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.

292 out of 410 days: Signia

Kombination af to masker og et vildsvinehoved. Romersk ringsten
Combination of two masks and a wild boar’s head. Roman ringstone, 100-300 Cornelian. 1,1 x 1,6 cm. Inventory number: I1538. Thorvaldsens Museum.

Sometimes I tell myself I’m too obsessed with the connection between gems and coins.  And then one of my hunches pays off and the obsession comes back full swing.  In case the above image doesn’t set off exciting alarm bells in your head, allow me to remind you what the coins of Signia, a Latin Colony, during the Pyrrhic War looked like:

Latium, Signia. Obol circa 280-275, AR 0.64 g. Head of Mercury r., wearing petasus; below neck, dolphin r. Rev. Mask composed of Silenus head l., and boar’s head r.; below, SEIC. Campana CNAI 1b (this reverse die). BMC 3 (this reverse die). Historia Numorum Italy 343 var.

[I show this particular specimen just so I can point out that it reappeared back on the market with a brand new patina, all nice and shiny and toned just one year later, and fetched a much higher price.  I think it looked just lovely before some one decided to ‘fix’ it.]

Let me assure you that the gem above is by no means a one off.

Beazley Archive Reference Number: 716; Description: Heads of a BOAR and a man conjoined. Inscribed in Greek THIE. Current Collection: Walters Art Museum, Baltimore: 42.1070; Previous Collections: Story-Maskelyne, M.H.: The Marlborough Gems (1870): no. 716. Material: Jasper

And based on descriptions without images the Thorvaldsens Museum has a number more similar gems, Inventory numbers: I1537,  I1539,  I1722, I1536.   The last two are of particular interest as they are glass pastes which suggests the image had resonance with members of a variety of different social classes.

This particular type even made the BBC!

Roman intaglio
From a 30 March 2010 article ‘Guernsey, the Roman Empire’s trading post’. Image links to article.

What the heck does it mean?  Was it the badge of some particular noble?  Or like grylloi is it a humorous, apotropaic emblem? Or a philosophic meditation on the theme of man and beast?  Or all these things?  or something else entirely?

OR! the penny drops!  Is it a visual pun?!  Signia in Latin is also the plural form of the neuter noun meaning: standard, seal, sign, signal, proof, indication from the verb signo to mark, stamp, designate, sign, seal.  The type chosen is a very very common seal type.  [This is why I blog by the way. It took writing the whole damn post for that penny to drop and me to make the obvious connection.]  This is a really exciting idea to me.  Name puns are all over Roman Republican coinage to show its early early adoption is Latium is especially good. I think it provides a missing link of sorts between the ideas I explored in this earlier post discussing Republican habits, the Abdera series, and Timeaus.  [I’ve talked about puns a lot on this blog, but that post is the best of the lot I think.]

For follow-up later: Henig has some clever things to say about gems usually.  There are two possibly related gems (CG72 and CG 354)  in the Fitzwilliam that he’s written up in his 1994 catalogue.  Must get those pages from ILL…  Strangely none returned in BM, Met, or Boston MFA searches all of which have robust gem collections.

As an aside, I find it funny that Mercury on the obverse is wearing a necklace or similar band.  At first I thought at first it might be an unfortunate die break, but it shows up on a different die as well, but not all of the dies.  Also what the heck does Mercury have to do with dolphins?  Could it have anything to do with bizarre composite deity on the coins of Bursio who has wings and a trident (RRC 352/1)?  I doubt it.  But finding any representation Hermes or Mercury with any nautical attributes is tricky.

Update 4/11/2014:  If more canting types from Italy are sought, consider Rutter’s note at HN Italy 446, an obol of  the Saunitai with a javelin head on the reverse, σαύνιον = javelin.  He gives a date of c. 325.

Update 7/12/2017:

Another example of this gem type from Gori:


cf. also this other Gori plate.


190 out of 410 days: Silenus, Pan, and Dionysus (Father Liber)


There seems to me to be some logical inconsistency in how we identify Pan and Silenus on Roman Republican coins.  The type above is likely the first to depict either.  Crawford dates it to 91; Mattingly prefers 90 (2004: 248).  Quite logically the “Silenus” on the obverse is taken to pun on the moneyer’s name, D. Silanus.  The following year (according to both Crawford and Mattingly), C. Vibius Pansa strikes a coin that looks like this:


These coins might almost be called vanity pieces.  There were probably less than 10 dies created for the manufacture for these types, but his other coins with Apollo and Minerva in a Quadriga (RRC 342/4-5) used upwards of a 1000 dies.  Crawford assumes another name pun and identifies the head with pointy ears as Pan and the head with the ivy wreath as Silenus and sees them both as masks.  Notice the heads have no necks.  I find this problematic as Silanus’ Silenus and Pansa’s Pan have nearly identical iconography.  If we look beyond the coins to for comparative iconography it become clear that Pan and Silenus have a pretty distinctive iconography.  Pans are part goat and usually have more animalistic bodies, especially their lower halves.  Their heads are marked out by two goat horns rising from their forehead.  Silenoi or Papasilenus is an old satyr, pug-nosed, covered in a white flocked suit on stage, and horse ears like any satyr.  [Note: the ears are pretty much the only difference between a Silenus depiction and that of Socrates.]  Here is a perfect side by side:

Red jasper gem engraved with the conjoined masks of Pan and Seilenos; above is a star, below is a shepherd's crook.

Of course, rigid rules need not apply.  Perhaps the same image can represent both Silenus and Pan.  Compare for instance these coins of Panticapaeum:

The head on the coins of this city is often identified in catalogs as Silenus but because of the name of the community a visual pun is often assumed.

I am less convinced that a case can be made for the ivy crowded figure to be a Silenus.  The face is just too smooth, the nose to straight.  This seems very much like a head of Dionysus.  The hair style is the same as that found on the Thasian type used by the Romans in Macedonia:

Compare the hair roll over the forehead, the loop down in front of the ears, and the prominent back knot.  The two locks of hair hanging down have been slightly modified on the Roman type.  The front is left curly the back has been modified into a straight fillet, perhaps to emphasize the mask like qualities.  Notice that the two bunches of ivy berries at the top of the head and the ivy leaves below.  The typical five on the Thracian type have become just three but with lobes and berries.

Pansa’s silver types was echoed on a few of the bronzes of his fellow moneyer Q. Titius:

Copper alloy coin.

Copper alloy coin.

Q. Titius depicts a beardless Liber on his denarii with a very similar hair style:

These are the first representations of Liber (Roman Dionysus) on the silver coinage.  His first appearance at all was on an especially created denomination of the silver the bes or 2/3s coin = 8 unciae.

Even on this rare worn specimen the hair style can be made out.

The adoptive son of the Pansa just mentioned echoed elements of his father’s series in 48 BC (RRC 449).


I’ve put up this small selection just to note the later rendering of Dionysus and the Pan/Silenus mask.  On the series of 90/89BC (RRC 342), Ceres had been paired with Apollo who is now missing from the later series, replace with a youthful Dionysus.

Update 3 January 2014: Just another nice juxtaposition of Silenus (central figure; note: beard and balding forehead and hair suit) and Pan (right figure, note: two horns from top of his head)


Mirror with symposion scene; Baltimore, The Walters Art Gallery; Etruskische Spiegel V, Taf. 43. Discussed in T. P. Wiseman. ‘The God of the Lupercal’, JRS 85 (1995) 1-22, at 9-10 (with plates 1-111) and ‘Liber; Myth, Drama and Ideology in Republican Rome’ in The Roman Middle Republic (2000) 265-299.  Wiseman identifies Marsyas as a type of silenos.  Here we see him dancing being imitated by a little pan, labelled Painiscos, or ‘Paniskos’.



Also note regarding the name pun on Silanus’s coin the first illustated above, inWiseman 2000: 270 with fig. 6 & 7 that younger satyrs with no beard or a short beard are labeled SILANOS and SILANVS.