By Jeremy Bostwick – Senior Numismatist & Cataloger, Stack’s Bowers ……
Following the assassination of Rome’s ‘dictator for life’ Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, Rome was plunged further into chaos, having already seen Caesar quell a bitter feud with the Senate and Gn. Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) just a few years prior.
Many of Caesar’s conspirators and assassins, including M. Junius Brutus and C. Cassius Longinus, commonly referenced simply as Brutus and Cassius, fled Rome for fear of reprisal, as their deed was not entirely embraced by the Roman populace who saw Caesar as a benevolent leader. Caesar’s closest friend and ally, M. Antonius (Marc Antony) seized a great deal of control during the power vacuum, with the conspirators on the run and Caesar’s grand-nephew and designated heir, G. Octavius Thurinus, still with an army in Macedonia. The young heir returned to Rome with a newly-adopted name, G. Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian), and found himself with the task of controlling the ever-ambitious Marc Antony, who seemed to be continuing the dictatorial powers of Julius Caesar himself.
With the backing of the Senate and, in particular, the oratory might of M. Tullius Cicero, Octavian set out to defeat the recently-designated public enemy, Antony.
In the spring of 43 BCE, Octavian, along with the consuls Aulus Hirtius and G. Vibius Pansa Caetronianus, confronted and conquered Antony and his five legions at the Battle of Mutina in Cisalpine Gaul. Though victorious and causing Antony to retreat, Octavian did suffer a setback in that Hirtius was killed in combat and Pansa succumbed shortly thereafter under suspicion of poisoning. This left Octavian, hailed now by the Senate as Imperator, in command of all of their eight legions.
Not long thereafter, Octavian began secret negotiations with Antony as they turned their focus not upon one another, but instead upon their common enemy–the assassins of their respective friend and relative. Octavian returned to Rome with his legions and proclaimed himself Consul, despite the refusal of the Senate, and set forth to avenge the untimely death of his grand-uncle. In November of that year, Octavian, Antony, and M. Aemilius Lepidus met and established a three-man dictatorship set for five years–a second triumvirate–in which they each occupied a portion of Rome’s expanse and sought to defeat the conspirators who occupied the remainder.
Though successful at avenging Caesar and regaining territories, the alliance would soon begin to dissolve. Lepidus, ever the third wheel, was forced to resign in 36 BCE by Octavian, as Lepidus had attempted to absorb Sicily into his domain after the defeat of Sextus Pompeius Magnus Pius (Sextus Pompey).
Meanwhile, Antony’s sphere of influence had shifted to the east, with Cleopatra garnering more influence over him and, by extension, a part of Rome. Antony made several concessions to his new wife and queen, expanding the Egyptian territory by carving out parts of the East and North Africa for their children. Of vital concern was the formal acknowledgment that Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar was, in fact, a legitimate heir, posing a threat to the rule being consolidated by Octavian. The two were now on a collision course to determine the fate and direction of Rome.
On September 2, 31 BCE, the opposing forces of Octavian and his dear friend M. Vipsanius Agrippa on one side and Mark Antony and Cleopatra of Egypt on the other met at Actium, a promontory between the Ambracian Gulf and the Ionian Sea. The result was a decisive naval victory for the forces of Octavian in little over a day, with Antony and Cleopatra forced to retreat for Egypt.
A final defeat at the Battle of Alexandria on August 1, 30 BCE saw Octavian fully consolidate his power, while Antony, believing Cleopatra had committed suicide, turned his sword upon himself. In fact, Cleopatra had not, and his dying body was brought to her, whereupon he died in her arms. The Egyptian queen then arranged for her own death, as Octavian’s forces were on the precipice of seizing Egypt as well. Popular belief is that an asp bit her, but that has not been fully established. In any event, a toxin or poison is the likely culprit, no matter the mode of administration. With his military might and the Egypto-Roman power couple finally out of the picture, Octavian saw to the official end of the Roman Republic and the formation of the Roman Empire, casting aside the name Octavian and becoming known henceforth as Augustus, the first Roman emperor.
The Legionary Denarius
Of numismatic significance for this chaotic period, Antony, in a desperate need to retain as many of his troops as possible for this showdown with Octavian, began to strike one of the more iconic series of coinage in Rome’s history, the legionary denarius. These coins allude directly to the events of the day, as they feature a praetorian galley, a type of ship that saw use at the aforementioned Battle of Actium, on their obverse, while depicting an aquila (the standard of a legion surmounted with an eagle) between two signa (a generic standard or banner) on their reverse.
Even more specifically, the various legions in service to Antony at the time were honored and recognized on these coins, with legends such as ‘LEG – II’ for the second legion appearing as well. In all, 23 legions along with some special forces received their own distinction in this series, making for an excellent group to collect legion by legion. Owing to the lack of good metal available to Antony as well as the military mint utilized, most likely at or near Patrae on the northwest coast of Greece’s Peloponnese, the overall quality of the series can be challenging, with many featuring flans of lower-grade silver and a high degree of off-centering to their strikes. Additionally, post-production issues such as bankers’ marks–the test punches made by bankers and assayers in order to test the soundness of the metal–often plague the series as well. Our ANA sale this August will feature an excellent run of better quality denarii from this series, offering a great opportunity to explore this highly interesting and historically important run of coins–coins that were issued at the fulcrum of Rome’s new direction.
Our entire August 2019 Official Auction at the ANA World’s Fair of Money will be available for viewing and bidding on our website StacksBowers.com.