All entries for November 2022

November 25, 2022

Cuniculosa Celtiberia: rabbits as symbols of Spain on Roman imperial coins, by Abby Wall

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Fig 1: RIC II, 3 (2nd) (Hadrian) 582-585, Aureus, Rome, 121-123 CE; courtesy of the British Museum.

I first encountered this beautiful aureus, minted at Rome between 121 and 123 CE, whilst conducting research for my MA dissertation. I was immediately struck by the unique composition on the reverse and, in particular, by the little rabbit it includes. The main figure in this scene can be confidently identified as Minerva, helmeted and holding her usual martial attribute of a spear. A rabbit, small but recognisable with its long ears and stocky body, stands at her feet. The final element of the scene, an olive tree, grows up from the ground behind the rabbit. The accompanying legend refers to Hadrian (76-138 CE), under whose authority the aureus was issued.

I was initially puzzled only by the inclusion of the rabbit; the olive tree could be explained away, however tenuously, as a second attribute of the goddess. Although the tree had never appeared alongside Minerva on Roman coinage before, the mythology of her Greek counterpart presents a potential link. Athena famously won the contest against Poseidon for patronage of Athens by offering an olive tree to the city’s founder. The rabbit, however, had never been associated with either Minerva or Athena. Was it added only for aesthetic purposes, to create a visually appealing rural scene? This seems unlikely as a rabbit had never appeared on the imperial coinage at all before this specific aureus. Surely its presence here must have some specific meaning. But what?

An answer may be found by examining some of Hadrian’s later coins where the rabbit appears once again, this time at the feet of a regional personification.

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Fig 2: RIC II, 3 (2nd ed.) (Hadrian) 1529-1532, Aureus, Rome, 130-133 CE; courtesy of the British Museum.

On this aureus, Hispania is depicted as a female figure, dressed in a long chiton and reclining against a pile of rocks. The rabbit sits at her feet, and she holds in her right hand a large olive branch. To understand this personification, her attributes, and how they may be linked to those of the Minerva type we must situate both coins within the context of Hadrian’s reign.

Along with his enthusiasm for Greek culture and his infatuation with the young Antinous, Hadrian is perhaps best known for the extensive journeys he undertook throughout the Roman empire. Unlike previous emperors who preferred to leave Italy only when conflict required them to, Hadrian spent more than half of his twenty-one year reign touring the provinces. But being away from Rome for such extended periods of time made him unpopular with many of the capital’s inhabitants. Perhaps to explain his absences (or at least present them in a more favourable light) a series of coins was issued between 130 and 133 CE while he was away in the eastern provinces. Each of these types, sometimes referred to collectively as Hadrian’s ‘province’ series, depicts the personification of a place that had been honoured by an imperial visit.

The ‘province’ types can be subdivided into three categories: those showing the personification alone (Fig. 2), those showing the personification being raised up by the emperor (Fig. 3), and those showing the personification sacrificing upon his arrival (Fig. 4). Hispania and her olive branch feature in all three categories, but the rabbit is present in only the first two. Nevertheless, an association between the animal and the region is clearly indicated.

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Fig 3: RIC II, 3 (2nd ed.) (Hadrian) 1584-1586, Denarius, Rome, 130-133 CE; courtesy of the British Museum.

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Fig 4: RIC II, 3 (2nd ed.) (Hadrian) 1752-1756, Sestertius, Rome, 130-133 CE; courtesy of the British Museum.

It should be noted that ‘Hispania’ was not a single province. Upon Roman conquest, the Iberian Peninsula had been divided first into two and then three parts (Baetica, Lusitania, and Tarraconensis). This was mainly for administrative purposes, and the three provinces were often grouped together under the name Hispania. Representing the region as a female figure was not a Hadrianic invention; Hispania was personified on coins as early as 81 BCE, and she subsequently appeared on the imperial coinage of Galba, Vitellius, and Vespasian. On these earlier examples, however, she was never accompanied by a rabbit, nor did she hold an olive branch. So why do these attributes appear with Hadrian’s Hispania?

Ancient literature reveals that rabbits were commonly associated with the region. Varro describes a short-legged species of hare known as the cuniculus which was native only to Hispania (On Agriculture 3.12.6). He explains that the animal was given this name on account of its burrowing (cuniculus also meaning ‘mine’ or ‘underground tunnel’ in Latin). Hispanian rabbits were often considered pests for their fertility and the speed with which they could devastate crops. Pliny and Strabo report that rabbits were so prolific on the Balearic Islands that they caused a terrible famine, and the first writer additionally tells the tale of an entire city collapsing due to the animals burrowing beneath it (Pliny, Natural History, 8.81; Strabo, Geography, 3.2.6). These stories may be exaggerated (or indeed entirely fabricated) but they indicate that the rabbit was considered an iconic animal of Hispania, recognisable to many as a unique symbol of the region

As an attribute of Hispania personified, the rabbit may not have had exclusively negative connotations. Just as they are in modern times, rabbits were kept by the Romans both as pets and for their meat. Laurices, rabbit fetuses or newborns, were considered a culinary delicacy and, consequently, the animals were exported across the empire. It is also worth returning to the two definitions of the word cuniculus. Hispania was rich in valuable minerals, with abundant deposits of gold, silver, lead, and copper. Catullus describes the region as ‘cuniculosa Celtiberia’, which could be interpreted both as ‘Hispania full of mines’ and ‘Hispania full of rabbits’ (37.18). On Hadrian’s ‘province’ type, the animal may have had a similar dual meaning – one small symbol used to playfully acknowledge two resources provided by the province.

The olive branch held by Hadrian’s Hispania can also be explained as an important natural product of the region. Although olives were grown throughout the Mediterranean, Hispania was especially productive and Baetica in particular was famous for its olive oil, reportedly rivalling that of Athens! Furthermore, the branch may have had personal significance to the emperor himself. Both of Hadrian’s parents were born in Hispania, and his paternal line descended from the Aelii, a gens that had settled in the town of Italica in about 206 BCE. A wealthy family, the Aelii owed much of their prosperity to the olive plantations they owned in the area.

So, the choice of a rabbit and olive branch as representations or identifiers of Hispania on the ‘province’ types is understandable, but what of the rabbit and tree on the Minerva type? Given the rarity of the animal on Roman coinage overall and its exclusive use in combination with an olive branch on Hadrianic coins as attributes of the personified region, it seems highly likely that the earlier aureus also referred to Hispania in some way.

Hadrian was away in the West on his first provincial tour when the aureus was minted at Rome. After travelling through Germania, Britannia, and back through Gallia, he made his way to Hispania and spent the winter of 122/3 CE at Tarraco on the west coast of Tarraconensis. Perhaps a visit to his ancestral home was considered worthy of commemoration on the imperial coinage, although there is no record of him reaching his mother’s birthplace of Gades (modern Cádiz), and he pointedly did not visit Italica. Hadrian’s tour ended abruptly in 123 CE when a brewing war with Parthia called him away eastwards. The Minerva type may have been chosen to mark this departure and wish him good fortune as he sailed from a Hispanian port across the Mediterranean to face the Parthians. This is the explanation that I find most plausible, although both theories reinforce the idea that the rabbit and olive tree were present on the type as a reference to Hispania, the emperor’s presence there, and possibly his familial connection to the region. Overall, although the precise meaning of the Minerva aureus cannot be stated with absolute certainty, the floral and faunal components must surely refer to the Iberian Peninsula. If this is accepted, the type can be seen as an interesting precursor to Hadrian’s ‘province’ series, perhaps providing inspiration for the attributes chosen to clearly identify Hispania’s personification in later depictions (for example, Fig 5).

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Fig 5: Marble statuette (height 27.30 cm) of a draped and veiled female figure, probably Hispania, with a basket resting on her knee; in the basket, a rabbit, 100-180 CE; courtesy of the British Museum.

Bibliography:

Abdy, R. A. and Mittag, P. F. (2019) The Roman Imperial Coinage Vol. II – Part 3: Hadrian (London: Spink).

Ballester, X. and Quinn, R. (2002) ‘Cuniculus ‘Rabbit’ – A Celtic Etymology’, World Rabbit Science 10, 3: 125-9.

Birley, A. R. (1997) Hadrian: The Restless Emperor (London and New York: Routledge).

Birley, A. R. (2003) ‘Hadrian’s Travels’, in The Representation and Perception of Roman Imperial Power: proceedings of the Third Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire (Roman Empire, c. 200 B.C. – A.D. 476), eds. L. De Blois, P. Erdkamp, O. Hekster, G. De Kleijn and S. Mols. (Amsterdam: Brill) 425-41.

Gnecchi, F. (1916) ‘Appunti di numismatica romana CXI e CXII. La fauna e la flora nei tipi monetali I. La fauna’, Rivista Italiana di Numismatica 29: 11-82.

Grey, C. (2016) ‘Hadrian the Traveler: Motifs and Expressions of Roman Imperial Power in the Vita Hadriani’, História 35: 1-20.

Imhoof-Blumer, F. and Keller, O. (1889) Tier- und Pflanzenbilder auf Münzen und Gemmen des klassischen Altertums (Leipzig: Druck und Verlag von H. G. Teubner).

Kitchell Jr., K. F. (2014) Animal in the Ancient World from A to Z (London and New York: Routledge).

Strack, P. L. (1933) Untersuchungen zur Römischen Reichsprägung des zweiten Jahrhunderts. Part 2. Die Reichsprägung zur Zeit des Hadrian (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer).

Toynbee, J. M. C. (1934) The Hadrianic School: A Chapter in the History of Greek Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Toynbee, J. M. C. (1973) Animals in Roman Life & Art (London: Thames & Hudson).

Abby This post was written by Abby Wall, an MPhil/PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Abby's current research concerns the use of natural imagery as representations of people and places on Roman coinage of the late Republic to early Imperial period.

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  • Dear Giles, excellent presentation. Just a clarification: the Arras medallion is a unique piece that… by Eleni Papaefthymiou on this entry

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