CoinWeek Podcast #154: Beware the Ides of March

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While the particulars of the Roman calendar, with its demarcation of kalends, nones, and ides, are now largely forgotten by those not ensconced in academia, one date, immortalized by a history-changing bloody coup and popularized by a famous bard from Stratford-Upon-Avon, remains in the collective consciousness and carries with it an ominous warning – BEWARE!

In this episode of the CoinWeek Podcast, CoinWeek Ancients writer Mike Markowitz lays down his pugio and tells you the gripping story of the death of Julius Caesar and its impact on coins.

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The following is a transcript of Mike’s podcast:
 

Mike Markowitz: For CoinWeek, this is Mike Markowitz. People who might know nothing else about ancient history will immediately recognize the name Julius Caesar. Although they might be hard-pressed to say what he ever did, aside from something to do with a salad.

In ancient history, only his lover, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, his assassin, Marcus Junius Brutus, and his role model, Alexander the Great, share that kind of universal name recognition. In the English-speaking world, some of the credit for Caesar’s enduring fame should go to William Shakespeare’s tragic play, Julius Caesar, which was first performed in 1599 and later adapted into a successful Hollywood film in 1953, starring Marlon Brando as Mark Antony and James Mason as Brutus. Shakespeare’s main source for the history was the life of Caesar written by Plutarch, a Romanized Greek who lived about a century after Caesar’s death.

More recently, the HBO TV series Rome, which ran for 22 episodes in two seasons, retold much of Julius Caesar’s epic story from the fictionalized point of view of two of his actual soldiers, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, who were mentioned by Caesar by name in his own written account of the conquest of Gaul.

On March 15th, 44 BCE, one of the most recognizable dates in western history, Julius Caesar, dictator of the Roman Republic, was stabbed to death at the age of 55 by a group of aristocratic senators. To understand why this fateful day is known as the “Ides of March”, you have to know something about the Roman calendar and how it worked.

Romans had no concept of a week or a weekend. The first day of the month was called the Kalends, spelled with a “k”. The fifth or seventh day, depending on whether it was a long month or a short one, was called the Nones. The 13th or 15th day was called the Ides. Other days were referenced by counting forward or backward from those points in time.

Now, there cannot be many collectors of ancient coins who have not coveted owning at least one coin of Julius Caesar. Surprisingly, this is a goal within the reach of a relatively modest budget – although, at the high end of the market, it could be a real challenge for even the most affluent collector.

But what do we mean by a coin of Julius Caesar? “Coin of Julius Caesar” could mean a number of quite different things.

First are the coins that were issued during Caesar’s lifetime and under his authority, bearing his name, and possibly some of his titles. The year of Julius Caesar’s birth is very easy to remember. He was born in 100 BCE in the month of July, the month that was later named after him. Before that, July was known as Quintilis, the fifth month of the Roman calendar.

The Roman calendar, it turns out, was a hot mess before Julius Caesar reformed and reorganized it in 46 BCE, with the help of a brilliant Alexandrian Greek astronomer named Sosigenes. Poor Sosigenes gets no credit; the calendar became known as the Julian Calendar.

During his lifetime, Caesar issued three main types of coins in gold, about 16 different types in silver, and perhaps surprisingly, only one type in bronze. Actually, it was in a copper-zinc alloy. Technically, it’s a kind of brass that’s called orichalcum in Latin. It’s a fascinating coin. The denomination is a dupondius. It took eight of these handsome 15-gram brass coins issued in 46 or 45 BCE to equal one silver denarius.

The reference is Crawford 476. Coins of the Roman Republic are typically referenced by their Crawford number from the book by Michael Crawford, Roman Republican Coins. The obverse of the coin is a lovely head of the goddess of Victory, and on the reverse, there’s a majestic standing figure of Minerva as a war goddess. One of the finest known examples of this coin went for over $8,300 in 2020 in a London auction. Well worn but collectible examples can be found for $300 to $500 currently.

I might mention here is in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, many Greek-speaking cities issued their own bronze coinage for local circulation, and many of these so-called Roman provincial coins to honor Julius Caesar, during his lifetime or afterward, but that’s a complicated topic for another day, and probably another expert.

One of the rarest Roman silver coins is the quinarius, valued at one-half of a denarius, weighing a bit under two grams, about the same as a modern American dime. The quinarius of Caesar is so scarce that many professional numismatists have never even seen one. A small quantity of these little coins were struck for Caesar by a military mint moving with his army in 48 or 47 BCE in Spain. The coin is referenced as Crawford 452 or 453. The obverse is a veiled head of an uncertain goddess. The reverse is simply inscribed in bold letters, CAESAR, below a complex group of symbols described as a trophy of arms. That’s a phrase you’ll often see in coin descriptions. A trophy of arms was a wooden post with a crossbar, set up as a memorial on a battlefield and decorated with captured enemy armor and weapons. An example of this coin graded Good, Very Fine, went for over $4,700 in a 2012 Swiss auction.

For collectors, the most desirable silver coins of Julius Caesar have always been the few types that bear his portrait. These are referenced as Crawford 480. They were issued for just a few months from January till March or April of 44 BCE. They were issued by four different mint officials at Rome called moneyers, who placed their names usually abbreviated on the reverse of the coins. Marcus Mettius, Publius Sepullius Macer, Lucius Aemilius Buca, and Caius Cossutius Maridianus. On the obverse, Caesar’s head facing right wears an elaborate wreath, and sometimes a fold of his toga is pulled up over his head, indicating his office as a high priest, and hiding his bald spot. This sort of portrait is typically described in classical numismatics as veiled and laureate, even though the cloth isn’t really a veil, and the wreath isn’t really laurel leaves.

On the reverse of the coin, there’s a standing figure of the goddess Venus, holding in her outstretched arm a little winged Victory, and the inscription names the moneyer responsible for the issue. The title that follows the name, Caesar, on the obverse, and sometimes if the coin is poorly struck, that will fall off the edge of the coin. It varies. Sometimes it’s I-M-P, IMP, for Imperator, which at this period just means commander. Sometimes, the inscription is D-I-C-T-Q-A-R-T, “Dictqart”, meaning “dictator for the fourth time”. And finally, the inscription is dict perpetuo, or rarely dict in perpetuo. “Dictator for life”. This coin is often described as the one that got Caesar killed.

You see, like Americans, ancient Romans were very skeptical about depicting the image of a living person on their coinage. They considered this a Greek affectation. Greek kings and tyrants had placed their portraits, often superbly executed on their coinage for centuries. But Rome was a republic. The last king of Rome, named Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown by an ancestor of Brutus way back in 509 BCE, and the whole idea of monarchy was hateful to the Roman political elite in Julius Caesar’s time.

High-grade examples of Julius Caesar’s portrait coinage can currently sell for as much as $15,000 or $20,000. Even heavily worn, off-centered coins with problems are likely to bring $1,000 or more at auction, because the demand for them is so great. As you might imagine, there are a lot of fakes out there, because these coins are in such high demand. Your best protection against fakes is to buy from a reputable and reliable dealer and to remember that if a deal seems too good to be true, it’s probably neither good nor true.

By far, the most common and affordable silver coin type issued by Julius Caesar is the so-called elephant denarius. The coin is referenced as Crawford 443. By one estimate, 22.5 million of these coins were struck in 49 BCE, mainly to pay Caesar’s legions, using silver that he seized from the Treasury that was stored in the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum. On one side of the coin is an African elephant–you can tell it’s an African elephant by the large fan-shaped ears–trampling on a horned serpent. The symbolism of the elephant and the serpent is debated by numismatists. But below the elephant and serpent in bold capital letters is the word “Caesar”.

The other side of the coin is peculiar. It shows a collection of priestly implements to remind Romans that Caesar had been elected to the lifetime office of Pontifex Maximus back in 63 BCE. The Pontifex Maximus was a high priest of the Roman state religion. The office was later assumed by most Roman emperors right down until the empire became Christianized in the fifth century CE, and the title was so closely identified with Rome, that it was later adopted by the popes. The priestly implements, which commonly appear on Roman coins, included the simpulum, which is a ladle for pouring offerings; the aspergillum, a kind of holy water sprinkler; the securis, a sacrificial ax decorated with the head of a wolf; and the apex, a peculiar ceremonial hat, with earflaps that tie under the chin and a little wooden spike on the top. Collectors can purchase decent low-grade examples of Caesar’s elephant denarius for a few hundred dollars. Very high-grade examples can go for as much as $5,000 or more.

Another category of Caesar’s coins are consular or dictatorial issues, usually struck by military mints to pay his army. Caesar was elected consul of the Roman Republic five times, Roman citizens elected two coequal consuls every year as the chief executive officers of the state. Official documents were dated using the names of that year’s consuls. To Romans, the word “dictator” meant something quite different from what it means to us. For us, a dictator is a political leader with absolute power, with the implication that power was seized legitimately, and is exercised in a brutal and arbitrary manner. In the Roman political system, however, a dictator was simply appointed by the Senate, usually for a limited term of six months, to perform a specific task, usually to deal with some threatening emergency. Caesar was appointed dictator four times, for the last time on February 15th, 44 BCE–just a month before he was killed–for life, something that was completely unprecedented in Roman history, and that was deeply disturbing to many conservative senators.

To them, “dictator for life” sounded waaay too much like “king”. Caesar’s family claimed descent from the goddess of love and fertility, Venus, and the image of Venus often appears on his coins. A gold aureus issued at Rome in 44 BCE bears a graceful head of Venus on the obverse, with an abbreviated inscription that translates as “Caesar dictator four times.” On the reverse, within a laurel wreath is the very simple two-word inscription that means “Consul five times.” Very Fine examples of this type, Crawford 481, have sold for between $4000 and $14,000 in recent auctions.

A second category of coins of Julius Caesar is the many different commemorative types that were issued after his death–especially by his protégé, Mark Antony, and his great-nephew and adopted heir Octavian, who later became the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Immediately after the assassination, coins were struck at Rome bearing Caesar’s portrait with the honorific inscription, parens patriae, “Father of the Nation”. This is a variant referenced as Crawford 480/19.

In 43 BCE, the year after the assassination, a military mint with Octavian’s army in Italy issued a gold coin, an aureus of about eight grams, that depicted Octavian with his titles on one side and Julius Caesar on the reverse with his titles. At the time, Octavian was engaged in a bitter civil war, and he was eager to emphasize his personal connection to Caesar, who was beloved by the troops. The coin is referenced as Crawford 490, and on Harlan Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this rare type is number 35. A Very Fine example sold for $30,000 in a 2013 New York auction.

Over time, the realistic portrait of Julius Caesar, which often appears rather gaunt and haggard on his lifetime issues, becomes increasingly idealized, youthful, and handsome on the coinage. By decree of the Roman Senate on January 1st, 42 BCE, the dead Caesar was declared to be a god. These coins often bear the inscription, divus Julius, “Julius the God”. The portrait may be wearing a veil over his head, indicating his divine status.

In May of 44 BCE, just a few months after the assassination, a comet appeared in the sky, now known to historians and astronomers as Comet C/-43 K1. This may have been the brightest daylight visible comet in recorded history. There was a widespread belief in the ancient world that comets were a bad omen. To counteract this belief, Caesar’s supporters who were still fighting that civil war against his opponents, declared that the comet was actually Caesar’s spirit ascending into the heavens as a god.

A very famous coin issued by Augustus decades later, at a Spanish mint 19 or 18 BCE, shows this comet as an eight-rayed star with a flaming tail and the bold inscription, divus Julius, “Julius the God”. There are several different varieties of this popular type, and they sell at auction for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on the grade.

A final category of coins of Julius Caesar is those that do not bear his name or portrait but are related in some important way to his story. This includes the most famous and coveted ancient coin of all: the Ides of March denarius of Brutus, issued during the civil war, struck by a military mint moving with the army of Brutus and Cassius, probably somewhere in Northern Greece. About 80 authentic examples of this coin are known in silver and just three examples in gold struck from the same dies.

One of the greatest numismatic thrills of my life was on January 17th, 2020 at the New York International Coin Show, when Aaron Berk graciously let me hold an example of this legendary rarity. High-grade examples of the Ides of March denarius in silver, currently go at auction for between $300,000 and $400,000. One or two change hands every year or so. A well-worn example with an off-center reverse, but with a pedigree dated all the way back to 1911, recently went for $94,000 – a real bargain. In a London auction in October 2020, the only gold example of the Ides of March coin in private hands sold for a record $3.484 million and change.

The obverse of the coin bears a bearded portrait of Brutus looking suitably brutish, with his abbreviated name and title, BRVT IMP, “Brutus Commander”. Much later, “imperator” comes to mean emperor. By this point, the taboo on depicting living people on coins has clearly gone out the window. The startling symbolic reverse of the coin shows two daggers flanking a peculiar lump that looks like a gumdrop. This is a pileus, a liberty cap. The distinctive headgear that was worn by freed slaves. A different variety of the Liberty cap became a symbol that appears on a number of early American coins as a symbol of liberty.

The cryptic inscription below the daggers and Pileus is EID MAR. For the Latin phrase Eidibus Martii, “(on the) Ides of March”. With this coin, Brutus is making a stark political statement. He is saying on March 15th, with our daggers, we freed Rome from the slavery that the dictator Julius Caesar was trying to impose on us.

In October 42 BCE, after his army was defeated by Mark Antony, at the Battle of Philippi in Northern Greece, Brutus committed suicide at the age of 42.

Would you like to know more?

In coin auctions catalogs, coins of Julius Caesar usually appear at the end of the Roman Republic sector, or in a separate section labeled Imperatorial. The Imperatorial period in Roman chronology runs from the outbreak of civil war in January 49 BCE, when Caesar’s army crossed the Rubicon river until Octavian assumed the title of Augustus on January 16th, 27 BCE.

The best modern single-volume biography of Julius Caesar is Caesar, Life of a Colossus by the British historian Adrian Goldsworthy, published in 2006 by Yale University Press. In paperback, about $16 for a copy. For the coinage of Caesar and his contemporaries, David Sear’s masterful first volume of Roman Coins and Their Values, published by Spink in London in the year 2000 is an affordable, up-to-date reference book, list price about $63.

The standard numismatic reference for these coins that’s usually cited in catalog listings is the two-volume Roman Republican Coinage by Michael Crawford, published by Cambridge University Press in 1974. Long out of print and hard to find, secondhand copies go for as much as $500. There is a superb online reference tool created and maintained by the American Numismatic Society called Coins of the Roman Republic Online. That can be accessed at numismatics.org/crro. Coins of the Roman Republic Online aims to provide, in effect, an online version of Michael Crawford’s 1974 publication, Roman Republican Coinage, still the primary typology used for the identification of Roman republican coins.

You might also want to take a look at two excellent recent articles by my CoinWeek colleague, Michael Shutterly: “The Coins That Killed Caesar“, posted on December 23rd, 2020, and “The Coins of Caesar’s Killers“, posted on January 5th, 2021.

For coinweek.com, this is Mike Markowitz, wishing you good hunting.

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