Featured Marcus Claudius Marcellus - A legend in his own time and a man of mythical stature in ours.

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by FrizzyAntoine, Sep 26, 2021.

  1. FrizzyAntoine

    FrizzyAntoine Well-Known Member

    I want to preface this thread by saying that firstly I apologise for the length of this post, it was originally intended to be less than half this length, but with a man as impressive as Marcellus it's hard to stick to the word count. I hope that those of you who read this end up enjoying it, and I'm excited to hear your thoughts and see everyone else's portraits of this impressive hero of the early Republic. Hope you enjoy!

    Marcus Claudius Marcellus, a legend in his own time and a man of mythical stature in ours. Consul five times over, and the only Roman to have ever definitively earned the Spolia Opima; Marcellus’ remarkable life and exploits reach beyond the pale of ordinary human abilities – raising him to the same hallowed station as Romulus himself. In the near-mythical reality of Marcellus’ life, Rome had found herself a man who combined the prowess for war of the semi-divine Aeneas and Romulus, with the unwavering civil duty of Cincinnatus and Lucius Junius Brutus. This was just as well, since Rome – though she may not have known it at the time – had found also in this same man a messiah who would resurrect and restore to glory an enfeebled and wavering Republic in her most trying hour.

    Marcellus was born a short while before Rome’s first great war with Carthage – most probably sometime between 270 and 268 BCE – to an established patrician family of the old and powerful gens Claudii, among the most ancient and powerful houses in the Republic. Naturally, the weight of expectation on young Marcus would have been immense – he was to continue a line of illustrious men who counted among their ranks more consuls than any other patrician house, stretching back to 495 BCE when the Republic was still in its infancy. As we know from later writings and archaeological evidence – such as the epitaphs of the Scipios – a high-born man in Rome was expected to emulate and exceed his ancestors, and those who fell short of this lofty standard were looked upon far less than favourably. It was into this world of great expectations and arduous effort that Marcus Claudius Marcellus was born, and in a few short years he would find himself engaged as a soldier in the greatest of all trials the fledgeling Republic had hitherto faced – the First Punic War.

    The first great war between the powers of Rome and Carthage, known to us today as the First Punic War, was a sluggish, capricious affair which proved to be the greatest, most impotent meat-grinder of the Hellenistic age. Over the span of twenty-three seemingly unceasing years, hundreds of thousands of men would needlessly be sacrificed upon the unholy altar of war in a fruitless struggle fuelled rather by the vanity of politic than the practical necessity of the State. As a result the western banks of the Mediterranean would run red for decades hence – stained warm crimson with the ill-gotten blood of an entire generation. It was during this sordid affair that Marcellus came of age, seeing combat in Sicily and being distinguished by his commanders for bravery, and commended for having saved the life of his brother when the two were at one time surrounded in pitched battle.

    Upon his return to Rome at the conclusion of the war, Marcellus continued steadfast and dutifully along the cursus honorum, rising to the rank of Curule Aedile during the interwar years and also attaining the priestly rank of Augur. The remaining details of Marcellus’ life from 241 until 222 BCE are scant, though we can only assume that he must have led a relatively calm and uneventful life during this time, plodding through political offices and waiting for a chance at something more. Such a chance would finally present itself in the form of a hundred thousand angry Gauls, flooding south over the River Po in 225 BCE. This alliance proved relatively light work for the now battle-hardened legions of Rome, however the Gallic alliance would make one final, threatening push in 222 BCE, besieging the northern Roman stronghold of Clastidium. It so happens that this was the year of the first consulship – out of an unprecedented five – of our protagonist, Marcus Claudius Marcellus. Speedily hastening with his legions to relieved the beleaguered defenders of Clastidium, it is on this field that Marcellus attained for himself everlasting and unwavering glory in the hearts of all future Romans. Facing Viridomarus – the king of the Gaesatae – in single combat, Marcellus smote his opponent, and in so doing earned for himself the greatest and most enduring honour any Roman general could aspire to – the Spolia Opima.

    The Spolia Opima – translated as the “Richest Spoils” – comprised the armour and other finery stripped from the body of an enemy general slain in single combat by a Roman general. It was the greatest military honour that could be attained for the duration of Rome’s existence; a testament to Roman Virtus, and a wellspring of Auctoritas – and only three men were ever officially recognised to have attained it in the millennium-spanning history of the Eternal City. The first of these was the quite literally legendary Romulus, stripping Acron following the Rape of the Sabine Women. The second instance goes to Aulus Cornelius Cossus, who in 437 BCE at the Battle of Fidanae slew Lars Tolumnius, king of the Veii – Rome’s most ancient and vicious enemy until that time. The trouble with both these accounts is that the story of Romulus is almost entirely a fantastical myth, and the history of Rome before the Gallic sack by Brennus in 387 BCE is so heavily shrouded in mystery and interlaced with legend that it becomes difficult to ascertain with any surety whether Cossus even existed, let alone definitively attained the Spolia Opima. Finally, in the waning years of the 1st Century BCE a fourth man is rumoured to have accomplished the feat; Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, father of the famous Germanicus and brother of the emperor Tiberius. We know with certainty that he sought every opportunity possible to call out Germanic chieftains to single combat in a bid to replicate the feat, however no record exists which can verify whether or not he was successful in his ambition. This leaves one man in the entire history of Rome who undeniably consummated this Herculean feat – Marcus Claudius Marcellus – who smote Viridomarus upon the banks of the Po River in 222 BCE with nearly twenty thousand soldiers to serve as witness.

    Since there were none alive in Rome at the time who had witnessed a dedication ceremony of the spolia opima – notwithstanding whether or not one had actually even taken place before – it was also Marcellus who officially codified the ceremony. The consecration of the trophy of arms was carried out during Marcellus’ grand triumph of either 222 or 221 BCE, during which he adorned an oak trunk with the arms and placed them in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius, thus setting the only historically recorded precedent for the ceremony. After his triumph and celebration of the spolia opima Marcellus largely flies below the radar in our extant texts, coming back into the limelight some years later at the dawn of Rome’s greatest and most existentially pertinent conflict – The Second Punic War.

    Now, at this point I will only give a brief overview of the war, as an entire essay – or indeed much more – can and have been written on the subject, and our primary focus here is on the role of Marcus Claudius Marcellus in this conflict between two Titans.

    The spectre of war had by now been brewing for more than two decades, and much like the Great War of more modern memory, the resolution to the first conflict between Rome and Carthage had done little to resolve the underlying tensions which existed between the adversaries – leaving both sides embittered and almost immediately laying the foundations for an even more cataclysmic rematch in the coming years. Conflict with Carthage, a transcontinental empire, had placed the Romans on a new stage of global prestige and diplomatic importance. This, coupled with improved trade links through territorial expansion, and the massive influx of Greek art and heritage from Syracuse, would forever alter the Roman psyche. While Greece would one day succumb to Rome, it would be the Romans themselves who would be forever changed by their contact with Greece – carrying the torch of Hellenic culture and relaying it onwards to modern generations. The monetary gains from the war, split between the sacked riches of Syracuse and the rich farmland in Spain, would allow Rome to finance ever-bolder military endeavours and public works, putting them alongside the great Hellenic kingdoms of the East. Continued revenues from the Carthaginian indemnity and the capture of vast mines of silver ore in Spain would allow the Roman economy to flourish for decades to come. Taken as a whole, the conflict marked the geopolitical crossroads from which Rome would overcome her apprehensions regarding expansion beyond the Italian peninsula. The successes of the war enriched the nation, while the defeats hardened her resolve. After Hannibal, there would be foe the Romans were unprepared to meet in battle, and it was now only a matter of time before the rest of the Mediterranean tasted the steely, battle-hardened might of Rome. It was the final conflict in a mythicised age of heroes, where Rome fought bravely and honourably against a worthy adversary and all Romans were great heroes worthy of being ranked alongside Brutus and Cincinnatus. After their triumph over the noble and terrible Hannibal, Rome could never again attain the heights of honourable conduct and pious devotion to which her forebears had once ascended, such that the Golden Age of the Republic died on the plains of Zama.

    Marcellus himself played no small part in the conflict, going on to be elected consul a further four times over the course of the war – in 215, 214, 210 and 208 BCE – a feat matched by very few and surpassed by only one in the centuries to come. Alongside his famous colleague Fabius Maximus, also consul five times over and proconsul a number of times as well, the two men were able to bring Rome back from the brink of defeat through a carefully crafted policy of attrition and strategic manoeuvre aimed at outlasting Hannibal, rather than challenging his unconquerable tactical prowess headlong as their predecessors had mistakenly done. As such Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator and Marcus Claudius Marcellus would come to be known as the Buckler and Sword of Rome respectively, bringing her back from the brink of annihilation following the calamity of Cannae. Indeed, Plutarch recounts how Hannibal himself is said to have confessed he ‘feared Fabius as a schoolmaster, Marcellus as an adversary: the former, lest he should be hindered from doing mischief; the latter, lest he should receive harm himself.’

    During the years of 216 and 215 BCE Marcellus primarily endeavoured to manoeuvre against Hannibal for some time in Campania. However in 214 BCE he was sent to Sicily in order to bring the island under Roman control, it is here that Marcellus earned his second great distinction, fighting fiercely to recover control of the principal cities of the isle before laying siege to the jewel of the Western Mediterranean – Syracuse. Taking so ancient and well-fortified a city would have been no mean feat under the best of circumstances, but when Marcellus marched upon the walls of Syracuse with a well-provisioned army and a large fleet in tow, thinking to take the city easily by force, he met his match in an unlikely character – the dishevelled and eccentric philosopher Archimedes. The machines of Archimedes are said to have wreaked such havoc upon the assailants – pelting them with an untiring storm of missiles and being able even to clutch large ships from the water and hurtle them against the rocks, smashing them utterly – that they began to question whether it was truly men they fought, or Gods.

    Being ceaselessly repulsed by the ingenious engineering of Archimedes, the Romans eventually settled into a long siege of almost two years. In something which reminisces of the Sack of Troy itself, Syracuse was finally taken when Marcellus - after being invited into the city for negotiations aimed at peace and noticing one of the towers was ill-defenced and weaker than the others – snuck his legionaries under cover of night into it as the populace of Syracuse revelled in the Festival of Diana. The ensuing chaos of the sack – while relatively civil for its time – would decimate a city that had been one of the greatest bastions of Greek culture, art, and intellect for centuries. However, unlike most other Roman generals of his day Marcellus would loot the city of her treasures and bring them back to Rome, rather than leave them diminished in their newly ravaged environs or burn them in the destruction of the town. In this way he was the first to expose his people to the culture and learnings of the Hellenic world that lay just beyond their borders, and in the so doing is remembered also as ‘The Civiliser of Rome’. The vast wealth accumulated over ages untold which flowed from Syracuse back to Rome in 212 BCE was enough to reinvigorate a Roman state teetering on the cusp of collapse – breathing new life into the war effort – and the sheer scale of the new riches lead to the birth of the most enduring monetary standard in human history – the Denarius.

    Unfortunately, it is in the midst of this conflict that our protagonist takes his leave of the stage, dying as nobly as could have been expected of a man who conducted his affairs so dutifully and with such fervent pietas.

    In 208 BCE, while out on a reconnaissance mission near Venusia with his consular colleague for the year Titus Quinctius Crispinus and a small band of horsemen, they were set upon by a contingent of Hannibal’s feared Numidian Cavalry. The field that day was strewn with the blood of both consuls, Crispinus being mortally wounded and succumbing some days later. Marcellus meanwhile – dying as he had lived – raggedly drew his final defiant breath after being gored by a lance. His death came as a shock to Rome, robbing the Republic of a man who had been her bedrock in numerous crises, but by now he had helped turn the tide of the war – leaving his people at a time when they no longer needed his firm guiding hand, and paving the way for the next generation of heroes to take up the mantle. So Marcus Claudius Marcellus passed beyond the veil of this world and into legend, leaving behind a legacy which can only be aptly surmised as singularly exceptional in all manner of ways.

    The present coin was struck in 50 BCE, during the waning years of the Republic and at a time when the backhanded politics of the day must have felt a far cry from the era of Marcellus. It was issued by the triumvir monetalis Publius Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus, a partisan of Caesar who doubtless wished to emphasise his ancient ancestral origins and glorious family history, perhaps in a bid to shore his own political position amidst the unfolding turmoil which engulfed him and all of Rome at the time. On the obverse we have a portrait of Marcellus, looking off into the distance with the smallest hint of a disapproving frown across his otherwise stern countenance. He is depicted as he would have been in his later years, with the ravages of time and old age sinking his cheeks and pulling back at his hair. Yet there is something undeniably strong about the portrait too, depicting the furrowed brow and firmly clenched jaw of a seasoned general purveying the affairs of State, rather than an enfeebled old man staring upon his own encroaching death. Straddling the portrait is the name of the moneyer – MARCELLINVS – while behind the portrait is a Triskelion, an ancient symbol whose meaning in the Greek world is largely unclear, but which had become an emblem of the rulers of Syracuse during the Classical Era and is meant herein to represent Marcellus’ conquest of that great city. The reverse leaves little to the imagination, clearly punctuating the subject and his two greatest accomplishments. In the centre is the scene of a figure carrying a trophy of arms up the steps of a temple, clearly depicting the ceremony of the Spolia Opima held during Marcellus’ triumph over the Gauls. On either side of this is written the legend MARCELLVS · COS · QVINQ – Marcellus, Consul Five Times Over.

    439.1     P. Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus Marcellus Portrait Denarius (50 BC).jpg
    bartolus07, eparch, Kaleun96 and 26 others like this.
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  3. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE

    Excellent article, @FrizzyAntoine ... these are the times I most enjoy in Roman History. Well done, and I saved your article. Great coin, also.

    I regret I have no coin that marks this man!
  4. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Well-Known Member

    Well done, @FrizzyAntoine! An important coin of the imperatorial period and a handsome specimen at that!
    FrizzyAntoine and Mammothtooth like this.
  5. Scipio

    Scipio Well-Known Member

    FrizzyAntoine and Mammothtooth like this.
  6. Mammothtooth

    Mammothtooth Stand up Philosopher, Vodka Taster

    You got to be careful of that Numidian Cavalry….
    Alegandron likes this.
  7. Gam3rBlake

    Gam3rBlake Well-Known Member

    Great article! I absolutely can imagine Nero Claudius Drusus seeking out Germanic Chieftains to fight in one on one combat in an attempt to earn the spoila opima.

    From what I’ve read about Romans every Roman man eagerly sought glory.
    FrizzyAntoine likes this.
  8. DonnaML

    DonnaML Well-Known Member

    A wonderful article. I admit that I was not previously familiar with the coin you show. Now I want one myself, of course!
    FrizzyAntoine and Scipio like this.
  9. Scipio

    Scipio Well-Known Member

    Not a cheap one, unfortunately….I’ve been looking for one for ages and still haven’t found the right balance between conservation and price.
  10. Sulla80

    Sulla80 Supporter! Supporter

    A beautiful coin @FrizzyAntoine, and an enjoyable writeup. The video shows off the coin well. I can only share a relative's earlier coin: this Marcellinus is the son of M. Claudius Marcellus - legate to Marius (Lucius Cornelius Sulla was one of Marius' lieutenants at the time). M. Claudius Marcellus distinguished himself at Aquae Sextiae in 102 BC (Aix-en-Provence, France). The moneyer was father to Cn. Lentulus who was Consul in 56 BC. It is not clear to me how this moneyer relates to your 5 time consul - they must be separated by several generations.

    "At Aquae Sextiae, Marius, purposing to fight a decisive battle with the Teutons on the morrow, sent Marcellus by night with a small detachment of horse and foot to the rear of the enemy, and, to complete the illusion of a large force, ordered armed grooms and camp-followers to go along with them, and also a large part of the pack-animals, wearing saddle-cloths, in order by this means to present the appearance of cavalry. He commanded these men to fall upon the enemy from the rear, as soon as they should notice that the engagement had begun. This scheme struck such terror into the enemy that despite their great ferocity they turned and fled."
    -Sextus Julius Frontinus, Stratagems, Book II 4.6

    "Meanwhile, since the position of the Barbarians was commanded by sloping glens and ravines that were shaded by trees, Marius sent Claudius Marcellus thither with three thousand men-at‑arms, under orders to lie concealed in ambush until the battle was on, and then to show themselves in the enemy's rear."
    -Plutarch, Lives, Marius 20.4

    "Previous to an engagement with the Teutones and Cimbri, Marius ordered Marcellus with three thousand heavy-armed troops in the night to take a circuit round the mountains, and endeavour to make good their march over the more inaccessible parts of them, in the enemy's rear. When this was achieved, Marius ordered his troops to fall back from the higher ground onto the plain; that the enemy presuming on their inferiority might pursue them, and be thus decoyed onto level ground. The maneuver succeeded; and Marius attacking them in front, and Marcellus in the rear, obtained a brilliant victory."
    -Polyaenus, Strategem, Book 8 10.2

    P. Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus, 100 BC, AR denarius, Rome mint
    Obv: ROMA, bareheaded bust of young Hercules right, seen from behind, wearing lion skin and holding club; to left, shield and •/R /
    Rev: LENT MAR F, Roma standing facing, holding spear, being crowned by Genius of the Roman People, holding wreath and cornucopia; •/R between them; all within laurel wreath
    Ref: Crawford 329/1a; Sydenham 604; Cornelia 25; RBW 1186 var. (control letter); a writeup on this coin here; and my notes Unencrypting Crawford RRC
    Last edited: Sep 26, 2021
  11. cplradar

    cplradar Talmud Chuchum

    It is funny when I read this, because I never heard of him.
  12. FrizzyAntoine

    FrizzyAntoine Well-Known Member

    Thank you for the comments everyone, I'm very glad you all enjoyed it, and humbled that @lordmarcovan chose to feature it!

    Best of luck! It's sad that the market these days really isn't very conducive to collecting rationally on a fixed budget, I certainly chose to go for a more budget-friendly rather than pritsine example myself, but hopefully the right coins of this type come along soon for you both!

    A very cool coin, and related to an equally intriguing character and point in Roman history, lovely example! (and thank you for the background on it too, I didn't know much about that type before)
    Scipio, lordmarcovan and Sulla80 like this.
  13. akeady

    akeady Well-Known Member

    Great write-up and your example is better than mine :D

    Moneyer: P. Cornelius Lentulus
    Obv.: MARCELLINVS - Head of the consul, M. Claudius Marcellus right, triskelis behind
    Rev.: COS QVINQ / MARCELLVS - M. Claudius Marcellus advancing right, carrying trophy into tetrastyle temple
    Mint: Rome (50 BC)
    Wt./Size/Axis: 3.35g / 17mm / 9h
    • RSC 11 (Claudia)
    • Sydenham 1147
    • Crawford 439/1
    • Andrew McCabe
    Acquisition: Roma Numismatics Online Auction May Auction #1259 21-May-2013


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