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  • Gareth Harney

Publius Satrienus and the She-Wolf Mother of Rome

"..a thirsty she-wolf coming down from the surrounding hills, attracted by the crying of the children, came to Romulus and Remus, gave them her teats to suck and was so gentle towards them that the king's flock-master found her licking the boys with her tongue.”

Livy, History of Rome, 1.4

From their very first coins, struck in the 4th century BC, Romans were eager to narrate and adapt elements of their founding myths on the miniature canvasses provided by their money. Republican mint magistrates offered lively depictions of the city’s already legendary origins, whether it be the Dioscuri twins galloping into battle on the side of the newly-founded city, the rape of the Sabine women or the subsequent execution of Tarpeia - all were presented on the new mass-media of coinage, reaching a vast audiences undreamt of in prior centuries. Of course, the most fundamental of these origin stories is the tale of the she-wolf who suckled the abandoned infant twins Romulus and Remus and in doing so, nurtured the creation of Rome itself; a tableau first struck onto a Roman silver didrachm coin around 260 BC and remaining a symbol of the city to this day. Whenever the opportunity arises to collect any of these fascinating coin issues in which the Romans depict their mythic origins, I am increasingly excited to do so.

Denarius of Publius Satrienus with Roma and She-Wolf (Crawf. 388/1b)

I am thrilled therefore to add this outstanding denarius minted by moneyer Publius Satrienus in the 70s BC, with its powerful depiction of the famous she-wolf. As is often the case, the mint magistrate who oversaw this coin issue is otherwise lost to history, and is with some poetic irony, known only from the coins struck in his name. Dating coins from the Republican series can often be difficult, with no emperor’s portrait or titles to go by; over the decades, hardworking numismatists have been able to create a reliable chronology by both examining the information on the coins and also analysing valuable hoard evidence. Through careful study of the contents of large hoards buried in the Republican era, cross-referencing the coin types that existed alongside each other at individual points, a sophisticated understanding of the Republican mint’s output has gradually been constructed. Even so, the coins of Satrienus have proven difficult to date with certainty. While numismatists like Crawford and Grueber placed his mint magistracy in 77 BC, Michael Harlan argues strongly that the total absence of Satrienus coins from some notable hoards of the period must suggest a slightly later year for his overseeing of the mint, proposing the alternative year of 73 BC. Either way, this coin was struck on an outcrop of the Capitoline Hill soon after Sulla had renounced his dictatorship and left a power vacuum in his wake, as a young Julius Caesar was being kidnapped and held to ransom by Cilician pirates, and as the dreaded Mithridates the Great of Pontus was preparing to go to war with his Roman nemesis.

The goddess Roma or the youthful war-god Mars?

The denarius bears a portrait of a helmeted divinity, once thought to be a depiction of the goddess Roma but now often identified as a youthful Mars. To my eyes the delicate face and long, curling locks suggest a female personification although the portrait can differ in style across dies. Numerical control-marks placed behind the bust reveal to us that 105 obverse dies were created for this issue, each with the ability to strike thousands of examples – my own coin being struck with the 34th die made.

Whether it is Mars or Roma shown on the coin, the reverse presents us with an iconic image that suitably compliments either deity. A particularly fearsome she-wolf almost appears to stride across the face of the coin, with powerful frame and flexing sinews. In addition to the prominent musculature, a ruffled mane makes the animal appear more lionly than wolflike. Its intimidating physique is visually offset by the prominent distended teats which show the animal is lactating.

While some have viewed this animal as an obvious depiction of the mythical she-wolf ready to suckle the infants Romulus and Remus, others have interpreted the predatory wolf as a symbol of Rome itself, emerging victorious from the recent Social War having overpowered the rebellious Italic peoples. This view is obviously bolstered by the label of “ROMA” in the field above the wolf. In my opinion, the interpretations do not have to be mutually exclusive - we may see here a Rome envisioning itself as the fierce, apex-predator of the Italian peninsula but one that might also represent a caring matriarch to its newly-subjugated people, nurturing and defending them like the she-wolf of legend.

Lupa Capitolina: she-wolf with Romulus and Remus, Capitoline Museum, date disputed

The depiction also cannot help but bring to mind the famous bronze Capitoline Wolf displayed in Rome’s Capitoline Museum, itself the precise model for the emblem seen everywhere around the modern city on murals, police boxes, football team badges and even on the litter bins. The suckling infants underneath the wolf, executed in a clearly different style, are known to be Renaissance additions likely coinciding with its transfer to the museum in 1471 but the wolf itself was long assumed to be an ancient Etruscan or early Roman work. Recent studies have dared to question the ancient origins of the iconic statue. Analysis revealed the wolf was cast as a single piece in a manner akin to the bells and cannons of the Middle Ages, whereas ancient bronzes were typically constructed from multiple segments. Radiocarbon dating of organic materials in the core of the statue also dated its crafting to the 11th-12th centuries. Yet the controversial debate rumbles on and some see in the highly stylised depiction of the wolf, Etruscan visual motifs that would have been little-known to sculptors of the Middle Ages; the wolf as a composite creature, given the body of a lion in an archaic fashion, with curly mane and crest of locks along its spine.

The Chimera of Arezzo, c.400 BC, Florence Archaeological Museum

Indeed, to my eyes the Satrienus wolf and to some degree the Capitoline statue, both evoke elements of the Chimera of Arezzo, an Etruscan bronze masterpiece discovered in 1553 and housed in Florence Archaeological Museum. Note the taut musculature, prominent ribs, ruffled mane and spiked crest along the spine. While the Arezzo chimera is poised with all feet on the ground, preparing to pounce, a Greek stater of Sikyon which coincidentally helped Florentine artist and architect Giorgio Vasari identify the newly unearthed creature, shows a chimera with raised forepaw in a pose almost identical to our she-wolf.

Comparison with silver stater of Sikyon, c.350-330 BC

Crawford even went as far as to assert with some confidence that the Satrienus she-wolf was indeed the she-wolf of the Capitol, and by extension the statue that Cicero describes in a number of his works, being hit by lightning in 65 BC:

“You recall, I suppose, when Cotta and Torquatus were consuls (65 BC), the heights of the Capitol were struck with lightning. When both the images of the immortal gods and the statues of many ancient men were thrown down, and the bronze tablets on which our laws were written were melted. Struck also was the gilt statue of Romulus which stood on the Capitol; the builder of our city, shown little and sucking, clinging to the teats of the she-wolf."

(Cicero, Catilinarian Orations, 3.19)

“Here was the Martial beast, the nurse of Roman dominion

Suckling with life-giving dew, that issued from udders distended,

Children divinely begotten, who sprang from the loins of the War God;

Stricken by lightning she toppled to earth, bearing with her the children;

Torn from her station, she left the prints of her feet in descending.”

(Cicero, On Divination, 1.20 )

Again, recent analysis has somewhat dampened over-enthusiastic poetic assumptions about the Capitoline statue, concluding that tantalising scorch marks on the wolf are more likely lesions formed from errors in the casting process and not remnants from Cicero’s lightning bolt. Whether the statue is ancient or not, the reality is there were probably a number of she-wolf sculptures of varying antiquity, style and medium, around the ancient city.

“Near the Ficus Ruminalis, close to the Lupercal Cave, was placed a statue group representing the Founders of the City as infants being suckled by the she-wolf.”

Livy, History of Rome, 10.17

"She Wolf as the Shape of Time" © Kristin Jones
"She Wolves" by Kristin Jones - the Satrienus wolf on the banks of the Tiber

The denarius represents an excellent example of the type, unusually well-centered for the issue, with most of these coins missing much of the wolf or moneyer’s name due to misaligned dies. It may be viewed as part of a wider trend among Roman moneyers in the 1st century BC increasingly turning to the imagery of Roman foundation myths, perhaps in an effort to reassure the populace of the resilience of the Roman state in the midst of such turblulent decades of civil war and dictatorships. Though the office of monetalis was merely an introductory step on the cursus honorum, it offered an unordinate chance of prestige for young men at the start of their political careers, allowing them to place their names prominently on their coins and surely help raise their profiles in preparation for future runs at office; an opportunity that moneyers like Satrienus certainly made the most of. In stamping his name adjacent to imagery so intrinsic to the Roman identity, Satrienus implies his 'gens' or familial clan is as fundamental to the Roman story as that fierce yet maternal she-wolf, emerging from the wooded hills to investigate the cries of two human infants at the riverside, destined to become the 'mother of Roman dominion'.

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