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Hope by any other name...

Public Domain: Painting by John William Waterhouse (1847-1917)

Elpis (ἐλπίς) with a flower in hand is depicted on this Alexandrian tetradrachm of Salonina the wife of Gallienus. Elpis is the Greek equivalent of Roman Spes or Hope. Perhaps because these tetradrachms are so different than the Roman republican denarii, what started as a small distraction has become a small collection of Alexandrian coins from the reigns of Valerian and Gallienus. Here's the latest addition from regnal year (RY) 15 of Gallienus.

Egypt, Alexandria, Salonina, Augusta & wife of Gallienus, AD 254-268, Tetradrachm, dated RY 15 (AD 267/8)

Obv: KORNHLIA CALWNEINA CEB, draped bust right, wearing stephane

Rev: Elpis advancing left, holding flower and hem of skirt; palm frond before, IЄ/L (date) to right.

Ref: Dattari (Savio) 5334

This reverse type was introduced by Domitian and continued to be used to the time of Diocletian.[*] The regnal year ended on Aug 28 and the new year started Aug 29th, this coin was issued in the 15th and last year of Gallienus' reign.

The palm branch, a symbol of victory, does not appear on all tetradrachms with Elpis, but seems to always appear on all Elpis reverses for Gallienus and Salonina. Hope for victory?

In 268, Gallienus defeated invaders in Moesia, and put down a revolt in Milan by Aureolus only to be assassinated in a plot by the head of the praetorian guard together with Claudius II and Aurelian. Here's an unusual Gallienus from AD 259/260 - like the one above from Salonina - the portrait was the initial draw on this coin:

Egypt, Alexandria, Gallienus (AD 253-268), Tetradrachm, dated RY 7 of Valerian I & Gallienus (AD 259/260)

Obv: A K Π ΛI OV ΓAΛΛIANOC EV EV C, laureate, draped, and cuirassed bust right

Rev: Alexandria standing left, wearing turreted crown, holding bust of Sarapis and scepter, L-Z (date)

Prometheus gave mankind fire, and in return, Zeus gave Pandora, the first woman, to the brother of Prometheus, Epimetheus. Pandora literally means "all endowed" as Hesiod tells:

"Also the Guide, the Slayer of Argus, contrived within her lies and crafty words and a deceitful nature at the will of loud thundering Zeus and the Herald of the gods put speech in her. And he called this woman Pandora/ because all they who dwelt on Olympus gave each a gift, a plague to men who eat bread."
- Hesiod, Work & Days, 76-82, translation by ​Hugh G. Evelyn-White (1920)

Elpis, hope, is the one "misery" that fails to escape from Pandora's box in the telling by Hesiod.

"For ere this the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sicknesses which bring the Fates upon men ; for in misery men grow old quickly. But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men. Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door ; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her, by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus who gathers the clouds."
- Hesiod, Works & Days, 90-100, translation by ​Hugh G. Evelyn-White (1920)

The "box" was a πίθος (pithos) - which is really a large terracotta storage jar something like this one:

Was Hope Good or Bad?

There is scholarly debate about what it means that Hope (also translated as Expectation) stayed in the pithos. Is "hope" an evil (false expectation) or a good (motivating optimism)? Does it remain in the box for mankind or hidden from mankind?[1][2][3] The painting at the start of this post is of Pandora opening the box, from 1896, oil on canvas. Erasmus of Rotterdam (AD 1456-1536) is most often cited as the source of the mistranslated Greek πίθος to Latin pyxis (“small box”).[4] Here is an etching of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528), from AD 1526:

In his Adagiorum chiliades tres, first edition, 1508, he twice references pyxis in place of pithos. "Ita ut fuit pyxis illa fallax, per Pandoram a Iove Prometheo missa"(*), and

"Unde et virgini Pandorae nomen affectum apparat. Hanc igitur omnibus formae, cultus, ingenii, linguaeque dotibus cumulatam, Iupiter cum pixide pulcherima quidem illa, sed intus omne calamitum genus occulente, ad Prometheus mittit."

"The maiden was named Pandora. This maiden then showered with all the gifts of beauty, grooming, intelligence, and eloquence, was sent to Prometheus with a box, it, too, was most beautiful in shape but concealing within every kind of calamity"

Calling Pyxis a "mistranslation" seems a bit more than what it was, perhaps a bit of poetic drift, when you look at what an ancient Greek or Roman might have associated with a "pyxis".

From "pyxis" spread the image of Pandora with a small box in place of a large πίθος.


  1. Fraser, L. (2011). A Woman of Consequence: Pandora in Hesiod's "Work and Days". The Cambridge Classical Journal,57, 9-28.

  2. Verdenius, W. (1971). A 'Hopeless' Line in Hesiod: "Works and Days" 96. Mnemosyne,24(3), fourth series, 225-231.

  3. Religion Wiki, online, Pandora

  4. Wikipedia, Erasmus

  5. Pandora's Box: The Changing Aspects of a Mythical Symbol, Princeton Legacy Library, 2019 (first published in 1962), Dora Panofsky & Erwin Panofsky

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