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.


2 thoughts on “Representing the Defeated Enemy, or the Appropriation of Symbols

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