By Dr. Steve Benner for CoinWeek …..
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was born to a plebeian family near Rome or possibly Pisa in about 63 BCE. He was the same age as Octavian, the nephew of Julius Caesar, and they met at school in Apollonia, Illyria, becoming very close friends. For more than three decades, the two worked together to make Rome into the greatest empire in history. Agrippa served as Augustus’ general and admiral and oversaw the construction of some of the most important buildings in the capital city.
The Life of Agrippa and His Coins
To cover in detail all of the things that Agrippa did during his life would require a much larger article than I’m writing here, so I’m going to cover a few highlights of his career and the coins minted in his honor.
After the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, Octavian returned to Italy with Agrippa from Apollonia in Illyria. In April 43, Octavian was acclaimed Imperator (imperator simply meant “commander” at this point), and, in December, Agrippa was elected tribune of the plebians. In 42, Agrippa served as a military commander under the triumvirs Marc Antony and Octavian in the Battle of Philippi, where two of Caesar’s assassins, Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius, killed themselves after losing the fight. Upon the pair’s return to Italy, Agrippa played a major role in the successful Perusine War against Lucius Antonius and Fulvia, the brother and wife of Marc Antony, in 41 BCE.
In 40, Agrippa was made praetor urbanus, or chief magistrate of Rome, with orders to stop Sextus Pompeius’ raids on the Italian coast. Later that year, he staged the Ludi Apolloniares, religious games held annually in honor of Apollo. Agrippa led successful military operations against M. Antony and S. Pompeius in southern Italy, which led to a peace agreement between the two triumvirs. Octavian appointed Agrippa governor of Transalpine Gaul in late 40. While in Gaul, Agrippa suppressed an uprising of Aquitanians and crossed the Rhine to attack Germanic tribes.
Agrippa returned to Rome and was offered a triumph but refused. In January 37 BCE, he was elected consul, and the first coin honoring him was minted (Figure 2). The denarius’ obverse has Julius Caesar facing Octavian with the legend DIVOS IVILIVS / DIVI F, which means “Son of the Divine Caesar”, and a reverse with M AGRIPPA COS/DESIG, which means “M. Agrippa, Consul Designate”. This coin was also issued with only Octavian on the obverse with the legend IMP CAESAR DIVI IVLI F. These coins tend to be expensive but not too rare.
Also in 37, Agrippa married Caecilia Attica, who would provide him with a daughter, Vipsania Agrippina, the following year. Octavian entrusted Agrippa with the war against Sextus Pompeius, and Agrippa started work on cutting a channel from Lacus Lucrinus (near modern Naples) to the sea and joining Lake Avernus to Lucrinus. This created a protected harbor, Portus Iulius, that S. Pompeius could not attack, and he could train his 20,000 oarsmen.
In July 36 BCE, Agrippa took the offensive and defeated Pompeius’ admiral at Mylae and then Pompeius himself at the Battle of Naulochus in September. Pompeius fled to Miletus in Anatolia and was executed by a Roman official. As a result of his victory, Agrippa was awarded the Corona Navalis, a unique honor. Though minted much later in 12 BCE, the coin in Figure 3 shows Agrippa wearing the crown on the reverse with Octavian on the obverse; Lentulus is the moneyer. Again, this is an expensive coin and relatively rare.
In 35 BCE, Agrippa lead military operations along the coast of Dalmatia and then returned to Rome. In 34, he was appointed curule aedile, the official in charge of buildings and festivals, and began a program of public works and improvements. He built and repaired the aqueducts (including the Aqua Marcia), repaired streets, cleaned out sewers (including the Cloaca Maxima), constructed baths and porticos, laid out gardens, and organized exhibitions of art.
In October 32, the Senate declared war on Cleopatra (and M. Antonius). Agrippa was appointed admiral of Octavian’s fleet and began operations against the coast of Greece. On September 2, 31 BCE, the opposing fleets met at Actium, and Agrippa and Octavian were victorious. Antony and Cleopatra fled to Egypt, where they committed suicide. Agrippa withdrew the troops back to Italy and exercised interim powers in Rome with Maecenas. In 29, Octavian celebrated a triple triumph and awarded Agrippa more honors, including a sea-blue vexillum pennant.
In January of 28 and 27, Agrippa was appointed his second and third consulships with Octavian. Caecilia apparently having died, Agrippa married Claudia Marcella, Octavian’s niece, in October 28. In 27, Octavian was granted the honorific title of Augustus, and Agrippa supervised improvements in the Campus Martius, completed construction of the Parthenon, the Saepta Iulia, and the Basilica of Neptune, and began construction of the Baths of Agrippa.
In 23 BCE, Agrippa began a tour of the eastern provinces, where he negotiated the return of the aquilae (eagle standards) from the Parthians and received the title of proconsulare imperium. Returning to Rome in 21, he divorced Claudia to marry Julia the Elder, the only daughter of Augustus, and was put in charge of Rome while Augustus was away in the East. A son, Gaius Vipsanius Agrippa, was born to Agrippa and Julia in 20. Next year, Agrippa traveled to Narbonensis in southern Gaul to drive back a German invasion and reorganize the Gallic provinces. Also, that year, Vipsania Julia Agrippina, another daughter, was born to Agrippa. He then traveled to the Iberian Peninsula to conclude the Asturian-Cantabrian War and returned to Rome in 18, where his imperium and tribunicia potestas were extended for five years.
In 17 BCE, another son, Lucius Vipsanius Agrippa, was born, and Augustus adopted both Lucius and Gaius. Figure 4 is a coin that was minted starting in the year 2 BCE, 10 years after Agrippa’s death, but it shows Agrippa’s children as the heirs of Augustus. The obverse is Augustus, and the reverse shows Gaius and Lucius facing forward with a shield between them and sacred instruments above. The reverse legend translates as “Gaius and Lucius, sons of Caesar Augustus, consuls elect, princes of the youth.” This was minted in large quantities and can be relatively easy to find, though in VF can still be a little pricey.
In 16 BCE, Agrippa traveled to the East again, and another daughter, Vipsania Agrippina, was born to him in 14. He returned to Rome in the year 13, and his tribune powers and imperium were renewed. Agrippa left for Illyricum and Pannonia to quash the revolt there. By now it was obvious that Augustus was grooming his two grandsons as his successors, with Agrippa taking over should Augustus die before the young men were old enough. Agrippa now had almost as much power as Augustus without all the titles. As a result of this prominence in political affairs, two out of the three moneyers for the year 13 included Agrippa on their coins – with moneyer C. Sulpicius Platorinus focused entirely on Agrippa. Figures 5 and 6 show examples of this. Figure 5 has Augustus on the obverse and M. Agrippa on the reverse with the word VIRTUS (courage) in the legend. This coin is a little rare and comes with a hefty price tag.
Figure 6 again has Augustus on the obverse, and the reverse shows Augustus and Agrippa bare-headed wearing togas and seated on a bisellium (a double throne), placed on a platform with three rostra. This clearly indicates that Agrippa had been elevated to a role similar to the emperor and that he was intended to be the heir to the throne. This coin was also moneyed by Platorinus. Like the previous coin, it is somewhat rare and expensive.
In 12 BCE, while attending the festival of the Quinquatria in Campania, Agrippa became ill and died. After a state funeral, Agrippa’s ashes were placed in the Mausoleum of Augustus. Agrippa Postumus was born to Julia soon after. Figure 7 has a reverse showing Augustus crowning a statue of Agrippa with a star. The star is usually associated with divinity (like Julius Caesar) but can be used for renowned dead. Lentulus’ title of Flamen Martialis seems to associate the statue with Mars and may have been in the temple of Mars Ultor.
Figure 8 shows a reverse with an equestrian statue of Agrippa with the legend saying “Lentulus, son of Cornelius,” as the coin’s moneyer.
The coin in Figure 9 is a little more difficult to understand. The obverse is a very young head of Augustus (the oak wreath is his signature), and the reverse has a candelabrum. The young Augustus portrait may have been a result of the coin not being minted at a regular imperial mint, so a generic portrait was used. The candelabrum reverse is not only religious but funeral, referring to Agrippa’s death. It has been proposed that this issue was struck in Pannonia to pay the now leaderless, and perhaps restless, Pannonian legions, without having to wait for a military mint issue.
I have only covered Agrippa’s imperial coins, but there were many local pieces struck with his portrait on them. He traveled all over the Roman Empire and did a lot of good works for the cities he visited. For example, Cnossus in Crete, Sparta, Corinth, Bithynia, and Nicopolis (Epirus), to name just a few, issued coins with his portrait. The kings of Bosporus issued a gold stater with his head on the reverse.
But there is one coin I have to include because it is so neat and famous.
Figure 10 shows a bronze AE As minted in Nemausus, Gaul (modern Nîmes). The obverse has the heads of Augustus and Agrippa facing in opposite directions. The reverse has a crocodile chained to a palm frond. It is believed the crocodile refers to the subjugation of Egypt by Augustus in 30, and the design may have been initiated by one or more legions sent to the area after participating in the campaign. Augustus created a mint in Nemausus and helped make the city very prosperous. Today there is a sculpture of the crocodile in the city center. This coin was struck in large quantities and can be found in many sales at a reasonable price (I have one).
The last coin I need to cover is the most common.
Figure 11 shows an AE as minted by Caligula (37 to 41 CE), Agrippa’s grandson. It has Agrippa facing left on the obverse of the coin, and Neptune standing facing left holding a small dolphin on the reverse. The obverse legend says, “M. Agrippa, son of Lucius, Consul three times.” Neptune on the reverse refers to Agrippa’s victories at Actium and against S. Pompeius. This coin was also minted by the Flavian emperors Titus and Domitian. The former has IMP T VESP AVG REST on the reverse and the later has IMP D AVG REST, the “REST” saying that it is a restored coin. The Caligula type was issued in large quantities and is readily available at a reasonable price. Later versions are not as common.
From second-century CE Roman historian Cassius Dio:
Agrippa … had in every clearly shown himself the noblest of the men of this day and had used the friendship of Augustus with a view to the greatest advantage both of the emperor himself and of the Commonwealth.
From former Harvard classics professor Glen Bowersock (Encyclopedia Britannica):
Agrippa deserved the honours Augustus heaped upon him. It is conceivable that without Agrippa, Octavian would never have become emperor. Rome would remember Agrippa for his generosity in attending to aqueducts, sewers, and baths.
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Classical Numismatic Group (CNG)
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Madden, F.; Smith, C.R.; and S.W. Stevenson. A Dictionary of Roman Coins. London (1889)
Powell, Lindsay. Marcus Agrippa Right-hand Man of Caesar Augustus. Pen and Sword Military: Yorkshire (2015)
Sear, David. Roman Coins and Their Values, Vol I. Spink (2000)
Sutherland, C.H.V., and R.A.G. Carson. The Roman Imperial Coinage, Vol I. Spink and Son: London (1984)
Vagi, David. Coinage and History of the Roman Empire (2 volumes). Coin World (1999)
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