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Heraclean Coinage: The Italiote League between Polybius and Diodorus

Parrish Elizabeth Wright

University of Michigan

The twin threads of myth and identity are key tools for untangling the ever-changing webs of alliances between cities across the Mediterranean. The Greek city-states of southern Italy were involved in a network of politics and alliances which spanned not only the Greek mainland but also included connections throughout the Italian peninsula and Sicily.

Until the emergence of the Italiote League, alliances and rivalries in southern Italy were primarily based on perceived ethnic identities, Achaean, Dorian, Ionian, etc., which were often constructed in foundation narratives. The Italiote League represents a fundamental shift away from these identities, but the literary evidence for its origins is scanty and sometimes contradictory. Our main sources, Polybius and Diodorus Siculus, present different dates, different reasons for formation of the league, and even different member cities. Despite ongoing scholarly debate (see recently Wonder 2012, Fronda 2013, 2015), the material culture of Croton, the original leader of this league, has not been taken into account. Coinage featuring Heracles, which Croton began to mint in the late 5th c. BCE, provides additional evidence in support of Polybius’ timeline and demonstrates Croton’s active manipulation of its foundation legends to legitimize itself as a leader of a pan-Italiote alliance. With Heracles as our guide, we see the Greek cities of Magna Graecia making use of diplomacy based on mythological kinship and, through him, the articulation of a distinct Italiote identity in southern Italy.

According to Polybius (2.38-29), the Italiote league emerged around 430 BCE, with help from mainland Greek Achaeans who came to Italy following the destruction of Pythagorean meeting places, but then fell apart when Dionysius of Syracuse began encroaching into southern Italy (c.390). Diodorus (14.9), on the other hand, claims that the alliance formed in 393 BCE precisely to resist Dionysius of Syracuse as well as other native Italian groups, mostly the Lucanians and Brettii. The league seems to have consisted, at the least, of Croton, Caulonia, Thurii, Metapontum, Elea, Hipponium, Rhegium, Poseidonia, Taras and Heraclea. Wonder argues that these are two separate leagues, while Fronda argues for a gradual development from one to another.

As of yet unconsidered is Croton’s change in coinage around 425 BCE. Previously featuring the Delphic tripod, an allusion to the journey of Croton’s “historical” founder, Myscellus, the new coinage features Heracles with the legend “OIKISTAS,” unambiguously alluding to his role in another origin story of Croton. According to Diodorus (4.24), Heracles, bearing the cattle of Geryon to the Italian mainland, encountered two figures named Lacininus and Croton. After killing both, he perpetuated their memory by naming the future city for Croton and the nearby promontory for Lacinius. The date of this coinage, second half of the fifth century, give credence to Polybius’ account. The figure of Heracles also helps us understand the motivation for the league at this time, (roughly analogous to Polybius’ timeline), rivalry with the newly founded Thurii and its colony, Heraclea which (naturally) took on the imagery of Heracles on its coinage, also dated to c.430 BCE. Additionally, the myth associates Heracles with the foundation of Croton’s sanctuary of Hera Lacinia, the federal meeting place of the league until control of the league transferred to Taras. Indeed, later coinage (dated 400–325 BCE) depicts Hera Lacinia on the obverse, with Heracles on the reverse, reinforcing the connection between the hero, the city, and the Italiote league.

This is simply one example of a widespread phenomenon in southern Italy, where city-states would use their foundation myths as vehicles not only for self-definition, but also as tools for making alliances through kinship diplomacy. By restyling itself in the mid 5th century as a city of Heracles, rather than the Achaean foundation of Myscellus, Croton justifies its role as a leader of a panhellenic league. Croton’s emphasis on the Heracles myth helped appeal to other cities outside the confines of divisive ethnic identities in an increasingly connected world of complex group identities.

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