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Asclepius and a plague in 87 BC

Asclepius (a.k.a. Aesculapius), son of Apollo and god of medicine, was one of the deities imported to Rome from the East. Asclepius was introduced to Rome from Epidauros in response to a plague in 293BC. According to legend, he was transported as a serpent to Rome, and selected his home on Tiber Island by swimming to it from the ship. Ovid tells a version of the tale in Metamorphoses 15.622-745 which begins:


"You Muses, goddesses present to poets, reveal, now (since you know, and spacious time cannot betray you) where Aesculapius, son of Coronis, came from, to be joined to the gods of Romulus’s city, that the deep Tiber flows around.
Once, plague tainted the air of Latium, and people’s bodies were ravaged by disease, pallid and bloodless. When they saw that their efforts were useless, and medical skill was useless, wearied with funeral rites, they sought help from the heavens, and traveled to Delphi, set at the centre of the earth, to the oracle of Phoebus, and prayed that he would aid them, in their misery, by a health-giving prophecy, and end their great city’s evil. The ground, the laurel-tree, and the quiver he holds himself, trembled together, and the tripod responded with these words, from the innermost sanctuary, troubling their fearful minds: ‘You should have looked in a nearer place, Romans, for what you seek here: even now, look for it from that nearer place: your help is not from Apollo, to lessen your pain, but Apollo’s son. Go, with good omens, and fetch my child.’" ​

A temple was consecrated in 291 BC on Tiber Island. The Roman Salus became closely tied to one of the daughters of Asclepius, Hygeia. In 180 BC, the Romans once again, formally called upon Asclepius for relief from an epidemic. As written by Livy XL.32:


"Tiberius Minucius, the praetor, died of this malady; and soon after, Caius Calpurnius, the consul; also many illustrious men of all ranks; so that at last this calamity began to be considered as a prodigy. Caius Servilius, chief pontiff, was ordered to find out proper atonements for the wrath of the gods; the decemvirs to inspect the books, and the consul to vow offerings, and to present gilded statues, to Apollo, Aesculapius, and Health; which he vowed and gave."​


This quinarius depicts Asclepius as a serpent entwined around a garlanded altar.

L. Rubrius Dossenus, AR Quinarius 87

Obv: DOS – SEN laureate head of Neptune right; behind, trident.

Rev: L. RVBRI Victory advancing right, holding wreath and palm branch; before her, garlanded altar with serpent coiled around top

Size: 1.86g 12.5mm

Ref: Crawford 348/4, Babelon Rubria 4, Sydenham 708


Here is one of the denarii from the same series:

L. Rubrius Dossenus, AR Denarius, Rome, 87 BC

Obv: Laureate head of Jupiter right, with scepter over shoulder; behind, DOSSEN

Rev: Triumphal quadriga right decorated with thunderbolt of Jupiter; (above, off flan on this coin, Victory flying right); in ex. L RVBRI

Ref: Crawford 348/1; Rubria 1


this one with Juno on the obverse and an eagle on thunderbolt on the quadriga.

L. Rubrius Dossenus, AR Denarius, Rome, 87 BC

Obv: DOS, Veiled head of Juno right, with scepter over shoulder

Rev: L. RVBRI, triumphal quadriga right; above, Victory flying right, holding wreath. Ref: Crawford 348/2; Sydenham 706; Rubria 2


There is no ambiguity about the snake and garlanded altar as a reference to Asclepius, and it is likely that it is tied to a plague that struck as the forces of Marius battled with Rome in 87 BC during the Social War. There is debate about the extent of this plague and whether it was isolated to the military camps or spread more broadly in the civilian population. There is insufficient evidence to support 87 BC plague rising to the same level of formal appeal to the god, as the earlier two.


The winged victory on reverse and Neptune on obverse may represent a hoped for victory over the Marians on land and sea. There is an excellent discussion of the quinarius and two related coins, plus much more on Asclepius in an article by Gil Renberg (the discussion of the coin starts on p.159).


Renberg argues that the reference to Asclepius is likely to credit the god for lifting the plague that struck the forces of Gnaeus Octavius and Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo as they fought against the Marian forces attacking Rome.

"After Marius had stopped the passage of food-supplies from the sea, or by way of the river from above, he hastened to attack the neighbouring towns where grain was stored for the Romans. He fell upon their garrisons unexpectedly and captured Antium, Aricia, Lanuvium, and others. There were some also that were delivered up to him by treachery. Having in this manner obtained command of their supplies by land, he advanced boldly against Rome, by the Appian Way, before any other supplies were brought to them by another route."
-Appian, The Civil Wars, Book I.69 

Cinna and Marius eventually won. Invited back by the senate the took revenge on the city and people. First Octavius' head was cut off by Censorinus who brought the head to Cinna. Then many other knights and senators were killed and their heads cut off, the senators heads hung in the forum in front of the rostra. Livy tells the same story as Appian:

Consul Gnaeus Octavius was killed and all noble members of the opposite party butchered, like Marcus Antonius (a man of great eloquence), and Gaius and Lucius Caesar, whose heads were placed on the speaker's platform.
-Livy, Periochae, 80.6 

A passage from Granius Licinius written in the 2nd century AD, dramatizes the pain of civil war:

"During the fighting between Pompeius and Sertorius, a common soldier from Pompeius' army, while he was stripping the body of an enemy, recognised that it was his brother. He built a pyre for his brother and in the middle of the funeral rites, after uttering many curses, he slew himself with his sword. This incident struck everyone as a great condemnation of the civil war and changed their attitudes. Nobody was able to refrain from tears."
- Granius Licinius, History of Rome, Book 35.18 

Asclepius brought no help and given the history of the republic after this war, it seems that Licinius was only thinking wishfully that attitudes were changed.


References:

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