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"the face of an old Roman coin, scarce seen."
William Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost (V.2)
A denarius was worth four bronze sesterces at a time when the normal wage for an unskilled laborer was three sesterces. Matthew (20:2), for example, speaks of laborers in the vineyard earning one denarius per day. On the reverse above, there is the cap of liberty (pileus) traditionally given to one who has been freed from slavery, flanked by two daggers (recalling Cassius and Brutus as the principal conspirators), and the legend EID MAR (Eidibus Martiis, the Ides of March). On the obverse is a portrait of Brutus, himself, and the legend L PLAET CEST BRVT IMP (L. Plaetorius Cestianus, the moneyer who minted the coin, Brutus Imperator). Nodelman considers this representation of the tyrannicide to be the "soberest and most precise."
The denarius of Brutus commemorating the assassination of Caesar is one of the very few coins to be described in the ancient literature. Cassius Dio relates that "Brutus stamped upon the coins which were being minted his own likeness and a cap and two daggers, indicating by this and by the inscription that he and Cassius had liberated the fatherland" (Roman History, XLVII.25.3). Minted in 42 BC, while Brutus and his fellow conspirators were on the march in northern Greece, the coin type was recalled by the victorious Mark Antony and Octavian and melted down. Approximately seventy-five examples are known to exist, from 7 obverse and 25 reverse dies (8 obverse and 26 reverse dies also have been cited). In 2008, the finest example sold at auction for 350,000 Swiss francs (approximately $335,000); in 2011, another coin struck slightly off center realized $546,250, a record for a silver Roman coin. The coin pictured above, which shows some porosity, sold for $97,500.
"Beware the Ides of March"
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (I.2)
This aureus, which is in the British Museum (another there that belonged to George III is a forgery), is pierced and may have been displayed as a pendant. Such a gold coin, the equivalent of a month's pay for a Roman legionary, likely was worn by a powerful and wealthy individual, perhaps a republican supporter or even by one of the conspirators themselves.
During the Republic, a living person could not be represented on official coinage, although as moneyer in 54 BC Brutus did show his own purported ancestors, one who had expelled the last of the Tarquin kings and proclaimed a new republic in 509 BC, and another who later was celebrated for saving Rome from the threat of tyranny.
Minting money for an anticipated campaign in Parthia, Caesar was the first to portray himself on a Roman coin. To republicans such as Brutus, the portrait of Caesar, who had been declared dictatus perpetuus in February, was further evidence of his aspiration for kingship. It is all the more ironic, therefore, that Brutus, the self-proclaimed savior of Roman liberty, would put his own effigy on a coin and declare himself imperator (from an earlier victory in Thrace)—and that, after defeat at the second Battle of Philippi (October 23, 42 BC), he would kill himself with the same dagger that had been used to assassinate Caesar.
The EID MAR coins struck by Brutus were minted in the late summer or early fall of 42 BC, as he and Cassius marched through Macedonia to meet Caesar at the first Battle of Philippi in October. (In fact, it could have been minted at any time after Brutus had been declared imperator in the summer of 43 BC.)
Shakespeare concludes his play Julius Caesar (V.5) with the declaration by Brutus that
"I shall have glory by this losing day
More than Octavius and Mark Antony
By this vile conquest shall attain unto"
Although the victors would write the history of the battle, with this coin Brutus spoke the truth.
The aureus was displayed by the British Museum for the first time in 2010 on the 2054th anniversary of Caesar's death. The gold coin had been shown to the museum in 1932 (eight months after the pound sterling had been allowed to depreciate) but could not be acquired and now is on permanent loan from a private collector. It is this coin that was sold by Numismatica Ars Classica in 2004 (Auction 27, Lot 282) for 120,000 Swiss francs ($92,800 at the time), twice the original estimate but still a remarkably modest price for such a unique and significant coin. By 2008, the aureus had almost doubled in price and again was sold by NAC (Auction 45, Lot 42), this time for 230,000 CHF ($226,500) but still only half of what the most expensive silver denarius realized just three years later.
The son of Servilia and Marcus Junius Brutus, the younger Brutus no doubt was a conflicted character. His father had been executed by Pompey after a promise of safe conduct but, in spite of the son's enmity, Brutus still sided with him in the civil war of 49-48 BC. His mother Servilia was the mistress of Caesar, who pardoned the younger Brutus after the Battle of Pharsalus and appointed him governor of Cisalpine Gaul and later urban prefect. She herself was the half-sister of Cato the Younger, whose daughter Porcia became Brutus' second wife. Servilia's own daughter (and Brutus' youngest half-sister) was married to Cassius, the other principal conspirator, who also had been pardoned by Caesar.
References: "The Portrait of Brutus the Tyrannicide" (1987) by Seldon Nodelman, in Ancient Portraits in the J. Paul Getty Museum (Vol. 1) edited by Jiří Frei, Arthur Houghton, and Marion True. An important article relating to this topic is in German and not readily accessible: "EIDibus MARtiis" by H. A. Cahn (1989), Numismatica e Antichità Classiche, 18, 211-238. The denarius is from a catalog of the Classical Numismatic Group.
See also the Ides of March.
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