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July 01, 2017
Roman Republican Denarius, 56 BC, RRC 426/1
Obverse: FAVSTVS. Bust of Diana right, draped and wearing diadem; above, crescent; behind, lituus. Border of dots.
Reverse: FELIX. Sulla seated left; on left, Bocchus kneeling and holding olive-branch in right hand; on right, Jugurtha kneeling with hands tied behind back. Border of dots.
This month’s coin is an issue of 56 BC, but the story which lies behind it, represented on its obverse, takes us back to the latter years of the second century BC and Rome’s war against the Numidian prince Jugurtha.
Following the death of King Micipsa in 118 BC, the kingdom of Numidia was divided between the brothers Hiempsal, Adherbal, and Jugurtha. Jugurtha had Hiempsal assassinated, and later, in 112 BC, besieged Adherbal in Cirta. Jugurtha managed to take the town and kill Adherbal, but there were also many casualties among the population of resident Italian businessmen. The Romans, who had been involved all along as mediators and interested observers, wanted vengeance for the deaths of the Italians. The war which then began proved difficult to win; politicians at Rome made accusations of incompetence and corruption against the aristocratic generals who were conducting the war.
In 107 BC, the new consul Gaius Marius took over the command. Marius was both an excellent soldier and an outsider in Roman politics with no consular ancestors. The young quaestor who accompanied him, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, was just the opposite: a descendant of an old but impoverished noble family. The sources tell us that Sulla was ambitious and was looking for an opportunity to perform some memorable exploit which would help him in his political career at Rome (Plutarch, Sulla 3). His friendship with the king of Mauretania, Bocchus I, provided the opportunity. Bocchus was the father-in-law of Jugurtha, but was hesitant about which side to support in the war. When Jugurtha lost most of his army and fled to him, Bocchus gave him shelter, but considered handing him over to the Romans. Sulla travelled to the region and organised a meeting with Bocchus, during which he convinced him to betray Jugurtha to him in a planned ambush (Sallust, Jugurthine War 111). The ambush went ahead and Bocchus surrendered the bound Jugurtha to Sulla.
This is what is represented on our coin. On the left, Bocchus is kneeling and holding out an olive branch to the central figure of Sulla, who is seated. On the right, the bound Jugurtha kneels in submission. Why was this scene so important that it was represented on a coin more than fifty years later?
Jugurtha’s capture sparked a competition between Marius and Sulla for the glory of having brought the war to an end. Moreover, the ancient sources point to this incident as the beginning of the personal enmity which led eventually to the disastrous civil war between Marius and Sulla in the 80s BC (Plutarch, Marius 10).
Marius, as the overarching commander, was awarded a triumph for finishing the war against Jugurtha. The triumph was especially noteworthy and magnificent as Marius celebrated it on the first day of his new consulship in 104 BC. He had been elected with popular support and in contravention of the law forbidding successive consulships so that he could lead the war against the Germanic tribes who were migrating across northern Italy. Marius’ glory in this moment was matched by his arrogance; after finishing the triumph with the concluding sacrifices in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, he convened the senate still wearing the purple triumphal garb, rather than the senatorial toga. The senators were horrified at this authoritarian gesture, and Marius changed his clothing before continuing to preside over the session.
Marius memorialised his victory by setting up a trophy. Later, after his victory over the Germanic tribes, the Cimbri and Teutones, he set up another commemorative trophy. The city of Rome itself became a witness to the victories and glory of Marius. This accorded with the usual republican practice of glorifying military successes, and especially the general under whose leadership they had been achieved.
But Sulla was not content with this. He made a rival claim to the glory of this campaign. He had the scene of Jugurtha’s submission depicted on his seal ring, so that in any correspondence with him the recipient would be reminded that this was the event which ended the war and defined his career (Plutarch, Sulla 3).
Bocchus himself also intensified the situation in 91 BC by setting up a statue group on the Capitol which depicted him handing over Jugurtha to Sulla (Plutarch, Sulla 6). The iconography of our coin likely reflects the design of this monument. Marius was greatly annoyed at both Bocchus and Sulla over the perceived challenge to his military reputation, but the Social War broke out around the same time, and the issue was left unresolved.
Marius died during the civil wars, and Sulla eventually captured Rome and instituted a bloody dictatorship, marked by proscription – the state-sanctioned murder of a set list of individuals. After his period of sole rule, Sulla resigned his power and retired to his villa, where he spent his time composing his memoirs. He died only a year later.
Despite the deaths of both Sulla and Marius, the issue of their respective reputations, including the debate over who was responsible for the end of the Jugurthine war, remained potent. During his aedileship in 65 BC, the young Julius Caesar, a nephew of Marius, concocted a bold plan: overnight, he had all of the trophies and statues of Marius which had been removed in the civil wars restored to their former places (Plutarch, Caesar 6). Regardless of whether the trophies were the originals or replicas, they suddenly brought back into the city’s public space the memory of Marius’ great campaigns. Caesar had already begun rehabilitating Marius’ memory a few years earlier, when he had given a public funeral for his aunt Julia, Marius’ widow. During the funerary procession, the images of Marius were displayed for the first time since his death.
Twenty years later, Sulla’s son Faustus reiterated his family’s claim to the glory of Jugurtha’s capture by depicting it on this coin. The coin issue was part of a series of four which celebrated both the achievements of Faustus’ father Sulla and those of his soon-to-be father-in-law Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. On this coin, type 1 in the series, the victory over Jugurtha is paired with an image of Diana, one of Sulla’s patron deities. On the other types, Hercules and Venus also feature prominently, while the names Faustus and Felix (an honorific name for Sulla) are themselves a reminder of the special divine favour which Sulla claimed to enjoy. Types 3 and 4 refer to Pompey and bring him into this conversation about glory and divine favour. The reverse of type 3 (RRC 426/3, below) shows the three trophies which were the emblem on Pompey’s signet ring, while the reverse of type 4 (RRC 426/4, below) shows the globe, four wreaths, and an ear of corn; all are references to the magnificent achievements of Pompey in ridding the Mediterranean of pirates, celebrating three triumphs over three continents, and ensuring the Roman grain supply through his special commission. The joining of Sulla and Pompey in this multi-layered iconography of victory and divine favour is fitting, as it was Sulla who had essentially given Pompey his political start. Pompey’s first great action was raising an army of his father’s veteran soldiers to fight for Sulla in the civil war.
|RRC 426/3||RRC 426/4|
Why did the question of who was responsible for the capture of Jugurtha matter so much not only to Marius and Sulla, but also to the next generation? Roman politics was intensely competitive, with individuals striving against each other for opportunities to serve the state. If one could demonstrate that one’s ancestors had already served the state gloriously, this was one way to gain prestige and a better chance of election. The memories and monuments of past successes mattered so much to Roman politicians because their lives were defined by the competition for glory, praise, and honours. These had to be publicly bestowed and commemorated. Politicians would remind the Roman people of their ancestor’s achievements in the hopes that they too would be allowed to serve the state and achieve glory. It was a competition for symbolic capital which consistently, though not exclusively, returned the members of the same few families to the highest magistracies.
This month's entry was written by Dr. Hannah Mitchell. Hannah specialises in the political culture of the late republic and Augustan periods. She is writing a book on political careers and aristocratic self-presentation during the civil wars of the 40s and 30s BC.
Coin images reproduced courtesy of the British Museum (©The Trustees of the British Museum).
Flower, H. 2006. The Art of Forgetting: Disgrace and Oblivion in Roman Political Culture, Chapel Hill.
Harlan, M. 2015 (2nd edn). Roman Republican Moneyers and their Coins, 63 BC – 49 BC, London.
Mackay, C.S. 2000. ‘Sulla and the Monuments: Studies in his Public Persona’, Historia 49.2, 161-210.