September 01, 2013

A Roman denarius and Renaissance medallion showing a pileus and daggers

(Coin of the Month March 2013)

This famous silver denarius celebrates the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. brutuscoinIt was minted by Marcus Iunius Brutus in northern Greece during the late summer of 42 BC, for he had fled Rome after the assassination. Soon after, at the second Battle of Philippi, Brutus and his fellow conspirators were defeated by Mark Antony and Octavian, and he committed suicide. The obverse of the coin presents a bareheaded Brutus, with the legend “Brutus, Imperator, Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus (moneyer).” Republican coins did not display portraits of living men, but on this denarius Brutus included his own effigy and his title of Imperator, more in line with the coins of Julius Caesar, the man he had killed for supposedly wanting to be king. The reverse shows the cap of liberty (pileus), which was traditionally given to slaves on manumission, between two daggers. The chilling legend underneath reads EID(ibus) MAR(tiis)(Ides of March). Therefore, on one side of the coin Brutus claims to have liberated the fatherland and saved the Republic, but on the other side he presents himself as a general in the style of Julius Caesar. A few years later, Octavian (Augustus) would succeed in using both kinds of self-advertisement to create the Principate, marking the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire.


The coin was imitated in Renaissance Italy. On 6 January 1537, the first Duke of medallionFlorence, Alessandro de Medici, was murdered by his cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco (Lorenzino or Lorenzaccio). Although the ultimate motives of Lorenzino are a subject of debate, his attempt to identify with Brutus and the model of classical tyrannicide is clear. In his Apologia he claims to have rid Florence of a tyrant. Also, Lorenzino followed the design of the Brutus denarius in his bronze medal, but in this case the daggers and pileus are inverted. He is even depicted wearing Roman dress and the date of the murder is VIII.ID.IAN, or eight days before the Ides of January.

The French Revolution also expressed interest in Brutus and his coin. In March 1792, an article on the bonnet rouge mentions an extremely rare piece, ‘une superbe medaille d’or … antique et d’un beau travail,’ representing Brutus on one side and a bonnet between two daggers on the other side. The author proudly notes that the red bonnet of the revolutionaries is similar to the pileus in shape and in meaning: “this woollen bonnet was, in Greece and Rome, the emblem of freedom from slavery, and the rallying sign for all enemies of despotism” [Révolutions de Paris, no.141]. Finally, along with other classically-inspired symbols, the bonnet rouge made its way to America, and it can be found in the coats of arms of many countries today.

desireeThis month’s coin was chosen by Desiree Arbo, a first year PhD student. Desiree’s research focuses on the reception of Rome in 19th century Paraguay (South America). She is interested in the way elite thinkers used classical imagery and the idea of Rome in constructing the Paraguayan nation.



(Coin images above reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (www.cngcoins.com) and Baldwin's Auctions Ltd [Auction 64, lot527])


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