Archive for October 8th, 2020

Third EID MAR aureus emerges at auction

Thursday, October 8th, 2020

A previously unpublished gold aureus of the most coveted coin in the world, the EID MAR struck by Brutus in 42 B.C. to commemorate the assassination of Julius Caesar, is coming up for auction. With only two other authenticated examples, this is an incredibly rare coin, a once in many generations opportunity for whoever can afford the astronomical cost that will assuredly blow far past its presale estimate of £500,000 ($644,150). It’s also in incredible condition. Behold!

Previously unpublished EID MAR aureus coming up for auction. Photo courtesy Roman Numismatics.

Almost all of the surviving EID MARs, about 85 or so at most recent count, are silver denarii, a day’s wage for a Roman foot soldier. They are believed to have been struck for distribution to soldiers and officers of Brutus and Cassius’ armies in Greece before their final defeat by Mark Antony’s forces at the Battles of Philippi in October of 42 B.C. The gold coins were not paychecks; they can only have been sparingly handed out to the highest echelon of Brutus’ supporters. To the winner goes the spoils, as they say, and the EID MAR coins were spoils par excellence. Antony had them rounded up and melted down, which is why there are so few in circulation today.

The obverse features a profile portrait of Marcus Junius Brutus identified by the legend BRVT IMP (Brutus Imperator). The inscription on left of the portrait, L PLAET CEST, refers to the moneyer of Brutus’ mobile mint, Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus, who had the coins struck.

It was shamelessly hypocritical of Brutus to put his face on a coin to celebrate his murder of someone accused of wanting absolute rule when one of the charges against Caesar was that he had broken an ancient taboo and allowed his face to be put on coins. It was very much against custom in Republican Rome for living people to be portrayed on coins. There were a couple of coins with his likeness struck in tribute to him in the eastern provinces, which caused much grumbling a few years before the assassination. That grumbling turned to a mighty roar after Caesar was declared dictator for life in January of 44 B.C. Several coins were issued by his moneyers celebrating CAESAR DICT PERPETVO, some with his portrait wearing the laurel wreath alone and others veiled and wreathed, combining his religious role as Pontifex Maximus with his military role as triumphing general.

The reverse of Brutus’ coin bears the symbols celebrating the assassination of Caesar. In the middle is a pileus, the distinctive “liberty cap” given to freedmen on their emancipation day. The conspirators adopted this unmistakable symbol of freedom to mark their act as a tyrannicide, not a murder, but a defense of Republican freedom from a would-be king, just as Marcus Junius Brutus’ ancestor, Lucius Junius Brutus, had righteously killed Tarquin the Proud, the last Etruscan king of Rome, and founded the Roman Republic. According to Appian’s Civil Wars, the conspirators made this explicit in the immediate wake of the assassination:

The murderers wished to make a speech in the Senate, but as nobody remained there they wrapped their togas around their left arms to serve as shields, and, with swords still reeking with blood, ran, crying out that they had slain a king and tyrant. One of them bore a cap on the end of a spear as a symbol of freedom, and exhorted the people to restore the government of their fathers and recall the memory of the elder Brutus and of those who took the oath together against ancient kings.

The pileus on the reverse of the coin is flanked by two daggers. The two daggers are different — one is longer than the other and they have different pommel designs — are a reference to the two main leaders of the conspiracy, Brutus and Cassius who had fled Rome after the assassination and taken control of the eastern provinces from the Adriatic to Asia. They used the copious wealth of the east to keep 20 legions fed and paid, at least once with an assassination commemorative coin. If there was any doubt at all about the meaning of the daggers and freedman cap (there wasn’t), that was obliterated by the inscription EID MAR, an abbreviation of Eidibus Martiis, ie, the Ides of March, ie March 15th, 44 B.C., the date of the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar.

The EID MAR coin boasting of Caesar’s assassination was instantly famous. The two daggers and pileus appeared again on the reverse of a denarius minted in 67 or 68 A.D. The person who ordered it is unknown — a profile of the goddess Libertas was on the obverse — but is believed to be Galba who was actively plotting to snatch the imperial crown in 67 A.D. and did so after Nero’s suicide in 68 A.D. The inscription reads “LIBERTAS PR” on the obverse and “RESTITVTA” on the reverse, meaning “libertas populi romani restituta,” or “the freedom of the Roman people is restored.” Galba would have used his name on the obverse after he took the throne, so it’s likely this was struck as a propaganda piece to justify Nero’s violent demise before he assumed power.

Brutus’ coin also got a mention in Cassius Dio’s Roman History, written 250 years after they were struck.

Brutus stamped upon the coins which were being minted his own likeness and a cap and two daggers, indicating by this and by the inscription that he and Cassius had liberated the fatherland.

The EID MAR denarius consistently ranks at the top of numismatic wish lists. It is a unique combination of historical significance and rarity and good examples have set record prices for silver coinage at auction. The aureus is a whole other level of desirability, and has been since at least the 18th century when King George III got tricked into buying a contemporary fake. That fake is now at the British Museum, as is a fake denarius.

Also at the British Museum on long-term loan from private collector Michael Winckless is an EID MAR aureus that was pierced at the top around the time of its striking. Only important people got the commemorative assassination aurei, so that means a supporter very high up in the ranks, perhaps even one of the assassins himself, wore the coin as a medallion. (Its authenticity has been questioned in the past, but that was based on an assessment not of the coin itself, but of a plaster cast of it. It is accepted as authentic in the modern scholarship.)

The only other known authentic example is in the extensive numismatic collection of the Deutsche Bundesbank. It is on display at the bank’s Money Museum in Frankfurt. It is a much cleaner, properly centralized strike than the pierced aureus at the British Museum or the Bundesbank’s, and is far less worn. The aureus going up for auction on October 29th is even finer still. It is in near mint condition, with only a few of the dots surrounding the portrait on the obverse side worn down. It has been privately owned for centuries with documented provenance going back to the Swiss Baron Dominique de Chambrier in the 1700s. The auction includes many other coins from the decline of the Republic. Mark Antony, Lepidus and Octavian are all present and accounted for, as is Julius Caesar in the dictator for life coins and some posthumous issues.

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