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Et tu Brute...?

Brutus EID MAR Denarius, RSC 15, Syd 1301, Cr502/4

43-2 BC

Obverse: Head of Brutus right, BRVT IMP L PLAET CEST

Reverse: Daggars around Pileus, EID MAR

"If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more." -Brutus, Act 3, Scene 2 Julius Caesar.

One of the most striking use of coins throughout history has been their propaganda value. From Communist Russia to Revolutionary France, governments have realised the tremendous power of the images these ‘monuments in miniature’ can bear. Romans too were acutely aware that an ideological package could be numismatically rendered, and in the Imperial period reverse types combined with obverse representation of the emperor complimented imperial policy. Typically for instance, grand new building projects would be shown, but perhaps most significantly on a more basic level it put the image of the emperor in the pockets of millions. Given the absence of other media, unless you were lucky enough to visit a town where there was a statue or bust of the emperor, coins were likely your only hope of knowing what your ruler even looked like. In the Imperial period, the minting authority lay overall with the emperor, although we lack information for the formal mechanism of this control and the extent of his personal involvement. Coins therefore were a tool of legitimacy for emperors. It is striking that, whenever rival general claimed the throne, one of their first acts was to strike their own coinage, adopting the Imperial titles.

But in the Republican period things were more complicated. The tres viri monetales (the three mint magistrates) oversaw minting, a quite junior magistracy. These men were often absorbed into the political orbit of some of the late Roman republican heavyweights and would frequently choose coinage designs to complement these men’s political aims. Coinage types were initially highly standardised with a representation of ‘Roma’ personified on the obverse, a limited choice for reverse types and the name of the moneyer was the legend. The iconography was linked to the state and not to any particular man. But as aristocratic competition in the last century of the Republic increasingly got out of hand, representation of dead relatives and past family achievements became more common, bestowing a degree of authority on individual senators. The emergence of coinage propaganda in Rome was a gradual process that grew out from this aristocratic competition and was only fully realised in what numismatists call the imperatorial period (i.e. in the civil war period following Caesar crossing the Rubicon in 48BC).

Caesar was in fact a watershed moment, being the first Roman to put his own head on Roman currency. This step was radical and revolutionary, although a culture of representing familial achievements had already become highly extreme and explicit. The obverse, traditionally reserved for the representation of a god, was now replaced by a living man.

The first coin above shows Venus on the obverse and Aeneas on the reverse carrying his son Iulus and the palladium from Troy, accompanied by the legend CAESAR. This coin couldn’t be more obvious and explicit – Aeneas is represented as the founder of Rome and the Julian family, the two are inextricably linked. In associating himself with Aeneas, Caesar was also claiming a relationship with Venus, Aeneas’ mother, who is shown on the obverse. Caesar appears as not only descended from the founder of Rome, but as a descendant of a god. These audacious claims, mass produced in the only Roman form of mass-media, mirrored his increasing dominance of the Roman state.

But it is really the Ides of March Denarius where we see Romans realising the true propaganda value of their coins for the first time. This coin, transcending the established tropes of the representation of ancestors and their achievements, instead focuses on an act of assassination of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare has immortalised how Brutus and Cassius and some other prominent Romans, in the pursuit of liberty, curtailed Caesar’s tyrannical and despotic aims – perhaps the most famous event in Roman history. This coin was struck in a travelling mint by the army of Brutus in 42 BC. Brutus by this point had fled Rome, and such a coin seems to be essentially a media campaign to justify his own actions. It serves as almost an iconographical reply to Caesar’s coinages. The coin, as well as rare, is perhaps one of the most significant Roman coins ever stuck, loaded with political symbolism. Even in antiquity it was famous, being one of only a few types to be described in literary sources. As Cassius Dio wrote:

'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, 47, 25, 3)

The reverse depicts two daggers surrounding the pileus with the legend EID MAR. The legend stands for Eidibus Martiis (the Ides of March), breaking the traditional legend conventions of naming the moneyer and instead heavily emphasising the most famous day in Roman history. The daggers are obvious, alluding to the act of assassination itself. The Pileus, whilst not immediately clear to us, would have been instantly recognisable and emotive to the Roman. This was the symbol of Castor and Pollux, mythological patrons of the army and thus an assertion of patriotism. But more significantly it was the cap of liberty given to slaves on their manumission. This was the most obvious Roman symbol of freedom and liberty – clearly a powerful message about the intentions and the effect of the assassination.

However, Brutus goes too far. He puts his own head on the obverse and his own titles, guilty of the same ambitious practice of Caesar when he put his head on the coins only three months earlier. This coin goes beyond merely an assertion of liberty but in fact also promotes and elevates Brutus in a remarkably Caesarean way. There is certainly more than a degree of irony. The hint of a beard does suggest that he is in a period of mourning for his actions – he was, after all, remarkably close to Caesar. Brutus perhaps is trying to show a degree of reluctance in his actions which were ultimately necessary to manumit the Roman people from their slavery under Julius Caesar. Yet none of this escapes the unusually high degree of self-promotion this coinage reveals. The cry of liberty does seem a thin veneer concealing his own ambition.

Brutus’ propaganda, however, was destined to fail. Forced out of Italy he was ultimately declared an enemy of the state and died a heroic suicide following his defeat at Philippi in 42 BC. Yet this striking issue, one which for the first time commemorated an action and not a family, set a precedent which Augustus was to develop into a comprehensive iconographical program to complement his policies. Ever since, coins have been intensively political objects, capable of bearing a powerful message beyond the aggrandisement of an individual.

If you would like to see this very coin, you can visit it in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Alfred Deahl, 2nd year Classicist at Queens’ College.

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