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Research Coins: Feature Auction


Honoring Sulla as Dictator
Published in Blanchet, Bahrfeldt, Babelon, and Biaggi

Triton XX, Lot: 519. Estimate $200000.
Sold for $475000. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

A. Manlius A.f. 80 BC. AV Aureus (20mm, 10.75 g, 8h). Uncertain Eastern mint. Draped bust of Roma right, wearing crested helmet ornamented with two plumes, and earrings; A • MAN downward to left, LI • A • F • Q upward to right / Sulla, laureate and wearing sagum, left on horseback, raising right hand in acclamation; L • SVLL • FE in exergue, LI • DIC • upward to right. Crawford 381/1a (same rev. die); Sydenham 762 = BMCRR East 16; Calicó 20 (this coin illustrated); Biaggi 13 = Bahrfeldt 12/4 = A. Blanchet, Les monnaies romaines (Paris: 1896), p. 121, 9 = Babelon II 9 (this coin); Kestner –; RBW –. Near EF, warm reddish toning. Extremely rare, and the only issue naming Sulla as dictator.

From the collection of a director. Ex Leo Biaggi de Blasys Collection, 13.

This aureus, struck during the third consulship of the dictator Sulla in 80 BC, offers an intriguing glimpse of the Realpolitik of the Roman Republic in the early first century BC. The obverse depicts a purely Roman version of the goddess Roma, complete with the archaic Republican helmet decorated with a pair of plumes. The reverse features the statua Sullae, which was located near the Rostra in the Roman Forum, and which was dedicated by King Bocchus I of Mauretania to commemorate the role of Sulla (and Bocchus) in the capture of Jugurtha. It was the Jugurthine War (112-106 BC) that set in motion the subsequent period of internal political conflict between various generals and deep division within the Senate between the patricians and the novi homines, or "new men," all of which culminated in the civil wars of the second half of the century and the establishment of the Principate under Augustus.

The coin's moneyer, A. Manlius A. f., also participated in the Jugurthine War. In addition to serving as a legatus to the Roman commander-in-chief, Gaius Marius (Sall.Iug. 86.1; 90.2; 102.23), he was appointed by Marius – along with Sulla – to meet with Bocchus, which resulted in the betrayal and capture of Jugurtha. Although his cognomen is unknown, Aulus Manlius was a member of the gens Manlia, one of the oldest and most patrician families of Rome. The gens boasted numerous holders of high office throughout the Republic, including a number of consuls. When the bloody civil war between Marius and Sulla broke out following the Social War (91-88 BC), Manlius allied himself with the conservative patricians who supported Sulla, rather than his old commander Marius, who was a novus homo. Nothing more is known of Manlius until 80 BC, when he struck this aureus. Why he did so remains the subject of speculation. A explanation is that the coin commemorates Sulla's resignation of the dictatorship he held the previous year. In keeping with his traditionalist sentiments, Sulla resigned his office (including disbanding his legions) and re-established consular government; he then dismissed his lictors and entered the Forum unprotected to give an account of himself to any citizen (Plut. Vit. Sull. 34). Thus, his action may have been viewed by his adherents (and certainly Manlius), as the victorious denouement of a great man who fought to preserve the values of the ancient Republic.