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One of Julius Caesar’s last coins

There’s hardly any discussion amongst historians that Julius Caesar was a great statesman. He was also the first Roman who dared to depict himself on one of his coins. And even 20 centuries later his name is still on people’s lips and continues to appeal to one’s imagination. Who was this famous ruler? 

Julius Caesar’s coin portraitFrom democracy to dictatorship

The Roman Republic founded in 480 BC gradually developed into a polity in which equality and democracy were highly esteemed values. During the Republic, the state was governed by the Senate which was composed of members of the leading families. Plenary sessions allowed the public at large to discuss topics that mattered to them. The executive power lied with the magistrates who were elected for a period of one year. They did not enjoy full power however as they always had to act in collaboration with their fellow magistrates.

During the first century BC a series of alternate revolutionary and contra-revolutionary outbreaks, the so-called Roman Revolution, swept the realm. Civic wars partly resulting from an outspoken expansionism devastated Rome. The governing body was reorganized in order to serve the aims of one person, the emperor’s. It was Julius Caesar who linked Republican Rome to the Roman Empire.

Julius Caesar

Pompey, Crassus and Caesar formed the First Triumvirate (60 BC). This was more than a mere election compact. Together they ruled Rome and strove to obtain long-term command. Especially Julius Caesar was very ambitious. In 53 BC, one of the triumvirs, Crassus suffered disastrous defeat and death in his battle against the Parthians. From this moment onwards Pompey became Caesar’s main rival. Money had to help Caesar to convince as many sympathisers and followers to side with him and his ideal of freedom to the people. His opponent who advocated freedom to the Senate apparently misjudged the situation and had to flee the city. Both parties exchanged several peace proposals but neither of them led to a compromise. In the end, they were nothing more than mere propaganda. After leaving Rome for Greece, Pompey planned to surround Caesar’s troops in Italy. When Caesar returned to Rome and conquered the city he suddenly decided to send some troops to Spain to thwart his opponent Pompey. Caesar attained his goal and returned to Rome to be promoted dictator, be it only for a very short period of eleven days. Mutiny broke out as the soldiers did not see anything of the promised loot. Thanks to his ability and the lack of other valuable potential leaders, Ceasar remained in power. He decided to send his troops to Greece to fight Pompey’s army. Pompey suffered a disastrous defeat and fled to Egypt where he treacherously got killed in 48 BC. Julius Caesar obtained a one year dictatorship and to consolidate his power he further engaged in warfare. By the end of December 47 BC he defeated Cato, his republican opponent. When this news spread to Rome the City payed tribute to the triumphant general and they offered him dictatorship for a period of no less than ten years.

With hindsight one might say that he was a reasonable statesman. He did not introduce arbitrary changes to the governing bodies nor proved the laws he enacted to be irrational. Caesar himself was convinced that he pulled the strings but in the meantime a group of frustrated senators were after revenge. The well-prepared conspiracy culminated 15 March 44 BC when Caesar succumbed to no less than 23 stab wounds. With Caesar ends the Roman Republic and his successor becomes the first of a long series of Roman Emperors. Many of them wanted to follow in his footsteps but none of them has ever been able to match his glory.

Julius Caesar’s coin portrait

Caesar’s pride and vanity are a popular laughingstock for e.g. the author of the comic strip on the adventures of Asterix and Obelix. He was indeed the first living Roman who dared to depict his own portrait on some of his coins. By doing so he wanted to make clear to all his subordinates that he was the sole ruler of Rome. He thus saw coins not only as a means of payment but also as a means of propaganda when hardly any other media were available.

On the obverse of this denarius struck in 44 BC one recognizes Caesar’s portrait. An earlier sculpture in wax or marble might have served as a model for the diecutter. The general looks to the right and wears a laurel wreath. This symbol stands for victory as well as political and religious leadership. The legend reads Caesar dict perpetvo or Caesar, dictator for ever.

The goddess Venus is represented as Venus Victrix (Bringer of victory) on the reverse. She was important to Caesar as his family, the Julii Caesares, traced its lineage back to her and Caesar held her responsible for his triumphant career. As a reference to all his victories she’s holding a Victory on her left hand. In her right hand she’s holding a sceptre with a starlike shield at the bottom. The sceptre and the shield refer to warfare, one of Caesar’s favourite occupations. The name P. Sepvllivs Macer is the name of one of the four monetales or masters of the mint who were responsible for the coinage. They organized and checked upon all the coin related jobs in the mint. After Caesar’s death all Roman emperors struck coins with their own portrait. Even today the rule is still valid that the coin shows the portrait of the reigning monarch. Let’s say that pride and vanity are of all time.

purchasing power 
€spèces de Romains. Monnaies uniques, Musée/Site d’Archéologie, Bavay, 2003, p. 73 

Ineke Meul
Museum guide

Sources