Nov 8, 2018

Sulla’s dream – a denarius of the Roman republic

denarius Sulla's dream

The year 44 B.C. and the denarius of L. Aemilius Buca

44 BC was no ordinary year in the history of the Roman republic. Since his triumph in the civil war against Pompey, Julius Caesar exercised undisputed control over the Roman republic. In 46 BC, he had been appointed dictator, but at the beginning of 44 BC he received the even more elevated title of “dictator for life” (dictator perpetuo rei publicae constituendae). Shortly thereafter, on the Ides of March, he was murdered by a conspiracy of young aristocrats who saw him as a tyrant intent on destroying the freedom of the Roman people.

44 BC was also a decisive year in the history of Roman coinage. One of the officials in charge of the mint of Rome, Lucius Aemilius Buca, had an extensive series of denarii minted.The coins had varied motifs including obverses representing the bust of Caesar accompanied by a legend referring to his status as perpetual dictator.  It was the first time that a living citizen was portrayed on a Roman coin, an exceptional honour whose only precedent was that of the Hellenistic kings, Alexander the Great and his successors. Undoubtedly, Ceasar was depicted in a kingly manner that conflicted with the Roman republican tradition.
denarius Sulla's dream
Reverse with the scene traditionally interpreted as " Sulla' s dream "

In addition to the denarius depicting Caesar’s head, Buca had another coin minted that has attracted the attention of numismatic scholars since the Renaissance.

The obverse shows Venus' head, while the reverse depicts a man lying down, his head leaning back. The trunk of his body is naked, while a mantle is wrapped around his legs. From the right, Selene, identified by a crescent on her head, descends towards him. In her right hand she holds a torch, while her left hand and right foot rest on a rock. Between the man and the goddess, at the back of the scene, is a winged female figure, carrying an object that looks like a palm branch or a stick.

The traditional interpretation

The French numismatist Andreas Morell (1646-1703) was the first to propose an interpretation of this reverse scene that would make the coin famous. It was based on a passage from the life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla written by Plutarch. According to the latter, 

"It is said, also, that to Sulla himself there appeared in his dreams a goddess whom the Romans learned to worship from the Cappadocians, whether she is Luna, or Minerva, or Bellona. This goddess, as Sulla fancied, stood by his side and put into his hand a thunder-bolt, and naming his enemies one by one, bade him smite them with it; and they were all smitten, and fell, and vanished away. Encouraged by the vision, he told it to his colleague, and at break of day led on towards Rome.

Morell identified the reverse of Buca’s denarius as a representation of Sulla's dream, who would be the reclining human figure visited by the goddess. His interpretation would be adopted by the great Austrian numismatist Joseph Eckhel and the latter’s authority would grant it the general acceptance that this interpretations enjoys to this day.

An Alternative Interpretation - The Myth of Endymion

The great French numismatist Ernest Babelon rejected Morell's interpretation, seeing in the scene a representation of the Greek myth of the shepherd Endymion. According to legend, the goddess Selene fell in love with this beautiful young shepherd and obtained from Zeus the concession that he would always stay young sleeping so as to be able to visit him every night.

The Myth of Endymion

I find this interpretation more convincing than the traditional one, since it seems difficult to believe that one of the mint officials appointed by Caesar would have coined a type paying homage to Sulla, who adhered to a diametrically opposed political position.

Moreover, it seems difficult to think that contemporaries would have been so familiar with a personal anecdote of Sulla's life that we know only from scarce and later sources. On the contrary, the myth of Endymion, like most Greek legends, was well known to the Romans, who saw it frequently represented in theatre and art. 

Endymion is often represented in funerary contexts as an allusion to the eternal life granted by the gods. So I think it is most likely that the reverse type was chosen by Aemilius Buca as a tribute to the assassinated Caesar.

Oct 23, 2018

The coins of Venice

Ducat of Andrea Dandolo c. 1354 - obverse
Ducat of Andrea Dandolo c. 1354 - obverse

The history of Venice

During the fifth century AD, the north of Italy was in chaos as a result of the barbarian invasions that devastated much of the west of the Roman Empire. In this difficult times, the inhabitants of some of the towns of the region sought refuge in the scattered islets of the marshy lagoons north of the Adriatic Sea. There they found the security they longed for and also a basis for subsistence in fishing and in the salt trade. These were the modest origins of Venice, which with the passage of time grew to become a very prosperous city centered on trade, commerce, and international business. By the late Middle Ages it was one of the great economic and military powers of the Mediterranean.

Its unique nature as a city built on water provided Venice with protection and guaranteed its independence from the great powers of the Byzantine and Carolingian empires. The Venetians organized themselves in a republic controlled by the main merchant families, a form of government highly unusual during the middle Ages. The republic was led by the Doge, a ruler elected by an aristocratic assembly and whose power was controlled by a complex system of checks and balances.

Ducat of Andrea Dandolo c. 1354 - reverse
Ducat of Andrea Dandolo c. 1354 - reverse

During its long history, the Venetian republic was remarkably stable and lacked the political turmoil that regularly affected the rest of the European states of the time. It was thus rightly called “the most serene”, la serenissima.

Because of its eminently commercial activity, Venice always had an intense monetary circulation. During the High Middle Ages, its merchants relied above all on Byzantine coins that were those of the highest quality available and were accepted throughout the Mediterranean world.

Grosso of Francesco Dandolo - c. 1328

The coins of Venice

The situation changed at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Byzantine coinage had been gradually debased and had consequently lost its reputation. A new international currency was urgently needed and the Venetians were ready to take the opportunity. Under the great Doge Enrico Dandolo (ruled 1192-1205), they introduced a new coin of high quality silver, the grosso or matapan. We do not know the exact date of its first minting but it was close to the beginning of the century.

With a theoretical weight of c. 2.2 g., the coin reached a purity of 98.5%, the maximum achievable with the technology of the time. This purity guaranteed a wide acceptance as a means of international payment. The design of the coin was strongly influenced by the Byzantine iconography, with a Christ enthroned on the obverse and Saint Mark and the Doge holding a banner, on the reverse.

Around 1250, as trade in the Mediterranean world flourished and expanded, Genoa and Florence - Venice's commercial rivals - minted new high-value pure gold coins, the Genovino and the Florin, with a standard of approximately 3.5 grams. The florin quickly established itself as the new standard currency for international trade. The success of this rival coinage would finally lead the Venetians in 1284 to introduce their own gold coin, the ducat. It had a theoretical weight of 3.53 grams and a purity of 99.5%, which would allow it to conquer a place as a widely accepted international currency and to compete successfully with the florin.

Ducat of Fra Giovanni Dandolo -1284

The obverse shows an upright figure of Jesus surrounded by stars, with the legend T[ibi] XPE (Christe) DAT[us] Q[uem] T[u] REGIS ISTE DVCAT[us]. On the reverse we see St. Mark handing over a banner to the Doge.

Venice would continue to mint ducats of the same quality until the end of the Republic in 1797.