Laurel Branches vs Olive Branches

Obverse of RRC 494/24. 0000.999.3394
Obverse of RRC 494/24. ANS 0000.999.3394

I really shouldn’t open a coin database on a day I need to prep teaching, its far too distracting.  I’m keeping this post shortish just so I have a note of the issue.

We’ve talked else where about the symbolism of the caduceus and its association with peace.  Given that, when I first saw this coin my impression was that branch behind Caesar’s head was an olive branch, but it’s labelled by Crawford a laurel branch.  So after a bit of poking around I’m fairly convinced that republican engravers were quite sloppy about the difference between these two species in their numismatic representations.  So for instance it’s mostly context that let’s us say these are olive branches not laurel branches, i.e. representations of peace (supplication!?), not victory.

As an aside the Macedonian type is a great example supporting Clare Rowan’s thesis that Roman images of power were often created in the provinces (cf also the numismatic portrayals of the supplications of Bocchus and Aretas).

Similarly laurel branches are identified as such based on context:

So with comparative iconography really struggling to offer any help, how do we resolve the type of species and its symbolism on the Caesar coin?  We could rely on a semantic bleeding over from the caduceus.  Or we could use a bit of deductive reasoning.  Laurels connoting victory are usually laurel wreaths not branches.  Laurel branches are more often associated with the cult of Apollo and as there is no good reason to bring the cult of Apollo in the mean being the Caesar coin, we might conclude that an olive branch is more likely…

Update 1/17/16:

Both Laurel and Olive Branches are attested in ancient cases of Supplication:

Naiden, Ancient Supplication (OUP 2006) :



Added 1/19/16:

Pliny NH 15.40: The laurel itself is a bringer of peace, inasmuch as to hold out a branch of it even between enemy armies is a token of a cessation of hostilities. With the Romans especially it is used as a harbinger of rejoicing and of victory, accompanying despatches and decorating the spears and javelins of the soldiery and adorning the generals’ rods of office. From this tree a branch is deposited in the lap of Jupiter the All-good and All-great whenever a fresh victory has brought rejoicing, and this is not because the laurel is continually green, nor yet because it is an emblem of peace, as the olive is to be preferred to it in both respects, but because it flourishes in the greatest beauty on Mount Parnassus and consequently is thought to be also dear to Apollo, to whose shrine even the kings of Rome at that early date were in the custom of sending gifts and asking for oracles in return, as is evidenced by the case of Brutus…


Measuring Sticks, Decempeda, Pertica etc…

Denarius, Sicily circa 209-208, AR 4.48 g. Helmeted head of Roma r.; behind, X. Rev. The Dioscuri galloping r.; below, staff and ROMA in tablet. Sydenham 208. Crawford 78/1. NAC 33 (2006), lot 204.

A while back when I first looked at this type I asked a colleague who works on science and technology in the ancient world and their representations in literature what he thought about Crawford’s suggestion that this “staff” is actually a measuring tool, specifically the decempeda.   He wrote back that he thought it a plausible identification and added:

“It doesn’t have ten divisions, but I don’t think that matters; it’s clearly some kind of ruler. Also called ‘pertica’: see Propertius 4.1.127-130 for association with land confiscation. And ps.-Vergil Dirae (‘Curses’) line 45.”   The key line reads:

nam tua cum multi uersarent rura iuuenci,
    abstulit excultas pertica tristis opes.

Even though many bullocks ploughed your fields, the merciless measuring-rod stole your wealth of land.

What the literary tradition suggests is a generally negative connotation of symbol.  An emphasis on the confiscation aspects of its application.  Could this really be a numismatic symbol?  Is it just a staff?  I’ve been a bit ambivalent, until today.

I was skimming for a good Caesar coin or two in the ANS database for my next class and came across this beauty.  Outside the time frame of my book project, but still very interesting indeed.

Reverse of RRC 525/4c. 1941.131.338
Reverse of RRC 525/4c. ANS 1941.131.338

Here we have a young Ti. Sempronius Gracchus (quaestor designate!) trading on the reputation of his famous name by aligning himself with contemporary land distributions, particularly to Caesar’s veterans.  Notice the Legionary standards set right next to a plow and our measuring stick.

The flip side of confiscations is always distributions.  The power of the measuring stick as political symbol is its appeal to those to benefit from the rearrangement of property holdings.  Its power as a literary device is just the opposite.

What resonance would the symbol have in Sicily c. 209-208BC?  The Romans certainly engaged in some territorial redistributions on the island as rewards to their allies.  I do not want to say RRC 78 refers to any one such confiscation and allocation, but as an illustrative example, I provide a passage from Livy (26.21) that will be quite familiar to numismatists already:

Not the least conspicuous feature of the spectacle was the sight of Sosis the Syracusan and Moericus the Spaniard who marched in front wearing golden crowns. The former had guided the nocturnal entry into Syracuse, the latter had been the agent in the surrender of Nasos and its garrison. Each of these men received the full Roman citizenship and 500 jugera of land. Sosis was to take his allotment in that part of the Syracusan territory which had belonged to the king or to those who had taken up arms against Rome, and he was allowed to choose any house in Syracuse which had been the property of those who had been put to death under the laws of war. A further order was made that Moericus and the Spaniards should have assigned to them a city and lands in Sicily out of the possessions of those who had revolted from Rome. M. Cornelius was commissioned to select the city and territory for them, where he thought best, and 400 jugera in the same district were also decreed as a gift to Belligenes through whose instrumentality Moericus had been induced to change sides. After Marcellus’ departure from Sicily a Carthaginian fleet landed a force of 8000 infantry and 3000 Numidian horse. The cities of Murgentia and Ergetium revolted to them, and their example was followed by Hybla and Macella and some other less important places. Muttines and his Numidians were also roaming all through the island and laying waste the fields of Rome’s allies with fire. To add to these troubles the Roman army bitterly resented not being withdrawn from the province with their commander and also not being allowed to winter in the towns. Consequently they were very remiss in their military duties; in fact it was only the absence of a leader that prevented them from breaking out into open mutiny. In spite of these difficulties the praetor M. Cornelius succeeded by remonstrances and reassurances in calming the temper of his men, and then reduced all the revolted cities to submission. In pursuance of the senate’s orders he selected Murgentia [i.e. Morgantina], one of those cities, for the settlement of Moericus and his Spaniards.