Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.08.05

M. Caccamo Caltabiano, B. Carroccio, E. Oteri, Siracusa Ellenistica. Le monete 'regali' di Ierone II, della sua famiglia e dei Siracusani. Pelorias 2. Collana del Dipartimento di Scienze dell'Antichità dell'Università di Messina.   Messina:  1997.  Pp. 255; pl. 53.  L.100,000 (pb).  

Reviewed by Carmen Arnold-Biucchi, Harvard University Art Museums
Word count: 2343 words

This book presents the silver coinages of Hieron II of Syracuse, struck with the royal title "basileus", in his name, in that of his wife and queen Philistis in her own right, and in the name of their son Gelon II, as well as the coins of the Syrakosioi. These issues are put into the broader context of the royal Hellenistic coinages of the third century, the time of the Syrian Wars in the east and the Punic Wars in the west and set against the rise of Rome and the beginning of its silver coinage. These coins have long been known, see J.H. Eckhel, Doctrina Numorum Veterum, I (Vienna 1792), pp. 249-57, but their attribution, dating and metrology have remained uncertain and controversial.

A book on Hellenistic Syracuse and Hellenistic Sicily is most welcome. One would be tempted to say it is long overdue if it were not for the dearth of literary and archaeological sources that makes the writing of such a book a real challenge. Most books on Hellenistic history and even on Hellenistic coinages neglect Hieron II of Syracuse and his royal family. The many publications on Sicilian history, from A. Holm, Geschichte Siciliens im Altertum (Leipzig 1898), II, pp. 287 ff. to M.I. Finley, A History of Sicily (1968), E. Gabba and G. Vallet, La Sicilia antica (Naples 1980), II, 1, pp. 343 ff., and more recently C. Smith and J. Serrati, eds., Sicily from Aeneas to Augustus (Edinburgh 2000), include at least a brief overview of Hieron II and his family and the role they played in the Punic Wars, but most handbooks of Hellenistic history (É. Will, F.W. Walbank or G. Shipley to mention only a few) seem to think of the West as too insignificant to be part of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Even numismatic treatises like N. Davis and C.M. Kraay, The Hellenistic Kingdoms. Portrait Coins and History (London 1973), which intended to "... present dynasty by dynasty, successive accounts of the kings and queens of that age, illustrated by their portrait coins" (p. 9), ignore Sicily. O. Mørkholm, Early Hellenistic Coinage (Cambridge 1991) does not mention Hieron II at all.

So we can be grateful to Maria Caltabiano and her students at the University of Messina, mainly Benedetto Carroccio and Emilia Oteri, for filling this important gap. The authors have been working as a team on the subject for the past ten years and have already produced numerous publications (see "Bibliografia" pp. 217-226), in particular the volume La Sicilia tra l'Egitto e Roma: La monetazione siracusana dell'età di Ierone II (Messina 1995), which deals with the gold, silver and bronze coinage of Syracuse with Hieron's name but without the royal title. It is clear from the titles of both volumes in the series Pelorias that they intend to be much more than die studies. They use the numismatic evidence as a tool to retrace the history of an otherwise poorly documented Hellenistic dynasty. This approach is exemplary and the "Messina School" deserves the highest praise for its contribution to the field.

The book opens with an excellent succinct, historical introduction by E. Oteri. The literary sources are minimal. It is mainly in the context of the First and Second Punic Wars, in particular the conflicts with the Mamertines -- the Campanian mercenaries of Agathokles who were plundering northeastern Sicily at the time -- that Polybios (I 8-12; VII 2-8) and later historians mentioned Hieron II. He fought with Pyrrhos in his unsuccessful Italian campaign, and, after the Epirote conqueror left Sicily in 272 B.C., Hieron was acclaimed general by the army. He married the daughter of an influential Syracusan, Leptines, and with his support gained control of Syracuse. The daughter's name is not given in the literature but she is usually identified with the queen attested on an inscription discovered in the theater of Syracuse, and also on issues of silver coins: "BASILISSAS PHILISTIDOS". After Hieron's victory over the Mamertines at the river Longanus in 269 B.C., he was proclaimed "basileus". Because there are inscriptions mentioning "the kings", in the plural, and also because Gelon on the coins is represented with the royal diadem, like his father, it is assumed that around 240 B.C. he became co-ruler. In 233/32 B.C. Gelon married the Epirote princess Nereis, daughter or granddaughter of Pyrrhos, whose name is also attested by an inscription in the theater and also by the ancient sources. At the beginning of the First Punic War (Pol. I 11.7) which took place mainly on Sicilian soil, Hieron, reversing more than three centuries of hostilities, sided with the Carthaginians. But, after the success of the Roman legions at the siege of Messana, he offered his support to the Romans and reached an agreement that allowed him a certain neutrality and a long peaceful reign (Pol. I 16-17). At the onset of the Second Punic War, Syracuse provided financial and military aid, and Hieron remained faithful to Rome until his death in 215 B.C., soon after the battle of Cannae. He was over ninety (Pol. I 7, 8), and, his son Gelon having predeceased him, he was succeeded by his grandson Hieronymos who, blinded by Hannibal's successes, switched allegiance to Carthage.

The introduction closes with an outline of the royal coinages, an overview of previous research and a summary of Hieron's entire coinage over approximately sixty years by B. Carroccio (p. 31), who hypothesizes a first period with coins in all three metals from about 275 to 263 B.C., a second phase through the end of the First Punic War in 241 B.C., when only bronze coins were issued, and a third period covering the last years of the reign and the second Punic War, 218-215 B.C.

The main part of the book: "Le monete del genos regale", pp. 37-92, deals with the coins with royal title and is mainly the work of Maria Caccamo Caltabiano. The analysis of the material, in her opinion, demonstrates that the control marks used to distinguish the different issues were shared by all three members of the royal family, Hieron, Philistis and Gelon, and that therefore their coinages must have been struck in the same period and were part of a joint monetary structure. The unity of these three coinages is reinforced by iconographic and stylistic elements, as well as by a sound metrological system. All the denominations can be divided broadly into two groups: one with a galloping quadriga or biga and the other with a walking horse. MCC calls them "ambienti di lavoro con relative équipes di maestranze" or groups A and B. If the Syracusan coinage of that period was really struck in different "officinae" or workshops, as the authors suppose, then it would seem plausible that these two groups were the workshops. The one example of a shared obverse die (nos. 5 and 11-12, pls. I and II) does not invalidate the argument.

The control marks consist of single letters, monograms, two or, in one case, three letters. MCC interprets them as the initials of the name of the official or magistrate ("funzionario") in charge of the "officina" (with "subofficinae" for smaller series). This is possible, of course, but remains highly hypothetical considering the size and location of the Syracusan coinages under discussion, as well as how little is known about Hellenistic mint organization. I don't think the total number of dies used in the dynastic coinages is given in the book nor the total number of coins included in the catalogue, but it is easy enough to figure out from the "Schema dei conii" for the "officinae" and "subofficinae" (pp. 83-92) and from the histograms (pp. 106-112). There are 7 obverse dies and 12 reverse dies for Hieron, 78 obverse dies and 165 reverse dies for Philistis tetradrachms and 16 and 11 for her drachms (here the numbers are given on p. 65), 43 obverse dies (didrachms and drachms) and 48 reverse dies for Gelon. This represents an important production of 134 obverses and 236 reverses. Its intensity depends on the chronolgy adopted: the authors would like to compress it all between 218 and 214 B.C. which is open to discussion, and even if they are correct, an output of some forty obverse dies per year would not seem to necessitate a very complex organization of several mints with different major and minor workshops.

The following chapter discusses the chronology of the royal coinages (pp. 49-60). The authors assume their contemporaneity, as we have seen. Gelon appears with the royal diadem on his portrait coins, which therefore must have been issued after his father made him co-regent to the throne in 241/40 B.C. and before his marriage to the Epirote princess Nereis in 233 B.C. Other elements point to a date after 240 B.C., in particular the iconography of Philistis' portrait. It is in the best Hellenistic tradition and would fit very well with Seleucid or Ptolemaic representations of queens. The veil associates her with Demeter but the royal diadem that can be seen under it and which adorns her hair leaves no doubt about her political role. She has often been compared generically with Arsinoe II of Egypt. A more detailed examination of the coins, however, as MCC rightly points out, shows that the model for Philistis must in fact have been Berenike II: Arsinoe wears the high stephane and the horn of Ammon as signs of deification, whereas Berenike has the diadem and a rounder veil as well as the symbol of the cornucopia behind the head, which is also found for Philistis. Most of all Berenike, like Philistis, is identified on the reverse not only by her name but also by her title BASILISSHS, which never appears on Arsinoe's coins. The first queen to issue coins with her title (p. 57) is actually Amastris of Paphlagonia (cf. Mørkholm, Early Hellenistic Coinage, p. xxx). MCC pushes for a dating of Berenike's coinage in the years 222-220 B.C. (p. 58) to support her own conception of Philistis' coins. This seems unnecessary, and the more traditional chronology in the 240s still suggests that royal coinages of Syracuse could not have started before 240 B.C. In order to compress these coinages within the years of the Second Punic War, MCC argues further that the structure of the issues established on the sequence of letters and monograms shows that some, in fact all those with two letters, might have been posthumous and struck under the reign of Hieronymos. Some of the double-letter control marks do indeed appear on the coins of Hieron, Philistis, Gelon, and Hieronymous, and on those of the Fifth Democracy. Certainly the coins of Hieronymous cannot be posthumous, as A. Burnett already pointed out (SNR 62, 1983, pp. 5-26 and NC 199, p. 365). Further study is needed for a clearer and more convincing explanation of these marks, as well as a new synthesis of the entire coinage of Hieron and his family and of its relation to that of Hieronymos and the Fifth Democracy.

The interpretation of the weight standards and the different denominations (pp. 46-47, 59-60, 121-133) is just as arduous and complex as that of the "control marks". The authors try to demonstrate that the system of the royal Syracusan coins closely followed the Ptolemaic system and was even deliberately adjusted on it. MCC believes that the royal coins of Hieron II and his family were on the Euboeic-Attic and Ptolemaic standards. No doubt the Hellenistic monetary systems of the Seleucids and the Ptolemies were known in Sicily, but, on the evidence of coin finds and hoards, there was no real exchange of currency with these kingdoms. The coins of Hieron, Philistis, Gelon and Hieronymos are found exclusively in Sicily. The Ptolemies enforced a closed market economy and their lighter currency was meant to be used only in Egypt. The few examples found in Sicilian hoards (e.g. the Enna hoard, IGCH 2232, the Syracuse hoard 1904, IGCH 2233) do not contradict this interpretation and do not demonstrate real circulation. The Syracusan system was a local one, most often interpreted as based on the Sicilian litra, and real links with the Ptolemaic or the Roman and Punic systems of the end of the third century seem theoretical and artificial.

A different approach to the metrology in conjunction with the hoard evidence might still yield interesting results: more detailed histograms of the different denominations and a thorough study of the hoards may result in a revised arrangement of the issues. A. Burnett already referred to Barbara Tsakirgis' unpublished study of Philistis' coins, where the heaviest coins seemed to coincide with those more worn and earlier in hoards.

The catalogue is the work of E. Oteri. In the best numismatic tradition it constitutes the backbone of the book and I would have welcomed it at the beginning as the solid basis for the many theories developed by MCC. It is clear and thorough with excellent photographs. The numbering of the obverse and reverse dies is unusual as it starts anew with every group and every denomination; this is somewhat confusing, though the die combinations are numbered sequentially, and does not allow an immediate understanding of the number of dies used nor of their relative chronological position.

In conclusion Siracusa Ellenistica is a very useful and stimulating volume. Personally I remain cautious about the rigid relative and absolute chronologies of the different series with their control marks as reconstructed by MCC and her colleagues, and I would feel more comfortable with a less precise dating of between 240 and 215 B.C. Nevertheless this book, in conjunction with B. Carroccio, La monetazione aurea e argentea di Ierone II (Torino 1994), will remain the reference work for the silver coinages of the Syracusan royal family in the third century B.C. until the Messina School produces a comprehensive study of all Hieronian coins, including the abundant bronze issues. Then, perhaps, our understanding of the mint organization and the structure of the coinage, as well as of the meaning of the control marks, will stand on a firmer foundation.

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