The Julius Caesar “Elephant” Silver Denarius
Julius Caesar, AR denarius (19mm, 3.97 gm). 49BC. Military mint, perhaps struck from Temple of Saturn hoard. Obverse: Elephant advancing right, trampling horned serpent; Reverse: CAESAR in exergue / Pontifical implements: ladle (simpulum), sprinkler (aspergillum), axe (securis), and pontiff’s cap (apex). Crawford 443/1. CRI 9. Sydenham 1006. RSC 49. Superb eye appeal and iridescent toning. An unusually well-centered example. NGC AU STAR Strike 5/5, Surface 4/5
In January of 49BC,Julius Caesar had made his famous “crossing of the Rubicon” into Italy, defying the orders of the Senate and confirming a civil war against his rival General, Pompey the Great. However, Caesar (as usual) had serious money problems. Most importantly, he needed vast sums of silver to pay his legions. Defying hundreds of years of Roman law, Julius Caesar barged his way into the State treasury at the Temple of Saturn in Rome, and stripped it of wealth. From this hoard Caesar minted the “Elephant” denarius. Why an elephant? It had a dual meaning. First, legend had it that the founder of Caesar’s family killed an elephant single-handedly. Second, Caesar’s rival Pompey had recently tried to enter Rome on a chariot drawn by 4 elephants, since the gate was too narrow, the entrance was a flop. This coin was a perfect opportunity for Caesar to promote his cause at the expense of Pompey. By October of 49BC, Caesar was appointed Dictator by Rome’s Senate and his victory was assured.
Obverse: Elephant advancing to the right, trampling on a horned serpent, with the word CAESAR in large letters below. The Elephant represents the CAESAR family and the failure of Caesar’s rival Pompey, while the serpent represents the enemies of Rome. Reverse: Pontifical symbols, or the implements of the high priesthood. Julius Caesar was Pontifex Maximus at this time. The implements are: simpulum (ladle with long handle used to make libations), aspergillum (stick with long horse-hair at the end used to sprinkle holy water), securis (an axe used to kill the animal sacrifice), and apex (the cap worn by the priest).
The Julius Caesar silver Denarius portraying the Elephant is one of the most historically significant and iconic coins of the ancient world. Of the three silver Denarius designs authorized under Julius Caesar (the other two being the coin featuring the Caesar household goddess Venus, and the coin showing Julius Caesar’s portrait), it can be argued that the elephant denarius represents the most eventful year in Caesar’s life, 49BC. No ancient coin collection is complete without this coin, and the relative availability of it puts the price within reach to most serious collectors.
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