Between a rock and a hard place
Updated: Feb 21
I will start the story of this coin with Homer's Odyssey, and the passage where Odysseus and his crew are navigating between Charybdis, a treacherous whirlpool, and Scylla, a rock that hides a man-eating monster.
“Thus we sailed up the straits, groaning in terror, for on the one side we had Scylla, while on the other mysterious Charybdis sucked down the salt sea water in her dreadful way. When she vomited it up, she was stirred to her depths and seethed over like a cauldron on a blazing fire; and the spray she flung on high rained down on the tops of the crags at either side.” - Homer, The Odyssey, translated by E.V. Rieu, Penguin Books, Book 11, p201-202
The straits of Messina are the location described here and also in Virgil's Aeneid. Here on the map you can see the location of Catana (or Katane) which is today Catania, a coastal city of Sicily about 100km south of Messina and 30 km south of volcanic Mt. Aetna.
[map source] Strabo writing sometime near the end of the first century BC, describes Catana and its neighboring cities:
"The cities along the side that forms the Strait are, first, Messene, and then Tauromenium, Catana, and Syracuse; but those that were between Catana and Syracuse have disappeared — Naxus and Megara; and on this coast are the outlets of the Symaethus and all rivers that flow down from Aetna and have good harbours at their mouths; and here too is the promontory of Xiphonia."... "Catana lost its original inhabitants when Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, established a different set of colonists there and called it Aetna instead of Catana." (circa 476 BC) - Strabo, Geography Book VI Ch. 2.2
Nevertheless, Catana seems to have persisted. An eruption of Aetna in 427/6 BC is thought to be the source of the legend of the Katanian brothers, depicted on a the denarius shown below. Here is a brief description by Strabo:
"Now the city of Aetna is situated in the interior about over Catana, and shares most in the devastation caused by the action of the craters; in fact the streams of lava rush down very nearly as far as the territory of Catana; and here is the scene of the act of filial piety, so often recounted, of Amphinomus and Anapias, who lifted their parents on their shoulders and saved them from the doom that was rushing upon them." - Strabo, Geography Book VI Ch. 2.2
M. Herennius, 108-107 BC, AR Denarius, Rome mint
Obv: PIETAS, Diademed head of Pietas right, ; K facing down to right
Rev: Amphinomus running right, carrying his father on his shoulder
Ref: Crawford 308/1a; Sydenham 567
Diplomatic interactions between Egypt and Rome were first initiated ~273 BC as the little Republic began to be worthy of notice - Dio Cassius writes:
“And Ptolemy Philadelphus, king of Egypt, when he learned that Pyrrhus had fared badly and that the Romans were growing powerful, sent gifts to them and made a compact. And the Romans, pleased with this, despatched ambassadors to him in turn. The latter received magnificent gifts from him, which they desired to place in the treasury; the senate, however, would not accept them, but allowed the envoys to keep them.” -Dio Cassius 10.41
The first Roman silver coins were issued shortly after the defeat of Pyrrus in 267 BC.[*]
During the First Punic War (264-241 BC), in 263 BC, Katane and was one of the first Sicilian cities to submit to Manius Valerius Maximus Corvinus, Roman consul in 263 BC, and son of the consul of 289 BC. M. Valerius Maximus also concluded a peace agreement with Hieros II of Syracuse and was awarded a triumph in Rome for his victories. The Romans were aided in this war by Egypt's neutrality and unwillingness to take sides between two allies, leaving Carthage with a challenge to pay mercenaries.[*]
Sicily, Katane, circa 204-187 BC, AE
Obv: Janiform head of Serapis; three monograms around
Rev: KATA-NAIΩN, Demeter standing left, holding grain ears and torch
Size: 12.36g, 21mm
Ref: Casabona 10; BAR Issue 9; CNS 14; HGC 2, 619
Roman influence can clearly be seen on the obverse of this coin with it's janiform head which can even be mistaken for a Roman As with Janus. However, this coin shows Serapis with Demeter reverse, and others issued at the time show Isis as well. I would like to better understand the Egyptian relationship and influence on these coins and the coins of the Roman republic.[*] The illustration below shows the monograms that are not fully visible on my coin (see this coin from ACSearch for a clear example. What do these monograms represent - magistrates?, marks of value? - I have only questions.
Katane seems to have fared well between many "rocks and hard places" navigating successfully between powers of Sicily, Carthage, Egypt and Rome - not to mention volcanic eruptions. Strabo also mentions that it produced good wine and fat sheep thanks to fertile, volcanic soil. After the first Punic War it became a "civitas decumana" or tributary city, paying a tenth of its grain harvest to Rome and it became one of the most prosperous cities in Sicily in the first century. (see: Hoover, Coins of Sicily)