Sulla 84-83 BC Denarius interpretation

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by willkerrs, May 17, 2018.

  1. willkerrs

    willkerrs Active Member

    I wanted to discuss an interesting interpretation I read about this coin:

    L. Sulla 84-83 BC AR Denarius. (Not from my collection!)
    Obverse: Diademed head of Venus facing right; cupid with long palm branch; 'L. Sulla' below.
    Reverse: Capis and lituus between two trophies. 'Imper' above, 'Iteru' below [meaning Imperator Iterum].
    (Crawford 359/2; Sydenham 761; Cornelia 30)
    Sulla 84-83.jpg
    (Source: )

    "The two trophies on the reverse allude to Sulla’s two victories over the general of Mithridates, Archelaus, at Mount Thurius and on the field of Cheronea, on which account two trophies were erected. For this twofold measure of success, Sulla was acclaimed Imperator Iterum - Imperator for the second time." (Source: As above) However, this is not the interpretation I want to discuss!

    I read that the lituus and sitella were depicted on the coin because it was a comeback to a law passed by the Marian faction in 87 BC, which stripped Sulla of all his offices, including the Augurate (see Appian, Civil Wars 1.79 - 'He [Sulla] also demanded from them full and complete restoration of his status, his property, and priesthood[!], and any other honours he had previously held...'), but Plutarch tells us that this is effectively illegal (see Plutarch, Roman Questions 99 - )
    , thus this Denarius implicitly (if not exactly explicitly) points this out.
    (Source: T.J. Luce, ‘Political Propaganda on Roman Republican Coins: Circa 92-82 B.C.’, American Journal of Archaeology 72 (1968), pp. 25-39 (p. 27) - In this, Luce states this interpretation comes from '...a forthcoming article in Numismatic Notes and Monographs of the American Numismatic Society, [by] B. W. Frier...' but I couldn't track this work down.)

    By way of further detail, Luce also notes that this coin was probably minted whilst Sulla was still in the east.


    So, what does everyone think? Is that a dodgy interpretation, or a neat bit of detective work?
    Last edited: May 17, 2018
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  3. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    So just to be clear, the suggestion is that the coin is calling attention to the fact that it was illegal for the Marian faction to strip Sulla of the augurate in the first place, right?

    One of the virtues of pictures over text is that it's easier to suggest multiple meanings, and the Romans were aware of this as much as anybody else. So I find the interpretation to be quite plausible. The coin isn't just stating that Sulla is an augur, but also implicitly criticizing the Marian faction for earlier illegal actions.

    Here's my own Sulla, depicting him in his triumph (issued slightly later in 82 BCE). He's holding a caduceus in this case:
    Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 11.13.13 AM.jpg

    I do have a Sulla-related issue featuring a lituus, though... Pompeius Rufus (a member of the Sullan faction) issued this coin, hearkening back to the dictator, in 54 BCE:
    Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 11.14.40 AM.jpg
  4. willkerrs

    willkerrs Active Member

    @Severus Alexander, that's exactly what the suggestion is. I think it's a great piece of propaganda in that case.

    As it happens, I started by collecting issues related to Sulla. Here's my Q. Pompeius Rufus:

    I also have a really nice F. Sulla 'Capture of Jugurtha' which has gold highlights (not too clear in these photos). Pity about the weak strike on part of the reverse:

    IMG_0828 (1).JPG
    IMG_0834 (1).JPG
    One day I'd like to have one of each of the F. Sulla 56 BC issues.
  5. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    Awesome coins!! And a hearty welcome to Coin Talk, btw. You will have fun here, and we all look forward to seeing more of your collection. :)

    Have you read the Colleen McCullough Masters of Rome series?
    Jwt708, Ryro, ominus1 and 1 other person like this.
  6. Bing

    Bing Illegitimi non carborundum Supporter

    Nice coins. L CORNELIUS SULLA FELIX.jpg
    AR Denarius
    OBVERSE: Diademed head of Venus right
    REVERSE: Double cornucopiae; Q below
    Rome 81 BC
    3.77g, 19mm
    Cr 375/2; Syd 755; Cornelia 33
    AR Denarius
    OBVERSE: Helmeted head of Roma right, L MANLI PROQ
    REVERSE: Triumphator in quadriga right, crowned by Victory, L SVLLA IMP in ex.
    Rome 82 BC
    3.9g, 17mm
    Cr367/5; Cornelia39
  7. willkerrs

    willkerrs Active Member

    Thanks, @Severus Alexander!
    I've not read those novels, actually. I'm going to read my way through Appian over the summer, though.
    By way of background and introduction, I'm a student of History, not Classics and Ancient History, so I don't get to spend much of my time reading classics.
    I happened to do a module focusing on the Roman Republic ~270 - 30 BC and fell in love with it, so now I collect Republican Denarii. I've read through all of Sallust (hence the first coin I got was the F. Sulla 'Capture of Jugurtha') a bit of Appian, Livy, and Polybius. (Also some bits and pieces of Plutarch's lives and, for my interest, some of Cicero's philosophical works).
    I know nothing of Rome after 30 BC (well, not until the early 20th century where I pick up on my field, political violence).
    I also took a module on Alexander the Great, so I've read all of Arrian, Curtius, and Plutarch's works on Alexander, as well as bits of Diodorus, and Justin.
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  8. ominus1

    ominus1 Well-Known Member

    neat coin and interesting point. back in 2015 i was heavy into the man and coinage thereof until human voices woke me and i drown.. welcome the the forum @willkerrs :)
  9. Orfew

    Orfew Supporter! Supporter

    My 2 coins related to Sulla.

    Sulla denaroius new.jpeg

    Pompeius Rufus denarius.png
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  10. Alegandron

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

    SULLA Coins...

    RR Manlius Torquatus L. Corn Sulla 82 BCE AR den 17mm 3.7g Mil mint w Sulla. Roma - Sulla triumpl quadriga vict wreath Cr 367-3 Syd 759 Sear 286

    Athens c 87-86 BCE Time of SULLA Athena Zeus Sear Grk 2567.JPG
    Athens c 87-86 BCE Time of SULLA Athena Zeus Sear Grk 2567

    RR Naevius Balbus 79 BCE AR Den Venus SC TRIGA Sulla S 309 Cr 382-1.jpg
    RR Naevius Balbus 79 BCE AR Den Venus SC TRIGA Sulla Sear 309 Cr 382-1

    Sulla's Son
    - Pompey's Signet Ring - representing Trophies of Vicories on Three Continents...
    RR Faustus Cornelius Sulla 56 BCE AR Den Venus Signet Pompey S 386 Cr426-3.jpg
    RR Faustus Cornelius Sulla 56 BCE AR Den Venus Signet Pompey Sear 386 Craw 426-3
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  11. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    Start with The First Man in Rome, and I promise you, you won't be able to stop. (That goes for anyone on this board!) :bookworm:
  12. Ryro

    Ryro Another victory like that will destroy us! Supporter

    Welcome! LOVE me some Sulla. "No man was better to his friends nor worse to his enemies."
    CollageMaker Plus_201845214649865.png

    CollageMaker Plus_201845192023906.png
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  13. willkerrs

    willkerrs Active Member

    I have to wonder why we're so certain that this Denarius represents Pompey's ring, and not another signet of L. Cornelius Sulla (the other signet being his 'Capture of Jugurtha' signet, also minted as a coin by F. Sulla in 56 BC - see Crawford 426/1 posted earlier in the thread)

    Cassius Dio (42.18.3) says: "Even when he [Pompey] had died, they did not believe it for a long time, not, in fact, until they saw his seal-ring that had been sent; it had three trophies carved on it, as had that of Sulla." (Source:*.html)

    So what are we to make of that? How are we so sure the signet of Sulla isn't being reproduced?

    I know that Pompey was more closely associated with three trophies at the time because of his victories over 'the three continents'. I don't doubt that Crawford 426/4a (obv: head of Hercules wearing lion-skin / rev: globe with three small wreaths, and one large one - see image below) refers to to Pompey, considering his own attempts to position himself alongside
    (if not above!) Alexander the Great (For example, Appian, Mithradatic Wars 17.117, referring to Pompey's triumph of 61 BC, says: "Pompey himself was borne in a chariot studded with gems, wearing, it was said, a cloak of Alexander the Great, if any one can believe that. (Source: Alexander the Great's association with Hercules is well known, so needs no unpacking here, and therefore it's not a leap of the imagination to suggest that Alexander the Great and/or Hercules, and Pompey are being conflated and/or compared through this coin. Consider also if we are to believe 'Pompey the Great' wasn't just a mocking name, but one Pompey himself used), amongst others AND Pompey's association with the 'three victories'.

    Hence, the coin almost certainly refers to Pompey in two ways - his victory over the 'three continents', and his apparent attempt to outdo Alexander the Great and/or Hercules (amongst others).

    Crawford 426 4a.jpg

    Crawford 426/4a (Source:


    To get back to the original point - Whilst it's clear that F. Sulla minted in 56 BC issues relating to both his father, L. Cornelius Sulla, and his father-in-law, Pompey, how are we so sure that the 'Three Trophies' Denarius (Crawford 426/3) refers to the signet ring of Pompey and not one of Sulla if, as Cassius Dio tells us, they both had signets with three trophies?

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  14. Bert Gedin

    Bert Gedin Well-Known Member

    Some minor? points - Jugurtha is supposed to appear on a coin, hands bound, one of three people. He was later executed in jail.
  15. willkerrs

    willkerrs Active Member

    Indeed - see an example of this coin (Crawford 426/1) from my collection (not the clearest, but one to hand):
    IMG_0834 (1).JPG
    Sulla is in the centre (hence 'Felix' - Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix), Jugurtha on the right - hands bound, and Bocchus on the left offering Sulla a laurel wreath. We know this because we have very clear textual evidence from Plutarch, Life of Marius 10, which talks about the capture of Jugurtha.

    See 10.4-6 especially: '[4]But when Sulla had come to him in all confidence, the Barbarian [Bocchus - referred to by name earlier in the passage] experienced a change of heart and felt repentant, and for many days wavered in his plans, deliberating whether to surrender Jugurtha or to hold Sulla also a prisoner. Finally however, he decided upon his first plan of treachery, and put Jugurtha alive into the hands of Sulla.

    [5]This was the first seed of that bitter and incurable hatred between Marius and Sulla, which nearly brought Rome to ruin.
    For many wished Sulla to have the glory of the affair because they hated Marius, and Sulla himself had a seal-ring made, which he used to wear, on which was engraved the surrender of Jugurtha to him by Bocchus. [6]By constantly using this ring Sulla provoked Marius, who was an ambitious man, loath to share his glory with another, and quarrelsome. And the enemies of Marius gave Sulla most encouragement, by attributing the first and greatest successes of the war to Metellus, but the last, and the termination of it, to Sulla, so that the people might cease admiring Marius and giving him their chief allegiance.'

    After some digging, I also found that Pliny the Elder refers to it in Natural History 37.4: "The Dictator Sulla, it is said, always made use of a seal which represented the surrender of Jugurtha." He also tells us that it was an emerald earlier in the passage (smaragdus). (Source: )

    Valerius Maximus 18.14.4 also refers to the ring, but I can't find an English translation to hand.

    See also Sallust, War Against Jugurtha 112.3 - 113.7 for a summary of Jugurtha's capture. Sallust doesn't refer to this signet ring - probably because it doesn't fit his fairly positive narrative of Sulla to bring it up (at that juncture at least). I won't reproduce the text here, but you can read it online:*.html
    Last edited: May 18, 2018
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