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Crocodiles and Romans

One does not have to look far to see signs in Nîmes, France of the city's origins as a Roman colony. The crocodile chained to the palm tree can be seen on sewer covers and is the city's logo. The soccer team has a crocodile in its logo. Roman colonies and crocodiles in France, South west of Lyon?

The story starts with the second triumvirate between Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus, a tenuous alliance after the murder of Julius Caesar. Mark Antony co-consul with Julius Caesar, and Octavian, Julius Caesar's great-nephew and adopter heir, a young man of only 18 years. Leipidus and Mark Antony joined forces, at first against Octavian, and then with him in 43 BC against the "Liberators" responsible for the murder of Julius Caesar.

After defeating Brutus and Cassius, Antony struck up a relationship with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.

Fulvia, wife of Antony, conflicted politically with Octavian and the two triumvirs smoothed over their differences thanks to Fulvia's death.

"It happened, too, that Fulvia, who was sailing to meet him {Antony], fell sick and died at Sicyon. Therefore there was even more opportunity for a reconciliation with Caesar. For when Antony reached Italy, and Caesar manifestly intended to make no charges against him, and Antony himself was ready to put upon Fulvia the blame for whatever was charged against himself..."
-Plutarch, Lives, Mark Antony 30.3 

Rome dominated the Mediterranean, and neighboring rulers took sides, although I don't think anyone else declared his loyalty on coins as did Tarkondimotos, King of Cilicia, a Roman protectorate.

Kingdom of Cilicia, Tarkondimotos, circa 39-31 BC

Obv: Diademed head of Tarkondimotos right

Rev: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΤΑΡΚΟΝΔΙΜΟΤΟΥ Zeus seated left, holding Nike in right hand, scepter in left, in exergue ΦΙΛΑΝΤΩΝΙΟY

On the bottom of the reverse of this coin: ΦΙΛΑΝΤ[ΩΝΙΟY] – Friend of Antony. Initially an ally of Pompey against Julius Caesar, after Pompey’s death he switched sides and was pardoned by Julius Caesar and given Roman citizenship. Tarkondimotos then sided with Mark Antony against Octavian and died in 31 AD fighting at Actium against Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, general and close friend of Octavian. Tarkondimotos' sons defected to Octavian after Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium.

"It would appear that one of the first actions taken by Philopator [son of Tarkondimotos] on his succession was to systematically countermark his father’s regal coins with an anchor symbol across the neck of the obverse portrait. The choice of a maritime symbol to legitimise the coinage of a king who had just died in a naval battle may not be as strange as it first sounds. The anchor was widely understood as a sign of safety, and the symbol had been the official mark of the Seleukids from earliest times as a subtype, reverse type, a symbol on official weights and seals, and as a countermark. In this context the countermark may have symbolised the right of the Tarkondimotidai as successors of the Seleukids to continue their rule in Kilikia during the uncertainty that followed the battle of Actium."
-N. Wright (2010)

Several times Octavian and Antony tried to remain allies. They strengthened their bond with Antony marrying Octavia, the sister of Octavian in October, 40 BC. Sometime not long after in 39 or 38 BC, Marcus Agrippa was named as governor of trans-alpine Gaul by Octavian. Agrippa struck coins in 38 BC from a mobile mint in Gaul, and he may have first established Nemausus as a colony during this time. Nemausus was the name of a local Celtic deity associated with the spring that provided water for the settlement.

Marriage to Octavia, lasted until a letter of divorce from Antony in 33 BC when after defeat in Parthia he returned East to Cleopatra. Octavian used the relationship with Cleopatra to turn Romans against Mark Antony, characterizing him as a man of low morals and under foreign influence.

"Therefore let no one count him a Roman, but rather an Egyptian, nor call him Antony, but rather Serapion; let no one think he was ever consul or imperator, but only gymnasiarch. For he has himself, of his own free will, chosen the latter names instead of the former, and casting aside all the august titles of his own land, has become one of the cymbal players from Canopus."
- Dio, Roman History, 50.26 

The Battle at Actium was the decisive conflict between the two, in 31 BC, and won by Octavian with credit given to Marcus Agrippa for the victory. Mark Antony and Cleopatra fled to Egypt, where both committed suicide. Octavian was about 32 years old when he won the battle and became the sole ruler of Rome.

Coins with the signature crocodile were first issued in 28-27 BC and the first issue commemorated the granting of land to form the colony (deductio colonia) to war veterans from The Battle of Actium, Roman and Greek veterans who fought for both Octavian and Antony were settled there. My coiins are both later issue (RIC 158, group II, dated 9BC - 3 BC, and lighter in weight than the first issue, ~12.5g and lacks the P.P. on the obverse which was added after Augustus accepted the title of "Pater Patriae" (issued 10-14 AD).

and a second one

Gaul, Colonia Nemausus, Augustus, 27 BC-AD 14, with Agrippa, AE As(?), struck circa 9/8-3 BC

Obv: IMP, heads of Agrippa, wearing rostral crown and wreath, left and Augustus, wearing oak wreath, right, back to back, DIVI F Below

Rev: Crocodile right chained to palm branch with short fronds; wreath with long ties above, palms below

Ref: RIC I 158; RPC I 524

The ships prow (rostral crown) advertises Agrippa's naval victories. IMP and DIVI F, declare Augustus emperor and the son of the god Julius Caesar. The crocodile chained to the palm tree is a symbol of Egypt captured - there are denarii and aurei of Octavian issued from an eastern mint with reverse legend AEGVPTO / CAPTA and a Crocodile. After the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, Egypt became a Roman colony. The wreath on the reverse is a symbol of victory. The crocodile looking almost boat shaped, may also be a visual allusion the legionary denarii of Mark Antony and a symbol of Antony, once hero and consul, fallen and ruled by Cleopatra.

An interesting thread on CoinTalk from contributor Cucumbor highlights a visual evolution of imagery from coins with Janus on the obverse.

Similarly the crocodile and palm evolve from a prow and mast.

I find the visual links compelling: mark of value becoming mast and then palm, eye of horus turning into eye of crocodile....

There is an irony that despite his defeat, many ancient rulers are descended from Mark Antony, including Roman emperors. Through his daughters by Octavia, Mark Antony was the ancestor of three Roman emperors Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. His daughter with Cleopatra, Cleopatra Selene II, married Juba II and became queen of Mauritania. His oldest daughter, Antonia with his second wife, was ancestor to a long line of Kings of the Bosporus.

Mark Antony, Father to Bosporan Kings

One of those Kings was Sauromates I who issued this coin in the early second century AD.

Sauromates I, AD 93/4-123/4, Æ 48 Units, struck AD 117/8-123

Obv: diademed and draped bust right

Rev: MH (mark of value - 48) within wreath

This is a coin of Mark Antony's great grandson, King of Pontus, a client king to Rome and the only descendant to have his name "Marcus Antonius Polemon Pythodoros" and known as Polemon II:

Kings of Pontus, Polemon II, with Nero, AD 38-64, AR Drachm, Dated RY 19 (AD 56/7)

Obv: BACIΛЄωC ΠOΛЄMωNOC, diademed head of Polemo right

Rev: Laureate head of Nero right; ΙΘ (date) downward to left, ETOYC upward to right

Ref: RPC II 3831

And the symbol of the crocodile, not exactly a symbol of defeat, endures in Nimes today, >2000 years after the Battle of Actium.


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Jean-Claude Laurin
Jean-Claude Laurin
26 sept 2021

Great writeup !


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