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  • Gareth Harney

The Genius of the Roman People - A Denarius from the Sertorian War

Updated: Jun 28, 2022

In 76 BC a 'dark cloud' was hanging over Rome. For five years, the Republic had been repeatedly humiliated by one of its own – a general gone rogue – who had carved out for himself the province he had been sent to govern. Though its rise seems unstoppable from afar, the burgeoning Republic of the 1st century BC had to painfully extract many thorns from its side on its way to total dominance of the Mediterranean. Quintus Sertorius was one of the most troublesome. As described by Plutarch, he was not merely a dark cloud but 'the final disease threatening the life of the state, as if all the venom of the recent civil wars had been poured into one man.'

Sertorius had been one of the Republic's most capable military leaders for decades, proving his mettle in the Social War and later fighting for Marius and Cinna in opposition to Sulla. When these allies died in quick succession and the ruthless Sulla marched on Rome (setting a precedent for Julius Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon a few decades later), Sertorius retreated to the Iberian Peninsula and began to consolidate power. Ingratiating with local tribes and building his own highly trained army, Sertorius was able to fend off multiple attacks by Republican generals. When outnumbered, he was also happy to deploy guerrilla tactics against Roman forces and play a protracted cat and mouse game around Hispania and North Africa. The not-quite-all-conquering Sulla retired from public life in 79 BC with the Sertorian question unresolved. For the next couple of years, the rebel continued to outwit Sulla's successors and even set up a breakaway version of the Roman Senate in his province, the existence of which was a daily embarrassment for the Republic. Drastic measures were needed.

So when in 76 BC the Senate proposed an extraordinary proconsular command for a daring general to finally solve the Sertorius problem, eyes naturally turned to the consuls rounding out their terms. Despite the glory on offer to the man who could put down the revolt, the prospects of victory seemed so dire that both consuls refused the offer. There was only one man left who could take on the Roman rebel. This general had not yet turned thirty, had never even held public office, yet he had already been granted the name Magnus - 'the Great', thanks to his many stunning victories for the Republic. Pompey soon set out across the Alps towards his new battleground.

Portrait of Pompey in his later years, Copenhagen

Pompey Magnus, for all his genius, was quickly put to the test against the experienced Sertorius. Across the Iberian Peninsula, the antagonists and their generals played a deadly game of chess, both enjoying victories and suffering defeats. As an invading force on foreign soil, Pompey's forces were hit hardest by a famine that struck the region. Another resource, vital to the morale of the men, was also lacking in the Roman supply chain: coins to pay the Pompeian soldiers. A remarkable transcript survives of a scathing letter from Pompey to the Roman Senate, demanding they send funds to pay his forces. In it he states that despite his youth he is 'fighting the most savage war' and that his men are being 'destroyed with famine'. He claims he has 'exhausted all private wealth' in paying his soldiers' wages from his own pocket, after the Senate sent him only 'one year's expenses in the last three years'. He finishes by begging the senators to send him the necessary funds urgently, or else rather ominously, his army 'will be forced to return to Italy and bring with them the whole Spanish War'. Plutarch reports that the letter's veiled threats did the trick; the reigning consul Lucullus 'worked zealously to get the necessary coin to Pompey.'

Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus denarius - Genius with Globe, Sceptre and Rudder (Crawf. 393/1a), 74 BC

This denarius is one of those coins. The numbers of newly minted coins needed to pay armies on the move in the Roman world was truly staggering. The famous legionary series struck by Mark Antony decades later, prior to his showdown with Octavian at Actium, are a well-known example; estimates suggest he may have struck over 30 million silver coins for his forces, which stayed in circulation around the Roman world for centuries.

The emergency coins struck for Pompey show signs of their extraordinary context. Where the responsibility for overseeing the mint was usually given to a junior-magistrate beginning their career on the ladder of the 'cursus honorum', this series has been struck under the watchful eye of Pompey's quaestor, Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus. Quaestors were usually in charge of financial matters of the treasury and when assigned to a provincial governor, may act as a paymaster for the army. While his name does not appear on the coin, it is likely that through his quaestor, Pompey had some input into its fascinating design.

The coin’s obverse presents us with a portrait unique in Republican coinage; a bearded, male visage that would be hard to identify if not for the helpful label above: G.P.R – Genius Populi Romani, ‘The Genius of the Roman People’. The Roman concept of personal genius can be a challenging one to encapsulate today. While your genius was partly your individual personality and aura – later equated to the Christian concept of the soul by Augustine – it was also your protective spirit, a daemon-like counterpart, traversing the world alongside the self. Accompanying one’s own genius there were endless genii watching over the collective bodies of society that emanated out from the self: the family, the high-rise insula, the local crossroads, the guild, the city, province and state. The personification of the spirit of the Roman people we see here is a revealing one. While Roma was a warrior goddess, this genius is a bearded man, paternalistic and godlike – not far removed from Jupiter himself – with his cascading hair neatly held with a headband in the Greek style, rather than any ornate diadem or laurel. Over his shoulder rests a sceptre topped with an orb, a symbol of religious and military authority, as well as simple regal magnificence.

Why Pompey and his Cornelian quaestor were compelled to use such a portrait as the face of their new coinage is an interesting question, better understood when considered alongside the equally intriguing reverse design.

At the centre of the reverse is the globe of the world, increasingly being brought under Rome’s sway thanks to Pompey, Sulla and the genius of its people. Flanking the globe is another sceptre, crowned with a laurel wreath of victory, and on the other side a ship’s rudder. While the rudder may recall specific naval victories of Pompey or the consul Lucullus – who had recently shown outstanding naval prowess against the forces of Mithridates VI – it may be better understood as part of a visual tableau that demonstrates Roman imperium terra marique: dominance over the land and sea.

A final important feature is the clarification in the fields of the design that the series has been struck EX Senatus Consulto – in accordance with a decree of the Senate. Where most Roman state coinage was struck in workshops at the Temple of Juno Moneta on the Capitoline Hill, here we see the results of Pompey’s outspoken plea to the Senate; he had been granted the right to strike official coinage using the state’s precious metals, in his own mint travelling in Spain. At the same time, this state approval also acts as a condemnation of the rebel Sertorius and the obscenity of his rival senate of 300 Iberian loyalists. This was the trustworthy coinage of the true Roman state. By studying the surviving coins from this series, numismatists have roughly estimated that it comprised 5,500,000 coins, struck from around 200 hand-cut dies over a couple of years; a huge logistical undertaking for a military mint, constantly on the move in a theatre of war.

Taken together, the sceptre, globe and rudder, paired with the charmed Roman genius, evoke the concept of a Roman manifest destiny. As they continued to expand from the borders of Italy across land and sea, overcoming barbarians and rebels, they advanced toward their fate as the prophesied caput orbis terrarium – ‘capital of the world’ (Livy, I, 16).

Ultimately, the struggle against Sertorius would prove inconclusive, with the slippery rebel remaining a headache to the Republic for multiple years – a testament to his military and logistical talents. Unable to pin Sertorius down on a conventional battlefield, Pompey relied on protracted sieges and attritional warfare. Eventually, in 73 BC, Sertorius was undone; not by a spectacular military defeat but by the inevitabilities of human nature. Disgruntled aristocrats within his own ranks had grown jealous of his power and a conspiracy formed to replace Sertorius. The rebel leader was invited to a feast by his conspirators, where they turned on him, stabbing him to death. Without its charismatic leader, the breakaway Republic soon crumbled. Ambassadors were sent to Pompey suing for peace and the followers of Sertorius dispersed back into the Iberian countryside.

As the majority of Republican coinage was struck by young magistrates at the beginning of their political careers, one of the joys of its study is being able to follow up on their progress decades later. Obscure moneyers often reappear in later sources on a famous battlefield, going up against Cicero in court, or indeed as consuls leaders of the Roman state. Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus, who struck this coin on Pompey's behalf, resurfaces as governor of Syria in 59 BC and as consul for the year 56 (30% of all Roman consulships were held by a member of his Cornelii clan). This may have been the pinnacle of his political career but another aspect of his later life is arguably more fascinating to historians today. Lentulus Marcellinus went on to marry a young noblewoman by the name of Scribonia, who was at least two decades his junior. Scribonia would, of course, later become the wife of Octavian, and give birth to the only child of the future first emperor, Julia the Elder. Young Scribonia had been married twice before her match with Octavian and it is uncertain if Marcellinus was the first or second husband; if he was the latter, then it was our Lentulus Marcellinus that Octavian forced to divorce Scribonia, so that he could have her for himself. The young moneyer named on our coin, going on to be closely linked to the first emperor: the Roman Republic often proved to be a small world.

You can view the coin in my Roman Republican gallery here:

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1 Comment

Jun 27, 2022

fascinating - thank you!

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