Numismatic Odyssey: the reunion of Odysseus with his faithful dog Argos
Updated: Feb 19, 2021
I was recently lucky enough to add to my collection this beautiful Republican denarius serratus minted in 82 BC by the moneyer Gaius Mamilius Limetanus. The silver coin has an extraordinary depiction of one of the most moving passages in Homer's Odyssey; the bittersweet reunion of Odysseus with his faithful dog Argos.
The obverse shows the draped bust of Mercury, wearing a winged petasos hat and carrying the caduceus. The reverse has a striking depiction of Homer’s Odyssey, Book 17, in which Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, returns to his Ithaca homeland after 20 years away fighting the Trojan Wars. Despite his disguise, Odysseus is recognised by his aged and neglected but ever-faithful dog Argos.
The reunion of Odysseus with his 20-year-old hunting hound is described in a moving passage:
"As they spoke, a dog who was lying there lifted his head
and pricked up his ears. It was Argos, Odysseus’ dog;
he had trained him and brought him up as a puppy, but never
hunted with him before he sailed off to Troy.
In earlier times the young men had taken him out
with them to hunt for wild goats and deer and hares,
but he had grown old in his master’s absence, and now
he lay abandoned on one of the heaps of mule
and cattle dung that piled up outside the front gates
until the farmhands could come by and cart it off
to manure the fields. And so the dog Argos lay there,
covered with ticks. As soon as he was aware
of Odysseus, he wagged his tail and flattened his ears,
but he lacked the strength to get up and go to his master.
Odysseus wiped a tear away, turning aside
to keep the swineherd from seeing it, and he said,
“Eumaeus, it is surprising that such a dog,
of such quality, should be lying here on a dunghill.
He is a beauty, but I can’t tell if his looks
were matched by his speed or if he was one of those pampered
table dogs, which are kept around just for show.”
Eumaeus replies: "This is the dog of a man who died far away," yet, summoning the last of his strength Argos wags his tail at the sight of his old master Odysseus, the only one to recognise his true identity.
"And just then death came and darkened the eyes of Argos, who had now fulfilled his destiny of faith and finally seen his master Odysseus again after twenty years."
With this remarkable coin issue, the moneyer Mamilius Limetanus, from Tusculum in the Alban Hills, illustrated his claim to descent from Telegonus, youngest son of Odysseus and Circe, and hence from Mercury himself.
The coin is good example of the Republican denarius "serratus" - coins with a notched, sawtooth design around the edge of their flans. The toothed edge of "serrati" were an anti-counterfeiting measure, showing the pure silver interior while also discouraging coin clipping. Experimental archaeology has shown that the blank coin flan was hit with a sharp tool whilst being rolled along a surface with pliers.
The poignant Homeric tableau of Odysseus with his old dog has been an inspiration for artists over the centuries, with representations created in a variety of media.
"Odysseus Recognised by his Dog Argos" by Jean-Joseph Espercieux (1757-1840)
"Odysseus Recognised by Argos" by Theodoor van Thulden (1606-1669)