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  • Gareth Harney

Jupiter Resurgent - A Denarius showing the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus

Updated: Jul 5, 2022

The flames would have taken hold quickly, climbing up to play amongst the ancient rafters. The temple was, after all, as old as the Republic itself. Dedicated in 509 BC – the very same year the kings were thrown out of Rome – the house of the thunder-god had watched proudly over the growing metropolis below for more than four centuries. Now the smoke and embers of its fiery destruction billowed over the Forum, blocking out the sun in the heart of the city. Rome’s greatest building, the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, was burning.

Marcus Volteius denarius - Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus (Crawf. 385/1), 78 BC

The inferno on the Capitol was in many ways symbolic of the wellbeing of the city in 83 BC. For the second time in a decade, the general Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix was marching on Rome. His first armed advance on his own city had been such an unprecedented outrage that most of his officers abandoned him in the process, now seizing Rome by force was almost becoming routine. For years Sulla had been engaged in a bloody tug-of-war with his political rivals Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Cinna. When each faction was in control of the city, they denounced their opponents as 'enemies of the state' and murdered their supporters. The condemned was then left with no other option but to march on Rome themselves and repeat the process.

Marius had died of natural causes in 86 BC while holding the consulship for an extraordinary seventh time. Two years later, with Sulla making his way back from war with Mithridates in the East, Cinna’s own frightened soldiers mutinied and killed their commander. The Republic was left exposed for another takeover. Sulla soon landed in Italy on his way to destroy the Marian loyalists holding Rome. As he crossed the country, taking cities one by one, his ranks swelled with defectors. On the march, Sulla apparently met a man in a prophetic trance who declared that if he did not hasten to free the city, then the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline – the greatest temple of the Republic – would burn. The prophecy quickly came true.

Portrait possibly representing the dictator Sulla

While the exact cause and timeline are not clear, we do know that as Sulla approached Rome, its most sacred temple went up in flames. The house of Jupiter on its eyrie above the city was, with obvious irony, a natural target for lightning bolts and in subsequent centuries would need to be rebuilt several times. In this instance we cannot be certain if it was a coincidental bolt of lightning that destroyed the ancient temple just as the city faced another siege, or if it was intentionally set ablaze by a Roman mob. Either way, we might imagine Sulla viewing the orange glow of the fire in the night sky above Rome as he drew near; acknowledging the anger of the gods, cursing that he had been too slow to ‘liberate’ his city and halt the prophecy he was foretold.

After the ferocious Battle of the Colline Gate, fought against Marian forces just outside the northern entrance to the city, Sulla emerged victorious. What happened next is the stuff of infamy. The horror of Sulla’s proscriptions – the systematic murder of all his political opponents – would set a bloody precedent for the Republic. Seeing your name arbitrarily posted on a list in the Forum meant you had been stripped of all property and now had a literal price on your head. Soon, the decapitated heads of those on the ever-growing list, cluttered the market square. The terror of proscription would surface again in 43 BC, as the triumvirate of Octavian, Antony and Lepidus resurrected Sulla’s tactics, to cleanse Rome of all their opponents in one fell swoop. Sulla’s purge lasted months, with some estimating that as many as 9,000 people were murdered. As Plutarch puts it, ‘Sulla now busied himself with slaughter. Murders without number or limit filled the city.’

Around five years later, my denarius was struck on Rome’s Capitoline Hill, a stone’s throw away from the site of the temple fire. The coin was minted by the magistrate Marcus Volteius, a prolific moneyer who clearly took to the junior role with gusto, striking a range of attractive coins commemorating various deities such as Ceres and Hercules. On the obverse we see the laureate portrait of Jupiter himself.

Yet it is the reverse that makes the coin so remarkable, presenting us with the first depiction of a building on Roman coinage. The Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus is shown in marvellous detail, right down to its ornate roofline decorated with acroteria, and studs on its three bronze doors. On the pediment, a large thunderbolt leaves no doubt which deity was venerated here. As exquisite as this monument-in-miniature appears, it also presents the modern viewer with a conundrum. Sources tell us that the second Capitoline temple was not completed until 69 BC. Therefore, when this denarius was struck in the 70s, the Capitol was still a burned-out ruin, or at best a construction site. What edifice is it then so artfully represented on the coin of Volteius – and if not the actual Capitoline temple, to what extent can we trust later depictions of architecture on Roman coinage?

The opinions of numismatists vary. Some argue the depiction remembers the archaic first temple, with its Etruscan style and ornamentation. If so, the coin could possibly be interpreted as a memorial to the recently destroyed building. Yet the archaeological evidence on the archaic temple – added to by recent exploration of its foundations on the Capitol – does not support such a depiction. Most notably, the sprawling temple was known to have had six-columned hexastyle frontage, rather than the four shown here.

A speculative rendering of the first Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus

On the other hand, expecting a detailed architectural projection on this, the first ever Roman coin to show a building, may be asking too much. Die engravers may well have compressed the essentials of the building to better fit the small, circular canvas of a coin. Later coin depictions of temples and monuments are both masterful and inconsistent, artfully capturing the essence of the structure if not slavishly reproducing every feature as it appeared in real life. Coin depictions of Trajan’s column come to mind, with faithful rendering of its spiral reliefs, pedestal with standing eagles, and statue surmounting the monument. Even complex structures like the Colosseum or the Harbour of Portus are instantly recognisable on later coins, while also showing the natural limitations of the tiny artform.

Denarius of Trajan (c.113 AD) with a misproportioned but surprisingly accurate depiction of Trajan's Column, which still stands today. (CNG coins)

Other numismatists see our temple as a blueprint of sorts for the edifice that was currently under construction. This would allow for the design to be somewhat imaginative, with architectural plans – in the sense they may have existed at the time – likely evolving as the project progressed. A final viewpoint is that the temple is merely meant to evoke the idea of the current reconstruction project in the viewer’s mind, without prioritising any sense of real-world representation. Jupiter is resurgent and his temple, whatever it looks like, will soon stand proudly on the Capitol once again. But then, why make such a finely detailed projection? It should also be noted the coin has no helpful legend labelling the monument; a general viewer would clearly be expected to identify the structure by image alone.

A hand holding a Roman denarius coin showing the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus
The 3.86g denarius in hand

If this does represent the second temple to the king of the gods, then it would stand until 69 AD when it too was gutted by fire during civil war, as Vespasian’s army battled for control of the city. The rapidly rebuilt third incarnation lasted just five years, with a lightning bolt starting another inferno in 80. The fourth temple, built under Domitian, would be the last, surviving up to and in some form, beyond the fall of Rome in the 5th century. Gradually plundered of its roof tiles, bronze doors, statues and ornaments, the temple fell into ruin. Yet visitors to Rome all the way up to the 15th century commented on its extant remains. These too were levelled for monumental reinvention of the Capitol throughout the century, led most famously by Michelangelo in his ambitious design for a new, modern square: the Piazza del Campidoglio. With some poetic irony, the substantial foundations of the ancient Temple of Jupiter now lie underneath – and can be seen as part of a visit to – the Musei Capitolini, one of the world’s greatest museums.

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