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Governments of Men and Laws


With this post, I return to the Roman Republic, with a coin from Lucius Cornelius Sulla. This denarius is from Sulla's dictatorship, 82 BC to 79 BC. Crawford adds a possibility that this coin may have been issued in celebration of the restoration of the republic when Sulla abdicated the dictatorship. I wander a bit far from Rome with the supporting coins in this post.

Q. Fabius Maximus, Sullan Restoration Issue, AR Denarius (17mm, 4.00 g), struck circa 82-80 BC Obv: ROMA Q MAX, laureate head of Apollo right; lyre before Rev: Cornucopiae upon thunderbolt; all within wreath Ref: Crawford 371/1; Sydenham 718; Fabia 6 Three coins were issued from 80-82 BC - Crawford 369, 370 and 371 - are re-issues, or restorations, of moneyers' types from the 127 BC (Crawford 263, 264 and 265). The moneyers were ancestors of Sulla’s supporters, with Crawford expressing some uncertainty about whether Q. Fabius Maximus was included to complete the threesome or because he was also an important supporter.

Q. Fabius Maximus, 127 BC, AR Denarius (17mm, 3.93g), Rome mint. Obv: ROMA, helmeted head of Roma right, with star on flap; mark of value below chin Rev: Cornucopia over thunderbolt; all within wreath Ref: Crawford 265/1; Sydenham 478; Fabia 5; RBW 1073

Sulla and Marius were powerful political rivals. Marius died before Sulla's return from war with Mithridates, and his son Marius the Younger was one of the thousands of casualties in the second civil war between Sullan and Marian factions. The last battle of their second civil war was the Battle at the Colline Gate, that ended violently on first day of the month (kalends) in November 82 BC (see Velleius Paterculus, or Appian for the full story). Gaining control as dictator, Sulla took personal vengeance to an extreme.

"Sulla himself called the Roman people together in an assembly and made them a speech, vaunting his own exploits and making other menacing statements in order to inspire terror. He finished by saying that he would bring about a change which would be beneficial to the people if they would obey him, but of his enemies he would spare none, but would visit them with the utmost severity." - Appian, Civil Wars, 95.1

"The terrors of the civil war seemed nearly at an end when they received fresh impetus from the cruelty of Sulla. Being made dictator (the office had been obsolete for one hundred and twenty years, and had been last employed in the year after Hannibal's departure from Italy; it is therefore clear that the fear which caused the Roman people to feel the need of a dictator was outweighed by the fear of his excessive power) Sulla now wielded with unbridled cruelty the powers which former dictators had employed only to save their country in times of extreme danger. He was the first to set the precedent for proscription — would that he had been the last!" -Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History, 28.2-4

~1700 years later, the Roman republic inspired thinking about ideal government during an attempt to form a republic in Great Britain.

King Charles I was overthrown in a military coup, executed on January 30th, 1649, and the monarchy abolished by decree of the Rump Parliament. What followed was an unsettled period, Commonwealth of England (1649-1660). Attempts to achieve stable government ultimately failed. The monarchy was restored under Charles II, son of Charles I, in 1660, however it would not be long before a Bill of Rights would limit the powers of the king and establish a constitutional monarchy.

Commonwealth, 1649-1660, AR Penny (14mm, 0.44g), Tower mint Obv: Coat-of-arms of England within wreath Rev: Coat-of-arms of Ireland In 1656, during this Commonwealth period, James Harrison (AD 1611-1677) published "The Commonwealth of Oceana" as a proposal for a government to replace the monarchy. In his book, Harrison contrasts two types of governments in Oceana.

"Relation being had unto these two times, Government (to define it de jure, or according to ancient prudence) is an art whereby a civil society of men is instituted and preserved upon the foundation of common right or interest; or, to follow Aristotle and Livy, it is the empire of laws, and not of men" -James Harrison, Oceana He contrasts this with a government where: "some man, or some few men, subject a city or a nation, and rule it according to his or their private interest; which, because the laws in such cases are made according to the interest of a man, or of some few families, may be said to be the empire of men, and not of law" -James Harrison, Oceana

He describes this type of government as a "modern era" starting with Julius Caesar. Harrison's convenient dividing line at Julius Caesar is not as in today's view of the Roman Republic. The "modern era" of men, and not of law started well before Caesar. We can debate whether it started during the time of the Gracchi brothers, or with Marius and Sulla.

The moment that Sulla turned his legions against Rome was certainly an important turning point in this transition (see the story in Plutarch Lives, Sulla, 9.3-7), as were his dictatorship and proscriptions. Paterculus reminds us at the end of his quote above that Sulla would not be the last to kill his fellow Romans. The path for Julius Caesar was paved by the egos of his predecessors. The Senate was a powerless pawn to Sulla and Marius.

The history of the Roman republic and the book by Harrison, influenced the thinking of the founders of the American republic as they wrestled with the acceptability of autocratic rule. Writing under the alias, Novangulus "To the Inhabitants of the Colony of Massachusetts-Bay", John Adams, in January-April 1775 AD, references Oceana, and its idealized pre-Caesar republic, the empire of laws, and not of men.

This last coin,from 1787, the year of the US Constitutional convention. The US Constitution was signed September 17, 1787. [related: "From Lycia to the US Constitution"].

Great Britain, George III, AR 6 pence, AD 1787, no semee of hearts variety Obv: GEORGIVS ∙ III ∙ DEI ∙ GRATIA ∙, bust right. Rev: M∙B∙F∙E∙T∙H∙REX∙F∙D∙B∙ET∙L∙D∙S∙R∙I∙A∙T∙ET∙E ∙1787, shields in cruciform, crowns in angles Rev Legend: King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Duke of Brunswick and Lueneburg, Arch Treasurer and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire (Magnae Britanniae Franciae et Hiberniae Rex Fidei Defensor Brunsvicensis et Luneburgensis Dux Sacri Romani Imperii Archi Thesaurarius et Elector)

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