History Through Coins: The Ides of March
Posted on 3/10/2020
In 44 BC, the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March (March 15) was a turning point in world history. Even as the Roman Republic’s geographic extent was growing quickly (in no small part thanks to Caesar’s military conquests), its days were numbered.
The power and popularity that Caesar amassed showed the allure of a supreme ruler. Sensing a threat to their own position, Senators led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Cassius took part in a conspiracy to kill Caesar (who had weeks earlier been named dictator for life) at a meeting of the Senate.
The plot ultimately failed to preserve the Republic; in less than a generation, it was transformed into the Roman Empire. Ancient Roman coinage offers a unique view into those involved in the assassination of Caesar and those who rose to power amid the chaos that followed.
The coin: Julius Caesar Gold Aureus (circa 46 B.C.) graded NGC Ancients Ch MS★ with a 5/5 strike and a 5/5 Surface The man: Caesar was the sole survivor of the First Triumvirate, an alliance of three politically powerful Romans that began in 60 BC. Marcus Licinius Crassus died in an ill-fated invasion in Asia Minor in 53 BC. Amid a power struggle with Caesar, Pompey was killed in 49 BC in Egypt by his supposed allies, who had hoped to appease Caesar. In the period leading up to his death, Caesar had wielded his political power to appoint many new Senators. Price Realized: $66,000 at a Heritage Auctions sale in January 2020 Learn more: NGC Ancients: Julius Caesar and His Coinage
The coin: Brutus Gold Aureus (circa 42 B.C.) graded NGC Ancients Ch AU★ with a 5/5 Strike and a 4/5 Surface The man: It is difficult to think of Caesar’s death without thinking of Marcus Junius Brutus, a Roman senator who today is the most famous of the group that carried out the assassination. Caesar regarded him as a friend, and William Shakespeare’s famous play features the dying Caesar uttering the words “Et tu, Brute?” (“And you, Brutus?”). Brutus and others involved in the plot initially were given amnesty, but a popular uproar soon drove them out from Rome. Eventually, they were declared to be enemies and pursued by the military. The forces of Marc Antony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in northern Greece in October 42 B.C. Brutus killed himself after the defeat. Price Realized: $240,000 at a Heritage Auctions sale in August 2018
Learn more: NGC Ancients: Caesar and Brutus - A Brief Survey
The coin: Cassius Gold Aureus graded NGC Ancients MS★ with a 4/5 Strike and a 5/5 Surface The man: Gaius Cassius Longinus was a Roman senator who conspired with Brutus to assassinate Caesar. He and Brutus met the same fate: suicide amid the defeat of their armies in northern Greece. Price Realized: $99,875 at a Heritage Auctions sale in April 2014 Learn more: NGC Ancients: Famous Romans You Can Collect, Part IV
The coin: Marc Antony Gold Aureus, graded NGC Ancients XF ★ with a 5/5 Strike and a 3/5 Surface The man: Marcus Antonius was a general under Caesar and a close ally. After Caesar’s assassination, he forged a compromise to give amnesty to the assassins while simultaneously checking their power. A year and a half after Caesar’s death, Marc Antony allied himself with Octavian (Caesar’s chosen heir) and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (a Caesar loyalist with military power). This Second Triumvirate lasted about a decade before its two most powerful members, Marc Antony and Octavian, found themselves at odds. Marc Antony’s power was in the east, and he began a relationship with Cleopatra, ruler of Egypt. They had children together, despite Marc Antony being married to Octavian’s sister. After Octavian routed the forces of Antony and Cleopatra, both killed themselves in 30 B.C. Price Realized: $141,000 at a Heritage Auctions sale in April 2014 Learn more: NGC Ancients: Famous Romans You Can Collect, Part VI
The coin: Lepidus and Octavian Silver Denarius graded NGC Ancients VF with a 4/5 Strike and a 2/5 Surface. The men: After Caesar’s assassination, his ally Lepidus was given the impressive title Pontifex Maximus (Chief Priest) and was a member of the Second Triumvirate. However, he eventually found himself politically sidelined by the other two members. He lived into his 70s, well into Octavian’s reign as the first Roman Emperor, Augustus. As can be seen on this coin, it was Octavian who inherited the title Caesar, which he was able to leverage to considerable advantage. Price realized: $690 in May 2019
The coin: Julius Caesar and Octavian Gold Aureus (circa 43 B.C.), graded NGC Ancients Ch VF with a 4/5 Strike and a 3/5 Surface The men: The year before his assassination, Caesar had secretly named his grandnephew Gaius Octavius as his principal heir. Octavian was still a teenager when he arrived in Rome several weeks after Caesar’s death. With Caesar’s name (and three-quarters of his fortune), Octavian was able to align himself with powerful loyalists of his beloved slain relative. (Struck after Julius’ death, both Caesars are pictured on this coin, with Octavian on the obverse.) Octavian quickly accumulated political power and formed the Second Triumvirate in 43 BC with Lepidus and Marc Antony. Price realized: $48,000 at a Heritage Auctions sale in January 2018 Learn more: NGC Ancients: Famous Romans You Can Collect, Part III
The coin: Augustus Gold Aureus (Spanish mint, 19-18 BC), graded NGC Ancients AU★ with a 5/5 Strike and a 3/5 Surface The man: Octavian (see previous coin) ruled as part of the Second Triumvirate with Antony and Lepidus, but eventually was the last one standing. He became the first Roman emperor, ruling from 27 BC to AD 14. His adopted name of Augustus survives today as the month of August, which was renamed in his honor in 6 BC. This complemented an honor the Senate had bestowed on his great-uncle, whose name is preserved in the month of July. Price Realized: $126,000 in August 2018 Learn more: NGC Ancients: Circulating Roman Coinage of A.D. 12: A Look Back
Some of these coins realized impressive prices. But collectors on a slightly more modest budget shouldn't be discouraged. Check out these articles from NGC's award-winning monthly Ancients column to learn more:
- NGC Ancients: Collecting Roman Coins on a Budget
- NGC Ancients: Collecting Byzantine Coins on a Budget
- NGC Ancients: Collecting Greek Coins on a Budget
History Through Coins: previous articles
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