508/4 Aureus Brutus, Cap of liberty two daggers EID MAR Ides of March. British Museum new long term loan (BM photo)
Photo BM copyright, with permission; BM press release 15th March 2010:
ET TU BRUTE?
A UNIQUE GOLD COIN COMMEMORATING THE ASSASSINATION OF JULIUS CAESAR
On the 15th (or “ides”) of March 44 BC, Julius Caesar was infamously assassinated by a group of twenty-three conspirators, who were angered by the Roman general and politician’s rise to power and persistent rumours that he wished to become king – a concept abhorrent to most people in Republican Rome. One of the assassins, Marcus Junius Brutus, had been considered a trusted ally by Caesar. The betrayal felt by Caesar is evocatively captured in the fictional line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: "Et tu Brute?" The conspiracy sparked an extended period of civil war, during which C. Octavius (later Rome’s first emperor, Augustus) and Mark Antony fought and defeated the assassins before eventually turning against each other in a confrontation that led to the downfall of the Roman Republic.
Perversely to the modern eye, Brutus chose to commemorate Caesar’s murder through the issue of coinage, which carried his portrait, the date (EID MAR), as well as images of assassins daggers and a “pileus” or freedman’s cap, symbolic of Rome’s escape from tyranny. It was produced in 43-42 BC at the mobile mint of Brutus and his fellow conspirators, who had by this time fled Rome for Greece. Unusually the coin’s significance was recognised in antiquity and it was described by Cassius Dio in the second century AD:
"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 (47.25.1)
Silver coins (denarii) of this type, issued by Brutus after he and his fellow conspirators were driven from Rome, are unusual enough with around sixty examples known. Gold coins (aurei) of this type are extraordinarily rare with only two known. This coin, which is owned by a private collector, Michael Winckless, has been generously lent to the British Museum on a long-term basis and will go on display in the Museum’s Roman Empire gallery (Room 70) from the “Ides” of March.
The story of this coin’s significance does not end here however. The coin has been pierced and close analysis suggests that this is likely to have taken place shortly after it was struck. If so, it takes on a new significance, as it would have been pierced so that it could be worn as a pendant around the neck. Wearing this coin would have been a powerful symbol of support for the conspirators and their cause. Given that gold coins were high value coins – perhaps the equivalent of a month’s pay for an ordinary Roman legionary – it is likely that its owner was a wealthy and powerful supporter of the conspirators. It was perhaps even in the possession of one of the conspirators themselves!