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Figs, Sophists, and Sulla

My primary collection centers on the lifetime of Sulla and his reign as consul and dictator in Rome. Today's coin of interest falls in this period and eventually the Sullan connection will become clear. But first we will explore the fig, Ficus carica, an important crop in the ancient world. The fig is also tied to the founding of Rome.

Pliny writes a chapter in his Natural History on the "Twenty nine varieties of Figs" and there is a seemingly infinite number of modern varieties alphabetized with images on this website (see:

Linnaeus in 1753 classified the "Ficus carica. Ficus foliis palmatis", an illustration here from 1771, illustration LXXIV from Trew, C.J., Plantae selectae quarum imagines ad exemplaria naturalia Londini, in hortis curiosorum nutrit, vol. 8: t. 73, G.D. Ehret.

Figs & Rome

According to legend, Rome's founding twins, Romulus and Remus, were the sons of Rhea Silvia, the daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa. Amulius deposed his brother Numitor and forced Rhea to become a Vestal Virgins to prevent her from having children that could challenge his claim to the throne. Despite her vows of chastity, Rhea gave birth to twins, Romulus and Remus, fathered by the war god Mars. When Amulius ordered the infants drowned in the Tiber River.

The basket that the twins were placed in grounded under the Ficus ruminalis, a sacred fig tree on the future site of Rome, near the Palatine Hill, and they were suckled by a she-wolf until they were discovered by a shepherd named Faustulus. Ficus ruminalis is named for Rumina, the goddess of suckling animals, although the historian Livy also claims an earlier name "Romularis", after Romulus.

"the men who brought the twins were led to hope that being infants they might be drowned, no matter how sluggish the stream. So they made shift to discharge the king's command, by exposing the babes at the nearest point of the overflow, where the fig-tree Ruminalis — formerly, they say, called Romularis - now stands. In those days this was a wild and uninhabited region. The story persists that when the floating basket in which the children had been exposed was left high and dry by the receding water, a she-wolf, coming down out of the surrounding hills to slake her thirst, turned her steps towards the cry of the infants, and with her teats gave them suck so gently, that the keeper of the royal flock found her licking them with her tongue."
-Livy, History of Rome, 1.4.4 

Figs are one of the oldest domesticated plants from the Mediterranean Basin. Carbonized figs, dated to 11,400-11,200 BC, have been discovered in the Jordan Valley, predating the domestication of grains.

Image of carbonized fig fragments Gilgal I, an early Neolithic site in the Jordan Valley, Kislev 2006.

Ficus carica, widespread in the Mediterranean region takes its scientific name from Caria in southwestern part of Türkiye.

"F. carica is one of the most representative species of the Mediterranean region, not only for its wide diffusion but also for the importance this plant has had since time immemorial for the populations living in these regions. It takes its scientific name from Caria, a region of ancient settlement, noted for its figs and corresponding to the current southwestern part of Turkey."
- Egizia Falistocco, The Millenary History of the Fig Tree (Ficus carica L.) 

Antioch ad Maeander

There are multiple cities named Antioch.Seleucus I, founder of the Seleucid empire, named many cities after his father, Antiochus, himself, his mother, and his wives. One such city, Antioch on Meander, was formerly Pythopolis in Caria, between the Maeander and Orsinus rivers. Antiochus I built up Pythopolis, a few kilometers southeast of the modern Turkish city of Kuyucak, Aydın Province, Türkiye, and renamed it after his father. Recent scholarship has assigned the sculptor of the Venus de Milo to a citizen of this Antioch, Alexandros of Antioch in the 2nd – 1st century BC. He is known from inscriptions that date to circa 80 BC.

Strabo, a Greek geographer and historian born in Amaseia, Pontus (c. 64 BC), wrote a description about Antioch on the Meander during the reign of Augustus (27 BC-AD 14).

"After Hierapolis one comes to the parts on the far side of the Maeander; I have already described those round Laodiceia and Aphrodisias and those extending as far as Carura. The next thereafter are the parts towards the west, I mean the city of the Antiocheians on the Maeander, where one finds himself already in Caria, and also the parts towards the south, I mean Greater Cibyra and Sinda and Cabalis, extending as far as the Taurus and Lycia. Now Antiocheia is a city of moderate size, and is situated on the Maeander itself in the region that lies near Phrygia, and there is a bridge over the river. Antiocheia has considerable territory on each side of the river, which is everywhere fertile, and it produces in greatest quantities the "Antiocheian" dried fig, as it is called, though they also name the same fig "three-leaved." This region, too, is much subject to earthquakes. Among these people arose a famous sophist, Diotrephes, whose complete course was taken by Hybreas, who became the greatest orator of my time."
-Strabo, Geography, 3.4.15 

Antioch was loyal to Rome and the cult of the goddess Roma was introduced in Antioch in thanks for Rome's liberation of Caria from Rhodes (167 BC).

The Coin

This coin was issued circa 90/89-65/60 BC by the Diotrephes, the same man referenced by Strabo, in his third year as magistrate of the city.

Caria, Antioch ad Maeandrum, circa 90/89-65/60 BC, AR Tetradrachm (28 mm, 16.13g, 11h), Diotrephes (ΔIOTPЄΦΗΣ), magistrate for the third time (TO TPITON).

Obv: Laureate head of Apollo to right with bow and quiver over his shoulder

Rev: ANTIOXЄΩN - ΔIOTPЄΦΗΣ / TO TPITON Zebu bull standing left, head facing; all within maeander pattern border

Ref: Thonemann (2019) Group A, 2 (O3/R6) - illustration of the double die match from Thoneman's publication is shown.

Regarding the meander pattern on the reverse: I don't have a great explanation for the pattern - I can also see a city wall in the frame. Strabo tells of one origin of the name for it (the River Meander):

"the Maeander flows for a time through Phrygia and then forms the boundary between Caria and Lydia at the Plain of Maeander, as it is called, where its course is so exceedingly winding that everything winding is called "meandering.""
-Strabo, Geography, 12.8.15

A symbol of infinity, unity, strength or continuity that is seen in varied forms in decoration of Greek buildings, vases, art...or perhaps just a framing that is traditional.

Diotrephes, the Sophist

Thonemann references a marble plaque that honors Diotrephes. Diotrephes, was the teacher of Hybreas, who was the greatest rhetorician of Strabo's time. A "sophist" was a teacher and philosopher who who would teach students.

"(I) The people honoured with the greatest honours and buried Diotrephes son of Diotrephes, orator, priest of the god Men and the goddess Roma in succession to his ancestors, who performed many glorious (?) embassies on behalf of his homeland to the authorities [i.e. Rome], and was successful, and... for the people, and during the wars in greatness of spirit complied with everything requested of him by the city, and was outstanding in both trustworthiness and justice, and served as priest in an emulous and magnificent and glorious and pious manner, and in both war and peace has been a good man and saviour and benefactor of the city and a lover of his homeland. (II) The gerousia honoured and crowned with a golden crown Diotrephes son of Diotrephes, grandson of Diotrephes, having been priest of Roma and gymnasiarch and a benefactor of the people."

The wars referred to are the Mithridatic Wars. Thonemann proposes that Antioch on Meander began to produce these civic issue silver tetradrachms during the run-up to the first Mithridatic War (89–85 BC).

The first coins were issued by Diotrephes in his first year of office, circa 90BC, in the run-up to the First Mithridatic War. The tetradrachms were struck on a weight standard that was compatible with the Roman denarius. Thonemann also proposes that the "honorific inscription for the orator Diotrephes suggests that he may have won some privileged status for Antioch in the aftermath of the war".

The Zebu

Why is there a zebu on the reverse of this coin? The humped bull is a common motif on coins across cities in this region including Magnesia, Tralleis, Alabanda, and Tabai. The bull was an important Seleucid symbol recalling a story of founder Seleucus I and Alexander the Great.

"He (Seleucus) was of such a large and powerful frame that once when a wild bull was brought for sacrifice to Alexander and broke loose from his ropes, Seleucus held him alone, with nothing but his hands, for which reason his statues are ornamented with horns. He built cities throughout the entire length of his dominions and named sixteen of them Antioch after his father, five Laodicea after his mother, nine after himself, and four after his wives, that is, three Apamea and one Stratonicea."
-Appian, Syrian Wars, 9.57 


And so we come to Sulla, elected consul in 89 BC. This coin issued by Diotrephes in his third year as magistrate circa 88/87 BC, the year in which Mithridates massacres tens of thousands of Romans, Rome declares War, Sulla and Marius battle each other, Sulla takes command and leads armies against Mithridates.....this story described further in other posts. (see Sulla & Marius)

Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (4 – c. 70 AD), who wrote about agriculture in first century AD Rome, wrote about ways to dry figs and prepare them. He documented this ancient Roman recipe for figs:

"Some people, once gathered the figs, remove the peduncles and spread them in the sun. When the figs are dried a little, before they turn hard, they place them in terracotta or stone basins, then they crush the figs with their clean feet in the same way as flour, and add roasted sesame, Egyptian anise, fennel, and cumin seeds. Once the ingredients are well mixed, they wrap little cakes [made with this paste] in fig leaves and tie them with reeds or the kind of herb they prefer, and place the cakes on lattices leaving them to dry. When the cakes are completely dry, they keep them into pitched vessels."
-L. Iunius Moderatus Columella, De Re Rustica 12.16 

a video showing how to prepare this Roman recipe can be found here:


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