An ancient coin celebrating the Julius Caesar assassination sold for $3.5 million at auction, CNN reported. The coin depicts Brutus, who issued it two years after the slaying of Caesar at the Theater of Pompey in Rome. His successor made a fatal mistake as well.
According to CNN, an item at auction recently broke a record for its high sales price. “An ancient gold coin described as a ‘naked and shameless celebration’ of the assassination of Julius Caesar, featuring a portrait of one of the men who killed him, has set a new record for a coin sold at auction,” the article said. “Bought by an anonymous bidder for $3.5 million, the ‘aureus’ coin features a portrait of Marcus Junius Brutus—one of the ringleaders in the assassination of Caesar in 44 BCE.
“It also depicts the daggers used by Brutus and his co-conspirator Cassius to slay the ancient general in the Theater of Pompey in Rome, and a cap of Liberty—a symbolic garment given to slaves upon their freedom.” The coin is also inscribed with a Latin phrase that translates to “The Ides of March.”
After Caesar’s assassination, Caesar’s posthumously adopted son Octavian became his successor, though he made fatal mistakes of his own.
Just Call Him Caesar
The coin in question was minted by Brutus himself as a sign that Caesar’s assassins had liberated the people of Rome, hence the “cap of Liberty” mentioned in the CNN article. But after liberation, what came next? A power vacuum, most obviously filled by Marcus Antonius, who we commonly call Marc Antony today.
“He’d been Caesar’s lieutenant for many years; he’d been Caesar’s right-hand man, the guy that Caesar would delegate authority to when he was somewhere else,” said Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete, Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. “Finally though, when Caesar’s will was opened and read, it produced a surprise candidate. Caesar tapped an utterly obscure grandnephew of his as the primary heir; and, what’s more, he then posthumously adopted that young boy as his son.”
The boy was 18-year-old Octavian, who inherited little more than Caesar’s name, becoming Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. Dr. Aldrete said that in daily life, he went by the name Caesar, and his late adopted father’s name carried him far.
All That We Leave Behind
Octavian took the name Caesar Augustus and ruled over a peaceful and prosperous Rome for a long time. While not a great military commander, he was surrounded by those who made his reign work. However, when it came time to choose a successor, he finally faltered.
“Probably his greatest mistake was choosing to select the next emperor based on heredity,” Dr. Aldrete said. “By establishing a precedent of passing power to the nearest male relative, Augustus would doom Rome to a string of incompetent, sometimes even mentally unbalanced, emperors over the next hundred years or so.”
Dr. Aldrete said that Octavian outlived his first four choices for heir, including two grandchildren. When Octavian died, the power of Roman Emperor went to his 55-year-old stepson Tiberius, who eventually withdrew to the island of Capri and fell prey to “all sorts of paranoia and sexual overindulgence,” in Dr. Aldrete’s words.
“The next set of emperors will have several names among them who were notorious for insanity and debauchery, including Caligula and Nero,” he said. “Augustus’s decision to base imperial succession on the principle of heredity and blood relationships would end up having dire consequences for all of Roman history.”
Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete contributed to this article. Dr. Aldrete is Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, where he has taught since 1995. He earned his BA from Princeton University and his master’s degree and PhD in Ancient History from the University of Michigan.