Coin Relief 44 – Et tu, Brute!

Welcome to the next edition of Coin Relief! In this issue Andrew Brown discusses coins linked to the notorious murder of Julius Caesar

Kαὶ σύ, τέκνον – Et tu, Brute!

On the 15th of March 44 BC a group of 60 senators led by Marcus Junius Brutus of the gens Junia, formerly governor of Cisalpine Gaul (47-45 BC) and Praetor (44 BC), set upon Julius Caesar as he entered the Theatre of Pompey. The group of conspirators, fuelled by opposition and fear to Caesar’s increasing dictatorial power in Rome, stabbed Caesar 23 times with the second, reportedly lethal, blow delivered by Brutus himself (e.g. Suetonius Divus Julius 80-82). The Ides of March has become synonymous with the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic, to be transmitted in later history through the likes of Shakespeare (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar). In the Shakespearean tradition Caesar’s last words are often recounted as “et tu, Brute?” (but see below…) although other, more contemporary, sources suggest he either said nothing or used the Greek “καὶ σύ, τέκνον” (“Kai su, teknon?” or “You too, child?”) (Suetonius Divus Julius 82; Plutarch Caesar 66.9).

The coinage of this period is fascinating in many respects and aside from the many coin types that relate directly to Caesar others relate to the conspirators involved in his assassination and the Civil War that ensued. Although initially pardoned by the senate, once Octavian came to power he set out along with Marc Antony to avenge Caesar’s assassination in what became the Liberator’s Civil War between 43-42 BC. The leaders of the assassins (known as the Liberatores), Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus (often simply Cassius), had fled to the eastern provinces where in October 42 BC their seventeen legions faced the nineteen legions of Octavian and Antony in two battles of Philippi (Macedonia). In the First Battle of Philippi, Brutus’ forces overpowered Octavian’s while Antony’s were victorious over Cassius, the latter subsequently committing suicide. A second, decisive, battle followed later in the month with Octavian and Antony’s combined forces defeating Brutus and the remnants of the Liberatores army. Brutus himself committed suicide, bringing about the end of the Civil War.

Prior to Caesar’s assassination, coinage was struck by Brutus in his role as moneyer, probably in 54 BC. Two types in particular (RRC 433/1 and 433/2) emphasise the ancestral links of Brutus and the Bruti to the early days of the Roman Republic and their roles in ensuring liberty (libertas) and struggle against tyranny. In Cicero (Brutus 53) we hear that one of Brutus’ ancestors and founder of the family, the consul L. Iunius Brutus, correctly interpreted an oracle that allowed him to overthrow the Tarquin Kings and establish the Republic in 509 BC. This episode is represented on Brutus’ denarii (RRC 433/1), depicting L Iunius Brutus as consul, of which there are at least 6 PAS examples.

Denarii of M. Iunius Brutus, c.54BC (BM-2A55B9, British Museum, and SF-E12D59, Suffolk County Council, both license CC-BY.)

In a later incident in the history of the Bruti, Spurius Maelius was suspected of attempting to establish a monarchy in 439 BC only to be killed by Brutus’ ancestor (reportedly on his mother’s side) and Master of Horse Gaius Servilius Ahala (see Livy 4.14). A second issue of Brutus from c.54 BC depicts the head of Brutus on one face with his supposed ancestor Ahala on the other (RRC 433/2). There do not appear to be any examples of this type on the PAS to date.

The presence of libertas types and Brutus’ hearkening back to his ancestor’s efforts to overthrow tyranny are perhaps a reaction to the growing influence of Pompey within the Republic. With the later rise of Caesar, a second member of the Bruti and co-conspirator to the assassination – Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus, a distant cousin of Brutus – also issued
denarii as moneyer in c.48 BC. There are approximately 8 PAS examples for two different types of Brutus Albinus’ coinage, one (RRC 450/1) with Mars obverse and two carnyces (Celtic war trumpets) in a saltire on the reverse – there are 4 PAS examples. The other carries a bust of Pietas with clasped hands holding a caduceus, for which there are four PAS examples, two of which are pierced.

Denarius of D. Iunius Brutus Albinus, c. 48BC. Record ID HAMP-AF0F82.

A final type from the same issue of Albinus coinage, RRC 450/3, carries a bust of Aulus Postumius Albinus, the last consul of the Postumii Albini in 99 BC. There appear to be no PAS examples of this type though. As with Brutus himself, those of his cousin continue to recall ancestral links as well as virtues important to the Republic (e.g. Pietas).

Probably the most recognisable of Brutus’ coin type, though, is the issue celebrating Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March. This is arguably the most famous coin type of the Roman world, indeed Cassius 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.” (Cassius Dio 47.25.3). These issues depict Brutus on the obverse, with the reverse carrying the pileus – the cap of liberty worn by freedmen, referencing freedom from Caesar’s tyranny – along with the daggers representing the co-conspirators and maybe even reflecting the weapons used in the actual assassination itself(?). Despite the fame of this coin type, it is very rare and especially so in Britain with just one example on the PAS.

The only example of an EID MAR denarius on the PAS database. Record ID FAPJW-E8D710.

Following Caesar’s murder, in 43 BC, the assassins, initially given amnesty by the senate, were condemned in absentia and officially exiled by the state. In the year leading up to Philippi, coins were struck by the surviving triumvirs, Octavian and Antony (along with Lepidus), typically stressing their authority as well as individual links to the now deified Casesar.

A slightly more war-like type appears for Octavian, too, in 42 BC, which heralds the Battles of Philippi, depicting a bust of Mars on the obverse with legionary standards on the reverse. There are at least four PAS examples of this type.

Denarius of Octavian, c.42 BC with bust of Mars and legionary standards. Record ID NMS-F1B979.

On the other side of the conflict, coins were issued in the names of both Brutus and Cassius as leaders of the forces opposing Octavian and Antony, often again stressing libertas and elements that reflect ideals in opposition to tyranny or in support of the Republic. Although not represented on the PAS database, aurei for both Brutus and Cassius highlight their status as leaders of the opposition and supporters of the Republic, the Cassius type also referencing Libertas with its obverse type.

Denarii from this period reflect similar themes and although rare as PAS finds there are a handful of examples recorded to date. At least three examples of Brutus with bust of Neptune on the obverse and Victory reverse types are recorded and a rarer single example with bust of Apollo is also present.

Denarius of Brutus by the moneyer P. Costa, c.43-42 BC. Record ID BERK-C5A6C8.

So far, there appear to be no PAS coins with images of denarii that carry more overt associations between Brutus, Cassius, and the Republic. It is possible examples of these and similar types may well appear in the future or already be on the database amongst the range of Republican denarii that require further editing.

The presence of attributes not only relating to Libertas but also to Apollo (lyre, tripod, laurel branch, etc.) is worth noting here. It was the oracular reading from the Delphic Apollo that Brutus’ ancestor correctly interpreted to bring about the beginning of the Republic. The types on the coinage therefore create an important link between the Bruti, Apollo, and the Republic as opposed to the tyranny and kingship that they sought (successfully in the past and now with Caesar and his followers) to overthrow.

Although the famous EID MAR denarius of Brutus is an instantly recognisable and often broadcast image relating to Caesar’s assassination, it has to be remembered that it was one component of a much longer numismatic story for both sides either in support or against Caesar and the Republic. Brutus and Cassius’ coinages obviously disappear with their defeat at Philippi, but that of the later Republic continues and we see similar themes in the coinages of Octavian and Antony in particular with elements used to both garner support, claim ancestry, and arguably as general propaganda for one or other side of their own causes. It is a fascinating period of numismatic history and experimentation. Whether Caesar’s final words were indeed directed at Brutus or not – even in Shakespearean tradition the often quoted “et tu, Brute?” are not actually his final words, since he goes on to say “Then fall, Caesar” – the event continues to be pivotal to the Republic and stimulates discussion. Not to mention a fascinating series of coins.