It would be too easy to pick a coin of Julius Caesar to mark the Ides of March (a couple of days ago), so instead we will examine an intriguing coin of the one who had served as Caesar’s right-hand man for much of his dictatorship, his distant cousin Marcus Antonius, known to history as Mark Antony. His relation to Caesar derived from his mother, Julia Caesaris Antonia, who was in turn the daughter of Lucius Julius Caesar, a Consul in 90 BCE and later Censor.
Julia married Marcus Antonius Creticus, who came from the plebian branch of the Gens Antonia (which supposedly derived from Anton, the son of Hercules), but who had failed miserably to distinguish himself when the Senate gave him the task of bringing the Cilician pirates to heel. He attacked the Cretans, allies of the pirates, and suffered a humiliating defeat, so that his unofficial agnomen “Creticus” was given in mockery (in Latin it had the duel meaning “conqueror of Crete” and “man of chalk”).
When Creticus died in 71 BCE, Antony’s mother married Publius Lentulus Sura, another impoverished politician who joined in the Catilinarian plot and was executed on the orders of Consul Cicero in 63 BCE. Thus, despite his noble genes and family connections, young Mark Antony lived most of his early life grubbing among the lower classes and acquiring prodigious appetites for wine, women and what the ancients called “riotous living” – appetites he could scarcely afford. Handsome and affable, both sexes found him alluring, and his spendthrift ways made him still more popular.
By age 20 he was deeply in debt and spent some time as a muscle man in the street gang of the populist politician Publius Clodius Pulcher before fleeing Rome to study “philosophy” in Athens. At this point his career took a sharp turn when he signed up as a staff officer to the general Aulus Gabinius, who had been detailed to settle the messy Judean civil war once and for all.
There, Antony discovered his true calling – soldiering. Antony distinguished himself in the campaign and accompanied Gabinus to Egypt to restore Ptolemy XII Auletes to the throne. There he met the 14-year-old daughter of Auletes, Cleopatra VII, with whom his name would later be inextricably joined. Through his connection with Clodius, Antony next acquired a staff position with the armies of Julius Caesar and again covered himself in glory during the hard-fought conquest of Gaul 54-50 BC. His bravery, dash and grasp of tactics became legendary, and he quickly rose in Caesar’s esteem.
In 52 BC Caesar saw to it Antony was elected Quaestor, and in 49 BCE he was duly chosen as Caesar’s tame Tribune of the Plebs. He tried, and failed, to broker a deal between Caesar and his political opponents, leading Caesar to cross the Rubicon on 10 January 49 BCE.
Antony rejoined his mentor and assisted in the lightning conquest of Italy, after which Caesar left him in charge of Rome while he pursued Pompey and the Senatorial forces into Greece. Antony ruled with an iron hand and found he liked having, and exercising, political power.
After months of indecisive maneuvering, Caesar called upon Antony to join him with reinforcements, and Antony commanded the “hammer” left wing that routed Pompey at Pharsalus on 9 August 48 BCE. Pompey escaped to Egypt; Caesar pursued and spent more than a year “mopping up” the opposition, sending Antony back to Rome to run affairs in Italy, which he proceeded to botch. He opposed the popular debt relief measure of Publius Cornelius Dolabella, another of Caesar’s favorites, and the resulting rivalry nearly caused another civil war. In the midst of the turmoil, in 47 BCE Antony married the twice-widowed Fulvia, a female political firebrand in her own right; it was the third marriage for each.
Caesar was forced to return to restore order, and relations between him and Antony cooled noticeably over the next two years, during which time Antony held no important offices.
By late 45 BCE they had patched things up and Antony was designated as Caesar’s co-consul for 44 BCE. In February of 44 BCE, he publically tried to crown Caesar with a diadem, which Caesar turned away thrice. It was likely an elaborate bit of theater intended to demonstrate that Caesar didn’t seek the kingship; however, the charade seems to have backfired. Antony had inklings of the conspiracy and tried to warn Caesar, but on the Ides of March, the conspirators made sure Antony was distracted by one of their number outside Pompey’s theater while the rest surrounded and stabbed Caesar to death.
In the chaotic aftermath, Antony feared he was the next target, but soon realized the conspirators had made no post-assassination plans, allowing him to seize the initiative. He returned to Rome as sole consul and forced a compromise solution by which the Senate would pardon the conspirators but ratify all of Caesar’s actions and appointments. At Caesar’s funeral on 20 March, Antony’s fiery eulogy drove the mob into a frenzy of hate for the conspirators. Over the next several months he remained loyal to Caesar’s memory and outmaneuvered his assassins and their supporters, forcing them to flee Rome. By the end of 44 BCE, Antony was Dictator in all but name.
Our denarius, among the finest-known of this rarity, dates to the period April-May 44 BCE, in the immediate aftermath of Caesar’s assassination.
The appearance of Caesar’s portrait on coins early in the year had been a shocking innovation – no living Roman had ever sought to place his own portrait on the coins of Rome proper (two generals, Scipio Africanus and T. Quinctius Flamininus, had appeared on coins struck in the provinces during their lifetimes). However, although the Senatorial elites may have grumbled, the masses seem to have accepted, even liked, seeing their dictator’s wizened face on their coins. Now, with the ashes of Caesar’s pyre still warm, Antony moved to replace Caesar in the mob’s consciousness by directing the mint masters to place his own portrait, piously veiled and wearing a scruffy beard of mourning, on the obverse.
The reverse further demonstrates Antony’s grasp for the tastes of the mob: Instead of the traditional god or goddess, or an abstract appeal to political order, he depicts one of the most popular entertainments at the Circus Maximus, the race of the Desultores, in which a single rider must ride two horses around the great circuit, skillfully leaping from one mount to the next. This knack for appealing to the ancient equivalent of the “Nascar crowd” would continue to serve Antony in good stead, for the next decade at least, and could serve as inspiration for some of today’s aspiring politicians…