Celebrating the murder of Odoacer?

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Severus Alexander, Jul 23, 2018.

  1. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    This one sadly got away from me, but it's so cool and I have such a burning question about it that I felt compelled to start a thread!

    It was in Sunday's Naville, described as follows (lot is here):
    Theoderic, 494-526. In name of Anastasius. Half siliqua Milan 494-526, AR 12mm., 0.93g. Pearl-diademed and draped bust r. Rev. Victory advancing r., holding palm branch and wreath. MEC – . Deno -. Metlich 46c. Very rare, edge incomplete, Good Very Fine.​

    My question is: that's a snake underneath Victory on the reverse, right?!? In which case I think there's a good argument that it represents Theoderic's victory over and murder of Odoacer, with the snake representing the latter. Let me lay it out.

    First, the coins. Here are the images I've been able to find of this type so far:
    Screen Shot 2018-08-01 at 2.17.40 PM.jpg

    The legends are: D N ANASTASIVS P AVG (the lone "P" is apparently characteristic of the Milan mint) and INVICTA ROMA, "invincible Rome". (It can also be "IMVICTA." On coin (d) the "R" is malformed, looking more like a reversed "N".)

    Milan was Theoderic's earliest mint in Italy, and Metlich (The Coinage of Ostrogothic Italy, Spink 2004) attributes this rare issue (type 46) to Milan. As I understand it from the British Museum's document here – I don't have Metlich myself – type 46 comes in 3 varieties, with Victory holding a cross (46a), a rudder or a trophy (46b), and a rudder or trophy with a star above (46c).

    Coin (a) above is clearly type 46a, with a cross. It's also very well engraved, and most resembles the Naville example. I'm not sure why Naville has said theirs is a 46c... I suspect it's a 46a. (More on the snakes below!)

    Coin (b): The British Museum says of this example, which they call a type 46a variant, that "Victory holds a long rudder and not a cross; there is also evidence of a possible mint mark in exergue –three dots, ●●●, placed between two lines. This interesting specimen is possibly transitional between Metlich 46a and 46b." I'm not sure this is a rudder, it could well be a sketchy cross.

    Coin (c)'s Victory seems to be holding a trophy (although the BM says "rudder or trophy"... I continue to be skeptical there are any rudders here!), and coin (d)'s Victory is holding... well, a thingie of some sort! o_O It's pretty crude engraving. Coins (c) and (d) have nothing visible in the exergue, but as you can see, that's not necessarily because there was nothing there on the original die.

    Now we come to the snake. To my mind, the Naville example is clearly a snake, and the Wildwinds example, coin (a), must also be a snake. If the BM is right that coin (b) is transitional, then the "three dots, ●●●, placed between two lines" is simply a devolved snake. That looks exactly right to me. Here are the details:
    Screen Shot 2018-07-23 at 1.54.38 PM.jpg

    Thus far I'm pretty confident of my conclusions: it's a snake on the Naville coin, coin (a), and coin (b). But what does this snake represent (if anything), and how does it fit with the rest of the coinage from this period? Here are some speculations.

    First, we need some historical context. My source is primarily Peter Heather's excellent account in The Restoration of Rome (Macmillan 2013).

    In the late 5th century, the eastern emperor Zeno had two big problems: a Gothic horde (Theoderic's) sitting around being dangerous near Constantinople, and Odoacer, who had deposed the last Roman emperor in the west and set himself up as king of Italy. Zeno suggested to Theoderic that he pay a less than friendly visit to Odoacer, and Theoderic liked that idea very much, thank you! He arrived in Italy in 489, initially defeating Odoacer, but was beaten back and forced to take refuge in Pavia (near Milan) until 490. Over the next year the tables turned, Odoacer fled to Ravenna, and Theoderic blockaded the city from August 492 until March 493. Ravenna is nearly impossible to take due to its marshes, and the two leaders ultimately negotiated a compromise by which they would share power. However, at the celebratory banquet, there was a surprise in store for Odoacer:
    ...Theoderic himself rushed forward and struck him with a sword on the collarbone... The fatal blow cut through Odoacer's body as far as the hip, and it is said that Theoderic exclaimed, 'There clearly wasn't a bone in the wretched man's body!' --John of Antioch, fragment 214a
    Screen Shot 2018-07-23 at 12.15.06 PM.jpg

    Due to his treachery (and butchery!), Theoderic was left in sole command of all of Italy, and Zeno had reduced his number of big problems from 2 to 1. It hardly mattered, though, because Zeno had a much bigger problem: he was dead. Now Theoderic was Anastasius's problem instead.

    Theoderic presented himself publicly as the divinely chosen Roman rescuer of Italy, also in his letters to Anastasius. In 507, a Catholic deacon called Ennodius said that God had brought Theoderic to Italy to subdue the "demon-possessed" Odoacer. Since the snake is the classic Christian representation of evil, it makes a lot of sense to interpret the snake as representing Odoacer, being trampled specifically by Victory. Why would Theoderic want to trumpet his treacherous deed quite so prominently, though? Well, when you're defeating the devil, any means is a righteous means, so it would actually be in Theoderic's interests to represent Odoacer in these terms.

    This is a familiar use of the snake in late antique iconography. We all know it on Constantine's first coin featuring the labarum, which is often taken to represent (at least in part) Constantine's defeat of the "evil" Licinius. Here's that coin, another coin (of Valentinian III) showing the emperor trampling a snake with a human head, as well as a mosaic showing Christ trampling the evil snake in The Archbishop's Chapel, Ravenna. The mosaic was made shortly before 500, just when our Theoderic coins were likely issued. Note the cross over Christ's shoulder, mirroring Victory on coin (a).

    Screen Shot 2018-07-23 at 2.06.34 PM.jpg

    So are you convinced that our Anastasius coin represents Theoderic's defeat and even murder of Odoacer?

    The timing of these issues is more difficult to establish. One observation I would make is that the northern Italian silver issued in the name of Zeno is markedly cruder than later issues in the name of Anastasius. One possible explanation is that under Odoacer, mint performance stayed at the low level exhibited in the previous twenty years' chaos, but that some mint reform took place early in Theoderic's reign. The British Museum has two half siliquae in the name of Zeno, one attributed to Milan and the other to Ravenna, which are both very crude but clearly feature Victory facing the opposite direction:

    Screen Shot 2018-07-23 at 2.11.01 PM.jpg

    The BM can't say whether these siliquae are Odoacer's or Theoderic's. My suggestion is that they are either Odoacer's or very early Theoderic, prior to Odoacer's murder. (Perhaps Theoderic adapted an earlier type of Odoacer; also it may be that the crude coin (d) above is from this early period, just after the accession of Anastasius in 491.) Once Theoderic had established control, he is known to have busied himself with domestic affairs; apparently this included mint reform, with the leap in quality observed in the coinage. With time, inevitably some deterioration set in, as evidenced by the transition from the Naville coin/coin (a) to coin (b), but it never deteriorated to its pre-493 state. Of course I like this story since it fits perfectly with the hypothesis that the snake represents Odoacer, and that those particular half-siliquae were minted starting soon after the murder in 493... but I admit that's all rather speculative!

    OK, I think I've got this coin out of my system now. :hurting: But, pretty please, if it's yours, reassure me that you would have gone well past 300 GBP... because at the moment I'm definitely regretting not taking it that next increment, even though it's broken. :oops: It was sitting at 90 GBP for so long I figured I'd snag it for 200 or a little more... & then I didn't have the gumption when it kept going. Had I done all this research first, I'm sure I would have! :banghead: :banghead:

    Edit: Please post anything remotely relevant, even if you have to scrape the barrel!! And if anyone has Metlich... please do tell. :)
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2018
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  3. TIF

    TIF Always learning. Supporter

    That is a completely believable conclusion! Good catch! Sorry you missed the coin :(

    As for the British Museum's coin's "three dots, ●●●, placed between two lines", it looks like the die was polished after engraving, removing depth from the snake and making it look like Morse code.
    Curtisimo and Severus Alexander like this.
  4. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Cogito Ergo Sum

    Very interesting article @Severus Alexander and very illustrative of the fact that we can connect the dots through coins and supplement the historical record.
    Severus Alexander likes this.
  5. Jwt708

    Jwt708 Well-Known Member

    Well done! I would continue looking at interpretations of the serpent in art history from the period. Looking at the image of Christ, why the lion and the snake what does that mean? When did the serpent go from a healing symbol to representing evil? Was it with the adoption of Christianity? Fascinating stuff to consider.
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  6. Nicholas Molinari

    Nicholas Molinari Well-Known Member

    You could expand this into a great article for Koinon.
  7. zumbly

    zumbly Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana Supporter

    Great writeup, Sev! It's unfortunate that it escaped you. As for what Victory is standing on... it has a head, tail, coils, beady reptilian eye... IMHO, all it's missing is a hiss.
  8. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    Good point... it could definitely be more a matter of die polishing than a deterioration in the engraving. Thanks!!

    Good questions, and yes I should! As far as the lion goes, my (basic) understanding is that it comes from Psalm 91 (90):13: "Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet." Early Christians interpreted this as meaning Christ triumphing over Satan. Interestingly there are solidi of Honorius where the man-headed snake from the Val III solidus is replaced by a lion with a serpent tail:
    Screen Shot 2018-07-23 at 8.00.47 PM.jpg
    (Numismatik Naumann Auction 1, lot 324, 17.03.2013.)

    As for pre-Christian negative connotations for the snake, well we know at least one!
    Screen Shot 2018-07-23 at 7.57.44 PM.jpg
    But it does seem to be a primarily Christian thing, deriving from the serpent in the Garden.

    Well now, that is a very nice compliment, thank you! I will think about it... I guess an actual expert would review the paper, which would be a relief. But I suspect they'd have to give me so much advice I'd have to promote them to co-author! (Which would be totally fine!) :D
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  9. Nicholas Molinari

    Nicholas Molinari Well-Known Member

    A lot of it amounts to citing what everyone else has said about it then giving your position. If there aren’t many know examples you could make it a corpus of the variety’s known specimens.
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  10. Nicholas Molinari

    Nicholas Molinari Well-Known Member

    But the task is much more fun when you own the coin :(
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  11. randygeki

    randygeki Coin Collector

    Good post, sorry you missed out on the coin.
    Severus Alexander likes this.
  12. Victor_Clark

    Victor_Clark standing on the shoulders of giants

    What this object might be is a poorly engraved prow or just artistic interpretation of a prow. Victory on a prow is a very common theme. Below is an example from Theodahad, which if you didn't know better, you might think was Victory trampling a snake. Metlich has many illustrations, unfortunately the pictures are not so good.

    below is an example sold by CNG from Theodahad

  13. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    This is a good thought – @zumbly said he assumed the same thing when he browsed the auction – and definitely a possibility, though on balance I don't think it's a prow on the Theoderics. Besides the Theodohad type from a few decades later, where the well-engraved prow has a pretty consistent appearance with the curl at the leading end, there is a cruder earlier Zeno Victory on prow type as well, in both bronze and silver. Here's a silver example (British Museum #B.2930, Milan mint):

    I think the coils on the Naville example, coin (a), and coin (b) are too clear for a prow; plus there's the apparent eye on the Naville example. The Naville example is the most convincing.
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  14. Jwt708

    Jwt708 Well-Known Member

    I think you should expand this and write an article.
  15. Victor_Clark

    Victor_Clark standing on the shoulders of giants

    extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof...you need more examples!

    the "coils" may just be an attempt at oars. see coin below-


    as far as eyes, sometimes LRB's showed figureheads (with eyes) on prows


    besides Metlich, another good reference is Željko Demo Ostrogothic Coinage from Collections in Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia & Herzegovina

    I edited the above FTR galley to show an animal with coils and eyes.

    Last edited: Jul 26, 2018
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  16. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    Fair enough... let me know if you find any! :)

    The oars/figurehead is an excellent hypothesis to try to disprove. One strike against it comes from the examples you use: they're both much earlier coins. If you could show me oars and a figurehead from the late fifth or early sixth century, that would cause more trouble. Otherwise, I would say the the best explanation would still be the thing that the depiction most resembles: a snake. Let me ask you: given the the quality of the rest of the engraving on the Naville example and coin A, do you genuinely think that the oars/figurehead hypothesis is more likely?

    In any case, I'm very grateful for your feedback. Anyone reading this should bet on you rather than me, since you are certainly more of an expert in this territory!
  17. JulianIX

    JulianIX New Member

    That's a fascinating interpretation. This history new to me. Thanks for writing. Recently, I was playing with an interpretation of the Constantine with Chi-Rho - Labarum - Snake reverse which went something like: "It is in the truth of Christ that the Emperor's armies maintain the health of the public." But I think the Christian evil snake is nearer the mark. although the ancients seem to have known full well that snakes can be healing as well symbols of eternal recurrence. Asclepius still in the bedrock of belief in 5th century Anatolia (I'm told)
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