coins of the month - March 2018
The politics of the late Roman Republic
While the Roman Republic went through a transformation in its last century before the Empire (between the death of Tiberius Graccus 132 BC and the victory of Octavian against its last opponents Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC) its coinage gave more and more space to its dying political institutions, with contradictory messages.
In Rome, political, military and religious power were held as part of the same career and one person could embody all of them during different phases of his career, or even two or three of them at the same time. For example Lepidus, chief of cavalry under Caesar, became a member of the second triumvirate together with Octavian and Mark Antony in 43 BC, one of the three top political leaders of Rome, and later, when he was marginalized, he retained the supreme religious mandate of Pontifex Maximus.
(1) In a silver denarius of 81 BC by Postumius Albinius the multifaceted nature of power in Rome was clear. The coin illustrated two of the main powers. At the centre is a magistrate giving a speech, addressing an invisible crowd with his right hand lifted, while the left is held inside the magisterial toga. The toga is itself a political symbol, given that ordinary citizens would wear a simpler short tunic. To begin their political career, candidates for public mandates would wear a white toga (toga candida) and once elected would add red borders according to the position held. Postumius’s coin shows behind the magistrate a fasces holding an axe. The fasces were normally carried by civil servants called lictors and were a symbol of the magistrates’ role. The first magistrate holding the power of imperium, the aedili curuli, was preceded by two lictors with fasces, while the Consul had 12 lictors and in case of extraordinary danger for the Republic a Dictator could be elected for six months and would be preceded by 24 lictors.
Postumius’s denarius also displays in front of the orator an eagle on top of a staff, the symbol and insignia of the Roman legion and of the military powers of magistrates. Five years of military service were the prerequisite for a political career. In case of war or of posting in the provinces, magistrates could take different levels of military command and the top political leaders of the Republic, the two consuls, would lead the army in all major military campaigns, many of them losing their lives in the process.
(2) In a denarius of C. Norbanus from 83 B.C. the symbol of the fasces is associated with a religious symbol, the caduceus of the god Mercury (a short staff entwined by two serpents and sometimes with a pair of wings), as a symbol of commerce and negotiation, together with ears of corn to recall the all important duty of magistrates to supply Rome with grain to feed its population.
Another very important symbol of the legal authority of magistrates was the special foldable chair that was carried along as they moved and on which they sat when exercising judicial or political powers, the sella curule. It is represented in several coins and here two of those are presented. (3) The first one was minted in 67 B.C. and associated with M. Plaetorius Cestianus and with the role of aedile (who was in charge of public building and festivals). (4) The second one was minted in 54 B.C. by Q. Pompeius Rufus, to celebrate his two grandfathers, both consuls in 88 B.C., at the beginning of a period of civil war. We show here in particular the side of the denarius celebrating the consular powers of Lucius Cornelius Sulla. The Roman historian Pliny recalls that the senatorial families preserved the memorabilia of the illustrious ancestors including their curule chair, a painted wax mask and marble bust of the famous deceased, occasionally displayed in public, even in processions. Pompeius Rufus celebrated the deceased Sulla in some of his coins through his curule chair (associated with the grass crown, a reward for extraordinary merit, and the Lituus, symbol of religious authority) and in another coin with a full portrait of Sulla. The problem is that Sulla had been the principal actor in the civil war against the Populares of Gaius Marius, and the restorer of the power of the oligarchic Senate and the Optimates, while paralyzing the role of the Tribunes of the people. Sulla marched twice on Rome with his armies to seize power (88 and 81 B.C.), resuscitated the dictatorship for himself, and was the first living general to insert his name on the Republic’s coinage in 83-84 B.C. (5).
(6) After Sulla’s death the symbols of electoral democracy were represented in a denarius of 63 B.C. by the Cassia family, showing a Roman citizen casting his vote in an urn, and recalling democratic reforms, a mere three years before Caesar, Pompeius and Crassus concluded the first triumvirate, carving the Roman republic among themselves and announcing the beginning of the end of the Republic.
(7) In 45 B.C., when Caesar had defeated all his enemies (or at least so he thought until they murdered him the year after), the moneyer Lollius Palicanus represented the rostra, a stage placed at the centre of the Roman Forum at the bottom of the Capitoline hill where politicians would climb to address the people of Rome during speeches and even during funerals of important colleagues. The structure was a platform supported by arcades and columns on which were placed the spoils of maritime victories, the metallic prows of captured ships or rostrum. The image of the rostra on coinage was used to recall the return of the powers of the Tribunes of the People, removed by Sulla’s tyrannical government. Again the paradox is that this was a relic, resuscitated before its final death in the following period.
(8) Looking at a denarius issued in 48 B.C. by Albinus Brutus, in the middle of a new civil war between Caesar and the Senatorial party led by Pompeus, one should not be surprised to see the clasped hands of concordia, together with the caduceus of trade, harmony and prosperity, a logical wish in such troubled times. The portrait of Pietas adorned the obverse of the coin to complete the message. The problem was that the moneyer was better known as Decimus Brutus, an important general of Caesar both in Gaul and in the Civil War, head of his fleet. His true claim to fame however is that he joined at the last moment the conspiracy against his boss organized by the more famous Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. On the Ides of March, thanks to his record of loyalty, he convinced a reluctant Caesar to ignore his wife’s fears and go the Senate meeting instead. There Decimus Brutus was one of the murderers of Caesar. He was also the first caesaricide to be attacked by Mark Antony, and was killed by Celtic mercenaries while escaping.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics