Representing the Defeated Enemy, or the Appropriation of Symbols

First a little context:

To my mind one of the most interesting aspects of the secondary marks on the early denarius, victoriatus and related issues is when they begin to experiment with different types of secondary symbols.  Most of the secondary symbols that appear on the coinage of the Hannibal War had already been in use as control marks on the didrachm series with Roma and Victory (RRC 22): cornucopia, crescent, caduceus, anchor, rudder, dolphin, star, pentagram, club, corn-ear, wreath, and so on…. These are relatively common symbols into which its dangerous to read too much particular meaning.   Other issues are signed by the responsible magistrates, most certainly on Sardinia (RRC 63-65) and Sicily (RRC 7475).    I particularly like how we can see the development towards longer abbreviations on Sardinia. The praetor of 211 BC just uses the first letter of his nomen, ‘C’ for L. Cornelius Lentulus (RRC 63).  The praetor of 210 uses two letters, ‘MA’ for P. Manlius Vulso (RRC 64).  And finally in 209, the praetor C. Aurunculeius uses three letters ‘AVR’ (RRC 65).  We don’t know the position or identity of the Sicilian magistrates, C.VAR and C.AL, but c. 209-208 they choose to use their praenomen initial, as well as an abbreviation of their nomen.  This type of signing of issues by junior officials will become standard at Rome in the future.  We can look to the signed Egadi rams for a possible comparable phenomenon.  On other issues the letters seem to be used to designate the place of issue rather than a magistrate, such as at Luceria, Canusium and Corcyra (RRC 97-98A, 100, 101).  The place names and magistrates names may simply be thought of as functional elements for the purposes of identifying the source and/or authority behind the issue.  We need not read them as acts of self-aggrandizement.

Then there are the other abbreviations the resolution of which is more controversial: are they indicating magistrates or places? (e.g. RRC 92-95).   We can easily find places to match the abbreviations, but then fitting those places as possible mints into the historical narrative of the Hannibalic War becomes very problematic.  I’m not proposing to resolve these difficulties here.

It has long been recognized that the wheat-ear functions as symbol of Sicily on certain issues.   More interesting are some of the more ‘creative’ symbols used by the Sicilian mint, one’s we’re not absolutely positive about their identification.  A possible bit-drill (so Hersh for RRC 77) and measuring stick (RRC 78) and the pick-ax that might be a canting pun (RRC 73), but also isn’t that different from the ceremonial hammer found on coins from central Italy (RRC 59).   Then there is also the very odd serrated issue of denarii with a wheel (RRC 79).  Did the Sicilian mint have a fashion for practical tools as symbols?  Why?

On to the meat of the matter:

The Sicilian symbols help us see that there was room for experimentation with the range of symbols.  The introduction of three new symbols onto the coinage stand out in particular: the torque, the falcata, and the carnyx and shield.  None of these elements are typical elements in Hellenistic art, but are instead identifying attributes of Roman enemies, especially elements that the Roman troops actually encountered on the battlefield.  Both the torque and the carnyx appear frequently enought on the republican series and other media to make them familiar symbols to numismatists and art historians alike.  That said, their first appearance on the coinage is noteworthy.  These issues borrow a symbol of the enemy and display it on the coinage like a trophy of war, the appropriation of the symbol representing the defeat of the fearsome aggressor.   The torque victoriatus is very rare (RRC 91/1a; two in the BM and one in trade). Frankly, if we didn’t have a preconceived idea of what a torque looked like it would be a difficult symbol to decode, looking rather like an omega.   The carnyx and Gallic shield is far more common and the iconography beyond dispute (RRC 128; examples in trade, ANS specimens).  The falcata is called a knife by Crawford, but as one independent scholar has recognized, the republican coins are clearly representing the typical Iberian weapon.

File:Falcata íbera (M.A.N. Madrid) 03.jpg
Discovered in 1867 in Almedinilla (Province of Córdoba, Andalusia, Spain). Now in the National Archaeological Museum of Spain.

The falcata is depicted in Iberian funerary art as well (Blázquez 1988: 506; cf. Osuna relief).  It’s two occurrences on Roman coins should be seen as akin to depictions of carnyx, i.e. as appropriated symbols of the defeated enemy.


Reverse of RRC 120/1. 1988.82.15
Reverse of RRC 120/1. ANS 1988.82.15.
Reverse of RRC 109/1. 1991.7.3
Reverse of RRC 109/1. ANS 1991.7.3.

All of this is important because, taken together, these three types represent a critical development in the ‘money as monument’ phenomenon at Rome.  Just as actual torques, carnyces, shields, and falcatae were displayed in Rome as the spoils of war –dedicated in temples and hung on the houses of the generals as lasting testimony to the victories — so too the alien symbols on the coinage testify to the defeat of a specific formidable foe.

This is perhaps a natural evolution from, say, the display of enemy ship rams on war monuments and their appearance on the coins.

The later evolution of this phenomenon is well discussed by Claire Rowan.

On this topic also see this newer post.

164 out of 410 days: a Dolabella in Sicily during the 2nd Punic War?


For the type illustrated (RRC 73/1) above Crawford does not speculate in RRC as to the moneyer indicated by the pick-axe = dolabra = dolabella.  The use of this symbol as a plausible indication of the moneyer’s cognomen is demonstrated by these coins of Cn. Cornelius Dolabella (RRC 81, redated and relocated by Russo to 130-128 BC in Spain):


The likely moneyer of the earlier coin seems to me to be lurking in plain sight in Zonaras’ epitome of Cassius Dio:

After Marcellus had left Sicily, Hannibal sent a force of cavalry there, and the Carthaginians despatched another. They won several battles and acquired some cities; and if the praetor Cornelius Dolabella had not come against them, they would have subjugated all Sicily. 

This connection or lack of connection may go back to Münzer in RE.  Here is Broughton on the subject:



Here is the Livy in question:

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, one of those cities, for the settlement of Moericus and his Spaniards.

Of course, that then would open the sticky issue of how long this Cornelius (Dolabella?) was in Sicily and the chronology of the early denarii.  This passage about the settlement of the Spaniards in Morgantina is critical because we date the start of the denarius to 211 based on deposits found in the excavation of that site below the destruction level.  Dating the issue is problematic.  It appears in four hoards but all closing in the 70s or later.  Crawford justifies his dating thus:

The Sicilian origin of the four issues is adequately attested by their close stylistic link with the issue with corn-ear, their early date both by this link and by their heavy weight-standard [i.e. 4.5 g.]  (RRC vol 1. p. 17)

Badian did not include Zonaras’  Dolabella in his study of the Dolabellae of the Republic. He mentions in passing the consul of 283, but begins properly with the consul of 159, briefly speculating that his father would be the Cn. Cornelius Dolabella who was made Rex Sacrorum in 208 and died in 180 (Livy 27.36.5).  The rex sacrorum could be the same as Zonaras’  Dolabella.  If he were in his early 40s in 211BC in Sicily, he would have then died in his early 70s.

One strike against Livy’s Cornelius being a Dollabella is the praenomen Marcus which is otherwise unattested in this branch of the family.  So if Zonaras or Livy is likely to be wrong it is easy to see why Zonaras has previously been dismissed, being so late and so abbreviated. That said, Dio has access to sources other than Livy. An abbreviated praenomen can be miss-transcribed.  And with the coin as extra weight, I’m tempted to lean away from Livy towards Zonaras on this point.

We, of course, are then right to ask what happened to the M. Cornelius Cethegus credited with suppressing the Sicilian revolts after Marcellus’ departure?  We’d have to leave him in the province that was assigned to him that year in the first place, Apulia (Livy 25.41).

As an aside, I am interested to note that one Wikipedia entry on the gens Cornelii lists this Dolabella with no citation, whereas another excludes him.