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Of Sulla and Apollo

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. (for more coins and history of this period - see "Gaius Marius", "Sulla's Warning", "Sulla & Marius" and other Notes)

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 wine skin over shoulder; to right, column surmounted by statue (Victory? Minerva? Venus?) standing right

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

There is an open question of who is on the statue behind Marsyas. Minerva carrying victory a possibility. Here's the detail from my coin.

An interesting theory proposed by in this paper, "Certainly she is carrying something in her hand, and from the figure, in the front, something protrudes at a high angle. If so, it could be Venus, like the one portrayed on Buca's coins and therefore a second appropriation of divinity dear to Sulla" - The first appropriation being Apollo on the obverse, with Apollo and Venus both associated with Sulla. The reference to Buca is to Crawford 480 coins with Venus Victrix from 44 BC e.g. 480/7b, and 480/8.

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 return. 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). Velleius 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, on the reverse is a play on the family name of the moneyer (Marsyas - Marcia). In ancient Rome, Marsyas was also a symbol of freedom (libertas) and free speech (speaking truth to power). It is also possible that the combination of Apollo and Marsyas was intended to bring to mind the darker story of a competition. 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 the 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 

Whatever the original intention of the imagery - with the benefit of knowing what came next, the story of Marsyas flayed by Apollo serves as a horrifying omen of things to come. Velleius Paterculus also reminds us 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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Feb 28, 2021

How very sad for the son of Marius. He had no choice really and was a dead man either way. The reminder of proscriptions sent a chill through me. Thanks for the detailed background on this coin.:)

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