Agathocles, Neapolis, Tarentum and Rome, c. 300-294 BC

“287. Apollo right, four dolphins surrounding, dotted border / MFB right with head in profile, trident above, NEOΠOΛITΩN in ex. (Sambon 650). Circa 300-275 BC. Æ 18mm (7.25 gm). Laureate head of Apollo right; four dolphins around / Man-headed bull standing right; trident above. SNG France 884; SNG ANS 463; HN Italy 577.(Source: Classical Numismatic Group: )” From:

It’s the day before classes begin.  And, I’m very happy to have gotten most of my class prep for the semester out of the way earlier this month.  The transition from Istanbul to Brooklyn was temporarily all consuming, along with other personal matters of a rather happy sort.  Anyways, I’m not sure the future of this blog post-sabbatical, but today it seems useful once again.  Here’s hoping in between classes and meetings there will be many more moments to obsess about coins.

Back in March Nick Molinari pointed out to me the coin above and how it is a good parallel to RRC 2/1. That lead me to put a note about in my book manuscript.  Yesterday, I came across the passage and found a marginalia by a helpful reader “explain or cut”.  I realized I hadn’t really thought it through it myself.

Of course, the most unusual feature of the above coin isn’t the profile instead of 3/4s head of the man-faced bull, but instead the dolphin wreathing the obverse head as commonly found on the coinage of Syracuse.  Here’s Andrew Burnett on the phenomenon in silver (SNR 56 (1977); image links to full article):


Here’s a link to images of the silver (see nos. 455-459) from Neapolis  and an example of the Tarentine gold staters.  The problem comes with trying to reconstruct what the heck Syracusan imagery is doing on the coinages of these two cities at this particular time.  Our historical understanding of Agathocles policy is Southern Italy is severely hamstrung by the loss of Diodorus’  continuous narrative after 302 BC.  Meister in the CAH VII part I, p. 405ff. does his best to reconstruct a narrative but its perhaps over full.  He’s convinced that Agathocles is trying to build a series of alliances against Carthaginian power: “a carefully considered plan lay behind the Syracusan ruler’s Italian policy – he clearly aimed to consolidate the entire forces of the western Greek world under his hegemony for the planned new confrontation with Carthage” (p. 406).  True? False? We just don’t have the sources to make this kind of claim.  I suspect that Meister is too influenced in this by his belief in the so-called Philinus Treaty, in which Carthage promised to stay out of Italy and Rome out of Sicily c. 306 BC.

What do we know?  There seems to be near continuous campaigning by Agathocles or his generals, c. 300-294 BC.  Our first source is Trogus 23.1-2.  He says that Agathocles was inploratus (beseeched, begged, implored) to come to Italy, but doesn’t specify by whom and then goes onto talk about his engagement with Brutti.  A passage of Strabo suggests that Tarentum is likely to have been the beseecher (6.3.4):


And yet how Tarentum might have benefited from Agathocles’ war with the Brutti is not at all clear.  Trogus leaves us in media res with Agathocles leaving the Bruttian campaign unexpectedly to return to Sicily on account of illness.  We pick up the narrative a year or two (?) later with Diodorus 21.2-3.  Agathocles captures Corcyra from Macedonian forces and then ‘returns’ to the forces he’s left in Italy only to find his Etruscan and Ligurian mercenaries have been behaving badly towards his son.  He kill 2000 mercenaries and for some reason this alienates the Brutti (whom he’s subsequently subdue?!).  A botched attempt to capture the town leads to a night attack that sends Agathocles once again back to Syracuse.  c. 295 he’s back in Italy capturing Croton and giving Iapygians and Peucetians ‘pirate’ ships (Diod. 21.4). c. 294 he’s in the territory of the Brutti besieging Hipponium, the future Vibo (Diod. 21.8).  And both years Stilpo his naval captain is harassing Bruttian coastline (21.4 & 8). [Link to Diodorus]

These data points are really minimal.  It’s probably not too much of a stretch to take the Tarentine gold staters as confirmation of the Tarentine/Agathocles relationship mentioned by Strabo.  There are other examples of the Tarentine’s referring to their foreign allies on their coins, although these are invariably controversial in interpretation.

It’s logical to slip the Neapolis coins in this same 300-294 BC window and hypothesize some sort of diplomatic arrangement between Neapolis and the Syracusan king.  The silver has three different known initials on it suggesting perhaps issues over a number of years? [A die study would clear up that question.] Bronze types (that illustrated above and HN Italy 578) have naval imagery on them (trident and dolphin respectively) and we can notice that Agathocles seems particularly eager to control shipping lanes in the course of his Italic and concurrent campaigns.  So perhaps we might speculate that the arrangement with Neapolis was related to some sort of naval agreement.

As primarily a Romanist my real question is how does Rome particularly fit into this mess?  My feeling is the RRC 2/1 is likely to have been engraved at Neapolis by the same engraver who did HN Italy 577 and 578 in roughly the same time frame.  The  rendering of the legends and the man-faced bull are the primary points of the overlap.  And the absence of this profile man-faced bull otherwise on the Neapolis speaks for a tight chronology.  So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the campaigns of Agathocles in Italy are some of our best dating evidence for RRC 2/1, c.300-294BC, given we have no available hoard evidence and only a single known specimen.


Update 8 January 2015:  Just ILL-ed Spadea, Roberto. “Crotone tra i Dionisi ed Agatocle.” pp. 107-120 in Krise und Wandel : Süditalien im 4. und 3. Jahrhundert v. Chr. : internationaler Kongress anlässlich des 65. Geburtstages von Dieter Mertens, hrsg. von Richard Neudecker. Wiesbaden : Reichert, 2011.   This uses hoard evidence from 2005 to look at Agathocles impact on Croton.  Tangentially related but always good to see hoards being worked into the historical narrative.

For a reconstruction of Agathocles’ Italian engagements that emphasizes tensions with Rome, see Decebal Nebu, “Agathocles and the Italic Powers at the Beginning of the 3rd Century B.C.” Revista Pontica  43 (2010): 37-50.