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Author Topic: caesar's elephant coin  (Read 6087 times)

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mharlan

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caesar's elephant coin
« on: May 27, 2013, 10:17:34 am »
In the books and reference section under the topic Review of Harlan's book, I was asked about the availability of my first book and I responded that I am working on a revision. Recently, I was doing more work on Acilius’ coin (Crawford 442) for the revision and the course of the research has led me to a new interpretation of Caesar’s elephant coin which I intend to add to the revision. I did not discuss Caesar’s coin in the first edition because I saw the regular workings of the Republic and the Sullan constitution ending at Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. I would like to share my new suggestion here. Those who have the first book might reread the chapter on Acilius. The traditional dating of Acilius’ coin depicting Salus on the obverse and Valetudo on the reverse has been Crawford’s date of 49 which has led to interpretations of the coin as Caesarian propaganda. Dating it to 50 removes that possibility and opens up the possibility that it is Pompeian propaganda. My basic argument is that the coin was issued by the Pompeians in preparation for war with Caesar and that the bulk of the 7,500,000 denarii Caesar found in coined money in the treasury in 49 was Acilius’ issue. The Pompeian message was that they were the ones fighting to preserve the Salus of the Republic. The irony then is that Acilius’ coins were probably counted into the hands of Caesar’s soldiers. The propaganda reality was that both sides claimed to be fighting to preserve the Salus of the Republic. But while working on Acilius’ coin, I happened to read an article on Caesar’s elephant coin by Debra L. Nousek, ‘Turning Points in Roman History: The Case of Caesar’s Elephant Denarius,’ Phoenix, Vol. 62, No. 3/4, 2008. She basically comes down on the side of the argument in favor of Pliny’s description of the fight between the elephant and the python. But in the course of her article she cited a small bronze coin minted by Aulus Hirtius in Gaul that used the same image of elephant trampling serpent on the obverse, but inscribed with his name HIRTIVS in the exergue instead of CAESAR. This got me to thinking. Most interpretations see the elephant as Caesar and the snake trampled by the elephant as the Pompeians. Part of that assumption rests on the big, bold inscription of Caesar in the exergue. But if Hirtius saw no reason to connect the name Caesar with the elephant and replaced it with his own name, should we connect the name Caesar with the elephant? And would the Romans? This question and the fact that I was working on Acilius’ coin at this same time led me in a new direction. What might a Roman readily recognize in the symbols of the elephant and the snake? On Acilius’ coin, Valetudo (another manifestation of Salus on the obverse) holds a snake and the snake is the most commonly recognized attribute of Salus. The other common modern interpretation of Caesar’s coin as representing a triumph of good over evil is because to the Christian mind the snake is associated with evil, but Acilius’ coin makes it clear that that is not the pagan view. And what about the elephant? In my new book I discussed Pompey’s aureus of 71 and how it can be seen as a subtle, or not so subtle, dig at Metellus. The Caecilii Metelli had adopted the elephant as the family badge, the most notable usages were Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius’ coin of 81 and Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius’ coin of 47-46. The Romans would easily recognize the elephant as a Metellan reference since the Metelli themselves promoted it. Quoting from my intended revision of the chapter on Acilius’ coin

Dio Cassius made it clear that the most vehement enemy of Caesar in the Senate debates of 50 was Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio who put forward the motion that Caesar be declared a public enemy if he did not disband his troops. Caesar said that the Senate was intimated by threats from Pompey’s friends and reluctantly adopted Scipio’s proposal. Caesar put much of the blame for the civil war on Scipio who had become Pompey’s father-in-law in 52 and had shared the consulship with Pompey that year. Recounting the reasons for the civil war, Caesar was careful to avoid blaming Pompey directly and he claimed that Pompey had been led astray and corrupted (depravatum) by Caesar’s enemies who were jealous of his glory, while he himself had always promoted Pompey’s honor and dignity.
……..
With a very clever, yet simple, turn on the Pompeian propaganda of Acilius’ coin, the snake has been taken from the hands of Valetudo and trampled by the Metellan elephant. Caesar showed Rome that Metellus Scipio and his supporters were the true threat to the health and safety of the Republic, the true cause of the civil war.

Offline cicerokid

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #1 on: May 27, 2013, 11:05:37 am »

Yes I buy that!

I have never seen a clear representation of the  snake on the coin.

Is it bearded or not?

Cic
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Offline crawforde

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #2 on: May 27, 2013, 12:47:43 pm »
Interesting theory. 
I'm waiting for the book, hoping for more good stories.  :)


Offline carthago

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #3 on: May 27, 2013, 12:52:41 pm »
That is a well thought out argument and it is persuasive in my view.  The serpent is clearly viewed incorrectly through our modern, Christian eye as  you don't see it being demonized on other Roman coins that I know of from those times.

Another, albeit much simpler, explanation was put forth in a Celator article a few years back that the serpent isn't a serpent at all; it's a carnyx.  That argument was that this issue was simply advertising the triumphs of Caesar over the Gauls.  Looking at some of my elephant issues, it certainly doesn't look like any snake I've seen because it's got ears!

I frankly like you're argument best because it makes for a much better story.  Thanks for sharing it.

Offline NormW

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #4 on: May 27, 2013, 06:40:43 pm »
I agree with the Carnyx idea. I think the snake is symbolic of the battle horns the Gauls used that looked like serpents.

Offline Marcelo Leal

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #5 on: May 28, 2013, 04:53:36 pm »
Interesting theory!!!

Regards,
Marcelo Leal.
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Offline Holding_History

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #6 on: May 31, 2013, 09:24:13 am »
Very interesting, and well studied  +++. Which book is being referred too? I am working on my library and this one sounds like a good addition.
All the best,
Nathan

mharlan

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #7 on: June 01, 2013, 09:45:17 am »
The book I am referring to is Roman Republican Moneyers and Their Coins 63 BC - 49 BC which was published by Batsford in 1995. It is out of print and extremely expensive on the used market. Acilius' chapter is in that book. Since I recently self-published Roman Republican Moneyers and Their Coins 81 BCE - 64 BCE (which is available from Forum Ancient Coins at a reasonable price), I am revising that older edition  taking into consideration some of the criticism offered in reviews and from email exchanges with people who have read the books. I hope to have a new edition available toward the end of summer, but you will not be able to put it on your library shelf since I will probably make it an ebook. The modern world!

Offline spqrclaudius

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #8 on: June 06, 2013, 10:32:41 pm »
The problem is, it seems so clear that the elephant is triumphing over the serpent, it undercuts the idea that it is the villain in the image. I think it represents good over evil...

Offline Warren

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #9 on: June 09, 2013, 07:07:36 pm »
Michael, you noted
"she cited a small bronze coin minted by Aulus Hirtius in Gaul that used the same image of elephant trampling serpent on the obverse, but inscribed with his name HIRTIVS in the exergue instead of CAESAR." 
   The AE type is very rare:
http://www.acsearch.info/ext_image.html?id=482856

Hirtius minted numerous aurei (very common for the denomination) jointly with Caesar. The elephant type of Caesar was common and Hirtius was on Caesar's side, so that is enough reason for Hirtius to adopt Caesar's type ("Caesar and I are good buddies"). This could be even if the elephant originally somehow referred directly to Caesar.
  Michael Grant devoted a RNS Presidential lecture to the idea that very common types are important. I  don't think we should put much weight on the very rare types, especially if there is an alternative explanation.
  --  Warren

Offline spqrclaudius

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #10 on: June 09, 2013, 07:32:00 pm »
I agree with you, Warren. The very choice of the imagery associated with the office of Pontifex Maximus on the reverse suggests that Caesar was always associated with this coin, even when Hirtius issued it.

Offline Andrew McCabe

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #11 on: June 10, 2013, 04:10:32 am »
Bernhard Woytek's book, Arma et Nummi, is devoted to the coinage of the period, and has a large photo of the elephant type, which he discusses at length, on the cover. There was also an article in the Numismatic Chronicle in I think 2011 about this issue and its symbolism. The elephant type is securely dated to 49-48 BC by findspots that track the civil war battles of the period; I can't comment on the Acilia type. Woytek I recall goes with the conventional good over evil interpretation. The Hirtius link is provided of course by the same type in bronze with Hirtius' name, A.HIRTIV in place of Caesar.

http://www.acsearch.info/record.html?id=316457


The elephant type (I make no comment on the Acilia). is probably unknowable beyond the plain evidence of what the type shows and the link to Hirtius, and CAESAR on the obverse. There is no obvious story that it clearly relates to, either historical or mythological. I suspect that if it wasn't obvious to the users, then we certainly won't make it out. We might look for a Caecilia to link it to, we can speculate on the issuer, but nothing is provable. What we know is what the coin actually says, the Hirtius link, the 49BC hoard evidence, and that there were several sub-issues involved (one from Narbo due to the minting technique used, i.e. multiple parallel dies, which incidentally is also the sub-issue that Hirtius copies, another from further east but in either Transalpine or Cisalpine Gaul, probably associated with the Marseilles siege in 49BC, and a third that uses the mint techology and engraving style of the Narbo issue but copies some of the stylistic peculiarities of the Marseille issue and that may perhaps be Spanish).

I don't know about the Acilia, but I guess it's placed by hoard examination, i.e. I suspect the 49BC date has been well founded by others. I recall it is treated in Arma et Nummi (as are all issues 49-42 BC)

Those interested in these series should get Woytek's book. It's easily available. Still in print. German text, but well indexed with lots of good plates and from the layout one can find specific issues and their discussion easily.

Warren makes a good point following from Grant's lecture that common types are important. If that is the case then they also probably have conventional and simple readings. There are other views. Crawford still thinks that no-one looked at the types, no more than that they looked at State Quarters or 2 euro commemoratives. Some unthinking beauraucrat put together a type from some simple guidance provided by the issuer. "Hey, give us a good over evil allegory. Make sure the bosses name is big and clear". Or even "my general is a Caecilia, put an elephant on it", and the snake was just decoration. That's what Crawford thinks generally happened, and he thinks it not productive to spend too much time worrying about types, unless (a crucial caveat) there is non-coin evidence to compare with.

mharlan

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #12 on: June 12, 2013, 11:11:06 am »
The most commonly accepted interpretation of Caesar’s elephant coin is the Good over Evil theme. In Christian art the Virgin Mary is depicted stepping on the snake. This is a representation of the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15 where God tells Satan, the snake, that the seed of the woman would crush his head. The readily recognized figures of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and the snake, Satan, make it easy to see how this Christian image can be interpreted as the triumph of Good over Evil, but do the figures of elephant and snake on Caesar’s coin conjure up a similar idea in the pagan mind? There are no ancient myths that tell of a fight between an elephant and snake, but Pliny in his Natural History records a story about a battle between a python and an elephant. However, in this battle both the elephant and the python die, there is no victor. If the elephant and the snake are to be interpreted as an allegorical representation of the victory of good over evil, the snake has to be seen as evil and the elephant as good and the elephant must win. The snake is the biggest problem with this interpretation. Did the pagans see the snake as evil just as the Christians did? Although there are a number of myths involving evil snakes killed by heroes, the snake was never associated with the fall of man and never became demonized like the snake in the Garden of Eden. Snakes were more commonly associated with good things such as fertility, health (Salus), and rebirth in the pagan tradition. The snake was simply not an iconic symbol of evil to the pagan mind. It was the Christians who looked at the pagans worshipping the snake and labeled it Satanic worship. Would the pagan see the elephant as an iconic symbol of Good? Here there is nothing at all to suggest that the pagan associated the elephant with goodness. The only way we can get there is to assume that the elephant represents Caesar who put his name on the coin under the elephant (obviously good since he was minting the coin). But of the two animals on the coin, the one that the pagan mind would most easily associate with good things is the snake. Is Caesar the snake? Again, we have to ask what the people of his own time would be most familiar with, not what we are familiar with. The two most common explanations that make Caesar the elephant are etymological and historical: 1) the name Caesar derives from caesai, (possibly a Punic word for elephant) and 2) a tradition that the first Caesar had killed an elephant in battle. Quite simply the origin of the name was unknown even to the ancient Romans and the Historia Augusta gives four versions of the etymology, so it is hard to believe that the average Roman would make the association that the elephant is Caesar. It is the inscription CAESAR in the exergue that has led to the modern identification of the elephant as Caesar. But the exergue is the traditional place for the moneyer’s name and Caesar is separated from the field by the ground line.  When Hirtius minted, he put his own name there. Presumably the Caesarian message remained the same with or without CAESAR inscribed on the coin. So whatever that message was, it had to be using symbols easily recognized by the people he was speaking to. The main problem with a Good over Evil interpretation is that the snake was not a symbol of evil in the pagan Roman mind. As for the elephant, the most frequent use of the elephant on coinage had been by the Metelli. Of all the families of Rome they had done more to connect their name with the elephant image than any other family line. And Metellus Scipio himself even used the elephant again (without snake, of course) after Caesar minted his coin.

As others have pointed out, the other side of the coin with the implements of the pontifex maximus makes an unmistakable reference to Caesar with or without the name Caesar. But that also got me to thinking. Why did he want to advertise that position? Simply put, the main concern of the Roman state religion was the Salus of the state, hence it was Caesar’s chief concern as Pontifex Maximus. If the Metellan elephant was trampling on the Salus of the state, it was his duty as Pontifex Maximus to protect and restore Salus.

Offline spqrclaudius

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #13 on: June 12, 2013, 01:33:39 pm »
Don't get me wrong--this is a fascinating and well considered theory that should be fully respected. The problems are (1) I think the serpent is depicted as losing the battle; the elephant is huge, and trampling it. (2) The serpent is more like a dragon or monster than a snake. The legend that an early Caesar had killed an elephant in battle coupled with the animal's noble presentation on the coin would probably inspire contemporary Romans to associate the image with Caesar. Where your theory is most convincing has to do with the elephant being the sigil of the Metelli--why would Caesar choose an image that could be associated by some with his enemies (and, for that matter, even with Hannibal of Rome)? The reason might be what you suggest. It could also be that he was coopting the symbol for his own purposes. In ancient legend, the elephant and snake were said to be in constant conflict; if the thing actually is a snake, perhaps the whole thing is simply an allusion to Civil War. Some have even identified the serpent as a Gallic War trumpet. To me, this seems less badass than an elephant stepping on a snake, but the point is interesting--perhaps the monster is deliberately made to resemble a Gallic War horn so that the elephant's stepping on it can ALSO be taken as an allusion to Caesarian triumph in the Gallic War. Ultimately, whatever one's interpretation, it is cool that one of the most famous Roman denarii of all is so mysterious in its political message. At the end of the day, this new theory is a fascinating addition to the mix, but I am not convinced yet.

Offline spqrclaudius

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #14 on: June 12, 2013, 01:34:46 pm »
*Hannibal of Carthage

Offline spqrclaudius

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #15 on: June 12, 2013, 01:38:30 pm »
(It is worth saying that the monster's similarity to a Gallic war trumpet is another strong reason to think the elephant symbolizes Caesar in this context.)

mharlan

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #16 on: June 12, 2013, 02:55:10 pm »
The main problem I have with the carnyx theory is the curve of the snake on the elephant coin. The two good examples we have of Gallic carnyces on Albinus Brutus' coin (450) and Caesar's Gallic trophy (468) show quite straight horns except at the very tip. The idea of Caesar's elephant coin is that the elephant is stepping on part of the snake and that the snake has raised himself up and looks back at the elephant perhaps ready to strike. A carnyx cannot do that. Wouldn't the carnyx be flat on the ground if it was being stepped on?

Offline carthago

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #17 on: June 12, 2013, 07:18:12 pm »
The main problem I have with the carnyx theory is the curve of the snake on the elephant coin. The two good examples we have of Gallic carnyces on Albinus Brutus' coin (450) and Caesar's Gallic trophy (468) show quite straight horns except at the very tip. The idea of Caesar's elephant coin is that the elephant is stepping on part of the snake and that the snake has raised himself up and looks back at the elephant perhaps ready to strike. A carnyx cannot do that. Wouldn't the carnyx be flat on the ground if it was being stepped on?

I totally agree with you, Michael, but then again, do we have any snakes that look like that on other Roman coins?  Snakes with ears or horns?  Also, the other animal/monster theory such as a dragon...is there anything similar to it in other Roman Republican coins?  Maybe the carnyx is damaged by the elephant??

It's quite the fascinating mystery.   I do appreciate the theory you've advanced though and really hope it turns out to be supportable through some revelation in the future.  It's FAR more interesting than a traditional good over evil, blah, blah, blah. 

mharlan

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #18 on: June 12, 2013, 09:12:37 pm »
You can take a look at Volteius' Ceres riding in a chariot drawn by two snakes (385/3). It is hard to tell what is on their heads and it might be the way the artist has drawn a yoke for the snakes.

Offline carthago

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #19 on: June 13, 2013, 12:47:04 am »
You can take a look at Volteius' Ceres riding in a chariot drawn by two snakes (385/3). It is hard to tell what is on their heads and it might be the way the artist has drawn a yoke for the snakes.

Indeed, and well played.  That is a good example of horned/eared snakes. 

Offline crispina

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #20 on: June 15, 2013, 11:19:01 am »
What an interesting thread!

Snakes in ancient Rome actually were frequently depicted with the sort-of-reminiscent-of-a-rooster-comb-and-wattle features that are shown both in Caesar’s elephant denarius and the Volteius Ceres denarius.  I am attaching some images below from lararia at Pompeii depicting snakes with these attributes.

And speaking of lararia… since snakes were so intimately associated with the Lar/es and the Genius Loci – the actual domestic (as opposed to state) deities that protected every Roman home, family, and ancestor, is it possible that Caesar may not ONLY have been turning around the propaganda of the Acilius coin and showing  Metellus as the true enemy of the Salus of the Republic, as Mr. Harlan suggests, but maybe possibly also be “upping the ante,” and portraying him as the enemy of the most basic Roman virtues and values – home, family, and ancestors – in addition to the State?


Offline crispina

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #21 on: June 15, 2013, 11:21:14 am »
Just a few more snakes - I ran out of space.

Offline spqrclaudius

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #22 on: June 16, 2013, 02:00:25 pm »
Wow, those images from Pompeii are extremely compelling. I am much more convinced now! All of those sacred depictions of snakes portray them positively, and they all look monster like.

Offline spqrclaudius

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #23 on: June 16, 2013, 06:02:29 pm »
Hats off, mharlan. This is an intriguing potential reading of the coin! I am impressed.

Offline carthago

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Re: caesar's elephant coin
« Reply #24 on: July 11, 2013, 05:16:23 pm »
So, I was in Rome a few weeks ago visiting the Ara Pacis of Augustus and what do I find?  A bearded dragon with ears!  I'm sure this isn't the only bearded eared dragon in Roman lore, but it's the first I've ever seen.  Sure looks like the "dragon" on some of my Caesar elephant denarii.

 

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