The coin that killed Caesar?
It is the 15th of March 44 BC, and as Julius Caesar sets forth from the threshold of his house to commence his journey to the Theatre of Pompey to convene with the Senate, he has no idea that he will not return later this day. Never would he have imagined that his life would come to such a brutal and bloody end at the hands of those he deemed so close to him. Indeed, as Plutarch informs us, the man was stabbed a total of 23 times by various senators, all so incredibly eager to partake in this momentous event in history that “many of the conspirators were wounded by one another, as they struggled to plant all those blows in one body” (Plutarch, Caesar, 66). To say that Caesar’s assassination was a veritable bloodbath would be a mere understatement. Well, what if I were to tell you that one of history’s most infamous murders could have been motivated by a single coin?
Denarius with portrait of Julius Caesar on the obverse (RRC 480/3)
In the very same year of Caesar’s assassination the moneyer P Sepullius Macer minted a silver Roman denarius with a portrait of Caesar on the obverse. Such a tradition was not new to the ancient world as demonstrated by earlier coins depicting the visage of Alexander the Great, however, there can be no doubt that this custom was new to Rome. And this is incredibly important because in doing so not only did he break with an important tradition, but more to the point, he dangerously associated himself with the trappings of a king. To the majority of us living in the modern world the concept of kingship is widely accepted but it is crucial to stress that for the Romans the term ‘king’ had acquired a seriously negative connotation by this point. In many ways, to associate one’s self with the trappings of a king was political suicide because of Rome’s inherent fear of too much power landing in the lap of one individual.
On the obverse of the coin the legend states “CAESAR DICT PERPETVO” meaning “Caesar, dictator for life” clearly suggesting that Caesar had arrived at a position of unrivalled power in which he undisputedly exerted a huge amount of control over Rome. Furthermore, the reverse of the coin depicting Venus holding Victory in her palm advocates an obvious message that Caesar is the man responsible for Roman peace and prosperity; he is of a higher status than any of his political rivals; he is the pinnacle of Roman greatness. One can’t help but wonder if this representation may have brought to mind for the political elite a concern that history might repeat itself culminating in the rebirth of another cruel King Tarquin.
It would also be worth considering that through the medium of coinage Caesar’s face would quite literally have been ‘in the face’ of his political enemies each and every day. Although the majority of Romans were illiterate and therefore unable to read the legend on the coin, they would still be affected by Caesar’s ‘propaganda’ because they could interpret the images and symbols. It is also worth remembering that there were numerous other suggestions of kingship including the curule chair that Caesar sat on in the senate, the fact that he was always allowed to state his opinion first, and that he gave the signal for the games to begin in the Circus.
On the other hand, it is important to consider the argument that the coin’s portrayal of Caesar was neither kingly nor divine and therefore it can be disregarded as a motivation for his assassination 44 BC. For instance, why would Brutus have followed in Caesar’s footsteps and placed his own portrait on the EID MAR coin (as seen below) in the following year if it was seen as unacceptable in the eyes of the Romans? If one of Brutus’ motivations to murder Caesar was that Julius Caesar was becoming more and more like a king then why would he, after killing him for that very reason, have portrayed himself in a kingly manner also? Moreover, Caesar’s veiled head on the obverse seemingly shows that he is supplicating the gods and therefore he is disassociating himself from the divine to show that he is mortal. This is further highlighted by the representation of his facial features like his sunken cheeks and pronounced Adam’s apple, which, in contrast to the eternally youthful appearance of gods, clearly show that he is human.
|Denarius of Brutus with his portrait on the obverse (RRC 508/3)
Although the coin of Macer was clearly not the sole factor responsible for Julius Caesar’s famous demise, one can be sure that what it symbolises and represents must have played a pivotal role. In this respect, it seems only just to finish by saying that this object should be seen much more than simply a coin. It is an invaluable historical artefact that tells the story of how one man’s ambitions drove Brutus and Cassius along with the rest of the conspirators to take action and inadvertently set in motion a series of events that were to plunge the Roman Republic into more than a decade of civil war from which it would re-emerge as the Roman Empire.
This month's coin was chosen by George Heath. George is a first year undergraduate studying Classical Civilisation. He enjoys coin collecting and has a particular interest in early Republican coinage. He is also interested in the period surrounding Octavian's rise to power and the Augustan principate.
Images © The Trustees of the British Museum