• Gareth Harney

Founded in Blood: A Revealing Denarius from the Dictatorship of Sulla (81 BC)


C. Marius Capito denarius serratus - Ploughman with yoked oxen (Crawf. 378/1c), 81 BC

I am very pleased to add to my collection this equally historical and handsome Roman Republican denarius serratus, minted by the moneyer Gaius Marius Capito in 81 BC. This moneyer, unrelated to the famous Gaius Marius, is known only from his coins struck during the dictatorship of Sulla - in the tense aftermath of his defeat of the Marians, second march on Rome and bloody proscriptions. The Damoclean sense of terror that prevailed in Rome after Sulla's total victory is chillingly described by Plutarch:


"The Marian survivors of the battle, to the number of six thousand, were collected by Sulla in Rome's Circus Flaminius, and then the senate was summoned by him to meet in the temple of Bellona. At one and the same moment Sulla himself began to speak in the senate, those he had assigned to the task began to cut to pieces the six thousand captives in the circus. The screams of such a number, who were being massacred in a confined space, filled the air, of course, and the senators were dumbfounded; but Sulla, with the calm and unmoved countenance with which he had begun to speak, ordered them to listen to his words and not concern themselves with what was going on outside, for it was only that some criminals were being admonished, by his orders."


- Plutarch, Life of Sulla, 30


The coin's obverse bears a portrait of Ceres, Roman goddess of agriculture, the harvest, and the all-important grain supply to Rome - shown wearing a wreath of grain ears. Ceres was often commemorated by leaders eager to present their rule as a return to stability and provision for the people. Here she may remind the contemporary viewer that Sulla's dictatorship has brought with it an end to the civil war and a reestablished supply of grain to the city.


The reverse presents a timeless agricultural scene with a ploughman driving a yoke of two oxen. The farming motif certainly compliments the obverse portrait of Ceres, though it also offers a couple of interesting alternative interpretations. It could firstly be viewed as a 'founding' scene, commemorating the flurry of newly-founded Roman colonies being set up by the victorious Sulla. In an ancient ritualistic tradition inherited from the Etruscans, the boundaries of a new Roman colony were initially marked out by ploughman and his oxen. Another possibility is that the scene is a subtle allusion to turbulent contemporary events and a chilling reminder to viewers of Sulla's supremacy. After defeating the Marians at the Battle of the Colline Gate and appointing himself dictator, Sulla's once-loyal legate Lucretius Afella had the gall to continue canvassing for a consulship. Sulla promptly ordered him struck down in the middle of the Forum. With the populace demanding answers, a defiant Sulla coldly explained his actions to the people:


"I ordered the death of Lucretius because he disobeyed me. Consider the following story: a husbandman was repeatedly bitten by fleas while ploughing. He stopped his ploughing twice in order to clear the pests out of his shirt. When they bit him yet again he burned his shirt, so that he might not be so often interrupted in his work. And I tell you, those who have felt my hand twice, to take warning - the third time fire will be the answer."


With these words he terrified the people and thereafter ruled as he pleased.


(Appian, The Civil Wars, 1.11.101)


This series from Marius Capito is also of particular interest to the numismatist due to its fascinating use of numerical and pictorial control-marks, which reveal a great deal about the workings of the Republican mint during the 1st century BC. Seemingly as a further measure against counterfeiting and also a traceable method of quality control, every obverse and reverse die has been given a corresponding number and unique symbol, placed under the chin of Ceres. With each control-mark only used once, for the lifespan of a single coin die, we can discern a great deal about the longevity of dies and the scale of a particular issue.


In this case we know that 151 pairs of dies were eventually used for the entire coin series, each capable of striking many thousands of coins before wearing out or breaking. The first 25 dies were merely numbered, before the mint decided to add pictures too - beginning with the theme of animals. A lizard on the 26th die, a frog on the 27th, followed by a grasshopper, a mouse, and so on. Die engravers were likely given some individual freedom to create their own mint marks and there are many fascinating sub-categories of image, such as creatures of the land and sea, flora, weapons, tools, religious symbols, clothing and musical instruments, in many ways a revealing visual journey through the paraphenalia of Roman Republican life.


Control marks in the form of a scorpion (die 37), anchor (die 50), lyre (die 102) and sword (die 112).

My own example is struck from the 141st pair of dies and is one of a consecutive run of marks based on sea life, comprising images of sea-anemones and mussel shells. This delightful control mark shows a jellyfish - to my knowledge the only representation of a jellyfish on a Roman coin!


Detail of control-mark number 141, jellyfish

The coin is also a 'serratus' denarius with distinctive toothed edges. Experimental archaeology has shown these were created by hitting the blank coin flan with a sharp tool as it was rolled along a surface with pliers. As well as creating a decorative final appearance, this also acted as an anti-counterfeiting measure, exposing the silver interior of the coin while also discouraging coin clipping. Sharply struck and beautifully toned, the denarius ultimately offers an intriguing glimpse into a tumultuous and transitional period for the Republic as well as providing valuable insights into the administration of the Roman mint. The pacific imagery of the rustic ploughman at work cleverly disguises the contemporary reality of a Rome held hostage; a chaotic period that set many bloody precedents in Rome's history - where homegrown strongmen might march on their own city, purge their opponents and rule as dictator for as long they wished.


The denarius comes from 'Benito' Collection of Spanish ambassador Ramón Sáenz de Heredia y Alonso (d.2016)


Gallery view: https://www.harneycoins.com/republican?pgid=kb3tu085-c781730b-de81-46c9-b61a-b8d36c229343


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