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Aesculapius and a plague in 87 BC

Aesculapius (aka Asclepius), son of Apollo and god of medicine, was one of the deities imported to Rome from the East. Aesculapius 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 Aesculapius, Hygeia. In 180 BC, the Romans once again, formally called upon Aesculapius 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 Aesculapius 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


There is no ambiguity about the snake and garlanded altar as a reference to Aesculapius, and it is likely that it is tied to another 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.


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


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