79 out of 410 days: Trial by Snake

This is the coin type at the heart of the chapter I need finish by the end of the month. I don’t expect to write too much about it here as I seem to like to keep my free writing and the formal writing separate. Yesterday was mostly looking at possible (and impossible!) epigraphic references to other members of the moneyer’s family, the gens Mamilia. Today I was chasing up the references from an old article that suggested the type is all about the moneyer showing support for the Italians. Not an idea I’m ready to support, but the references he cited were all fascinating. Here’s the best of the lot:

In the bodies of these people there was by nature a certain kind of poison, which was fatal to serpents, and the odour of which overpowered them with torpor: with them it was a custom to expose children immediately after their birth to the fiercest serpents, and in this manner to make proof of the fidelity of their wives, the serpents not being repelled by such children as were the offspring of adultery. This nation, however, was almost entirely extirpated by the slaughter made of them by the Nasamones, who now occupy their territory. This race, however, still survives in a few persons who are descendants of those who either took to flight or else were absent on the occasion of the battle. The Marsi, in Italy, are still in possession of the same power, for which, it is said, they are indebted to their origin from the son of Circe, from whom they acquired it as a natural quality. But the fact is, that all men possess in their bodies a poison which acts upon serpents, and the human saliva, it is said, makes them take to flight, as though they had been touched with boiling water. The same substance, it is said, destroys them the moment it enters their throat, and more particularly so, if it should happen to be the saliva of a man who is fasting

The other references also mention snake taming, but they’re not quite as fun (Pliny NH 25.11, Serv. Aen. 7.750, Sil., Ital. Pun. 8.495-510). I find it hard to believe that Mamilius is claiming kinship with the Marsi as fellow offspring of Circe via the coin, but who doesn’t like a good snake story?! It made me think of the ritual being shown on this coin:

Propertius 8.4 helps us understand the image:

Lanuvium, from of old, is guarded by an ancient serpent: the hour you spend on such a marvellous visit won’t be wasted; where the sacred way drops down through a dark abyss, where the hungry snake’s tribute penetrates (virgin, be wary of all such paths!), when he demands the annual offering of food, and twines, hissing, from the centre of the earth. Girls grow pale, sent down to such rites as these, when their hand is rashly entrusted to the serpent’s mouth. He seizes the tit-bits the virgins offer: the basket itself trembles in their hands. If they’ve remained chaste they return to their parents’ arms, and the farmers shout: ‘It will be a fertile year.’

This seems to be part of cult of Juno Sospita, or at very least it took place in close proximity with her sanctuary and it is her head on the obverse of the coin. Here’s some recent scholarship with references. The cult at Lanuvium is rightly contextualized by the accounts of the powers to charm snakes linked to Circe and her ilk (Medea, Angitia, etc) and the origins of various Italic peoples and associations with specific Italian topography.

***

The original wire transfer is still lost. I spent a horrible time on the phone with HSBC. Again. We’re investigating other services… I took a break to write this post largely because I need to tamp down my rage to get back to writing properly.

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