Sunday, March 29, 2015

Things I Didn't Know: The Iconography of the Caduceus on Imperial Roman Coinage

One of the fun things about this project is that I am learning lots of random but useful bits about the ancient Roman world.  I've been spending some time looking closely at Trajan's coinage and wondered about the significance of the caduceus (a symbol that I--wrongly--had always associated with medicine and healing).  It turns out that, in fact, it is the staff carried by Hermes/Mercury, the messenger of the gods.  In the context of the iconography of Roman coins, it signifies commerce and trade.  Thus, it appears in association the image of Mercury, Felicitas, cornucopiae, and other symbols of trade and abundance.  In the case of Trajan, it seems to have multiple valences: most obviously, it celebrates the emperor's role in ensuring a steady supply of corn for Roman citizens.  More broadly, it acknowledges Trajan's activities as builder of the roads and bridges that support trade (by facilitating the transportation of both people and goods across space).  Trajan understood very well the close connection between military conquest and the Roman economy; and one of the things he famously did was a tremendous amount of road construction in Italy but also in provinces that he annexed.  One feature of Romanization under Trajan was provincial participation in the larger Roman economy. 

Something I am thinking more about: to what extend might Trajan have been imagining the Eastern Mediterranean provinces as something other than a tax base?  To what extent were his last campaigns about setting up a system of management in which the much more wealthy eastern provinces were more fully integrated into the imperial Roman economy?  In fact, this never happened and the more prosperous East always remained separate from the economically fragile West.  The West had been in trouble for a long time, since the last century of the republic.  The wars of Caesar and Pompey were a temporary solution and provided significant influxes of wealth; likewise, Trajan's conquest of Dacia.  But, really, there was nowhere else in the west to subject to the traditional "conquer and plunder" model of economic enrichment.  Really, for the Empire to be sustainable, it needed to develop a new economic model, one that treated the eastern provinces as something more than just a source of tax revenue.  It's very possible that Trajan recognized this.

1 comment:

  1. R. P. Duncan-Jones has an interesting paper interpreting hoard finds as showing a general movement of Roman money west-to-east, with the silver coinages of the Severans especially "swimming against the tide." I suspect that I'm being too simplistic in seeing the ancient Empire as self-segregating into a Western silver standard and an Eastern gold standard, especially on such slender evidence. (And, of course, it's fourth century. So. Fourth Century-reacting-to-Trajan?)

    But let's go with the spontaneous self-organisation of different bullion standards zones. I suppose that there are other ways of doing it, but for silver to move west, and gold east, implies a settling of accounts. Western merchants, at the end of the day, get their payment in silver, Easten in gold. My geographical intuition is that this settlement must avoid the Mediterranean "world-system" if it is to work. We need an overland axis of communications. Which, fortunately, we know exists in later times. It's the Rhine-Danube-Istanbul-Anatolia route favoured by crusading and Ottoman armies.

    The relevance for Trajan, as a living policy maker, I thought when I began this comment, would be his work in cutting a road through the Iron Gates of the Danube. It turns out that I was vastly underestimating the complexity of the matter, if W. W. Hyde's 1924 paper for The Classical Weekly is still definitive. Whatever Trajan was up to down in the gap during the Dacian wars, his "military road" from West to East ended up bypassing the water-level works in favour of a pass through the Transylvanian mountains.

    But it did exist!

    Subsequently, Trajan became the first Emperor to need a military road from West to East. Whittaker wants me to know that Roman emperors didn't have a strategic vision. Nevertheless, the idea of getting armies, and particularly cavalry, from "Gaul" to "Parthia" without diverting them through southern Italy and the Adriatic ferry hardly seems something of which only a modern geostrategic imagination could conceive.

    C. S. Lightfoot says that it is difficult to reconstruct Trajan's movements, but the precis I see of his work indicates that while he solves this problem, the movements of Trajan's army is unknown and irrelevant.

    For the purposes of the incoherent grand synthesis of overland military and long distance livestock related trade logistics that exists only in my imagination, I want to see a mainly-cavalry army moving from the Rhine to the Danube, and then from Belgrade up the Lesser Morava to Nis, then down to the Danube, crossing into Anatolia via the Bosphorus and entering the Iraqi theatre of operations via the traditional routes. That's how the Constantinians did it, after all.

    Again in my imagination, if nowhere else, I can see two kinds of persons-reacting-to-Trajan who are precociously interested in this route (and therefore the Dacian and Parthian wars.) The first is the colonel-proprietor of a cavalry regiment, who wants to shift horses around with sending them into the Mediterranean climactic zone. The second is a livestock broker, trying to meet the demands of the most lucrative market around --Which I am imagining to be a Roman games. Both of these individuals would have a very compelling interest in the Rome-Belgrade axis, long before the so-called Balkan military aristocracy emerges during the Third Century Crisis.

    So there is my sketch of an ideological programme for appropriating the memory of Trajan. It's not about making money from selling horses to the army, and "spotless kine" to celebrants of Roman Sacred Games. It's about Trajan Best and Greatest, first (and last) extender of empire-without-end since Augustus.