The elephant denarius of Julius Caesar
Silver denarius of Julius Caesar (RRC 443/1)
One of Julius Caesar's most famous coin issues is the ‘elephant denarius’. The reverse features a group of religious symbols: a culullus, aspergillum, an axe decorated with animal imagery, and an apex. On the obverse, the denarius shows a right facing elephant with the word "CAESAR" in the exergue. An estimated 22.5 million pieces were minted, making this coin the third most frequent in the Republican era and adequate to pay eight legions. It is often dated to 49 B.C, the year Caesar took large quantities of gold and silver from the treasury in the Temple of Saturn in Rome. This metal was probably used to fund his new denarius. The date is one among the questions about the coin that continue to be debated. Other undecided issues include what the elephant is standing on.
The elephant may symbolize Caesar's Gallic campaign against Ariovistus in the battle of Vosges in 58 BC, especially if the object on which the elephant treads is a Gallic war trumpet. But this object could arguably be a snake, meaning that the coin communicates the victory of good over evil. Among other propagandizing purposes, it could have been intended to humiliate the self-important and supercilious Pompey, who had tried to associate himself with Alexander by riding a symbol associated with Alexander the Great, the elephant, in his triumphal procession. Pompey had, embarrassingly, failed to actually manoeuvre the animal into the city. The image might represent the snake as a natural enemy of the elephant.
The religious symbols associate Caesar with his prestigious pontifical position as the head of Rome's religious hierarchy. Caesar had been Pontifex Maximus since 63 B.C. The symbols are similar to the augural ones that are more common on Republican Roman coins, including the lituus. Because Caesar did not become an augur until 47 B.C, and since the coin is dated to, at the earliest, the 50s, or more likely 49, it should be noted the symbols here are not augural.
However the view of some scholars suggest that the imagery of the elephant suggests that Julius Caesar considered himself on the same footing as famous military generals such as Alexander the Great and Hannibal.
This month's coin was written by Alfred Wrigley. Alfred is a 2nd Year Ancient History and Classical Archaeology student with great interest in Julio-Claudian Numismatics and is hoping to specialise in numismatics of Julius Caesar.
Coin image reproduced courtesy of the American Numismatic Society.