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Of Sulla and Apollo

Updated: Feb 28

Marius and Sulla tore at the fabric of the Roman republic with their personal ambitions which led to civil wars for the Roman Republic in 88-87 BC and 83-81 BC. Marius died before the second civil war, but his son and his allies carried on. This coin was issued as Sulla returned from War with Mithridates and just before he regained control of Rome.

The Roman Republic 82 BC

L. Censorinus, 82 BC, AR denarius, Rome mint

Obv: Laureate head of Apollo right

Rev: Marsyas standing left, raising hand and holding wineskin over shoulder; to right, column surmounted by statue (Victory? Minerva?) standing right

Ref: Crawford 363/1d (no control marks; ~197 obv and ~228 rev dies per Crawford RRC)

The moneyer, L. Censorinus, was a supporter of the Marius and his co-consul Cinna. Marius and Cinna fled Rome after the first civil war as Lucius Cornelius Sulla marched on Rome. They returned while Sulla was in Asia Minor. Marius died before Sulla's retunr. The last last battle of the second civil war was fought at the Colline Gate. The battle ended violently on first day of the month (kalends) of November 82 BC (see Velleius Paterculus, or Appian for the full story). Paterculus writes:

"Of all the exploits of Sulla there is nothing that I should consider more noteworthy than that, during the three years in which the party of Marius and Cinna were continuously masters of Italy, he never hid from them his intention to wage war on them, but at the same time he did not interrupt the war which he then had on his hands. He considered that his duty was to crush the enemy before taking vengeance upon citizens, and that after he had repelled the menace of the foreigner and won a victory in this way abroad, he should then prove himself the master in a war at home."

- Velleius Paterculus, Roman History, Book II 24.4

This coin was issued before Sulla regained control of Rome. Marsyas, in ancient Rome was a symbol of freedom (libertas) and free speech (speaking truth to power). Knowing what happened after this coin was issued, the coin takes on a darker meaning that recalls the Greek variant of the story of Marsyas and Apollo. In Greek myth, Marsyas is a reminder of a god's right to punish anyone who dares to challenge them.

Apollo and Marsyas and the Judgment of Midas (Melchior Meier, AD 1581 Public Domain image) - Midas, right, punished for choosing Marsyas as the winner in the music competition with Apollo, and Marsyas, left, flayed by Apollo, center, for his hubris in challenging the god.

After taking Rome, Sulla, with absolute power of dictatorship, and a belief in his divine backing, took revenge on those who were not loyal to him.

"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

Marius' son who by this time was consul with Cinna,

"Marius hid himself in an underground tunnel and shortly afterward committed suicide. Lucretius cut off his head and sent it to Sulla, who exposed it in the forum in front of the rostra. It is said that he indulged in a jest at the youth of the consul, saying "First learn to row, before you try to steer." When Lucretius took Praeneste he seized the senators who had held commands under Marius, and put some of them to death and cast the others into prison. The latter were put to death by Sulla when he came that way."

Appian, The Civil Wars, Book I 94.1

Appian describes that dictatorship that followed Sulla's return to control:

"There was no longer any occasion for laws, or elections, or for casting lots, because everybody was shivering with fear and in hiding, or dumb. Everything that Sulla had done as consul, or as proconsul, was confirmed and ratified, and his gilded equestrian statue was erected in front of the rostra with the inscription, "Cornelius Sulla, the ever Fortunate," for so his flatterers called him on account of his unbroken success against his enemies. And this flattering title still attaches to him."

-Appian, The Civil Wars, Book I 97.2

Paterculus reminds above that that Sulla would not be the last to kill his fellow Romans. The path for Julius Caesar was paved by the egos of the strongmen before him.

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