Julius Caesar
60 - 44 BCE
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"Beware the Ides of March ..." (from Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare)

Julius Caesar is viewed as the man most responsible for sealing the fate of the Roman Republic and ensuring the rise of the Imperial system, yet he was never an Emperor. The public outrage at his murder, fanned to flame by Marc Antony, drove the Republicans from power and paved the way for his grand-nephew Octavian to invent the office of Emperor.

Julius Caesar Commemorative Denarius
About this coin: Posthumous issue, minted in Rome by nephew Octavian (the future first emperor, Augustus). Obverse: Laureate head of Caesar, facing to the right. Reverse: "TI SEMPRONIVS GRACCVS Q DEGIS", with legionary eagle (aka "Bird on a Stick") between plow and sceptre. (RSC 48)

Julius Caesar gets the lion's share of credit (or blame) for the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Imperial system. Perhaps he deserves it. But the Republican form of government was tottering when he came on the scene, and he could not have done what he did had not the time been already ripe. He was, in fact, not even the first "Dictator" of Rome. That honor goes to Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who used his position to restore and support the power of the aristocratic Senate.

In the two decades after Sulla's abdication and death, his generals Crassus and Pompey consolidated their power. Our boy, Julius Caesar, hitched his wagon to Crassus. He was rewarded by being invited to join the first "triumvirate", a private pact between Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar with no official legal standing. From this, he finagled an appointment to Cisalpine Gaul, which gave him the opportunity to establish his own reputation as a great general.

"Elephant and Serpent" Denarius
About this coin: One of the most widely collected coins of Caesar, the obverse features an elephant trampling a serpent and the reverse features priestly implements. It isn't clear whether the serpent represents the Gauls specifically, or just a general embodiment of all who would defy Caesar's might.

Upon the death of Crassus in his disastrous Parthian campaign, tensions began to build between Pompey (who portrayed himself as the defender of the Senate) and Caesar. At first, at Caesar's suggestion, the Senate ordered both Pompey and Caesar to disband their armies, but then the order was changed to apply only to Caesar. Instead of complying, he attacked. Pompey fled, and Caesar pursued him. Finally, when Pompey retreated to Egypt, he was murdered, and his pickled head was delivered to Caesar.

While in Egypt, Caesar "settled" a rivalry between Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra VII, sibling claimants to the Egyptian throne. Caesar made Cleopatra sole Queen of Egypt and, incidentally, took her as a lover.

After more triumphs, Caesar was declared "Dictator for Life" by the Senate. He also broke with Roman tradition and had coins minted with his own portrait on them. This was rather shocking at the time, and was taken as evidence by certain people that he had become far too powerful. A plot against him was hatched.

Brutus "Eid Mar" Denarius
(modern replica)
About this coin: Attributed to Slavey, a modern Bulgarian coin replicator, this is a replica of one of the most rare and valuable Roman coins, the so-called "Eid Mar" (Ides of March) denarius of Caesar's most famous assassin, Brutus. The obverse features Brutus's portrait, and the reverse features a "liberty cap" (a cap given to freed slaves) flanked by two knives.

Interesting that Brutus would mint coins with his own portrait after complaining about Caesar's having done the same thing earlier ... Well, that's politics!

On March 15, 44 BCE, Marcus Junius Brutus and his fellow conspirators stabbed Caesar to death. On the famous "Eid Mar" (Ides, or 15th, of March) coin, he painted himself as a supporter of freedom. The "Liberty Cap" symbol (which was adopted in much U.S. coinage) was an obvious reference to freeing the Roman people from slavery under Caesar.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple. The Senatorial system that Brutus supported was not one of freedom for the common man, but rather of privilege for the wealthy. The irony of this view of Brutus as freedom's champion is that Caesar was already in the process of replacing wealthy and privileged aristocrats with people of more humble origins. This might ultimately have had the effect only of replacing one privileged elite with another, but Caesar was viewed as more of a friend of the common Roman than were the Senators whose cause Brutus championed.

In any case, Caesar's second-in-command, Marc Antony, used the occasion of Caesar's funeral to fan the flames of outrage against his assassins, and Brutus and Cassius were forced to flee Rome. Though there were still a few more acts to play out, the last hope of reestablishing the Republican form of government was near death.

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