Dioscuri and Desultores

This is a didrachm of one of Rome’s colonies, Suessa Aurunca.  This type is usually dated to the time of 1st Punic War.  The colony had been established in 313 BC as part of the Samnite Wars (Livy 9.28).  The place makes little mark on the literary narrative, appearing in such sleepy contexts as Cato’s recommendation on where to get a wagon or a mill.

The type is identified as a Dioscurus, i.e. either Castor or Pollux without his brother.  My first impression is that it looked rather like a desultor to me.

Obverse of RRC 480/21. ANS 1937.158.296 . Image links to a selection of other coin types also showing desultores.

This got me wondering what we actually know about desultores.  Less than you might think, I can assure you!  And many of our references are metaphorical (e.g. Cicero, Pro Murena 57).   There are only about 13 references in Latin literature.  The only certain testimony we have of their performance is during Julius Caesar’s triumphal games, and here they seem to be performances by elite youth (Suet. Iul. 39).   That they show up on the republican series more than once suggests they were a significant feature of Roman religious festivals or other celebrations, but which and when is up for debate.  Perhaps my favorite reference is their use in a piece of Augustan era Roman jurisprudence by Labeo preserved in the Justinian digest (19.5.20).

What about the Suessa coin above?  Dioscurus or desultor?  The confusion is more understandable when we look at this passage from Hyginus:

LXXX. CASTOR: Idas and Lynceus, sons of Apharesu from Messene, had as promised brides Phoebe and Hilaira, daughters of Leucippus. Since these were most beautiful maidens – Phoebe being a priestess of Minerva, and Hilaira of Diana – Castor and Pollux, inflamed with love, carried them off. But they, since their brides-to-be were lost, took to arms to see if they could recover them. Castor killed Lynceus in battle; Idas, at his brother’s death, forgot both strife and bride, and started to bury his brother. When he was placing the bones in a funeral monument, Castor intervened, and tired to prevent his raising the monument, because he had won over him as if he were a woman. In anger, Idas pierced the thigh of Castor with the sword he wore. Others say that as he was building the monument he pushed it on Castor and thus killed him. When they reported this to Pollux, he rushed up and overcame Idas in a single fight, recovered the body of his brother, and buried it. Since, however, he himself had received a star from Jove [Zeus], and one was not given to his brother, because Jove said that Castor and Clytemnestra were of the seed of Tyndareus, while he and Helen were children of Jove, Pollux begged that he be allowed to share his honor with his brother. This was granted him. [From this comes the expression “redeemed by alternate death”; and even the Romans preserve the practice. When they send out bareback riders, one man has two horses, and a cap on his head, and leaps from one horse to the other, just as Pollux takes turns with his brother.]

Thus, at least to Augustan era eyes, confusing the iconography of the Dioscuri and Desultores was no surprise.   Back to the mid third century.  I think it unlikely to have a Dioscurus without his brother and without another identifying mark like the star.  The palm branch is agonistic imagery and there is no reason that the coin can’t be an agonistic type.

I find myself surprised that the coins of Latin colonies are not more discussed in standard accounts of early Roman coinage.  In some ways the coins of Suessa, at least in the bronze seem to form a missing link of sorts between Rome and Neapolis, producing significant numbers of Apollo/man-faced bull coins that circulated with Neapolis coins [HN Italy 450] and the overstriking at Neapolis with this type of the new design of Minerva (Roma!?) and cock (symbol of fighting prowess, bravery, like a fighting cock or perhaps of Mercury?) [HN Italy 449].  All this musing is a spin off of my reading: “A hoard of bronze coins of the 3rd century BC found at Pratica di mare (Rome)” by Maria Cristina Molinari  in Proceedings to the XIV International Numismatic Congress, Glasgow 2009 (31 August – 4 September, (ed. N. HOLMES), Glasgow 2011

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5 thoughts on “Dioscuri and Desultores

  1. There may be yet another hint of a connection. The Stephenson Dictionary passage to which you linked mentions that Desultors were sometimes messengers (he doesn’t give a citation for this, although it is logical…leaping from the tired horse to the fresher of the two). If that were true, as I recall the Dioscuri were/became important to the Republic when they mysteriously appeared in Rome as messengers to announce the Roman victory at Lake Regulus (an event depicted on the denarius of A. Postumius S(p). f. Albinus (Cr. 335/10)). That also ties in with the palm branch sometimes shown with Desultors as on the Suessa coin…the announcement of victory (although the palm frond could certainly be the award of the Desultor’s victory at some ludi). Quite interesting.

    -Ken

  2. […] I was surprised to have so much trouble finding an image of this type.  Thus I thought I’d throw up this bad screen shot and link just to help the next numismatist so struggling.  HN Italy obviously knows more specimens than the Paris one as a weight range is given (6.1-6.4 g); I’ve not tracked down there locations.  Millingen although wrong to re attribute the coin to Sora, was correct to see it paralleling issues of Cales, Teanum, and Suessa. See my earlier post. […]

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