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) :

Capture

Capture

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…

 

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