Bullae, for context

Picture

Much of the ‘noise’ in the scholarship regarding the Flamininus stater is over whether it is closer to Hellenistic Royal Portraiture, esp. Philip V, or if it is instead an example of Roman verism, the ‘warts and all’ style so well known from the late republic.  Is it more like this:

Obverse Image

or is it more like this:

File:Head old Roman Glyptothek Munich 320.jpg

Most seem to have become bored with this argument lately and have settled on a both/and answer.  The royal die cutter was used to making royal style portraits but conceded certain details to give it a more authentically Roman air.  All plausible enough, but the conversation seems to have done little to incorporate other evidence for Roman portraiture in the early period.  Some items that might be contemporary are hard to date without archaeological context and poor comparative evidence.  Take for instance this signet ring found at the site of ancient Capua and now in the Naples Museum:

This portrait is such a prestige piece that it is signed by the artist.   Opinions vary from the 3rd to the 1st century BC.  I’ve no strong opinion, other than to emphasize that  to ‘identify’ it as one of the Scipios, especially one of the famous ones, is pure fantasy.   What we need are some portraits with provenance.    And, lo!  we have them. They just are barely published (as far as I can find so far and I’d be very happy to learn I’ve missed shiny new fully illustrated catalogue).  1,756 readable seal impressions were found in a controlled excavation of a Hellenistic Archive beneath a sealed deposit layer securely dated to 145BC.  Of those 20%, that’s right TWENTY percent are portraits.  The only color image I can find is the one above.  These are the only other images I can find from the preliminary publication of the archive.

Capture

There has been a very limited attempt to integrate these new findings with what we know about Roman self presentation, but we won’t be able to say much until they are properly published.  [Surely, someone must be working on the collection for a dissertation…]

My first reactions are two fold.  Portraits as seals were not limited to royalty and the style of these portraits is comfortable between ‘dynamic idealism’ and ‘rugged verism’.   Are any of them Roman?  Who knows. But they are all part of Hellenistic repertoire.  Flamininus could have easily have a portrait seal ring in such a style, but that’s not even required.  Just the idea that objects could be validated and made official by the impression of a portrait might be catalyst enough for the creation.  Yes, portraiture on coins is predominantly associated with kings, but kings put many many other images on their coins as well.  The portrait-equals-king  and king-equal-portrait formula may not be as rock solid in 197 BC as we often flippantly assume in Roman numismatic discussions: no one was worried about Flamininus overthrowing the Roman body politic in the same way they were about Caesar in 45/4 BC.

[There are other such archives with massive collections of sealings, but it’s the fixed deposit layer and secure dating that makes Kedesh so special.]

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