Return to Preface
"The face of an old Roman coin, scarce seen."
William Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost (V.2)
In April 43 BC, Octavian, Julius Caesar's great-nephew and heir, was proclaimed Imperator (Cicero, Philippics, XIV.37; ad Familiares, X.30; Ovid, Fasti, IV.675), having "with great prudence and energy" defended the consular camp during the Battle of Forum Gallorum and then, a week later, carrying a fallen Roman eagle "for some time" at the Battle of Mutina (Suetonius, Life of Augustus, X.4). One of the two Roman consuls was mortally wounded in the initial encounter; the other died in the second battle, possibly at the instigation of Octavian himself, so that "he might gain sole control of the victorious armies" (Suetonius, XI.1; Tacitus, The Annals, I.10.1).
In August, still only nineteen, he was elected as one of the new consuls, together with Caesar's nephew, Quintus Pedius. Their first act was the Lex Pedia, which revoked the amnesty that had been granted to Brutus and Cassius after the assassination of Caesar. With Octavian presiding, the tyrannicides were condemned in absentia—as well as Decimus Brutus, the third principal conspirator, who had inveigled Caesar to accompany him to the Curia of Pompey, where the senate then was meeting (Appian, The Civil Wars, III.95; Livy, Periochae, CXX.1). The murder was declared a capital crime and "a decree of banishment was passed upon all the assassins of Caesar" (Velleius Paterculus, Roman History, II.69.5). As Octavian later phrased it, "Those who slew my father I drove into exile, punishing their deed by due process of law" (Res Gestae, II).
In Macedonia at the time and in need of money to support his legionaries, Brutus persuaded the quaestor of Asia Minor to relinquish 16,000 talents (96 million denarii) that were destined for Rome (Appian, IV.75). Later that summer, Brutus was in Thrace, ostensibly to punish a local tribe, the Bessi, for their recalcitrance but also to "invest himself with the title and dignity of imperator, thinking that he should thus carry on his war against Caesar and Antony more easily" (Dio, Roman History, XLVII.25.2). The Thracian Queen Polemocratia, too, concerned about the safety of her young son, placed both him and "an unexpected quantity of gold and silver" from her husband's treasury into Brutus' hands, which he "coined and converted into currency" (Appian, IV.75).
Early the next year, in 42 BC, Cassius joined Brutus at Smyrna in Asia Minor (Anatolia), where they resolved to unite against the newly constituted triumvirate. Brutus favored advancing into Macedonia, but Cassius thought it better to look to their rear and first reduce Lycia on the southern coast and nearby Rhodes, whose fleets posed a threat (Dio, XLVII.32.1ff; Appian, IV.65). Having expended his own money in building ships, Brutus wanted Cassius "to give him a part of the large treasure which he had collected." And this he did, relinquishing a third of the total—in spite of Brutus' detractors insisting that it simply would be used to incur popular favor and the gratification of the soldiery (Plutarch, Life of Brutus, XXX.1). Both men then set about refilling their coffers. In Rhodes, Cassius seized "all the money that was found, either gold or silver, in the temples and the public treasury," and whatever else had been buried or hidden (Appian, IV.73). He also ordered "all the other peoples of Asia to pay ten years' tribute," which they did (IV.74). In Lycia, Brutus demanded "whatever gold and silver the city possessed and each citizen to bring in his private holdings" (IV.81).
When Brutus and Cassius met at Sardis in late summer or early fall of 42 BC, "the whole army, in full array, saluted them both as Imperators" (Plutarch, XXXIV.1; Dio, XLVII.35.1). Crossing the Hellespont at the Gulf of Melas on the north shore of the Gallipoli Peninsula, the army again assembled for review. There were nineteen legions of infantry (although not all at full strength), eight commanded by Brutus and nine by Cassius—for a total of about 80,000 men (Appian, IV.88). A donative was paid, the commanders having "provided themselves with an abundant supply of money in order to propitiate them with gifts" (IV.89). Moreover, Cassius declared, "we have given you all that was promised and have other funds ready for still larger rewards....As regards money, which some call the sinews of war....we have plenty for the present, so that we can give you more shortly, and there are other large sums on the road collected from the nations behind us" (IV.96, 99; in fact, it is Cicero who used the phrase "sinews of war, money in abundance," Philippics V.5). Cassius concluded by announcing that an additional 1,500 denarii were to be given to each legionary (more than six years' pay), five times that amount to each centurion, and twice that to each military tribune. The legionaries were dismissed and, with additional sums for the bravest, "the generals immediately counted out the money to them" (IV.101).
It was then, as the army advanced through western Anatolia on the road to Macedonia in northern Greece, that Brutus issued the EID MAR series and struck IMP on his coins, with those in gold presumably awarded to especially worthy officers and men. Only a few months later, early in October 42 BC, he confronted Octavian and Antony at the first Battle of Philippi. Mistakenly thinking that Brutus had been defeated or out of shame for having lost himself (Livy, Periochae, CXXIV.2), Cassius committed suicide. Coincidentally, it was on his birthday (Appian, IV.113) and with the same dagger [ξιφίδιον] that he had used to slay Caesar (Plutarch, Life of Caesar, LXIX.3). Brutus assumed command of both armies, only to be defeated several weeks later at the second Battle of Philippi. He, too, killed himself, although it is not certain whether he used his own dagger.
Even though there is an obvious difference between dagger and sword, often in Greek no distinction was made between the two. Plutarch, for example, has Brutus putting his "sword [ξίφει] to his breast" and either having his friend Strato help drive it home or falling upon it himself (LXIX.14; Life of Brutus, LII.7–8; also Appian, IV.131; Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History, II.70.5). Certainly, ξίφει is the grander and more heroic weapon. Swords are brandished; daggers are hidden, as can be seen in accounts of Caesar's own death. In Plutarch, Casca strikes with a sword (Life of Brutus, XVII.4), and swords are displayed when the conspirators rush from the senate house (Life of Caesar, LXVII.3; Life of Brutus, XVIII.7). And yet here, ξίφει is translated as dagger, which obscures the imagery of the drawn sword as the symbol of the tyrannicide and the restoration of liberty. Just the opposite occurs in Dio, where the conspirators intend to have "swords instead of documents brought into the chamber in boxes" (XLIV.16.1). The notion seems eminently impracticable until one appreciates that daggers are hidden in the scroll cases (capsa). This indifferent use of the word also can be seen in Nicolaus of Damascus, who has the assassins carry "swords under their togas" (Life of Augustus, XXIII) but who then "suddenly bared their daggers," Casca's brother driving "his sword into Caesar's side" (XXIV). In Appian, the conspirators stab at Caesar with daggers but wound one another with swords (II.117). Daggers are concealed in the senate (II.117) but bloody swords are waved outside (II.119; also Nicolaus, "carrying their swords bare," XXV).
Brutus had declared to Cassius that "On the Ides of March I gave my own life to my country, and since then, for her sake, I have lived another life of liberty and glory" (XL.8). Fittingly, therefore, the reverse of the EID MAR denarius above displays the cap of liberty (pileus), traditionally given to one who has been freed from slavery. Indeed, as the assassins ran outside, crying that they had slain a king and tyrant, "one of them bore a cap on the end of a spear as a symbol of freedom" (Appian, II.119).
It is flanked by two daggers, signifying Brutus and Cassius as the principal conspirators (and recalling Castor and Pollux, the mythical saviors of Rome, with whom the cap was associated). The dagger was a pugio, which is related etymologically to the Latin pugnus, "fist" and pugno, "to fight." A military sidearm, it had a broad double-edged, leaf-shaped blade about two inches wide and six to eight inches long. A raised spine ran down the middle for strength, and a bulbous knob in the center of the narrow grip provided a firm hold for the fist. Vegetius, writing in the fourth century AD (but drawing upon earlier Roman sources), instructs the soldier not to cut, but to thrust with a weapon, as "a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal" (De Re Militari, I).
Cassius had struck Caesar a slanting blow across the face and, when a second attempt missed, inadvertently wounded Brutus in the hand (Nicolaus of Damascus, XXIV). Brutus is said to have pierced Caesar in the thigh (Appian, II.117) or the groin (Plutarch, Life of Caesar, LXVI.11). Given that the hilts differ, one having a cruciform pommel and the other a rounded one, it is intriguing to imagine that they represent the actual weapons used in the assassination. EID MAR (Eidibus Martiis) abbreviates the Ides of March, the day that Caesar had been assassinated in 44 BC. On the obverse is a portrait of Brutus himself, and the legend L PLAET CEST (Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus), the moneyer responsible for minting the coin. BRVT IMP (Brutus Imperator) recalls the acclamation of the army proclaiming him Imperator.
During the Republic, it was not considered seemly for a living person to 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 in 439 BC. Having commented on the defeat of the Bessi in Thrace, Dio remarks that "In addition to these activities 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). It is one of the very few descriptions of a Roman coin but not the only one. Pliny, for example, records that Servius, the sixth king of Rome, was the first to impress a copper coin, the image that of a sheep (Natural History, XXXIII.xiii.43). In Latin, the collective noun for livestock such as sheep or cattle is pecus—and so pecunia for money itself. (The word in English derives from moneta, an epithet of Juno Moneta, whose temple on the Capitoline Hill was the site of Rome's first mint.)
Caesar was the first living person to portray himself on a Roman coin, minting money for an imminent campaign against Parthia to avenge the loss at Carrhae almost a decade before, where Cassius had been able to lead some of his horsemen to safety in Syria (Plutarch, Life of Crassus, XXIX.4). To republicans such as Brutus, the portrait of Caesar, who had been declared dictator perpetuo only a month or two before, was further evidence of his aspiration for kingship. It is all the more ironic, therefore, that Brutus, the tyrannicide and self-proclaimed savior of Roman liberty, would put his own effigy on a coin, emulating the very tyrant he had overthrown.
William 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.
After the defeat of Cassius and then Brutus, the EID MAR coins that had commemorated the assassination of Caesar were recalled by the victorious Octavian and Antony and melted down. When Cahn wrote his seminal review of the type in 1989, he was able to work with 58 coins (the most recent survey adds 30 more), struck from 8 obverse (front or face, designated A–H) and 26 reverse dies. This disparity between the two sides is due to the production of the coins themselves. A metal flan was positioned between two engraved dies and the punch die struck a blow with a hammer to stamp both sides of the coin blank simultaneously. Because there was greater impact on the reverse die, which was positioned by hand-held tongs, it wore out more quickly than the obverse die, which was set firmly in an anvil. The result is that as many as three or four reverse dies might be used for a single obverse (a ratio seen in the EID MAR coins).
In 2008, one EID MAR denarius sold at auction for 350,000 Swiss francs (approximately $335,000 at the time) and another in 2016 for 325,000 CHF ($332,583). Two have realized more than half a million dollars: the silver coin pictured top (Cahn 13b), which was sold by Goldberg Auctioneers (Auction 80, Lot 3089) for $517,000 in 2014, and the one above (Cahn 10b) by Heritage Auctions (Auction 3015, Lot 23268) which, in 2011, realized $546,250, a record for a silver Roman coin. Although more worn, it commanded a higher price because the purer metal is less porous. In all of the portraits, Brutus has a slight beard, likely a sign of mourning for the lost Republic—and looking surprisingly youthful, given that he was 43 years old when he committed suicide.
The price of these coins invariably includes a buyer's premium, an additional fee imposed by the auction house that is a percentage of the winning bid (hammer price). Intended to cover administrative expenses such as a printed catalog and publicity (indeed, the running of the house itself), the surcharge nevertheless can add substantially to the final cost to the buyer, particularly if the coin itself sells at a premium. The Heritage denarius, for example, actually was knocked down at $475,000. It was the 15% buyer's premium that inflated the final price. The Goldberg coin was purchased even more dearly. It sold for $440,00, to which a 17.5% premium was added.
"Beware the Ides of March"
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (I.2)
In 1953, Herbert Cahn first published an account of the pierced aureus (Cahn 24a) now on display in the British Museum. It may have been worn as a pendant by a republican supporter or even one of the conspirators themselves. Shown for the first time in 2010, on the 2054th anniversary of Caesar's death, it inaugurated a long-term loan from the collection of Michael Winckless.
Once in the Biaggi collection, the coin was sold in 2004 by Numismatica Ars Classica (Auction 27, Lot 282) for 120,000 Swiss francs ($92,800), twice the original estimate but a remarkably modest price for such an historically significant artifact—possibly because the catalog description had concluded with the final, assuring sentence that "there are no objective elements to consider this coin a forgery." (Unable to examine any specimens other than a plaster cast at the American Numismatic Society labeled "forgery–Athens," Crawford omitted the coin from his Roman Republican Coinage and pointedly disagreed with Cahn as to its authenticity.) When the coin again came to auction in 2008, this time from the Feirstein collection (NAC Auction 45, Lot 42), it almost had doubled in price and realized 230,000 CHF ($226,500), the disconcerting paragraphs about authenticity having been judiciously omitted.
Intriguingly, it had been shown to the British Museum in May 1932, when Britain was in the depths of the Great Depression. Only eight months before, the country had gone off the gold standard, which further devalued the pound sterling, and the museum could not afford the proffered coin. (It did have another EID MAR aureus that once had belonged to George III, which was donated in 1825 by his son George IV, but that coin now is recognized as a forgery.)
A second EID MAR aureus (Cahn 4a) is in the numismatic collection of the Deutsche Bundesbank (Germany's central bank), where it is displayed (the reverse at least) in the treasure vault of the bank's Money Museum in Frankfurt am Main. The coin was unpublished when Cahn described it in 1989, having been only "recently acquired by a California collector," the acquisition providing Cahn with "a welcome excuse to re-assess these coins." It appeared again when offered by Numismatic Fine Arts (Auction XXV) in 1990, and by Sotheby's in 1993.
A third, previously unknown example of this "excessively rare" coin was auctioned by Roma Numismatics (Auction XX, Lot 463) in 2020. Owned since the nineteenth century by descendents of Baron von Bonstetten, antiquarian and chamberlain to Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria, it is beautifully struck, with an exceptionally aesthetic portrait. The coin has been graded by NGC Ancients to be Mint State, Fine Style, although the surface is marred by an accretion of calcite. The hammer price was £2,700,000, to which a 20% buyer's fee was added—for a total of £3,240,000 ($4,188,533), making it the most expensive ancient coin ever sold at auction. The previous record holder was a brass sestertius of Hadrian offered by Numismatica Genevensis (Auction V, Lot 233) in 2008 that hammered for 2,000,000 CHF and, with a 15% buyer's fee, realized 2,300,000 CHF ($2,561,530).
The coins stamped IMP offer the only representations of Brutus that can be identified with certainty. They belong to three different styles, each variant the work of a different engraver but all depicting the profile of a man in the last year or so of his life: a bearded figure with hair curling at the nape of the neck, prominent cheek bones, deep-set eyes, a straight nose, full lips, and a strong jaw line. They include the EID MAR series minted in silver and gold by Plaetorius Cestianus, which the art historian Sheldon Nodelman considers to be the "soberest and most precise" of the portraits. He further divides this "realistic" style into two groups, both derived from a presumed sculptural prototype: a "linear" style in which the face is depicted more harshly, its features abrupt and emphatic, and a softer "plastic" style that displays "a stability and simplicity of shape."
Another type honors (Publius Servilius) Casca Longus, the first of the conspirators to strike a blow at Caesar, tentative and ineffectual as it was (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, LXXXII.1; Plutarch, Life of Caesar, LXVI.7; the second blow by his brother, however, likely was fatal, Suetonius, LXXXII.3). Here, the features of Brutus are more "baroque," as Nodelman phrases it, and the pathos of his expression exaggerated. He appears older, his features heavier, almost despondent. So stylistically distinct is the portrait that Nodelman wonders whether it was based on a completely different sculptural prototype. Surrounded by a wreath, the portrait, too, is not as large as it is on the coins of Cestianus.
As well as the name of Casca Longus, who also was the moneyer, the reverse of the coin above displays a trophy celebrating Brutus' military and naval triumphs. The bent sword and figure-8 shield on either side of the helmeted and cuirassed figure symbolize his victory over the Thracians (Varro remarking on incurved shields being cut on both sides "like those of the Thracians," On the Latin Language, VII.43). The ships' prows and rudder, as well as the small letter "L," represent victory over the Lycians. A third type was struck by Pedanius Costa, which Nodelman identifies as "neoclassical in style," the smooth, even portrait contrasting with the fleshier and more pronounced features of Casca and the dry realism of Cestianus.
Invariably, when there is a discussion of these portrait types and the stylistic differences between them, it is Nodelman who is mentioned. But the same characterizations had been used by Cahn thirty years before in his presentation of the pierced aureus. Then, he identified six obverse dies (as had Mattingly) evenly divided into two groups, "excepting the various plated examples of similar style and being ancient forgeries." In one (A–C), Brutus has a large head on a relatively short neck; in the other (D–F), a smaller and finer head on a longer neck. "Alongside heads with a plastic effect and a remarkable expression of strength, we find more idealized and less eloquent portraits." There is a "natural realism" to the best of these portraits, some seeming "rather baroque," others showing "a growing classicism." As to the unruly hair, it "presents a conscious attitude which is intended to distance him from the royal elegance of Julius Caesar, his victim."
In 2009, the aureus above was sold by Classical Numismatic Group (Triton XII, Lot 526) for $260,000, not including the buyer's premium. In 2016, it again was at auction (Triton XIX, Lot 420), this time realizing $800,000, not including the buyer's premium. Struck from a sharp die with virtually no wear, the obverse is described in both catalogs as "undoubtedly the finest portrait of Brutus in gold." One begins to appreciate the investment value of rare coins—and the tendency to describe a coin in the same terms whenever it is offered, often with the same unwarranted enthusiasm.
Another example of this type had been sold in 2015 by Numismatica Ars Classica (Auction 86, Lot 23) for 900,000 CHF ($930,714) plus a buyer's premium. It is described (with the requisite qualifier) as "possibly the finest specimen known of this issue," in spite of the obverse having been struck twice, the multiple blows giving the portrait the appearance of a double exposure.
Like so many desirable coins, this one, too, had been on the market before, in 2008 and 2010 (Goldberg Auctioneers, Auction 46, Lot 75; Auction 59, Lot 2416), where it is "probably the finest of only 8 recorded specimens." The Triton catalogs, however, had identified the type as "one of 17 examples known of this issue (eight of which are in museums)." Goldberg apparently has mistaken the number in museums with the number available to collectors—and thereby reducing it by half.
In about 85 BC, during the praetorship of Marius Gratidianus, Cicero relates that there was a resolution to adopt "a standard of value for our currency; for at that time the value of money was so fluctuating that no one could tell how much he was worth" (De Officiis, III.xx.80). Pliny, too, remarks on falsae monetae having an alloy of copper (Natural History, XXXIII.xlvi.132). But, instead of waiting for a joint announcement, Gratidianus (a kinsman of Cicero) went directly to the Rostra and publicly declared the new ordinance, which "brought him vast honour; in every street statues of him were erected; before these incense and candles burned. In a word, no one ever enjoyed greater popularity with the masses" (XXXIV.xii.27). Later, his statues were thrown down and Gratidianus killed, his head "still full of life and breath," carried through the streets to Sulla, who then went to a nearby fountain to wash the blood off his hands (Cicero, In Toga Candida, frag.; Plutarch, Life of Sulla, XXXII.2). Subsequent versions are more gory still. Livy, for instance, remarks that the limbs were broken, the eyes gouged out, and ears cut off (Periochae, LXXX.2).
It is all the more ironic, therefore, that a year after Gratidianus' death in 81 BC, Sulla introduced the Lex Cornelia de Falsis, to prohibit forgery or counterfeiting. It was the first provisions against fraud (falsum) since the Twelve Tables, set up in the Forum in 451–450 BC, had punished false testimony (falsum testimonium), the offender being thrown from the Tarpeian Rock (Gellius, Attic Nights, XX.53). Although the law does not survive, it is referred to later. Prosecuting Verres, the former governor of Sicily, Cicero cited it in 70 BC as legislation that does not create new law, simply because forgery, whether of wills or money, always had been wrong, even if it now entailed criminal proceedings. "We see that many things are established by law in such a way that things done previously cannot be called in question—the Cornelian law, the law about testaments, the law about money [nummaria], and many others, in which no new law is established in the nation, but it is established that what has always been an evil action shall be liable to public prosecution up to a certain time" (In Verrem, II.1.108).
In 44 BC, three years before his head and hands were nailed to the Rostra by a vengeful Antony, Cicero wrote De Officiis, a treatise on one's duty and moral obligation in society. In Book III, he discusses what should be done when private gain conflicts with honorable behavior. Several rhetorical questions are posed. "If a wise man should inadvertently accept counterfeit money for good, will he offer it as genuine in payment of a debt after he discovers his mistake?" And, "If a man thinks that he is selling brass, when he is actually selling gold, should an upright man inform him that his stuff is gold, or go on buying for one denarius what is worth a thousand? It is clear enough by this time what my views are on these questions" (III.xxiii.91–92).
The fullest account of the Lex Cornelia and its provisions is by the Roman jurist Julius Paulus, writing early in the third century AD. He relates that "anyone who counterfeits gold or silver money, or washes, melts, scrapes, spoils, or adulterates any coin bearing the impression of the face of the Emperor, or refuses to accept it, unless it is counterfeit" shall be deported to an island or, if of inferior birth or a slave, sent to the mines or crucified (Sententiae, V.25.1). That the banker and merchant could not refuse "the Emperor's currency" is confirmed by Appian (Discourses of Epictetus, III.3). Under Tiberius, even taking a gold coin stamped with his image into a privy or brothel was considered sacrilege and, as such, treason and a capital crime—not so much against the state as an affront to the dignity of the emperor (Suetonius, Life of Tiberius, LVIII.1).
The penalties were severe because counterfeiting and forgery threatened the fides publica or public trust. They were acts of fraud and an ethical offense—but not a political one. A moneyer, for example, who struck coins from official dies, but not at the mint, was guilty of theft, not counterfeiting. Struck from legal dies, the coins themselves were legal, even if they had not been authorized. Given the number of plated coins in circulation, Sydenham argues that they must have been sanctioned, the notion that official dies somehow might have fallen into the hands of those not authorized to use them, a "highly improbable hypothesis." But, unless directed only at forgers, it seems just as improbable that the state would promulgate the Lex Cornelia proscribing the adulteration of coins only to engage in the same practice itself.
"It is truly marvellous, that in this art ['assaying the denarius'], and in this only, the various methods of falsification should be made a study: for the sample of the false denarius is now an object of careful examination, and people absolutely buy the counterfeit coin [denariis adulterinus] at the price of many genuine ones!"
Pliny, Natural History (XXXIII.xlvi.132)
In 2015, this coin (Cahn 29a) was sold by Numismatica Ars Classica (Auction 83, Lot 498) for 52,500 Swiss francs, more than twice its estimate. The description is virtually the same as every other EID MAR offering by NAC, except for the phrase "plated denarius." It was at auction again the next year, this time offered by ArtAncient for $135,000, twice what the coin had realized just twelve months earlier. The description, even with qualifiers, is effusive: the dour figure on the obverse "possibly the most beautiful and naturalistic portrait of Brutus, the famous lead assassin, known" and the coin itself, "arguably the most exciting example of all the known Ides of March coins; the Holy Grail for ancient coin collectors."
This is heady stuff when one considers that others in the series have more striking portraits of their own. And it is all the more so in that the coin is a fourrée (from the French for "stuffed or filled"). Sears defines the term as "a plated counterfeit coin with base metal core, usually in imitation of a silver denomination, though occasionally of gold. This normally indicates an unofficial product, though some fourrée appear to have been produced from official dies at the mint." A flan of base metal such as copper was covered with silver foil, heated (the melting point of silver being slightly lower than that of copper), and struck with a die, fusing the two together. Or it might be given a thin silver wash. Whatever the technique, the intention was that the debased coin pass as one of solid silver.
Such forgeries could be discovered if they were weighed (copper being less dense than silver) or punched to reveal the core. A coin also could be dropped on a hard surface to listen to the distinctive ring of the metal. Persius asks "do you know how to discern the semblance of truth lest it give counterfeit [subaerato] tinkle, though merely gold laid over brass" (Satires, V.105–106)? The word derives from the Latin subaeratus, literally "that has copper underneath," and so the German for a plated coin—subaerat. Often, however, the counterfeit would be revealed only when the coin was heavily worn or damaged, the silver foil breaking and flaking off to reveal the base metal beneath, as can be seen in the example above.
ArtAncient describes its fourrée as being "one of around 75 known examples," which is not strictly accurate. That is the number in solid silver; ancient forgeries are, in fact, much rarer. Only about 16 are known to exist, which still is a disproportionately high number when compared to surviving coins in silver. Cahn found just two (possibly three) plated denarii that he thought to have been struck with the same dies used to mint silver specimens—and so, in his opinion, "from the official issue." The obverse of 29a, however, is from an eighth die (H) that is unique and, although the portrait is "a superior piece of workmanship," Brutus appears older and stylistically different than on other coins.
The question whether a fourrée is an official issue or an ancient counterfeit is a contentious one. Lawrence makes a distinction between false and forged. A plated coin might be considered false but still have been authorized. When in 1920, for example, the silver content of a shilling was worth more than the face value of the coin itself, Parliament reduced the fineness of the coinage by almost half. But its purchasing power (if not its value as bullion) remained the same. By analogy, plated coins were "part of the government issues and therefore made at the mint and not by private forgers." (Since 1965, all formerly silver coins in the United States have been clad.)
Crawford disagrees and has argued that all republican plated coins are forgeries, even if apparently struck from official dies—which could have been stolen, used unofficially, or mechanically copied from legitimate coins. Given that "there is no numismatic evidence to suggest that Roman plated coins were official mint products, the overwhelming literary and documentary evidence that they were not should be accepted." He later restated his conclusion in Roman Republican Coinage: "the view that the Roman Republic struck plated coins is unsupported by any ancient evidence." Almost half a century later, McCabe came to the same conclusion in his overview of current research on EID MAR coins. Cahn 29a is "very likely a forgery produced in ancient times, as are the one or two other plated coins that Cahn asserts as being from the same dies as other known specimens." Indeed, "there is no reason to consider the plated coins as having been struck from the original dies, rather than forger's transfer dies....All plated examples of this coinage are likely ancient forgeries."
Acknowledging Cahn's statement that die H is known only from this one subaerat, ArtAncient explains "The fact that this is a plated coin suggests that it was one of the last Ides of March denari [sic] minted, issued by Brutus from dwindling silver supplies." The inference is that a lack of silver must have necessitated the plating of base metal, most charitably perhaps because Brutus was obliged to follow the dictum of Hippocrates more than three centuries before: "For extreme diseases, extreme methods of care...are most suitable" (Aphorisms, I.6). And yet for a year and more, all Asia Minor had been plundered to pay and equip the army, the depredation of Thrace, Lycia, and Rhodes having produced "an abundant supply of money" (Appian, The Civil Wars, IV.89). Cassius says as much in exhorting the troops before the Battle of Philippi. Having given all that had been promised, there were "other funds ready for still larger rewards" (IV.96), repeating for emphasis that "we have plenty for the present, so that we can give you more shortly" (IV.99). In part, this largess may have been because a number of the soldiers had fought for Caesar, and there was some apprehension that they would defect to his adopted son, Octavian. To assure their loyalty, tens of millions of denarii were paid then and there—before the battle. And indeed, at Philippi they "presented a wonderful sight. For most of their armour was covered with gold and silver...the wealth which they held in their hands and wore upon their persons gave additional spirit to the more ambitious, and made the covetous even more warlike, since they clung to their armour as to so much treasure" (Plutarch, Life of Brutus, XXXVIII.5–7).
Caesar once had declared that "there were two things which created, protected, and increased sovereignties,—soldiers and money,—and that these two were dependent of each other" (Dio, XLII.49.4). For Brutus to have defrauded his legionaries by the issuance of plated coins would have been absolute folly before the battle, as well as ethically and legally reprehensible—nor did he. Shakespeare idealizes the noble Brutus, to be sure, but comes close to the truth when he has him say "For I can raise no money by vile means: / By heaven, I had rather coin my heart, / And drop my blood for drachmas" (Julius Caesar, IV.iii).
In 2017 (Auction XIV, Lot 552) and again in 2018 (Auction XVI, Lot 622), Roma Numismatics offered a plated denarius of its own. The catalog descriptions are, in part, the same and present the problem with the ArtAncient coin.
"Struck from dies engraved in a variety of styles, some of which are very faithful to the solid silver counterparts, those plated denarii of Brutus' EID MAR type have occasionally elicited speculation that they may have been produced thus on account of dwindling silver supplies in Brutus' camp. However, none of the plated denarii can be die matched with official, solid silver denarii. Indeed, the wide range of styles on these plated issues is indicative of their true nature as contemporary counterfeits. Whether produced by disaffected, bored or greedy Republican soldiers, or idealistically inclined civilian fraudsters, we shall never know."
Such is the iconic importance of the EID MAR issue, however, that the latter coin, although crudely rendered and indifferently struck, sold for £16,000, realizing as much as a near mint, perfectly centered aureus of Diocletian (Lot 790) and selling among the top two dozen coins on offer. (It was Diocletian who, when asked to return and rule the empire, replied that "If you could see at Salonae the cabbages raised by our hands, you surely would never judge that a temptation," Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus, CLXIV.6.)
In the 2008 auction of the Kroisos Collection (Lot 2331), Stack's offered a more elegant "ancient plated fourrée," as evidenced by its relatively low weight. But, rather than observing simply that the legend L PLAET CEST was impressed on the obverse, the coin is described as "Military mint traveling with Brutus and Cassius in western Asia Minor or Macedonia. Struck by Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus." Again, the implication is that the moneyer minted a plated coin issued by Brutus. Nevertheless, it was "a unique opportunity to acquire a choice, yet affordable, Ides of March Denarius" and realized $32,200.
In the second century BC, the Greek historian Polybius recorded that the Roman foot soldier was paid two obols a day, the equivalent of five asses or 180 denarii a year (The Histories, VI.39.12). In 49 BC, Caesar crossed the Rubicon into Italy, provoking civil war. About this time, he "doubled the pay of his legions" (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, XXVI.3). A legionary now was to receive ten asses a day, the equivalent of one denarius—hence the name of the coin, from the Latin deni, "containing ten." As Tacitus so poignantly lamented in AD 14, "The whole trade of war was comfortless and profitless: ten asses a day was the assessment of body and soul: with that they had to buy clothes, weapons and tents, bribe the bullying centurion and purchase a respite from duty! But whip-cut and sword-cut, stern winter and harassed summer, red war or barren peace,—these, God knew, were always with them" (The Annals, I.17).
Even if pay were doubled from five to ten asses a day, the denarius itself had been retariffed almost a century before (in about 141 BC). Pliny records that "it was ordained that the value of the denarius should be sixteen asses....however, so far as the pay of the soldiers is concerned, one denarius has always been given for every ten asses" (XXXIII.xiii.45). Wages paid in denarii must have been reckoned in asses; seemingly, it was a notational adjustment. Soldiers given 6.25 denarii instead of 10 still would have received 100 asses (6.25 ÷ 10 being the same as 10 ÷ 16). But it was a reduction in pay nonetheless. Instead of 360 denarii a year, they were issued 225, a loss in silver of 37.5%. This was paid every four months (on the first of January, March, and September) in three stipends of 1,200 asses—an amount equivalent to 75 denarii or three gold aurei every pay period, for a total of 225 denarii (900 bronze sesterces) a year.
In AD 84, Domitian "increased the pay of the soldiers one fourth, by the addition of three gold pieces each year" (Suetonius, Life of Domitian, VII.3). This quartum stipendium meant that the legionary stipend of 75 denarii now was to be paid four times a year, amounting to an annual income of 300 denarii (1,200 sesterces), the three additional aurei bringing the pay of a Roman soldier to a gold coin every month. It was a substantial raise, the first in more than a century, and significant enough for Dio to remark upon it years later. Domitian "commanding that four hundred sesterces should be given to each man in place of the three hundred that he had been receiving" (LXVII.3.5). Instead of a fourth stipend, he understands each of the three pay periods to have been increased from 75 denarii (three aurei) to 100 denarii (four aurei), the amount of the stipends changing, not the number. Likely, there was a quarterly stipend but, in any event, it was abolished, probably after Domitian's death, and the old system of three pay days eventually reintroduced.
Writing about the same time as Domitian's monetary reform (which also returned the purity of the denarius to an Augustan standard of 98.5% fine), Matthew speaks of laborers in the vineyard earning one denarius per day (20:2), which still was better than the pay of a Roman soldier.
In The Satyricon, Petronius remarks "'What should we say was the hardest calling, after literature?' he asked. 'That of the doctor or that of the money-changer, I would say: the doctor, because he has to know what poor devils have got in their insides, and when the fever's due...and the money-changer's, because he's got to be able to see the silver through the copper plating'" (LVI). It is a curious statement, as one would think the copper flan would have been plated in silver. But then, Pliny does comment on "a truly marvellous fact, the value of silver has been enhanced by deadening its brilliancy" (Natural History, XXXIII.xlvi.131).
More than three centuries before, the Roman playwright Plautus has one of his characters complain, when given a bag of coins, "I don't know to whom now to give this money to be tested" (The Persian, III.iii.440).
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 49–45 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. Servilia 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.
A final note on denominations. The standard Roman coin was the silver denarius, which was worth four bronze sesterces (sestertii, the denomination used in calculating soldiers' pay) or ten bronze asses (which, as if motivation were needed, explains the intention of the forger to pass bronze as silver). Twenty-five denarii equaled a gold aureus. The military pay period was calculated as 360 days a year.
References: "The Portrait of Brutus the Tyrannicide" (1987) by Sheldon Nodelman, in Ancient Portraits in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Vol. 1, edited by Jiří Frei, Arthur Houghton, and Marion True; "Eid Mar" (1948) by H. Mattingly, L'Antiquité Classique, 17(1), 445-451 (the first modern study of the series); British Museum Press Release: Et Tu Brute? (2010, March 15); "Auch Du, mein Sohn Brutus" (2013), in Glanzstücke aus der Numismatischen Sammlung der Deutschen Bundesbank, 2013 ["Highlights from the Numismatic Collection, the Deutsche Bundesbank"], pp. 4-5; "The Numismatic Collection of the Deutsche Bundesbank" (2014) by Juliane Voss, Billetaria, 8(16), 40-42; "The Silver Contents of the Roman Republican Coinage" (1980) by D. R. Walker, in Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 B.C. to A.D. 700 (1996) by Kenneth W. Harl; Roman Republican Coinage (1974) by Michael H. Crawford (reiterating his argument in the earlier article); The Numismatic Chronicle 176 Offprint: The Aureus of Casca Longus (RRC 507/1) (2016) by Wilhelm Hollstein; "On Roman Plated Coins" (1940) by L. A. Lawrence and Edward A. Sydenham, The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society, 20(79), 190-202; "The Roman Law of Counterfeiting" (1956) by Philip Grierson, in Essays in Roman Coinage Presented to Harold Mattingly, edited by R. A. G. Carson and C. H. V. Sutherland; "EIDibus MARtiis" by H. A. Cahn (1989), Numismatica e Antichità Classiche, Quaderni Ticinesi, 18, 211-232 (an important article but in German and not readily accessible); "L' Aureus de Brutus avec EID MAR" by Herbert A. Cahn (1957) Congrès International de Numismatique, Paris, 6-11 Juillet 1953, 2, 213-217; Arma et Nummi: Forschungen zur Römischen Finanzgeschichte und Münzprägung der Jahre 49 bis 42 v. Chr (2003) by Bernhard Woytek; The EID MAR Type of Brutus: An Overview of Current Research and Portfolio of Related Papers (2016) by Andrew McCabe (which offers translations of the previous three articles); "A Commentary on Plutarch's Brutus" (2017) by J. L. Moles, Histos: The Online Journal of Ancient Historiography, Suppl. 7.
See also the Ides of March and Legionary Denarius.
Return to Top of Page