Caesar’s Assassination In Gold

Tuesday, March 22, 2022
Image credit: 
IT 111, Poster Collection, Hoover Institution Library & Archives.

Image credit: 
IT 111, Poster Collection, Hoover Institution Library & Archives.

One of the rarest coins of the Roman Republic, commemorating the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March (15 March 44 B.C.), has been put up for sale in Zurich in May. It has been on display in the British Museum for over a decade, but is now being sold by its anonymous owner.

There are only three known examples of this gold aureus, and one sold in October 2020 for $4.2 million. The third is in the permanent collection of Germany’s central bank, the Deutsche Bundesbank. To give an idea of its splendor and rarity, the silver version, a sestertius, of which there are about one hundred in existence, was selected as the No. 1 coin in the survey of the book 100 Greatest Ancient Coins by Harlan Berk.

The aureus weighs 8.06 grams and measures 19 mm in diameter, and so is smaller than a Jefferson nickel but heavier than a Washington quarter dollar. It was struck by Marcus Junius Brutus on his travelling mint when he was campaigning in northern Greece in the late summer or early autumn of 42 B.C., shortly before he fell upon his sword after being defeated at the last Battle of Philippi on 23 October. While the silver sesterces would have been used to pay Brutus’s troops, this gold aureus one is thought to have been given only to senior generals.

With a profile of Brutus himself on the obverse, the coin’s reverse side features two daggers either side of a pileus, the cap of liberty traditionally given to slaves on attaining their freedom. Arturo Russo of Numismatica Ars Classica, which is selling the coin, says it commemorates “one of the most important moments in western history.” It was also clearly intended as a propaganda tool.

Of course, many more than two daggers were used on the Ides of March; as Barry Strauss points out in his fine book The Death of Caesar, eight different ancient sources state that the dictator’s corpse had as many as 23 stab-wounds. For reasons of space on the reverse of the coin, and perhaps also as a nod to his fellow-conspirator Gaius Cassius Longinus, Brutus’s coin only depicts two daggers.

Three months before his assassination, Caesar had put his own image on Rome’s coinage, the first time that a living ruler’s portrait had appeared there. It was considered an unmistakable sign of his tendency towards unrepublican self-aggrandizement, so it is not without irony that his assassin Brutus was depicting his own image on this coin only two years later.