Ancient History & Civilisation

A NEW KINGDOM OF HERACLES–MELQART

The first silver Barcid coins, probably minted in Gades around 237 BC, used the weight standard of the Phoenician shekel (unlike in Sicily, where the Attic drachma had been used).17 However, in terms of their iconography these early issues displayed clear connections with the wider Hellenistic community. On the obverse they showed the head of a clean-shaven man wearing a hairband, who has been identified as the syncretistic figure of Heracles–Melqart. The portrait itself was a clear copy of one that was being used on the coinage being issued by Hiero, now king of Syracuse.18 The Hellenistic theme continued on the reverse of this coinage issue, which featured the prow of a war galley equipped with a triple ram and a wreathed forepost ending in a bird’s head, a motif used on the coinage of the Macedonian king Demetrius Poliorcetes in the first two decades of the third century BC. There may also have been a self-conscious connection with the Levantine world, however, as coinage minted in the Phoenician city of Arvad in the mid fourth century BC also displayed the head of Melqart on its obverse and a warship on the reverse.19

This design may have been selected simply because it would be attractive to the mercenaries in the Barcid army, or because the coin-makers were Syracusan and could therefore have reproduced it quickly from existing templates.20 However, the subsequent emphasis that the Barcids placed on the projection and control of their image warns against such a theory.21 As we have already seen, by this period the syncretism between Melqart and Heracles, long a hallmark of the island of Sicily, had become increasingly influential in Carthage itself, and had even come to play an important role in articulating the North African metropolis’ relationship with other cities in the Punic community.

There were also more particular local concerns that may have come into consideration in Hamilcar’s choice of coinage. Melqart was the patron god of Gades, but as chief deity of Tyre he also emphasized the Phoenician heritage which that city shared with Carthage. The desire to stress that association most probably explains why the god appears without his customary lionskin headdress on contemporary Barcid coinage, in accordance with local iconographic conventions.22 At a time when the Barcids needed the support of the Phoenician cities in Spain, the promotion of an association with Melqart was thus a clever choice. At the same time, Melqart was strongly associated, through Heracles, both with the martial legacy of Alexander the Great and with the Carthaginian army on Sicily, of which Hamilcar had been the last commander. The Carthaginian military mints in Sicily had started producing silver tetradrachms with a portrait of Heracles in lionskin headdress during the last decade of the fourth century, but it is unlikely that such a design was meant merely as a copy of similar coins produced by Greek mints, or simply to satisfy the tastes of mercenaries within the Sicilian army.23 For within a Phoenician context the Heraclean image had strong associations with Melqart, and the new coin succeeded an issue with Melqart’s more traditional iconography on its obverse. Redeployed in Spain, the multivalent image of Melqart–Heracles proved an excellent and enduring emblem of Barcid power.24 Hamilcar’s growing autonomy must have been further highlighted by Carthage’s reliance not only on his mining operation, but also on his military assistance. When a serious mutiny broke out in North Africa, Hamilcar sent his son-in-law Hasdrubal from Spain with a contingent of Numidian cavalry to suppress it. The strength of the Barcid position on the Iberian peninsula was further underlined by the events that followed the death of Hamilcar in the early years of the 220s. The circumstances of his death are confused, and different stories have him variously killed on the battlefield, drowned while attempting to divert enemy pursuers away from his two sons, or killed in the panic caused by the Spaniards driving burning carts into the Carthaginian ranks.25

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