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Norbanus, Casualty of Sulla’s Return

The Roman republic of the first century BC is my home base for collecting. My latest AR denarius, from 83 BC, was issued by Gaius Norbanus most likely the son of the consul in 83 BC with the same name (and himself the consul in 38 BC).


This was the time of the return of Sulla, victorious from war with Mithridates, and hungry to take back Rome from his political adversaries. The late republic was torn between Marian populism and Sullan conservatism. Roman political factions, popular and noble interests, loyalty to warlords, family alliances cemented with marriage, competition for advancement in the cursus honorem, violent proscriptions to reallocate wealth and control the republic and steady battles to defend against invaders and expand the republic all contributed to the violence of these times.


“counter-elites” and violence

Reading an article in The Atlantic on the research of Peter Turchin, I was intrigued to think of the impact that an overabundance of elites competing for the cursus honorem might have had on the stability of the Roman oligarchy/democracy.


“You have a situation now where there are many more elites fighting for the same position, and some portion of them will convert to counter-elites,” Turchin said.


While I am intrigued by Turchin’s “Cliodynamics”, a quantitative and data driven approach to history, the thought that an overabundance of elites competing for scarce opportunities to exert power over working class citizens feeds an increase in political violence and leads to populist “counter-elites” seems unsurprising after years of fascination with the oligarchs of ancient Rome and the end of the Roman republic.


Norbanus Origins


Where does the name Norbanus come from? G. D. Chase (1897) catalogued 9 classes of roman family names found in Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL) and from references in Livy:

  1. Physical Peculiarities (95 names) e.g. Nasica meaning “prominent nose”

  2. Individual habits or character (38) e.g. Rusticus meaning “living in the country”

  3. Individual condition or relation (19) e.g. Spurinus meaning “illegitimate”

  4. Offices and occupations (30) e.g. Pictor meaning “painter”

  5. Animals, objects, et.c. (60) by metaphor e.g. Tarquatus meaning “necklace” (he wore a necklace or was like a necklace)

  6. Locality (64) e.g. Tarentinus meaning “from Tarentum”

  7. Derived from other names mostly ending in -anus (20) e.g. Clodianus (son of Claudius)

  8. Foreign names (27) e.g. Philippus derived from Greek

  9. Unknown (12)

Norbanus is included in category 6, derived from a place, Norba. Pliny listed “Norbe” as one of the “following famous towns of Latium” that had “passed away without leaving any traces of their existence”. Pliny Natural History 3.9.


Norbanus rose as a novus homo (new man) to tribune in 103 BC. He gained notoriety for convicting Servilius Caepio of incompetence in his defeat in Gaul against the Cimbri in 105 BC (the Battle of Aurasio). In 101 BC, Norbanus served as quaestor under the grandfather of Mark Antony, Marcus Antonius. Marcus Antonius defended him against charges of treason related to the conviction of Caepio in 95 BC and secured his acquittal.


Norbanus vs. Sulla

At the end of the Social Wars, circa 87 BC as governor of Sicily, Norbanus distinguished himself in the war against the Italians.

“But when Sulla was engaged in the war in Asia against Mithridates, and Rome was filled with slaughters and internal strife, Marcus Lamponius and Tiberius Cleptius, and also Pompeius, the generals of those Italians who were left remaining in Bruttium, attempted to capture the strong city of Isiae. After they had lain before the city for a long time, they left part of their army to maintain the siege, and fiercely assaulted Rhegium, in the expectation, that if they gained this place, they might with ease transport their army into Sicily, and so become masters of the richest island under the sun. But Gaius Norbanus, the governor of Sicily, so overawed the Italians with the greatness of his army and his vast preparations, that they drew off from the siege; and so the Rhegians were freed from danger.”
-Diodorus Siculus, 37.2

Cicero in “Against Verres” 2.5.8 is less glowing about the contributions of Norbanus :

“Therefore, while these were the established regulations of the province, Caius Norbanus, a man neither very active nor very valiant, was at perfect ease, at the very moment that all Italy was raging with the servile war. For at that time Sicily easily took care of itself, so that no war could possibly arise there.

Appian describes two battles between Sulla’s forces and Norbanus, both of which went against Norbanus.

“First of all Sulla and Metellus fought a battle against Norbanus at Canusium and killed 6000 of his men, while Sulla's loss was seventy, but many of his men were wounded. Norbanus retreated to Capua.”
-Appian, The Histories, 84.1

“About the same time Carbo and Norbanus p167 went by a short road to attack the camp of Metellus in Faventia just before nightfall. There was only one hour of daylight left, and there were thick vineyards thereabout. They made their plans for battle with more temper than judgment, hoping to take Metellus unawares and to stampede him. But they were beaten, both the place and the time being unfavourable for them. They became entangled in the vines, and suffered a heavy slaughter, losing some 10,000 men. About 6000 more deserted, and the rest were dispersed, only 1000 getting back to Ariminum in good order.”
-Appian, The Histories, 91.1

Norbanus fled, again, and eventually killed himself in Rhodes to avoid capture by Sulla.

“Norbanus, having learned that, in consequence of this disaster, Ariminum and many other camps in the vicinity were going over to Sulla, and being unable to rely on the good faith and firm support of many of his friends on the spot, now that he found himself in adversity, took passage on a private ship, and sailed to Rhodes. When, at a later period, Sulla demanded his surrender, and while the Rhodians were deliberating on it, he killed himself in the middle of the market-place.”
-Appian, The Histories, 91.1

The end of Norba

The town that named him was also destroyed by Sulla in 82 BC. Appian recounts, that when Sulla retook Rome, Norba, was betrayed to Aemilius Lepidus:

“The inhabitants were so angry at this treachery that some of them killed themselves, others killed each other by agreement and others even hanged themselves. Others again blocked their doorways and set fire to the town: a strong wind which fanned the flames caused so much destruction that the town did not yield any booty at all.”
-Appian, The Histories, 94.1

Porta Maggiore, Main entrance to the ruins of Norba, 1 mile northwest of the modern town of Norma, Italy photo by Kroelleboelle, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


A denarius

Roman Republic, C. Norbanus, 83 BC, AR Denarius (18mm, 3.87 g, 11h), Rome mint

Obv: C.Norbanus, diademed head of Venus right; LXXXXVI above

Rev: Fasces between grain ear and caduceus

Ref: Crawford 357/1b; Sydenham 739; RSC 2; RBW 1363


The symbols on the reverse can all be associated with the elder Norbanus’ political, military and religious responsibilities: fasces a consular symbol, the caduceus associated with the god Mercury is a symbol of commerce and negotiation, and ears of corn speak to the duty to supply Rome with grain for food.

"The reverse type is probably an allusion to the moneyer’s father and the part he played during the Social War, when he raised troops, organized a fleet, and provisioned the town of Rhegium. It must have been a very large issue as the numbers of this type run from I to over CCXX"
-H. A. Seaby’s Roman Silver Coins, Vol. I, Part I (London, 1952) p.58 

John Ower argues in “Seaby's Coin and Medal Bulletin: June 1963” that the denarius was issued by the consul himself and the allusion on the reverse is to his consulship. However Crawford concludes that the moneyer is the consul's son (1964).

C. NORBANUS. C. Norbani were consuls in 83, 38, 24, and AD 15. Clearly the second of these successive generations was delayed by the prohibition of public careers to the sons of the proscribed (E. Groag, FW xvi, 1270); so the moneyer can be identified with the consul of 38, son of the consul of 83
- Crawford, M. H., & WISEMAN, T. P. (1964). The Coinage of the Age of Sulla. The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society, 4, 141–158. 

References (in addition top those linked above inline)

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