October 24, 2014

Ambiguity, Roma and Soldiers in Sicily

A picture is less like a statement or speech act, then, than like a speaker capable of an infinite number of utterances. An image is not a text to be read but a ventriloquist's dummy into which we project our own voice.

W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? p. 140


warrior_zeus_coin
'Zeus / Warrior' Coin from Sicily (Bahrfeldt 2)

This sentence encompasses the problems of ambiguity and meaning that have been the focus of several previous blogs. Since I posted about the ambiguity of images used by the Romans in Macedonia, I have come across several more examples that show a similar tendency. One is shown to the right, part of the 'Zeus / warrior' coin series struck by the Romans in Sicily. These coins are entangled objects: released by the Romans and carrying references to Roman quaestors in Latin (in this case via the Q for quaestor and a monogram spelling MAL on the far right), the design was likely created by a Greek die engraver, and the coins were intended for circulation within the Roman province of Sicily. Bahrfeldt, acknowledging their mixed nature, termed them 'Roman-Sicilian', a phrase also used by Frey-Kupper in her study of coin circulation in Sicily, which concluded these issues dated to the period 190/170-130/120 BC.


panormos_warrior_coin
Coin of Panormos with head of Zeus and Warrior

Ever since Bahrfeldt's publication, people have wondered 'who' exactly the warrior is. Is it a Roman soldier, a local Greek soldier, or is it the god of war (Mars/Ares)? The Romans might easily have made the picture more 'understandeable' by providing the coin a legend, but here, as with the case of Macedonia, they chose not to. This may have been intentional, allowing, in the words of Mitchell, for each person to 'project their own voice' through seeing their own meaning in the image. In this way, each member of the community that was Roman Republican Sicily might have identified with the image, allowing the image and the coin that bore it to actively generate a shared sense of community. When Panormos began to strike its own coinage bearing its name under Roman dominion from 130/120 BC, they adopt the Zeus / Warrior type. The money created by the conquerors (Rome) has been claimed and adopted by the conquered: 'their' money had become 'our' money. It is in a moment like this that Anderson's 'imagined community' is created. Again, the warrior shown on the coins carrying the ethnic of Panormos may have been Roman, Greek, divine, or as representative of the warriors of Panormos itself. Or it may not even have been seen as a warrior at all.


italica_Roma
Coin of Italica with head of Augustus and Roma

While we often think of Roma as a seated goddess, some representations of her show her standing with a spear and shield in a very similar manner to the 'warrior' of Sicilian coinage. One example from Spain is shown on the right, which (although it is not visible on this particular specimen) identifies the figure next to the shield as ROMA on the reverse legend (RPC 61). Given this and other examples, could this be another possible reading of the 'warrior' type seen on Roman-Sicilian coinage, the issues of Panormos, and other towns? Just as the image can evoke various soldiers, and perhaps Ares, it may also have been seen as the personification of Roman power itself. But the ambiguity, which still provokes scholarly debate today, was likely the key behind this and other images.


Coin images reproduced courtesy of ArtCoins Roma (Auction 6 lot 257), Classical Numismatic Group (Electronic Auction 327, lot 521) (www.cngcoins.com) and Jesus Vico S.A. (Auction 132, lot 611)


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