Roman Coin – Sextus Pompey; 42-40 BCE, Denarius
By Russell A. Augustin – AU Capital Management, LLC ……
The title used on this Roman coin, praefectus classis et orae maritimae ex senatus consulto (“Commander of the Fleet and of the Seashores by Decision of the Senate”), is a well-aimed insult to the other triumviri who frequently called Sextus Pompey a pirate captain.
After the death of his father, Pompey the Great, in 48 BCE, and the execution of his older brother Gnaeus Pompey the Younger three years later, Sextus Pompey, a skilled naval commander, took over the campaign started by his father.
In order to put an end to Pompey’s attacks on the ships bringing grain to Rome, the Senate was forced to reconcile with him. As a sign of goodwill, he was given this official title and by inscribing it on a coin, Pompey is informing everyone that he was an official commander, not only of pirates.
The reverse of this Roman coin alludes to Sextus’ command of the seas and the probable location of the mint through the legend of Amphinomus and Anapias. The scene is a reference to the piety (faithfulness for the divine rules) of Sextus Pompey in upholding the Republican ideals of his late father, who is depicted on the obverse. This imagery was intentional and done in open defiance of Octavian.
Octavian had always boasted of his own piety, which pushed him to prosecute the murderers of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar. In the ancient version of the legend, there was only one pious hero, leaving no room for Octavian to claim the same title if Sextus claimed it. He would likely have been inspired by the original poem by Lycurgus:
“A stream of fire burst forth from Etna. This stream, so the story goes, flowing over the countryside, drew near a certain city of the Sicilians. Most men, thinking of their own safety, took to flight; but one of the youths, seeing that his father, now advanced in years, could not escape and was being overtaken by the fire, lifted him up and carried him. Hindered no doubt by the additional weight of his burden, he too was overtaken. And now let us observe the mercy shown by the Gods towards good men. For we are told that the fire spread round that spot in a ring and only those two men were saved so that the place is still called the Place of the Pious, while those who had fled in haste, leaving their parents to their fate, were all consumed.”
With the representation of the son risking his life to save his father, Sextus is now formally claiming this piety towards his own parents. He represents himself exactly like Octavian, as a son who wants to follow in the footsteps of his murdered father. Pompey presided over the Mediterranean for some time as claimed on this Roman coin, represented by Neptune, the master of the sea. But he did not have the allegiance of all of his captains, evidenced by the fact that they did not adhere to his orders or honor the truce agreement with the triumviri.
Because of this insubordination, after the formation of the Second Triumvirate, Sextus himself was declared an enemy, and the Senate instructed Octavian to defeat him. At this point, Sextus had occupied Sicily where he received fugitives from the Republican defeat at Philippi who were condemned as enemies of the state by the Triumvirs. With the help of these soldiers, Sextus Pompey defeated Salvidienus, who had been sent against him by Octavian.
In 38 BCE, Octavian himself declared war against Sextus, with limited success. He was offered support from Lepidus, who landed 14 legions in Sicily. However, Lepidus attempted to take advantage of the situation and gain control of Sicily himself, but his legions defected to Octavian when challenged.
The tides turned against Sextus on September 3, 36 BCE when Octavian and Agrippa destroyed his fleet at the Battle of Naulochus. Sextus escaped and fled to the East, but was later captured by Marc Antony’s general Ahenobarbus and was executed.
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Sextus Pompey; 42-40 BCE, Denarius, 3.63g. Cr-511/3b, Sear, Imperators-334a, Syd-1345. Obv: MAG PIVS IMP ITER Head of Pompey the Great r. between augural symbols, pitcher and lituus. Rx: PRAEF above, ORAE MAR IT ET / CLAS EX S C in two lines in exergue; Neptune standing l., foot on prow, between the Catanaean brothers with their parents on their shoulders. EF, Exceptionally complete.