Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The silver coins of Taras: part ten

Calabria, Taras, ca. 450-380 BC, diobol
photo: Classical Numismatic Group Inc.
I started this series with an photo of a diobol of Taras which was one of the first Greek coins I owned. In this episode I will start with another example to illustrate how a multidisciplinary approach can provide so much extra information and avoid silly errors in attribution.
All of these Tarantine diobols show Herakles fighting the Nemean Lion. It was the first labour of Herakles. Various versions of the motif exist on these coins but this one is particularly odd because of the owl perched on the lion's back. A cursory Google search fails to find an explanation and none is given by Evans, nor in a footnote in Vlasto. The metaphor, however, seems fairly clear to me.

Sicily, Syracuse, Dionysios I, 405-367 BC, gold 100 litrai
photo: Classical Numismatic Group Inc.
The reverse design is copied from this gold coin of Syracuse and Dionysios I had loaned a Celtic detachment to the Spartans to fight against the Athenians. The owl, of course, is an icon of Athena and Athens. The obverse die of the gold coin is signed by Kimon but other varieties are signed by Euainetos and others. No signature exists for the reverse design. It is possible, as in many coin designs, that it was taken from a marble sculpture now lost. Taras had been founded by Spartan colonists and the date range of the two coins overlap. Unlike with date ranges given for modern coinage, ancient Greek date ranges only give an earliest and latest date based on various factors. It does not mean the coin in question was issued throughout that range and it is often the case that the coin was issued in a single year for a military campaign or as payment to a foreign state. The best example is the silver dekadrachm of Athens which was such a payment. They are never found at Athens, and all examples come from Turkey.

Lucania, Herakleia, ca. 390-340 BC, stater
photo: Classical Numismatic Group Inc.
While I could illustrate another Taras diobol of the same reverse design, I have picked this coin of Herakleia. The city was founded by both Taras and Thourioi in 433 BC, and Celtic troops were used there by Pyrrhus against the Romans in 280 BC. It was this battle that gave us the term "Pyrrhic victory", meaning that the losses were so severe on both sides that perhaps "victory" is not the best term to use.

Gunestrup Cauldron plate, ca. 272-200 BC
On the Gundestrup cauldron plate to the left, a Thracian artist working in Italy has commemorated the battle by depicting a derivation of the Herakleia design of Herakles and the Nemean Lion to the left of the Celtic female who beats her chest in grief. To the right is a fallen warrior and the latter figure is also found on Armorican coins described as a "manikin" for some reason. The male central figures on the Gundestrup plates hold their arms upward in the orans position which, in this case signifies a victory as a sacrifice. Herakleia was considered a heroic loss which would have guaranteed advancement of the fallen warrior in his next life. The Celts believed in the transmigration of souls, and this belief might have originated during their service in the Mediterranean, or was syncretized between a similar belief of their own and the the same Pythagorean belief in Italy.

More influences can be seen in the pastiche of images to the right that I made many years ago. The top right is a detail from the Stara Zagora phalera which has been used to (incorrectly) associate the Gundestrup Cauldron with the Cimbri and the eastern Celtic tribe, the Scordiscsi. It demonstrates the foolishness of using findspots as absolute proof of origin and fails to understand that ancient artisans often moved around quite a bit.

Anders Berquist and Timothy Taylor said of the Gundestrup cauldron: "How Thracian silversmiths occupied themselves in the interval between the late 4th and late 2nd/early 1st centuries BC is unclear."  That would be because the dating is wrong.

Flemming Kaul cites a phalera of the same style which was bought in Istanbul but is of uncertain origin as further evidence to this erroneous dating as it has an inscription to "King Mithridates" which he associates with Mithridates VI of Pontus who ruled at the time given to the cauldron. The name Mithridates in the ancient near east is as common as "John Smith" and the Mithridates in question is far more likely to be Mithridates II of Commagene who was restored by Augustus in 20 BC. (one of his "puppet" rulers). So much for the Cimbri/Scordisci connection. In fact, the Stara Zagora hoard also contained silver vessels of Augustan date and phalerae  were very fashionable giftware during the time of Augustus.

Art-historical analysis, abandoned by most archaeologists as a consideration (making a virtue out of necessity) is essential when talking about ancient designs. It is very easy to see that the head of Herakles on the Stara Zagora phalera was copied  from the denarius of M. Junius Brutus of 54 BC (top left). All that is different is that the head has been given a Herakles nose. The rest is a fairly close copy. This denarius circulated widely in Thrace. The artist of the phalera also combine the Syracusan Herakles design with another gold coin from Taras (bottom right) where Herakles is wielding a club, sadly, he placed the arm, upside down.

The Stara Zagora phalera is an example of what I am calling the Thracian Revival and I am sure that this was also originated by Augustus for another of his puppet rulers, Rhoemetalces I of Thrace. It is marked (on all examples) by  background chasing of far more loose execution than is found on the earlier native Thracian styles which had gone out of fashion around the time of Lysimachos in favour of Italian and Sicilian Greek classical art, much of which reflects the work of Kimon and Euainetos. The Sark hoard of phalera (from the Channel Islands) is of the same period.

Galeazzo Mondella, 1488-89
photo: Sailko
Neither nationalism nor time can constrain art and a culture of 300 BC is most often markedly different than a culture of 200 BC even in the same place. In my life, so far, I have experienced at least ten different cultures and most of them were in Calgary. No one "with an eye" would mistake the plaque on the left for anything other than Renaissance art, but it is done all the time. Repatriations of art objects mix psychological factors and nefarious political motives. I suppose that even this is yet another culture to add to the mix! It is already showing signs of become rather worn out, though, and undoubtedly will go the route of bell-bottom jeans or overly wide ties. The only photograph of my face on the web other than my photo-derived logo is this one of 1975 with the original fan-dancer, Sally Rand. In the article, I say that I look like a survivor from "That Seventies Show"

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