By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
Gaius Julius Caesar was murdered at a meeting of the Roman Senate on the Ides of March, 44 BCE. The men who killed Caesar claimed that they were saving the Roman Republic from an oppressive dictator who had taken too much power for himself. The assassins included men who had been Caesar’s closest associates, as well as men who had fought against him but had been pardoned by Caesar and raised by him to positions of power.
The four most prominent and best-known assassins – Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus, Gaius Cassius Longinus, Publius Servilius Casca Longus, and Marcus Junius Brutus – all died within three years of the assassination. But each of them left a numismatic legacy that endures to this day.
Caesar’s Son (?) and Almost Heir
Decimus was one of Julius Caesar’s chief officers and closest associates in both the Gallic War and the Civil War. Caesar said on several occasions that he loved Decimus as if he were his son, and there is a (remote) possibility that they were father and son. Caesar designated Decimus to serve as one of the two consuls for 42 BCE and named Decimus in his will as his alternate heir – Caesar’s property would have gone to Decimus if Caesar’s principal heir, his nephew Octavian, predeceased him.
Decimus was also the man who recruited his far better-known cousin Marcus Junius Brutus (“the” Brutus) to join the conspiracy against Caesar. And when Caesar indicated his intention to heed his wife’s warning and not attend the Senate meeting on March 15, it was Decimus who changed Caesar’s mind and who led Caesar to the meeting – and to his death.
Decimus had served as a magistrate of the mint in 48 BCE. One coin he minted was a denarius whose obverse featured a portrait of Pietas and whose reverse featured a pair of clasped hands holding a winged caduceus, with the inscription ALBINVS • BRVTI • F (“Albinus the son of Brutus”). Pietas is usually translated as “Piety”, but its real meaning is more along the lines of “Dutifulness”. It signified Caesar’s “dutiful” attention to the needs of Rome. The clasped hands and caduceus were also part of Caesar’s propaganda campaign: they showed Caesar’s spirit of moderation and reconciliation.
Lean and Hungry
Gaius Cassius Longinus was a long-time opponent of “despots”. He sided with Pompey the Great during the Civil War but after Pompey’s defeat at Pharsalus, Cassius surrendered unconditionally to Caesar.
Shakespeare has Caesar tell Mark Antony that “Cassius has a lean and hungry look,” meaning that Cassius seemed starved for power, but in real life Caesar had great respect for Cassius. In January 44 BCE, Caesar appointed Cassius praetor qui inter peregrinos ius dicit (“the praetor who administers justice among the foreigners”) and promised him the lucrative governorship of Syria for the following year. Cassius responded by launching the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar.
After the assassination, Cassius went to Syria, and in 43 BCE the Senate appointed him governor – the same post that Caesar had promised him.
In early 42 BCE, Cassius and his brother-in-law, Marcus Junius Brutus, met at Smyrna in Greek Anatolia to plan strategy. About this time, Cassius’ legate (legionary commander) Publius Cornelius Lentulus Spinther struck a denarius whose obverse depicted the veiled, diademed, and draped bust of Libertas with the inscriptions LEIBERTAS (a common spelling at the time) upward to the right and C • CASSI • IMP (“Gaius Cassius Imperator”) upward to the left. Libertas was the main theme of the coinage of the Republicans who opposed Caesar. The reverse depicts a jug known as a capis and a divining rod known as a lituus with the inscription LENTVLVS over SPINT. These represent Lentulus Spinther’s membership in the priestly college of augurs (the augurs were the priests who attempted to divine the will of the gods by studying natural signs, such as the flight of birds).
Cassius issued his final coinage in the summer of 42 BCE, about the time when he met with Brutus at Sardis in Anatolia to plan for the final conflict with Octavian and Mark Antony. This aureus, struck for Cassius by his legate Marcus Servilius, depicts the laureate head of Libertas with the inscription C • CASSI • IMP upward to left. The reverse displays an apluster whose branches terminate in flowers and the inscriptions M • SERVILIVS at left and LEG (for Legatus or “legate”) at right.
This coin commemorates Cassius’ conquest of the Greek island of Rhodes, which had been allied with Mark Antony. Cassius’s fleet destroyed the Rhodian navy in 43 BCE, after which Cassius sacked Rhodes to raise funds for his legions. An apluster was a highly decorated attachment to the sternpost of a Roman war galley. The flowers that are shown are roses, symbols of Rhodes; roda in Greek means “rose”.
The First Cut Not Always the Deepest
Publius Servilius Casca was Tribunus plebis (“Tribune of the Plebs”) in 44 BCE. He was the first to attack Caesar, stabbing him in the neck from behind. The injury was not serious, and Caesar fought briefly with him, shouting (according to one report) in Latin “Casca, you villain, what are you doing?” Casca himself (according to the same report) shouted in Greek “Help me brother!” whereupon his brother and the other assassins struck Caesar down. According to the autopsy, Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times, but only one blow – directly to his heart – was fatal.
Casca fled Rome after the assassination, eventually joining Cassius and Brutus in the East where he commanded Brutus’ fleet. In late summer or early autumn 42 BCE, Casca minted coins in Brutus’ name, including this gold aureus. The obverse depicts Brutus wearing a short beard, with BRVTVS behind him and IMP (Imperator) in front of him, all surrounded by a laurel wreath. Imperator was a title given to a victorious general by the acclamation of his troops and is the root of the English word “Emperor”. The reverse displays a combined army and naval trophy, the letter L and the inscriptions CASCA on the left and LONGVS on the right.
The reverse design celebrates the military successes of the Republicans and is not at all exceptionable or unusual. The trophy commemorates Cassius’ naval victory over the Rhodians as well as the victories Brutus won on land over the Thracians and the Lycian League (the “L” within the trophy probably refers to Lycia).
The obverse design is hugely hypocritical in its depiction of Brutus. Julius Caesar’s placement of his portrait on Roman coins had infuriated the Republicans and was a major precipitating event for his assassination. By placing Brutus’ portrait on their coins, the Republicans completely undercut the fundamental principles of “Liberty” for which they claimed to be fighting.
The Noblest Roman of Them All
Marcus Junius Brutus was a member of a distinguished family of Roman plebeians. In 77 BCE, Pompey the Great executed Brutus’ father – a former Tribunus plebis – for his participation in a popular revolt. In about 59 BCE, Brutus was posthumously adopted by his uncle, Quintus Servilius Caepio, whereupon he became known as Quintus Servilius Caepio Brutus.
Brutus first served in public office as a Mint magistrate in 54 BCE. One coin he minted as a Mint magistrate was a denarius whose obverse featured a portrait of his paternal ancestor, Lucius Junius Brutus, and whose reverse portrayed his maternal ancestor, Gaius Servilius Ahala. Both men were heroes of the Roman Republic: Lucius Junius Brutus led the revolt that overthrew the last Roman king and later executed his own son when the son became involved in a plot to restore the monarchy; Ahala murdered Spurius Maelius when Maelius attempted to overthrow the Republic and become king himself. Brutus meant for this coin to serve as a warning to Pompey, whom Brutus hated both for his role in executing Brutus’ natural father and for the threat the powerful Pompey posed to the Republic.
Brutus enjoyed a very close relationship with Julius Caesar in the 50s BCE. His mother Servilia had been one of Caesar’s girlfriends, and there were even rumors that Brutus was Caesar’s son; this is unlikely, as Caesar was only 15 years old when Brutus was born and Caesar and Servilia probably did not start dating until years afterward. Despite all this, when Caesar crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome in 49 BCE, Brutus decided that Pompey was the lesser of the two evils, and he joined Pompey.
Caesar remained fond of Brutus: prior to the Battle of Pharsalus, he ordered his officers not to harm Brutus. Brutus surrendered to Caesar after the battle and apologized for his actions. Caesar immediately forgave him, and Brutus became one of Caesar’s closest associates. Almost immediately, Caesar appointed Brutus governor of Gaul, and later prefect of Rome. Brutus responded by joining and ultimately leading the conspiracy against Julius Caesar.
In early 42 BCE, Lentulus Spinther, the legate who struck coins for Cassius at the time of the meeting of Cassius and Brutus at Smyrna, struck coins for Brutus as well. Cassius arrived first in Smyrna, so the coins Lentulus Spinther struck for Brutus probably appeared after those he struck for Cassius. The obverse of this denarius depicts an axe, a simpulum (a jug for pouring wine during sacrifices), and a knife, while the reverse displays a capis and a lituus. The sacrificial items on the obverse signify Brutus’ membership in the college of pontifices (“priests”), while the items on the reverse signify Lentulus Spinther’s membership in the college of augurs, as on the coins he struck for Cassius.
During the spring or early summer of 42 BCE, the military mint traveling with Brutus in Lycia struck a coin that were probably used to pay Brutus’ troops. The obverse of this denarius depicts the bare head of Libertas with the inscription LEIBERTAS, while the reverse displays what is usually described as a plectrum (a device used to pluck a stringed instrument) but is more likely an archer’s quiver, a lyre, and a laurel branch tied with fillet, with the inscription CAEPIO BRVTVS PRO COS. This coin imitates contemporary hemidrachms of the Lycian League, which typically featured symbols related to the god Apollo, such as the lyre, the laurel wreath of victory, and the quiver. The inscription is expanded from Brutus’ earlier coins to give his adoptive name Caepio and his title as proconsul.
Very late in the summer or early in the autumn of 42 BCE, Brutus issued the most famous of all ancient coins. The obverse of this denarius depicts Brutus’ bare head facing right with his name BRVT (“Brutus”) above his head, his title IMP (“Imperator”) in front, and L. PLAET. CEST (“Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus”, the name of the otherwise unknown moneyer who struck the coin). The reverse depicts a pileus between two daggers and the words EID • MAR (Eidibus Martiis or “Ides of March”).
The reverse of the EID MAR denarius unabashedly proclaims Brutus’ pride in his role as the principal murderer of Julius Caesar. The two daggers represent the daggers used to kill Julius Caesar; the daggers are slightly different in form, and it has been suggested that one dagger belongs to Brutus and the other to Cassius. The pileus was the cap of Liberty given to slaves when they were emancipated and signifies the “liberty” the Republicans restored to Rome; it was also the headgear of the divine twins Castor and Pollux, who intervened from time to time to rescue Rome from disaster. And lest anyone forget, EID • MAR reminded everyone of the fateful date of Caesar’s assassination.
The EID MAR denarius was famous in antiquity. Cassius Dio described the coin in detail in his history, written more than 250 years after the coin was struck.
Brutus is known not only for the most famous of all ancient coins but also for the most expensive. Plaetorius Cestianus struck a gold aureus to go with the silver denarius. The aureus has the same design as the denarius, and die links indicate that it was struck with the same dies. It is an extremely rare coin, with just three known specimens, two of which are in museum collections. The sole example in private hands sold at auction on October 29, 2020, for £3,240,000 (about $4.188 million USD, including the buyer’s premium).
The End of Caesar’s Killers
Events went crosswise for the assassins after the Ides of March.
Decimus Brutus attempted to take command of the troops in Cisalpine Gaul but Mark Antony opposed him. Octavian, who was fighting Mark Antony at the time, despised Decimus as the murderer of Octavian’s great-uncle and adoptive father but decided that Decimus could be useful in the struggle with Mark Antony. It all ended for Decimus when a Gallic chieftain loyal to Mark Antony captured and executed Decimus in September 43 BCE – one month before Octavian and Mark Antony joined in the Second Triumvirate.
On October 3, 42 BCE, the armies of the Second Triumvirate met the armies of the Liberators at the First Battle of Philippi. Marcus Junius Brutus defeated Octavian, who barely managed to escape, while Mark Antony soundly defeated Cassius. Believing Brutus to have been defeated as well, Cassius committed suicide. It was Cassius’ 46th birthday.
On October 23, 42 BCE, the armies of Mark Antony and Octavian met the army of Brutus and the survivors of Cassius’ army at the Second Battle of Philippi. Mark Antony won a crushing victory over Brutus, who subsequently committed suicide by falling on his sword. Casca disappeared from history at this time, and it is believed that he, too, committed suicide.
Collecting the Coins of Caesar’s Killers
Crawford (1974) provides the best technical treatment of Roman Republican coins. At the time he was writing, the only known EID MAR aureus was a coin first reported in 1953; Crawford refused to catalog it, deeming it false. The second known specimen was reported in 1989 by the same numismatist who had reported the first. The second specimen is more convincing than the first, but Crawford has not publicly opined on it, and the 1999 reprint of Crawford’s work continued to identify the first specimen as false.
Sear (1998) provides another excellent outline of the coinage of this period while also providing thorough historical context. He notes the existence of the first and second EID MAR aurei and includes them in his catalog, albeit with some misgivings. Sear (2000) is an excellent numismatic catalog for the general collector; it does not mention the EID MAR aureus.
Suetonius provides a good if somewhat gossipy historical treatment of Julius Caesar’s career and the assassination; he is especially readable in the translation by the English poet and novelist Robert Graves. Plutarch (1937) provides detailed biographies of Julius Caesar and Marcus Junius Brutus; the Dryden translation is interesting, if somewhat old-fashioned.
The gold coins of the assassins range in availability from scarce to incredibly rare, and range in price from very expensive to incredibly expensive; the same is true for the coins bearing Brutus’ portrait. The silver coins which the two Bruti struck before Caesar’s assassination can be found in attractive condition for three-figure prices. With a few exceptions, the silver coins which Brutus and Cassius struck after the assassination can be found in attractive condition for prices in the $1,500 – $5,000 range. Cassius’ coins usually cost a bit more than those of Brutus, but sometimes nice coins can be found – with patient searching – for prices below $1,000.
* * *
Crawford, Michael H. Roman Republican Coinage. Two Vol. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 1974.
Dio, Lucius Cassius. Roman History, Books 46-50. Earnest Cary, transl. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA. 1916.
Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives. John Dryden, transl.; Arthur Hugh Clough, rev. Modern Library: New York. 1937
Sear, David R. The History and Coinage of the Roman Imperators 49-27 BC. Spink: London. 1998.
–. Roman Coins and Their Values: Vol. One: The Republic and the Twelve Caesars 280 BC-AD 96. Spink: London. 2000.
Suetonius Tranquillus, Gaius. The Twelve Caesars. Robert Graves, transl. The Folio Society: London. 1964.
All coin images courtesy and copyright of Classical Numismatic Group LLC (CNG) at www.cngcoins.com