Julius Caesar: The Man and His Coins
Born in Rome in 100 B.C., Gaius Julius Caesar came from a fairly respectable aristocratic family, but Caesar believed “fairly respectable” wasn’t going to cut it. On his mother’s side, Caesar could trace his ancestry to the first Kings of Rome. On his father’s side, Caesar traced his ancestry to the goddess Venus. So he thought, “Hm, Kings of Rome on one side, divine personage on the other side…I think I’ll pass on that job offer as treasurer of the Syracuse Barber’s Association.”*
After the death of his father when he was merely 16, Caesar began to plot his career. He decided that to have success in the Roman Republic, he needed two things: influence and money. Influence would give him access to money, and money to more influence, and that influence to even more money, and…well, you get the idea.
So Julius Caesar married into a family even more respectable than his own, which gave him access to lines of credit not available to regular people. He borrowed vast sums of money and then spent that money lavishly on bribes and gifts to increase his social standing. As a result of his popularity, he would be appointed or elected to some high office which would allow him to appropriate money in order to pay his debts. This cycle (marriage, borrowing money, bribing, appointment to high office, paying off debts) is one he employed several times. He married three times, spent and recovered several fortunes, and was appointed to the most coveted posts in the Empire, including Pontifex Maximus, Governor, Consul, and – eventually – Dictator for Life. He also killed a bunch of barbarians, won a civil war against Pompey the Great, took a Nile River cruise with Cleopatra VII which resulted in a bouncing baby boy, and fixed the calendar. Then he put his portrait on a coin (one of many insults the Roman Republic could not bear), and was assassinated by his frenemies on March 15, 44BC. Eventually a salad was erected in his honor.
I sort of glossed over some good parts.
Some Good Parts
What was Julius Caesar like in person? Ahem, I never actually met him in person, but various accounts mention that he was fair-haired, with thin but rounded facial features, and sported a bald spot that he self-consciously covered by combing the hair from the back of his head forward. True. As you may have gathered, he was ambitious. Caesar’s personal amiability was exceeded only by his public speaking skill, and his exploits and adventures were exceeded only by his accounts of them. He had boundless energy, sometimes dictating to two secretaries at once – while riding horseback on military campaigns! He had a penchant for crossing the line, both romantically and territorially, and employed both cruelty and mercy with varying degrees of success. In his 50’s he occasionally suffered fainting spells and convulsions, leading present-day historians to diagnose him with epilepsy. I’m sure they know.
Didn’t he get kidnapped by pirates? Yep. As a young man in his 20’s, he was on his way to Rhodes to advance his speaking career when he was captured by a band of seafaring human traffickers. They demanded a ransom of 20 talents of silver (about $333,000.00 U.S. in 2015 terms). Caesar was furious, and persuaded them to raise the ransom demand to 50 talents of silver (about $830,000.00 U.S.). The pirates thought this was pretty cool and took a liking to their young captive. Caesar read his poetry to them and laughingly called them his “personal bodyguard.” They showed him the ropes, treated him kindly, and even joked around with him. He joked right back, saying someday he was going to hunt them down and crucify them all. Ha, ha! They got their 50 talents of silver and enjoyed their vast wealth for a few weeks until Caesar returned with a fleet of ships, captured the pirates, and crucified them all.
Wasn’t Caesar a great general? Julius Caesar was more specific than general, but he did become one of history’s most successful military commanders…later in life. You see, when he was just over 30, after having bought his way into the Governorship of Spain, Caesar found himself staring up at a statue of Alexander the Great. He began to weep in shame, realizing that by his age Alexander had conquered most of the known world, while Caesar was little more than a corrupt dandy. He decided to study the art of war and employ himself in it as a practicum. Turns out he was pretty good at it. He defeated Gallic and Germanic armies many times the size of his own forces, and even faced down and destroyed the much larger army of his one-time ally but eventual rival Pompey the Great.
Is the month of April named after Julius Caesar? No, but the month of July is.
What are the “Ides of March”? Besides the name of a garage rock band in the 1980’s in Dunedin, Florida that quickly fell apart due to an appalling lack of talent, in ancient Rome it was March 13th or 15th. The Ides originally corresponded to the first full moon of the Roman New Year (which started in March), and had religious significance, as it was a day dedicated to Jupiter. According to a couple of ancient historians (Plutarch and Suetonius, if you must know), Caesar was warned by a Seer named “Spurinna” to be wary of the Ides of March. Caesar happened to pass the Seer on his way to the theater that day (where he was later assassinated) and joked aloud, “Well, the Ides of March have come!” This meant, “Your prediction has failed”. The Seer reportedly replied, “Aye, Caesar, but not gone.”
So how did Caesar die, really? Sixty Senators gathered with Caesar in the Theater of Pompey, ostensibly to present a petition, but actually to stab him 23 times. One ancient historian says that when Caesar noticed M. Junius Brutus among his assassins, he called out “You too, my child?” Brutus was a protégé of Caesar and the son of his mistress. Another source reports Caesar said nothing at the sight of Brutus, but merely pulled his tunic over his own eyes.
Why was this guy so important? Well, besides the calendar thing and inspiring a new twist on roughage, Julius Caesar did a little something sneaky with his home country. During his life, Rome was a Republic, ruled by Senators and the men they appointed. Rome hadn’t had a king for 500 years. The Romans derided kings as the perverse convention of primitive peoples. When Caesar got himself declared “Dictator for Life” and began to put his mug on official coins, the patriots of the Republic believed he was establishing a monarchy. That’s why they killed him, mainly. The Republicans underestimated Caesar’s popularity, however, and after a bitter civil war, Caesar’s grandnephew became more like a king than Caesar ever dreamed. So the grandnephew Octavian (Augustus) essentially discarded the Republic and established the Roman Empire. The Empire changed the world dramatically, not to mention providing the inspiration for antagonists in 20th century science fiction movies and television shows.
Coins of Julius Caesar
What coins were minted under Julius Caesar? I’m so glad you asked. The coins minted under Caesar were:
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- The Bronze As or Dupondius. Generally these were made in 45BC and show the bust of Lady Victory on the obverse and Minerva on the Reverse. Caesar is noted as the dictator on the inscription. These are quite rare but can sometimes be found for under $1,000.00. A posthumous bronze coin exists issued by Octavian, but featuring Julius Caesar’s portrait. This coin is less rare than the former, and can sometimes be found in low grade for as little as $500.00.
The Silver Denarius – Three basic types of Julius Caesar Silver Denarii exist: The first features an Elephant on the obverse (minted to pay his troops while on the march), the second features Julius’ family goddess Venus, and the third actually shows the portrait of Caesar himself. The silver denarius is a little smaller than the size of a U.S. Nickel. These coins can range in value from $1,000.00 to $5,000.00 or more (the portrait coins being the rarest), and it is possible to find all three for the best collections.
The Gold Aureus – Three basic obverse gold types exist: one with a veiled image of Vesta, one with a bust of Venus, and one with the bust of Victory. I have seen some Julius Caesar gold Aurei sell for as little as $2,000.00 in low grade, with high grade examples trading well over $50,000.00. These are obviously highly sought-after. These gold coins are, like the Denarii, similar in size to the U.S. nickel.
- Some Provincial Bronze Coins – A few bronze issues were made during Caesar’s life or just after his death in some Roman provinces, including Macedonia, Corinth, Mysia, and Apameia. While not always expensive (sometimes under $300.00 in lower grade), these coins are very challenging to find.