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Rats in Rome

“There are many rats depicted on ancient coins, this one has an actual rat.”

- Frank Robinson, ancient coin dealer, in one of his online auction listings

My latest denarius completes a two rat set from the Roman republic. As these coins were being minted, the conditions for Sulla’s rise to power were taking shape. Micipsa, King of Numidia, had died in 118 BC leaving two sons, Hiempsal and Adherbal, and his brother’s son, Jugurtha, to rule Numidia. Jugurtha soon had Hiempsal killed which caused Adherbal to ask for help from Rome.

Jugurtha in chains, public domain image by M. S. Maélla, from La conjuracion de Catilina y la Guerra de Jugurta por Cayo Salustio Crispo, Madrid, published by Joachin Ibarra, 1772, p. 97.

Jugurtha bribed Roman nobles to his cause, and the kingdom was divided between the two. In 113, Jughurtha attacked Adherbal and laid siege to his capital, Cirta. Rome was busy with other matters and Adherbal was killed. This caused the Romans to enter the Jugurthine War – which would end in the capture of Jugurtha by Sulla, winning a triumph for Marius. These are the seeds of Sulla's power and his rivalry with Marius.

Jugurtha's capture is commemorated on a coin (Crawford 426) issued by Sulla's son, Faustus Sulla, in 56 BC, a type which has so far eluded me (CNG image - not my coin).

This coin is from Jugurtha's grandfather or uncle:

Kings of Numidia, Massinissa (grandfather) or Micipsa (uncle), 203-148 BC or 148-118 BC, Æ Unit

Obv: Laureate head left

Rev: Horse galloping left; pellet below

Ref: MAA 18a; Mazard 50

The opening quote on this post refers to the rat on the reverse of this coin which also shows a desultor with two horses. Hercules with club is featured on the obverse. This Roman republican denarius was issued about 112 or 111 BC. I have two variants of this coin, shown below. They differ in their control marks and in the direction that the rat (or mouse) is facing.

Desultory is an English word derived from Latin – Google returns a definition: adjective desultory: lacking a plan, purpose, or enthusiasm OR going constantly from one subject to another in a half-hearted way; unfocused. The second definition is easily connected with Roman desultor, a performer jumping from horse to horse.

Roman republic, Ti. Quinctius, 112-111 BC, AR denarius, Rome mint

Obv: Laureate bust of Hercules left, seen from behind, wearing lion's skin, with club over shoulder

Rev: Two horses galloping left, a desultor riding the nearest one; control letter above O• or B (• above); TI Q below horses divided by rat to facing (left or right) ; D • S • S incuse on tablet in exergue

Ref: Crawford 297/1a (rat left) and 297/1b (rat right); Sydenham 563; Quinctia 6

The obverse show Hercules – this same Hercules also appears on Crawford 329 about a decade later. This Hercules may be “Hercules Respiciens” worshiped in the Sabine town of Reate. Suetonius describes, in 12 Emperors, an attempt to trace Vespasian’s ancestry to this town. After conquering Geryon in Spain, Hercules is said to have come to Italy and Flavus, one of his companions, was said to be the founder of Reate. (Ref: Suetonius, Vespasian 12)

Hercules Respiciens is also referenced in Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL) IX.4673 which is today available fully digitized.

P. Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus, 100 BC, AR denarius, Rome mint

Obv: Bareheaded bust of young Hercules right, seen from behind, wearing lion skin and holding club; to left, shield and •/R /

Rev: Roma standing facing, holding spear, being crowned by Genius of the Roman People, holding wreath and cornucopia; •/R between them; all within laurel wreath

Ref: Crawford 329/1a; Sydenham 604; Cornelia 25; RBW 1186 var. (control letter)

The reverse may show a statue as the (D)e (S)enatus (S)ententia was common in building inscriptions. A desultor was a performer who would jump between horses. Livy, writing at the end of the first century BC, describes the utility of this skill in the second Punic War:

“And not all of his Numidians were placed on the right wing, but only those who, taking two horses apiece after the manner of performers, had the custom of leaping armed from the tired horse to the fresh, often in the very heat of battle; such was the agility of the men, and so well-trained their breed of horses."
-Livy, The History of Rome, xxiii.29.5

Could the desultors be closely associated with Numidians in the minds of Romans? Could the desultor have some meaning related to Numidian betrayal in jumping sides during the War with Carthage or Romans jumping sides between Jugurtha and Adherbal? Could substituting desultor for dioscuri on the reverse be a comment about the political circus of the times?

Why a rat (mus maximus) on this coin? Perhaps, a reference to the bribery/corruption of Roman politicians that led to senators not punishing Jugurtha? I don't have enough to consider this more than speculation. There were plenty of political rats in Rome at this time. Lucius Opimius certainly comes first to mind, the consul responsible for the murder of Gaius Gracchus and the head of the corrupt commission that split Numidia between Jugurtha and Adherbal. The Jugurthine War would certainly prove to be a Herculean task.

"...Opimius, who was the first consul to exercise the power of a dictator, and put to death without trial, besides three thousand other citizens, Caius Gracchus and Fulvius Flaccus, of whom one had been consul and had celebrated a triumph, while the other was the foremost man of his generation in virtue and reputation — this Opimius could not keep his hands from fraud, but when he was sent as ambassador to Jugurtha the Numidian was bribed by him, and after being convicted most shamefully of corruption, he spent his old age in infamy, hated and abused by the people..."
-Plutarch, Life of Caius Gracchus, XVIII.1 

Here is a coin issued by M. Opimius (Opeimius) who is presumed to be the brother of Lucius Opimius. Both were moneyers in 131 BC:

M. Opimius, 131 BC, AR denarius, Rome mint

Obv: Helmeted head of Roma right; tripod to left, mark of value below chin

Rev: Apollo driving galloping biga right, about to discharge an arrow from his bow, with quiver over shoulder

Ref: Crawford 254/1; Sydenham 475; Opimia 16

"There were also dormice rolled in honey and poppy-seed, and supported on little bridges soldered to the plate. Then there were hot sausages laid on a silver grill, and under the grill damsons and seeds of pomegranate."

-Pertronius, Satyricon, 31

What connotations did rats (or mice) have for the Romans? Romans didn't differentiate mice and rats except by size - both were mus. They did fatten dormice (the European edible dormouse, genus/species: Glis glis) in a special jar called a gliarium or dolia to serve in their triclinarium (dining room named for the three sided couch). There are several recipes reported including "dormouse dipped in honey and dusted with poppy seeds" and "dormouse stuffed with pork". And dormice seem to have been a popular and even profitable agricultural product. Cloud this be a dormouse on the coin? To add to my risky speculation - perhaps the fat mouse on my coin represents the greedy politician fattening up on the bribes of Jugurtha.

A gliarium for the fattening of dormice, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Chiusi, photo by Marco Daniele, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Varro writing in the first century BC, describes the fattening of dormice and also includes descriptions of his villa in Reate in chapter 3 of De Re Rustica. Perhaps Ti. Q also had a villa in Reate (home to Hercules Respiciens) and was doing well raising dormice.

"The place for dormice is built on a different plan, as the ground is surrounded not by water but by a wall, which is covered on the inside with smooth stone or plaster over the whole surface, so that they cannot creep out of it. In this place there should be small nut-bearing trees; when they are not bearing, acorns and chestnuts should be thrown inside the walls for them to glut themselves with."
-Varro, On Agriculture, 15.1 

Two other references to dormice can be found in Matrial's Epigrams (Books 3.LVIII, and 13.LIX).

There are certainly problems with these speculative connections, mice at least had some positive connotations and could be associated with Apollo the healer and seen as helpers, as in the Greek fable of Aesop of "The Lion and the Mouse". Pliny describes mice positively ("not to be despised) in his chapter on "animals which are tamed in part only". He references legislation by Marcus Aemelius Scaurus, consul in 115 and author of the first Roman autobiography - that restricted the consumption of dormice, only a few years before this coin was issued.

"The appearance of white mice constitutes a joyful omen. For we have our Records full of instances of the auspices being interrupted by the squeaking of shrews. Nigidius states that shrews themselves also hibernate as do dormice, which sumptuary legislation and Marcus [Aemilius] Scaurus the Head of the State during his consulship ruled out from banquets just as they did shell-fish or birds imported from other parts of the world."
-Pliny, Natural History, 8.82.1 

As appealing as the thought is in our modern terms (rats and politicians), I don't find contemporary reference to mice or rats that give much support to the thought. Perhaps in 111 BC life was rich with entertainment of desultors and snacks of dormice (despite the legislation)? Perhaps the rat/mouse is a reference to this "sumptuary legislation" of Marcus Scaurus?

For more on the Crawford 329 (the coin of Marcellinus) see this earlier post: Decrypting Crawford.

References (in addition to those linked above):

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