It was July 13th, 100 BC, and no one could have anticipated the change about to come from the birth of Gaius Julius Caesar.
Caesar’s family, the Julii, had an impressive pedigree as an ancient and well-established family, but they were not particularly politically influential until Caesar’s father was given governorship of the province of Asia.
After his father’s sudden death in 85 BC, Caesar became the head of the family while his uncle, Gaius Marius, was in the middle of a civil war with Lucius Cornelius Sulla. His uncle eventually lost to Sulla, and Caesar’s inheritance was confiscated. He decided to leave Rome to join the army where he won the Civic Crown, the second highest military decoration a citizen could receive, for his part in an important siege.
Upon Sulla’s death in 78 BC, Caesar returned to Rome and became well-known for being an exceptional orator, using passionate gestures and a relatively high-pitched voice to speak forcefully in favor of the condemnation and prosecution of corrupt governors.
The Rise of a Leader
Caesar won the friendship of Rome’s richest citizen, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who provided him financial backing, especially during his election to the post of Pontifex Maximus. This election was not without controversy, as Caesar’s win was unexpected in light of the standing of the two competing Senators, leaving many to feel that bribery was the sole cause for his success.
When Caesar returned to Rome, he was rejected by the Senate, causing him to form the First Triumvirate, an alliance uniting Crassus and the great military general Pompey. Crassus and Pompey had been blocking each other’s political moves, but Caesar promised to support them both if they worked together to help him get elected as consul.
In 59 BC, Caesar succeeded in securing a consulship against heavy opposition from Marcus Porcius Cato, an extremely conservative politician. Caesar used armed force to pass his self-serving legislation, pushing Pompey’s measures through, helping Crassus’ proposals, and giving himself a five-year term as proconsul of Gaul, a region comprising northern Italy and southern France.
Growing the Republic
Crassus had perished on the battlefield in 53 BC, and the relationship between Pompey and Caesar had become strained, causing Pompey to drift away and align himself against Caesar. The Senate tried to use Pompey to enforce their decision to revoke Caesar’s command. This resulted in Caesar famously crossing the Rubicon with his legions on January 10th, 49 BC, an act of rebellion. He succeeded in capturing Rome, forcing Pompey and most of the Senate to flee Italy.
The following civil war lasted for four years with campaigns throughout Africa, Spain, and Greece. Pompey was defeated at Pharsalus in 48 BC, and Caesar claimed all of his remaining troops. Caesar’s intent was to unify the factions, welcoming and advancing the careers of all who sided with him.
Caesar made considerable positive changes, instituting numerous improvements which showed his political and humanitarian talents. He reformed the civic administration, improved the stability of urban life, established the first public library, embarked upon significant building projects, extended Roman citizenship into the provinces, and formalized a new calendar. Shortly before his death, the month of Quintilis was renamed July in his honor.
A Step Too Far
He then required the Senate to bestow various titles and honors upon him, including “Father of the Homeland”, “Imperator”, and to accept him as a demigod. He gave himself the right to speak first during every dialog at Senate meetings and increased the number of magistrates elected each year, allowing Caesar to reward his supporters with public positions at the expense of introducing a large pool of inexperience and bias.
Caesar added a vast number of his own senators, eventually resulting in a 900-member Senate, which severely diluted the influence of the original members who were familiar with the actual workings of Rome. To prevent the risk of another general challenging him, Caesar introduced a law which subjected governors to term limits. As he prepared to go to war against the Parthian Empire, he recognized that his absence from Rome could limit his ability to install his own consuls, so he passed a law which allowed him to personally and proactively appoint all of the future magistrates of 43 BC and all of the consuls and tribunes of 42 BC.
Between the four moneyers, twenty-eight distinct varieties were minted. The volume of production and large number of variations on the types of denarii indicate that Caesar anticipated needing a large quantity of coinage to pay the army he was building to fight the upcoming Parthian war. All aspects of the coins were chosen carefully, specifically designed for political propaganda as coins were easily understood by all, even the illiterate, allowing messages to spread widely.
This coin can be dated accurately to January-February, 44 BC, mere weeks before his assassination. It was minted by Buca, as indicated by the reverse legend L AEMILIVS BVCA.
The Portrait of a Dictator
The portraits of Caesar on the coins in his final year were engraved in a very natural style and are believed to closely mirror his actual appearance, especially in how they highlight the folds in his neck. It is unknown as to whether or not Caesar himself was used as the model for the images or if a recent statue were the inspiration for the die cutters.
The reverse reiterates the designation of Venus, the Roman goddess, as Caesar’s divine patroness. Caesar claimed that Venus was an ancestor of his, even going so far as to use her name as the password for his troops during multiple battles. The military nature of her protection is explicitly shown by her holding a small figure of Victory as well as a scepter in her left hand.
On February 14th, 44 BC, Caesar was appointed perpetual dictator for life. Being declared dictator did not carry the negative connotations it does today and instead generally identified the dictator as the hero and savior of the people. However, being claimed “dictator for life” crossed the line into a monarchy, a position which was greatly despised.
He arranged for the Senate to recognize him as a king outside of Italy. It was prophesied that only a king could conquer Parthia, and it was expected that Caesar would next force the Senate to call him King of Rome.
Caesar significantly improved Roman life but sealed his fate by overstepping in his desire to acquire power. Much to the dismay of his assassins, the murder of Caesar immediately started a cascade of events which quickly evaporated the power of the Senate and ended its Republican ways. This brought forth the Roman Empire with Augustus at the helm, who learned from his adoptive father’s mistakes and ruled more amicably, avoiding the connotations of a monarchy.
Julius Caesar with L. Aemilius Buca. Denarius 44, AR 3.63 g. CAESAR•IM – P – M Wreathed head of Caesar r.; behind, crescent. Rev. [L]•AEMILIVS – BVCA Venus standing l., holding sceptre and Victory. Babelon Julia 34 and Aemilia 13. Sydenham 1060. Sear Imperators 102. Crawford 480/4. A very attractive portrait and a light iridescent tone, about extremely fine.