Obverse, Roman Gold Aureus of Julius Caesar. Image courtesy Atlas Numismatics

Overview:

Julius Caesar

The Roman general and dictator Julius Caesar is still famous 2,061 years after his death, though most people are probably more familiar with the legend than the man and his actual achievements.

Not that the facts disappoint.

Caesar was by all accounts an energetic and forceful personality, his life lending itself quite naturally to dramatic interpretation and the insertion of higher meaning–which he understood perfectly well as a writer and propagandist himself. Long after his death, his life story was told by such classical literary greats as Plutarch and the historian Suetonius. From these texts, William Shakespeare compiled the plot points of his famous play, Julius Caesar, which has undoubtedly served as the wellspring of popular Caesarian legend in the modern West. Politicians and military officers have, of course, found their own value in Caesar over the millennia.

Gaius Julius Caesar was born to a poor but ancient patrician family (claiming descent from the goddess Venus) on July 13, 100 BCE. But while he came from a highly prestigious family, his real political connection came from being the nephew by marriage of Gaius Marius, one of the most important generals and politicians in Roman History. It is no exaggeration to say that the military reform and political disruption that Marius brought almost a half century before the rise of Caesar was pivotal in the republic’s transformation into empire.

After the death of Sulla, Marius’ rival and opponent in a brutal civil war, Caesar was able to follow the cursus honorum, the traditional sequence of public offices for privileged career politicians. By the time it was his turn to run for the consulship, Caesar had already achieved great military success in Spain. Eligible for a triumph, a kind of lavish military parade, he chose to run for consul instead.

In order to do so, he established alliances with two other important Romans: the exceedingly wealthy Crassus and the up-and-coming general Pompey. The three men controlled Rome as the First Triumvirate and cemented their power by buying the support of the lower classes with land redistribution. To avoid trouble with his growing list of political opponents, he became governor of Cisalpine Gaul in northern Italy.

From there he launched his famous conquest of Gaul (and incursions into Germany and Britain), which he recorded in De Bello Gallico, that basic text used in Latin classes around the world even today.

Meanwhile, Crassus had died in Parthia and Pompey had come under the sway of anti-Caesar elements at Rome. By the time Caesar’s term in office had ended, the Roman elite were scared of his power and popularity so they ordered that he disarm before returning to the city. Having good reason to believe he would face persecution for “irregularities” conducted during his consulship and governorship, Caesar refused to do so and fatefully crossed the southern border of his province–the Rubicon River–with a standing army in 49 BCE.

Thus began the civil war that pitted Pompey against Caesar, introduced Caesar to Cleopatra, and ended in Caesar declaring himself dictator-for-life in 44 BCE. This gravely concerned many in the Roman ruling class, including friends of Caesar such as Brutus. Julius Caesar was assassinated on the “Ides of March“, March 15, 44 BCE. Caesar’s nephew Octavian and his ally Marc Antony would avenge this political murder, only to engage in yet another civil war between themselves. Ultimately Octavian would be victorious, seizing control of Rome and initiating the Roman Empire in 27 BCE when he took on the name “Augustus“.

Vesta

Vesta was the Roman goddess of the hearth and the family. Her Greek equivalent was Hestia. The worship of Vesta was highly significant to the city of Rome, extending back at least to the religious reforms of Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome who ruled in the late eighth century BCE. Vesta was an especially important cult during the later Empire under Augustus, who viewed her as a symbol of the conservative values that made Rome great. The famous Vestal Virgins–young girls from good families who took a vow of chastity for a lifetime of service–were responsible for the upkeep of a sacred fire, which symbolized the life of Rome and was never allowed to go out.

Her appearance on this coin therefore significant cultural import, and helped convey Caesar’s piety and respect for traditional values.

Aureus

The aureus was an ancient Roman gold coin (derived from the Latin word for gold, “aurum”) produced between the first century BCE and the fourth century CE. It was originally worth 25 silver denarii (plural for denarius, the primary silver coin in Rome). The denomination was considerably less common before Julius Caesar, who was known for his profligate spending to curry favor among all the social classes of Rome. He standardized its weight at approximately eight grams, and the emperor Augustus later integrated it further into the Roman monetary system.

It was eventually replaced by the gold solidus during the reign of Constantine the Great (ruled 306-337), though this had more to do with the debasement of the silver denarius than it did with the aureus. Indeed, the gold aureus stayed close to 99% pure throughout its production.

Description:

atlaslogoThe following description is based on the coin images accompanying this profile, supplied courtesy of Atlas Numismatics

Obverse:

The central motif on the obverse is a right-facing head of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth. Her head is veiled to represent her modesty and piety. The inscription C* CAESAR is found to her left; the “C” is the standard Roman abbreviation of the praenomen, or traditional first name, Gaius. To her right and in front of her face is the inscription COS * TER, which refers to Caesar’s third (tertium) consulship in 46 BCE. A ringed border of dots surrounds the design.

This particular specimen features an exceptional strike, with only the right portion of the ringed border showing signs of wear.

Reverse, Roman Gold Aureus of Julius Caesar. Image courtesy Atlas Numismatics

Reverse:

The reverse features three priestly implements of the Pontifex Maximus, a position not unlike the pope in the state religion of ancient Rome. A position, incidentally, that Julius Caesar held earlier in his career in 63 BCE and that this coin certainly was intended to remind everyone of. A Roman jug, presumably for holding water or oil for use in ritual libations, is situated in the middle. To the right is a single-headed axe; to the left is the lituus, a curved staff carried by priests and augurs.

The objects are cradled by the inscription A* HIRTIVS * PR, which stands for Aulus Hirtius Praetor. Aulus Hirtius was a longtime friend and supporter of Caesar, having worked with him since at least the Gallic campaign, going so far as to finish the eighth and final book of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico after Caesar’s death. The aureus under discussion here was minted during a time when Hirtius served as a praetor, a high-ranking magistrate with evolving duties throughout Roman history but which here can be understood to have been something like an assistant consul.

The design is surrounded by a ringed border of dots. it is relatively well-struck, but not as nice as the obverse.

Edge:

The edge of this gold aureus of Julius Caesar is smooth.

Coin Specifications:

Nationality:  Roman
Issuing Authority:  Julius Caesar / Aulus Hirtius
Date: ca. 46 BCE
Metal/Alloy:  Gold
Denomination: Aureus
Weight:  approx. 8 g
Diameter:  approx. 21.00 mm
Edge: Smooth

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