Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The silver coins of Taras: part six

Taras stater of the 281-272 BC issue depicting a Pyrrhus elephant
photo: Classical Numismatic Group Inc.
[Admin. note: if anyone emailed my personal email yesterday (not the GMail listed on the blog), please resend as a Verizon pipe in Seattle to my ISP went down and some emails were lost. It did give me a chance to chat with William who is adding new features to the Celtic Coin Index Online, but these are still in development and not public yet.]

There are only two ancient objects which depict both a man riding a dolphin and an elephant. One of them (which does have other varieties, however) is this stater of Taras, and the other is the Gundestrup cauldron. That the connection is not made in all published papers on the Gundestrup cauldron almost boggles the mind. The reason, I believe, is due to the lack of interdisciplinary (antiquarian) approaches, mainly with archaeology. Slowly, the situation is starting to improve with the postmodern influence on the subject but many of the people who are publishing today were trained in the modernist manner of New Archaeology which reached its apex back in the seventies and cultural lag usually takes quite a few decades to pass. So far, it has reached the "fashionable" stage where postmodernism is presented in archaeology more as a showcase and not simply as a useful tool for understanding. It is limited, too, by another (purely academic) fad for really bad writing and composition as is satirized by the pomo-generator.

When Pyrrhus came to Italy on the invitation of Taras, he brought with him a number of war elephants and the symbol on the stater illustrated here refers to that event, as was noted by Evans in the nineteenth century and is still accepted as fact. My favourite account of Pyrrhus in Italy is in Plutarch's life of Pyrrhus and you can read Bill Thayer's presentation of the Loeb edition.  By the way, The complete Loeb Classics are currently available to individuals by subscription, but sadly, not yet by purchase. Hopefully, Harvard, Amazon or Google Play will one day rectify that situation.

Pyrrhus also used Celtic armies in Italy and this is why the Gundestrup cauldron uses so much imagery from his Italian campaigns (not just Taras). The cauldron, itself was made in Italy by Thracian artisans. The native schools of Thracian art had become unpopular and were being replaced by Greek artists from Italy and Sicily who brought their styles and influences with them. I believe that the cauldron was made for Celtic patrons in northern Italy, but the British Witham shield has some designs typical of southern Italian workshops (Jope, 2,000).

All that remains is to show you the Gundestrup plate with the elephants and its female Celtic figure with her arms in the gesture of grief (presumably for the many lives lost by Pyrrhus in his "Pyrrhic Victory"). Obviously, the elephants were drawn from a description of the animal, unlike the more realistic symbol on the stater.

Tomorrow, C. G. Jung and the Dioscuri of Taras.

John's Coydog Community page


  1. John;

    Your criticism of Archaeology for not being broadminded enough to embrace other disciplines, including amateur historians, numismatists, etc. reaches far beyond the present issue and is a legitimate concern. Many who opt not to embrace academia as a career are just as capable of intelligent thought and ought to be embraced as fellows in the search for truth about the past. Your blog is a perfect example of that simple fact.

    1. Thanks, Wayne, Today's world demands a much broader look than yesterday's and the academic system, itself is starting to look like a dinosaur. I heard, and this was years ago, that even industries were finding that university graduates lacked not only experience but their training was hopelessly outdated.

      In the arts and humanities holistic approaches are becoming increasingly important. The world is not the simple place it was way back when. In such times, though, there is a lot of animosity toward the new as the old guard are just afraid. Then it descends into just a turf war.