, being nearly identical in length to Egadi 5, yet has the longest tailpiece and the highest mid-length height and width. The reduction from the head to constricted waist is slightly greater than from the inlet. Given the ram’s significant increase in height from its constricted waist, it possesses the third tallest and second widest head. Its large head combined with a short driving center gives this ram a stubbier design than the others.” (p. 14)

Could it be earlier? Could it be later?  I’d speculate as to the former, but this is only a kneejerk instinct regarding the a likely general design trend from compact and short to long and thin.  Such speculation is likely unwarranted.  I could even argue against it via the ‘stubby’ appearance of the rostrum depicted on The Tomb of Cartilius Poplicola which dates to the 1st century BC (images are already up on my early post on prow stems).

William Murray, Age of Titans (2012), p. 52 gives a great illustration of a three-bladed waterline rams, just more confirmation of the rostra as the correct identification of the coin type.

Miscellaneous Post Scripts.

Another pre Egadi post Athlit publication that will be of interest to anyone interested in rams and rostra: http://luna.cas.usf.edu/~murray/actian-ram/WM-Murray-Recovering-Rams.pdf

Also on Duillus and innovations and the coinage, see Morello’s summary of his Italian publication with useful diagrams by Andrew McCabe: http://andrewmccabe.ancients.info/Corvus.html

Update 3 April 2014.

See now also my post about the rostrum on the coins of Ariminum.

258 out of 410 days: Fighting Cocks and Sacred Chickens

Update 1-28-23: Please do not cite this post. My published views on this topic can be found in my 2021 article (full unformatted text; publisher’s link).

This post is dedicated to the most estimable Prof. Kellogg, who has taught many to always listen to the sacred chickens.

In Trade (links to specimen)
RRC 12/1 5lb Currency Bar 270BC, Rostrum Tridens, Chickens eating corn, Stars. British Museum; 1940s incendiary bomb damage at side. Photo from Andrew McCabe’s Flickr set.

These fabulous currency bars appear in many a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate the Roman practice of divination prior to battle via the consumption of grain by sacred chickens.  If the birds eat, the gods are happy for the Romans to engage in combat.  The most famous incident is the Sea Battle of Drepana (249BC) when Claudius Pulcher is said to have been so enraged that the birds wouldn’t eat that he cast them into the sea, saying: ‘If they won’t eat, let them drink!’.  Anyway, great story and thanks to this excellent account by another blogger, I’ve got no need to review the sources here.

The idea that the bars show sacred chickens is only loosely endorsed by Crawford, who with uncharacteristic ambivalence, records the type as ‘two chickens facing each other and apparently eating; between, two stars’.  He is more definite in vol. 2, p. 218:


The Callimachus epigram is of interest:

Euaenetus, who set me up, says – for I know not – that in return for a victory of his I am offered – a bronze cock – to the Tyndaridae : I believe the son of Phaedrus, son of Philoxenides.

φησὶν μεστήσας Εὐαίνετος (οὐ γὰρ ἔγωγε
γινώσκω) νίκης ἀννί μετῆς ἰδίης
ἀγκεῖσθαι χάλκειον ἀλέκτορα Τυνδαρίδηισι:
πιστεύω Φαίδρου παιδὶ Φιλοξενίδεω. (Greek from Perseus)

This ἀλέκτωρ isn’t a sacred chicken, but a cock!  A symbol of virility and bellicosity.  Look again at the currency bars above, those birds have some impressive combs and plumage, visible even with corrosion on the bars.  The kicker is when we look at the pattern of coin iconography at Roman colonies and allied communities struck in the 1st Punic War, notice the combination of star and cock:

Suessa Aurunca, Bronze circa 265-240, 5.45 g. Helmeted head of Minerva l. Rev. Cockerel r. SNG Copenhagen 588. Historia Numorum Italy 449. From the Giancarlo Silingardi collection, with export licence issued by the Republic of Italy.
Teanum Sidicinum, Bronze circa 265-240, 7.02 g. Head of Minerva l., wearing crested Corinthian helmet. Rev. TIANO Cock standing r.; in upper field l., star. Sambon 1004. SNG Copenhagen 594 (this obverse die). SNG ANS 626. AMB 56 (this coin). Historia Numorum Italy 435.
Aquinum. Bronze c.265-240, 5.87 g. Helmeted head of Minerva l. Rev. Cock r.; behind, star. ANS 114. SNG Cop. 101. SNG France 228. H.N. 432
Cales, Bronze circa 265-240, æ 5.53 g. Helmeted head of Minerva l. Rev. CALENO Cock standing r.; in field l., star. Sambon 916. SNG Lloyd 53. SNG Copenhagen 323. SNG ANS 193., HNI 435.

There are also coins of this same type from Caiatia (HN Italy 433) and Telesia (HN Italy 457).  Discussion can be found in Crawford’s Coinage and Money (1985), p. 47.  They all seem to be carved by a single die engraver and I’d not be surprised to find obverse die links.  As a group they are all are overstruck by Neapolis coins from the 250s (Taliercio III,a; cf. discussion by Burnett and Crawford 1998 in essays for M. Jessop Price).

Anyway, the iconographic choice on the currency bars probably has less to do with religious ritual and more to do with selecting a symbol of military prowess.  The head-down, two cock rendering of the motif probably has more to do with the design challenges of the oblong bar.  The two birds echo the double design of the other side.

And, just by-the-by. the Latin for chicken, as in sacred chicken, is pullus, which is well distinguished from the gallus, or cock.



Update 4/25/16:

Notice the stance of these two fighting cocks and the imperial eagle above.

Rectangular brown glass paste intaglio: eagle flying above two fighting cocks.
BM 1814,0704.2062



A Divine Explanation

I just ordered up via ILL a piece of German scholarship which from the abstract seems to redate some early Roman coins (aes grave with a prow and the quadrigati) and connected them with the events of 241BC. I’ll reserve judgement on that until I see the article. However, it also reminded of this portion of Ovid’s Fasti, calendar of the Roman year in poetic form:

I spoke these words to the god [sc. Janus] who holds the key.

‘Indeed I’ve learned much: but why is there a ship’s figure

On one side of the copper As, a twin shape on the other?’

‘You might have recognised me in the double-image’,

He said, ‘if length of days had not worn the coin away.

The reason for the ship is that the god of the sickle

Wandering the globe, by ship, reached the Tuscan river.

I remember how Saturn was welcomed in this land:

Driven by Jupiter from the celestial regions.

From that day the people kept the title, Saturnian,

And the land was Latium, from the god’s hiding (latente) there.

But a pious posterity stamped a ship on the coin,

To commemorate the new god’s arrival.

I myself inhabited the ground on the left

Passed by sandy Tiber’s gentle waves.

Here, where Rome is now, uncut forest thrived,

And all this was pasture for scattered cattle.

My citadel was the hill the people of this age

Call by my name, dubbing it the Janiculum.

Asses did stay in circulation for a very very long time and were minted very sporadically during the late Republic. Ovid’s Augustan age testimony provides evidence that worn base metal coins had become the norm but that the types were generally known. The prow however did not hold a particular meaning for a contemporary viewer. Ovid has the god explain that the prow commemorates Saturn’s arrival. This would have seemed plausible because Saturn was the god of the treasury, even if it is unlikely to have been the original inspiration. Crawford suggests the visual inspiration comes from this beautiful type of Antigonos Doson, c.227 BC (See RRC p. 42 esp. n. 5):

Reverse Image

Naval imagery first appears on Roman coins, unsurprisingly, when they become more adept as a military power. And it has even been argued that naval imagery on aes signatum commemorated the very battle in which the bronze itself was captured in the form of rams, armor, and other spoils from the Carthaginian enemies. However awareness of symbolism slips away as particular images stop resonating with contemporary audience, hence Ovid’s deduced explanation.