Dictators, tyrannicides, and the fall of the Roman Republic
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Once Caesar had defeated Pompeius Magnus in 48 BC and had pacified Italy and its colonies, he followed a path which has been interpreted as leading to a restoration of the monarchy after more than four centuries of republican rule. It included Caesar's decision to mint official Roman denarii coins with his portrait (picture 1). This was an innovation, given that only Sulla, legal dictator during the civil wars in 81 BC, had his portrait stamped on a coin during his lifetime, and not on his initiative, at least officially. Some coins with the portrait of Pompeius were minted, but all were produced after his death by his sons, who continued his struggle for several years (picture 2).
Caesar's monetary portrait was interpreted by the senators of the aristocratic party (the optimates, opposed to the populares of the Caesarian party) as an additional proof of Caesar's ambition to become a monarch and abolish the Republic, given that the Senate had granted him the title of perpetual dictator. The attempt by Marc Antony to crown Caesar as a king during the religious celebrations of the Lupercalia, linked to fertility, in February 44 BC was another gesture that moved the conspirators to accelerate the murder of Caesar.
The most prestigious figure in the conspiracy was Marcus Junius Brutus, descended from an old and prestigious family. As a magistrate he had minted two types of denarii (silver pieces of little more than 4 grams of silver, worth 10 sesterzii) in Rome in 54 BC (or 55 or 59, the date is uncertain) recalling the role of his family as defenders of the Republic and tyrannicides, implicitly promising to maintain his ancestors' role.
On the obverse of the first coin is represented Lucius Junius Brutus, first Consul of the Republic (picture 3). He had expelled the Tarquinii kings from Rome in 509 BC, after the son of Tarquin the Superb had raped a young and beautiful Roman woman, Lucretia, inducing her to commit suicide and causing a popular uprising against the tyrant. A few months later, in order to defend the Republic, the Consul Brutus, in a stoic display of republican virtus, had ordered the execution of his own two children who had conspired to facilitate a return of the Tarquinii.
On the reverse of the same coin is Caius Servilius Ahala (picture 4), appointed Magister Equitum in 439 BC by Cincinnatus, who in turn had been appointed temporary dictator to protect the Republic. Ahala, in the Forum, killed Spurius Maelius, a rich Roman who was taking advantage of a famine in plotting to become king. Ahala's gesture had been sanctioned by the Senate.
A further coin issued under the authority of Brutus in the same year represented the republican authority (picture 5), a Consul between lictors (holders of fasci, bundles of wooden rods with an axe, symbols of the authority of the magistrates of the Republic) preceded by a herald (accensus) and on the obverse a head of Liberty.
At the time Brutus' warning was directed against the ambitions of absolute power of Pompeius (who had Brutus' father executed during a revolt in 77 BC). Several years later, however, when war broke out between Caesar and Pompeius, Brutus became a partisan of the latter. By crossing the Rubicon river Caesar broke the laws of the Republic and was outlawed, while Pompeius became the defender of the legitimate republican authority, so Brutus fought alongside him at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. At the end of the battle Brutus was captured by the victorious Caesarian troops, but Caesar himself had given orders to spare him, and welcomed him, offering pardon and high office. Caesar believed in a policy of clemency to transform past enemies into future allies, to weaken them and to stop civil war, and Brutus was also a close figure, the son of his lover Servilia, and rumored by some to be his natural son. Pompeius' flight to Egypt ended with his murder by order of the Pharaoh, brother of Cleopatra.
After the conspirators, all senators led by Brutus and Caius, had killed Caesar in the Senate in 44 BC, under the statue of his defeated enemy Pompeius, they tried to take control of the Roman government. After some initial indecision, the initiative was taken by the Caesarian Consul Marc Antony, together with Octavian, adoptive son of Caesar, and his designated heir. The tyrannicides were forced to take refuge in Greece and the Orient to raise an army for what they saw as the defense of the traditional liberties of the Republic.
In 42 or 41 BC one of Brutus' officers, Plaetorius Cestianus, minted a famous and very significant coin with the portrait of his general (Brutus Imperator) on the obverse and the symbol of his struggle on the reverse. It showed a red cap symbolizing liberty (it was given to freed slaves during the ceremony of their emancipation) and two daggers representing the instruments with which liberty had been defended, by stabbing the tyrant (picture 6, which shows a recent copy). The letters "EID MAR" referred to the festivity of the Ides of 15 March 44 BC, when the tyrannicide had taken place.
When the 20 legions assembled by Brutus and Cassius were defeated at the battle of Philippi by Antony and Octavian in 41 BC, the two leaders of the optimates committed suicide. The new triumvirate of Octavian, Marc Antony and Lepidus prepared the funeral of the Republic and its transformation into a principate.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
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