Beware, the Ides of March is nearly upon us! From the Classical world to Shakespeare … today’s post by Judith from the Visitor Team is inspired by one of the Roman coins from the Money gallery at Manchester Museum
And for more about the objects and collections at Manchester Museum, have a look at the Curators’ blogs.
The Eid Mar Denarius
Located in Manchester Museum’s Money gallery, the Eid Mar coin has been voted the greatest of ancient coins by numismatists because of its rarity and immense historical significance. The coin was struck by a moving mint that travelled with Brutus’ and Cassius’ army in Northern Greece in the summer of 42 BC, just a month or so before Brutus’s defeat and suicide at the Battle of Philippi.
Electrotype copy of denarius of Brutus, Acc. No. OC152, Manchester Museum (Image from Manchester Museum Collection Online)
The coin celebrates the murder of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March.
The man depicted on the obverse, Marcus Junius Brutus, was one of the key ringleaders of the assassination plot, despite being the son of Julius Caesar’s long-time mistress, Servilia. It is the only Roman coin to mention a specific date, the only Roman coin to openly celebrate an act of murder, and one of the very few specific coins mentioned by a classical author. In his account of the Roman civil wars of 49-31 BC, the Roman historian Cassius Dio writes:
“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 in ‘Historia Romana’
‘BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH!’ – William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (I.2)
The Tusculum portrait, perhaps the only surviving sculpture of Julius Caesar made during his lifetime
On the 15th March (Ides of March), 44 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) left his house to begin his journey to the Theatre of Pompey to convene with the Senate. There had been ominous portents – Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia had a dream of him bleeding to death in her arms and a soothsayer named Spurinna famously warned him to ‘beware the Ides of March’. Although Caesar did hesitate, one of the conspirators Decius persuaded him to continue.
Julius Caesar was at the height of his powers having been declared dictatus perpetuus (dictator for life) in February, but there was growing concern amongst many senators that he was becoming ever more megalomaniacal and powerful. Minting money for an anticipated campaign in Parthia, Julius Caesar was the first to have his face portrayed on a Roman coin and in doing so he associated himself with the trappings of a king.
Denarius with portrait of Julius Caesar on the obverse and words “CAESAR DICT PERPETVO” meaning “Caesar, dictator for life”. (Image from: commons.wikimedia.org)
To republicans such as Marcus Brutus, this convinced them that the fate of the Republic was at stake. When his brother-in law Gaius Cassius Longinus encouraged him to join a conspiracy against the Caesar, Brutus accepted and became its key ringleader.
‘The Death of Caesar’ or ‘La Mort de César’, painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1867 (Image from: en.wikipedia.org)
Plutarch wrote that Caesar was stabbed a total of 23 times by a cabal of about 60 senators with such venom ‘that many of the conspirators were wounded by one another, as they struggled to plant all those blows in one body’ (Plutarch, Caesar 66). Caesar’s supposed poignant last words were delivered in Greek as Brutus struck him: “Kai su teknon?” (You too, my child?). Shakespeare would later translate this to Latin to create the immortal line, “Et tu Brute?”
AFTERMATH OF ASSASSINATION
The conspirators expected to be hailed as liberators, but the Roman populace was horrified by Caesar’s murder. Brutus fled Rome in April and joined Cassius in assembling a pro-Republican power base in Macedonia, where they could wage war against Caesar’s successors, the Triumvirate of Octavian, Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. He began to strike coins to pay his growing army and the Eid Mar coin was minted in 42 BC.
Silver ‘Eid Mar’ denarius (Image from: britishmuseum.org)
Popularly known as the Eidibus Martiis (on the Ides of March), or abbreviated to EID MAR, this coin features on the obverse a profile of Brutus after he was acclaimed ‘imperator’ by his troops after victory in battle. The reverse depicts the pileus, the freedman’s cap indicating a manumitted slave with a dagger on each side representing Brutus and Cassius as the liberators who freed the Republic from Caesar’s tyranny. It is ironic – one of the acts that so angered the conspirators was Julius Caesar putting his own portrait on coins, prompting fears that he aimed to make himself King. Now Brutus was following suit, while defiantly celebrating his betrayal of Caesar on the reverse.
In a final twist of fate, Brutus allegedly used the same dagger he had plunged into Julius Caesar to take his own life following final defeat of the assassins at the second battle of Philippi on October 23, 42 BC. The great rarity of Eid Mar denarii today is that most were melted down by the victors, Mark Antony and Octavian.
In the end all the hopes of the conspirators were in vain as Caesar’s death precipitated the end of the Roman Republic.