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Research Coins: Feature Auction


The Finest Known Portrait Denarius of Julius Caesar


Triton XIII, Lot: 291. Estimate $75000. Sold for $160000. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

Julius Caesar. August 43 BC. AR Denarius (3.96 g, 12h). Rome mint. L Flaminius Chilo, quattuorvir aere argento auro flando feriundo. Laureate head right within within pelleted border / L • FLAMINIVS down right field, IIII VIR up left, Venus Genetrix as Felicitas standing left, holding caduceus in outstretched right hand and long scepter in left; all within pelleted border. Crawford 485/1; CNR I 102/1 (same obv. die); CRI 113; Sydenham 1089; RSC 26. Superb EF, attractively toned. Well-struck with obverse die of fine style on large flan. Very rare.

Ex Numismatica Ars Classica 21 (17 May 2001), lot 297; Numismatica Ars Classica 7 (1 March 1994), lot 653.

While this coin derives its general type from those issues struck at Rome in the month prior to Caesar’s assassination in March 44 BC, its anepigraphic obverse now shows an idealized head of Caesar that is no longer veiled, while on the reverse, Venus Genetrix holds a caduceus in place of the traditional Victory. This revised, decidedly pro-Caesarian imagery comports with the events of 43 BC. Following his assassination, it was Caesar’s fellow consul and second-in-command, Antony, and not Octavian, Caesar’s official heir, who was in power. Within days of the funeral, Antony proclaimed himself as Caesar’s dictatorial successor, first by surrounding himself with a bodyguard made up of Caesar’s veterans and then by compelling the Senate in June 44 BC to transfer the provinces of Gallia Transalpina and Gallia Cisalpina – the latter under the control of one of the conspirators, Decimus Brutus – to himself for a five-year period. When Brutus refused to yield his province, Antony sent a military expedition to oust him, and laid siege to Brutus at Mutina (mod. Modena), beginning in October 44 BC.

At the same time as Antony began to flex his quasi-dictatorial muscle, Cicero, who had been sympathetic to the conspirators, but later moved that the Senate not declare Caesar as a tyrant in order to gain their amnesty, began denouncing Antony through a series of speeches, known as the Philippics. He soon became the subject of a campaign of blandishment by Octavian, newly arrived at Rome to claim his inheritance, who hoped to acquire Cicero as an ally (and with him, other influential senators). Octavian also began raising an army. Many of the recruits had been veterans of Caesar’s army, yet Octavian was also able to acquire two of Antony’s own legions with promises of money. These events demonstrated clearly that Octavian was developing the necessary personal political skills that would give him the ultimate victory in the unfolding conflict. In January 43 BC, the Senate granted Octavian the office of propraetor along with the power of imperium (military command), sending him, along with the consuls for that year, Aulus Hirtius and Gaius Vibius Pansa to break up the siege. At Forum Gallorum and then again at Mutina, Antony was successfully defeated, although both of the consuls died as a result. Octavian was now in sole command of the army sent to defeat Antony. Young and inexperienced at the beginning of the campaign, after Mutina he had shown himself to be Antony’s military equal.

Antony, whom the Senate now declared hostis (an enemy of the state), meanwhile, withdrew further into Gallia Transalpina to Parma (which he sacked) and then to Placentia (mod. Piacenza). He then made his way into Liguria, where he met up with Marcus Lepidus, who had been his ally since Caesar’s assassination. There they remained until November 43 BC.

Octavian, now proven in the field, was slighted by the Senate’s miscalculated decision to reward Decimus Brutus for Antony’s defeat by transferring command of the legions away from Octavian to Brutus. As a result, he remained stationary in the Po Valley and refused any further assistance in the pursuit of Antony. In July 43 BC, Octavian dispatched emissaries to the Senate. He demanded hat he be appointed the consulship now left vacant by the deaths of Hirtius and Pansa and that the declaration of Antony as a hostis be rescinded. When the Senate refused his demands, Octavian marched on Rome in force. Facing no opposition (Cicero by now being resigned to the fact that Octavian would ally himself with Antony), Octavian was elected consul on 19 August 43 BC along with his cousin (and fellow great-nephew of Julius Caesar), Quintus Pedius, who would oversee the creation of the Lex Pedia in September, making Caesar’s murder, or the calling for it, capital crimes punishable by death.

Into this dramatic political period, Flaminius Chilo oversaw the striking of this coin with its definite pro-Caesarian imagery. The idealized portrait of Julius Caesar, with its definite impression of divinity, is not an individual die-engraver’s attempt at artistic fancy, but must have been influenced by Octavian’s consciously conceived program of manipulating public images (including that of Caesar) at Rome. On 1 January 42 BC, the Senate recognized Caesar’s new divine status as the Divus Julius and constructed a temple on the site of his cremation in the Forum. The Venus Genetrix on the reverse shows a similar manipulation. Deriving from the Greek Aphrodite Ourania, or heavenly Aphrodite, Venus Genetrix became not only the divine patroness of Rome through her son Aeneas, but also the ancestor of the gens Julia, through Aeneas’ son, Ascanius (Iulus). On the night before Pharsalus in 48 BC, Caesar vowed to construct a temple in her honor in Rome if he was successful against Pompey. Once completed, this temple, which housed a statue of the goddess, then became the centerpiece of his new forum in Rome. There are marked differences, however, between the statue (evidenced by several extant copies) and her depiction on the denarii struck in the month before his assassination. While the statue emphasized her procreative powers, the coins show her in a more martial and political context: holding a Victory in her right hand and a scepter in her left, either surrounded by weaponry (sometime set on a globe), or with the scepter set on a star (a sign of divinity). While these attributes may shift from one to another, they emphasize not only the divine assistance in Caesar’s military and political victories, but also allude tentatively to his semi-divinity. The Venus of this coin, however, minimizes her connection to earlier associations; instead, she now presents an image of Felicitas (Good Fortune), by replacing the Victory with a caduceus. It is not the Venus Genetrix of Julius Caesar, then, but now Venus Felix of all Rome who is at work. Thus, through the assistance of the two transformed divine agencies - the impending one of the Divus Julius, and that of Venus – that Octavian was able to take his first few steps toward political ascendancy.