On the Ides of March, 44 BC, in the House of the Senate, Julius Caesar was murdered, dramatically changing the course of Western history.
The “Eid Mar” denarius, the most famous of all Roman coins, was minted by the assassin himself, Marcus Junius Brutus, to commemorate the date. It marked the final chapter of the Roman Republic, leading to its replacement by an empire which lasted for nearly 1500 years and whose influence and legacy shapes our world today. Had Caesar not been killed, the ramifications would have likely resulted in a dramatically different history of the modern world.
The Eid Mar is one of the most extraordinary coins from any era and was voted the greatest ancient coin of all in 2008 by a consortium of the top collectors and dealers. Few other coins capture a moment in history with such precise and stark imagery. In fact, it is the only Roman coin which mentions a specific date (EID MAR), and the only one to commemorate an assassination, loudly proclaiming that the tyrant Julius Caesar is dead and that the deed was done in the name of liberty, as Brutus considered his assassination of Caesar to be an act of patriotism.
This was so remarkable that it became one of the few coin types to be mentioned by a contemporary historian. The ancient scholar Dio Cassius spoke of it in his History of Rome: “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.” (XLVII.25)
The Life of Brutus
Brutus was born in 85 BC, the child of two of Rome’s most distinguished families, the Junii, represented by his father M. Junius Brutus the Elder, and the Servili, from his mother Servilia, Caesar’s longtime mistress.
It comes as no surprise that Brutus would fight so strongly for the ideals of liberty and the defeat of unjust rulers. One of his distant ancestors was Lucius Junius Brutus, the traditional founder and first Consul of the Republic, who swore on a bloody dagger to expel the last Tarquin king, a cruel despot, from Rome in 509 BC. Another ancestor, Servius Ahala, murdered the tyrant Spurius Maelius who had threatened to overthrow the Republic and install himself as king.
Brutus’ own father was murdered on the orders of Pompey the Great during the bloody Proscriptions of 78-77 BC because he resisted the tyranny of the dictator Sulla. As tribute, in 54 BC, when appointed “triumvir monetalis” - the overseer of the mintage of coins in Rome - Brutus issued coins illustrating his strong Republican views with Libertas, the Roman goddess of liberty, and portraits of his ancestors on the coins.
Brutus was mentored by Cato the Younger, a politician, statesman, and famous orator, known for his refusal to be influenced by bribes and his famous abhorrence toward the corruption running rampant in the late Republic.
Brutus showed great promise as an orator and was very studious, writing and publishing a number of philosophical treatises and poems. He rose up in the ranks, becoming friends with Julius Caesar early in his career. Contrary to his normal demeanor, during his tenure as finance officer to the provinces, Brutus once took advantage of non-Romans, amassing a substantial fortune by loaning money to the city of Salamis in Cyprus at an interest rate of 48 percent. This aside, Brutus was praised for being the epitome of a virtuous Roman, and he later married Cato’s daughter, Porcia.
A Difficult Decision
When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and personally brought Rome into civil war on January 10, 49 BC, Brutus was faced with the decision of either supporting his friend Caesar or backing the Republican cause supported by his mentor Cato, but led by his father’s murderer Pompey.
Despite his deep hatred of Pompey, Brutus followed him against Caesar, joining them in Greece in mid-49 BC. Pompey was defeated soon after at Pharsalus and Brutus hoped to return to Rome, asking Caesar for amnesty.
Caesar granted this pardon and continued to hold Brutus in high favor, giving him many substantial high-ranking positions, including making him the governor of Gaul and a commander in the army, causing some to think that Brutus was in fact Caesar’s illegitimate son.
The Making of a Tyrant
Caesar began to show signs of megalomania, and Brutus started to worry about the fate of the Republic that he and his family cared about so deeply. Concern increased as Caesar was proclaimed dictator for life and received absolute power, holding the topmost positions within all of Rome’s offices.
Caesar was a populist, appealing to the general public by making plans to begin to severely limit the influence of the Senate and eventually dismantle it entirely. Brutus worried that Caesar’s plans would result in the threat of tyranny by a king if there were no checks and balances supplied by the Senate.
Not only did he already have all the powers of a monarch, just three months prior to his assassination, he blatantly went against Roman tradition and respect by placing his own image on the coinage. Never before had a living Roman’s portrait appeared on the coinage, a placement reserved for the gods. This indicated Caesar’s formal intention to become a king and treated like a god.
Brutus was not alone in his concerns. His colleague Gaius Cassius Longinus asked him to join a growing conspiracy against the dictator, a group named the “Liberatores” or “freedom party”. Brutus accepted, and began working to plan the unfortunate but necessary murder of his close friend, knowing that Rome would be better off without an autocratic ruler, an unavoidable result if Caesar remained in power.
The Events of the Ides of March
Brutus and his co-conspirators struck in 44 BC, on the 15th day of March, a day known in the Roman calendar as the Ides – the middle of the month, an attribute of the new calendar system that Caesar himself had established only two years earlier. Caesar had come to address a large session of the Senate where he was about to announce his plans for the invasion of Parthia. Using daggers they concealed beneath their tunics, the Liberatores surrounded Caesar, attacking him mercilessly.
When Caesar saw that his good friend Brutus was about to deliver the fatal blow, he uttered his poignant last words, asking, "Kai su, teknon?" - "You too, my child?" The events of the Ides of March have been retold in numerous novels and plays, perhaps most famously as the plot of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”. Shakespeare would translate Caesar’s final words into Latin, taking slight creative liberty to write the famous line, "Et tu, Brute?"
As Caesar lay dead on the steps of the portico in front of the House of the Senate, Brutus enthusiastically and confidently proclaimed, "People of Rome, we are once again free!"
The conspirators expected to be lauded and met with rejoice, but Caesar had won significant favor with the populace, having promised a society less determined by class, albeit under an absolute dictator who thought of himself as a god. The public was horrified by Caesar’s murder and wanted the assassins punished.
Brutus was forced to flee Rome in April, barely ahead of a mob of angry Romans thirsty for revenge. The Senate called Brutus a public enemy on November 28th, 44 BC, although Marc Antony overturned this ruling, granting amnesty for the conspirators.
Anticipating the possibility that Marc Antony and Octavian would eventually reverse their decision and turn against him, Brutus went to Macedonia, winning the loyalty of its governor Hortensius. There, Brutus was able to acquire the funds and use the army which had been allocated to Caesar for his planned Parthian invasion.
After the establishment of the Second Triumvirate between Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus in November 43 BC, the conspirators were again declared public enemies and outlawed, bringing Rome to the brink of a civil war.
In early 42 BC, Brutus reunited with Cassius, joining forces and assembling a pro-Republican base at Sardes. It was from here that they planned to wage war against Mark Antony and Octavian.
Continuing east, Brutus succeeded in defeating the Bessi in Thrace, and his troops awarded him the title of “Imperator”, an honored military commander. The wealth of the provinces of the eastern Roman Empire allowed Brutus to acquire supplies which could help support the troops.
The Moving Mint
Funding an army was a very expensive endeavor. Roman military commanders like Brutus had to pay their soldiers, and they sometimes did so by minting their own coinage in workshops that traveled with the army. With some autonomy over the design, they used these coins as a means of propaganda and to note particular victories.
Cassius minted coins with somewhat conservative themes, retaining the convention of depicting Libertas on the obverse. Conversely, Brutus took a much more direct approach, issuing the “Eid Mar” denarius to remind his soldiers that they fought for the Roman Republic and to commemorate the assassination of Caesar.
The Portrait of Brutus
Placing his portrait on the obverse of the coin could be perceived as improper or ironic, considering Caesar’s portrait on coinage was one of the reasons behind his assassination. However, in the short intervening period between Caesar’s assassination and the minting of the Eid Mar denarius, the triumvirs each began placing their own portraits on coins. With the obverse portrait of a living Roman no longer considered taboo or a claim to absolute power, Brutus followed in their footsteps to ensure he wasn’t interpreted as less of a leader than the triumvirs. He self-advertised on his denarii and aurei directly alongside the contemporary issues coming from the Second Triumvirate.
The portrait itself is of great historical importance. The only conclusively identifiable portraits of Brutus appear on the coins naming him as Imperator: the “Eid Mar” and the aurei minted by his co-conspirator Servilius Casca and general Pedanius Costa. All other portraits on coins, sculptures, or other artifacts are identified based on these coins, making Brutus’ portrait one of the hardest to acquire.
An artistic study of Brutus’ portraits was completed by S. Nodelman, dividing his inscribed portraits into three categories: a “baroque” style on the aurei from Casca, a “neoclassical” style on the aurei from Costa, and a “realistic” style on the Eid Mar. He describes the Eid Mar portraits as “the soberest and most precise of all”.
The Design of the Eid Mar Denarius
The text on the obverse reads “BRVT IMP L·PLAET·CEST”, meaning: Brutus, Imperator, Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus - the name of the moneyer who managed the mint workers who produced the coin, and this also functioned as an assay mark, guaranteeing the quality of the metal.
Packed into a simple, yet highly effective design, the reverse of this coin conveys a detailed political message. It names the date of the assassination, EIDibus MARtiis, “The Ides of March”, and shows the bloodied daggers wielded by Brutus and Cassius as the murder weapons. The daggers are always slightly different, individually representing the leaders of the conspiracy who now act as the armed opposition preparing to fight Antony and Octavian.
The central image is of a pileus, a liberty cap, which has been obtained as the result of their undertaking, indicated by it being surrounded by the daggers. This cap was associated with the Twins, Castor and Pollux, divine patrons of Rome who, according to legend, intervened in the battle of Lake Regillus where Rome defeated the Latins. A pileus was given to slaves on the day that they received their freedom, indicating that the murder of Caesar has set the Roman people free.
The Final Battle
In the summer of 42 BC, with battle imminently approaching, Brutus and Cassius marched through Macedonia, and on October 3rd, they encountered Octavian’s forces on the Via Egnatia just outside Philippi.
On the eve of the first battle, Brutus told Cassius, “On the Ides of March, I devoted my life to my country, and since then I have lived in liberty and glory.”
Brutus and Cassius split up, with Brutus facing Octavian and Cassius battling Antony. Brutus successfully pushed back the forces of Octavian, but Cassius was forced to retreat after attempting to confront Antony.
After receiving a false report that Brutus had been defeated and killed, Cassius immediately committed suicide, leaving Brutus to command the combined forces of the conspirators. However, they proved to be no match for the army of the triumvirs, and Brutus was thoroughly defeated. Following the precedence of many generals before him, Brutus committed suicide before he could be taken prisoner, poetically using the same dagger he used to kill Julius Caesar.
Among his last words were “By all means, we must fly; not with our feet, however, but with our hands.” He then called down a curse upon Antony, “Forget not, Zeus, the author of these crimes.” Antony ordered that his body be wrapped and that he be cremated, with his ashes sent to his mother, a showing of great respect.
The Surviving Denarii
The entire mintage of the Eid Mar is represented with 8 obverse dies and 27 reverses, indicating that the original issue would have been rather small. The great rarity of these coins today is doubtless because upon defeating Brutus, Antony and Octavian confiscated and melted nearly the entire mintage, deeming them illegal to own as they did not want the propaganda to continue circulating.
Today, there are about 80 genuine examples known, 30 of which reside in museums. Of the coins available to be purchased by collectors, they all obtain very strong prices at auction because of the demand for a portrait of Brutus, the dramatically commemorative reverse, and their rarity: many more than 50 people want one and can afford the high price tag.
Most of the coins were struck in slightly base silver and survive in a highly porous state or are heavily worn. A large portion of the coins to come to market in the last few decades originate from a single group buried shortly after minting and forgotten about – these coins are all of a high technical grade but are subject to possible cracking and further deterioration because of the instability of their silver after having been subjected to a harsh environment underground and subsequent heavy cleanings.
This coin, however, circulated lightly, indicating that it did not come from this group, and its final owner in antiquity withheld it from the recall, perhaps as a keepsake of their allegiance to Brutus. The obverse shows a small banker’s mark in the field: many of the finest Eid Mar denarii have banker’s marks, used to verify that the coin was made entirely of silver when being spent. It is one of the most heavily counterfeited coins today, but even in antiquity there were many examples minted with a copper core, merely plated in silver, so merchants checked to ensure they weren’t being shorted in trade.
This coin has been forever prized by die engravers, collectors and scholars, being imitated a century later to note the death of Nero and copied again during the Renaissance on a medal commemorating the assassination of Alessandro de Medici in 1537. The liberty cap has been reused throughout history, making appearances as a symbol in the French Revolution and on the early coinage of the United States, shown prominently being worn by the goddess of Liberty or held by her on a pole.
No other coin has such romance and history bound up within it, making it instantly the centerpiece of any collection.