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Coins of the month - February 2014
The struggle between Marc Antony and Augustus
After Caesar's murderers had been eliminated, the territories of the Republic were divided between the new triumvirs of the Republic, with Octavian controlling Rome and the west, Marc Antony Egypt, Greece and the East, and Lepidus North Africa.
The political agreement reached after a short military confrontation between Marc Antony and Octavian was recorded in a series of coins. In particular in 41 BC a provincial quaestor, Marcus Barbatius, minted a coin with the portrait of the two leading triumvirs. It showed an energetic portrait of Marc Antony, known for his impressive gladiatorial physique, under the title of imperator (victorious general), augur, and III VIR R P C (triumvir for the restoration of the Republic) (picture 1). He was already in his forties but did not yet display the extremely thick neck of his last Egyptian years, when age and banquets had taken their toll. The obverse showed a very young Octavian, then barely 20 years old, displaying a timid sideburn to look more mature (picture 2). Marc Antony, like Cicero and others, underestimated the adoptive son of Caesar because of his youth and lack of experience, only to discover a skilled and merciless politician. Octavian had adopted the name Caesar, important to retain the loyalty of his uncle's fearless veterans of the Gallic wars, to which he added the military rank of imperator, the religious title of pontifex, and the political mandate of triumvir of the Republic.
Operations to eliminate the last opponents continued and scores were settled. Marc Antony ordered the inscription in a death list of Cicero, who had attacked him with a series of famous speeches (Philippics), but had also ordered the execution of Marc Antony's adoptive father Lentulo several years before. Cicero's head and right hand were exposed on the Forum and then on Marc Antony's table. (Tito Livio describes Cicero's head and both hands exposed on the rostra in the Forum. Cassio Dione mentions head and right hand, Appiano mentions that Cicero's head was then kept visible for sometime on Antony's table in his house. My source is a biography of Marc Antony by Giusto Traina, prof of Roman History at the University of Lecce, also a numismatist, published in 2003 by Laterza.) Sextus Pompeius, son of the great opponent of Caesar, resisted longer, controlling Sicily with his fleet, but was ultimately defeated by Octavian and then killed in the East in 35 BC. On the occasion of his naval victory Octavian obtained from the Senate an ovatio (a smaller form of triumph, with a parade in Rome) and the privilege to have his statue erected in the Forum. The gilded statue showed him in heroic nudity, carrying a general's spear and the mantle of triumph, on top of a column adorned by the rostra of captured ships (a bronze ram on the prolongation of the bow used to break the hull of an enemy ship) (picture n.3).
The power-sharing agreement between the two strongmen of the dying Republic lasted for more than a decade, but once all enemies had been cleared away and Marc Antony divorced from Octavian's sister in favour of Cleopatra, a conflict was inevitable. Octavian violated the temple of Vesta to get hold of Marc Antony's last will and used it to convince the Romans that his opponent was a renegade and had betrayed the Republic by leaving its territories to the children he had with Cleopatra. Octavian portrayed his fellow triumvir as debauched, under the influence of alcohol, drugs and a foreign woman.
In preparation for the decisive battle between the two, Marc Antony minted a special silver coinage to pay his legions. It showed on the reverse a trireme ship, with the usual caption as general and triumvir (picture n.4, showing a quinnarius, worth half a denarius) and on the obverse the eagle of a legion, flanked by two further military insignia and the number of the legion in question (in picture n.5 the quinnarius refers to the 12th legion of Antony's army, out of the 23 legions he had fielded in that campaign). The battle took place on land and especially at sea at Actium (Greece) in 31 BC. Octavian and Agrippa defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra, who fled to Egypt. They committed suicide when Octavian approached Alexandria several months later. Cleopatra's son with Caesar, Caesarion, was killed by order of Octavian.
After his victory, the Senate awarded Octavian the name Augustus ("deserving veneration and honour") in 27 BC for his choice to return all powers to the Senate and the people of Rome (even if only formally). Augustus wanted to reconcile the aristocracy with a new monarchy, without adopting the name or appearance of a monarchy, but acquiring the real powers of a princeps. Always very attentive to the propagandistic use of coinage, monuments, ceremonies and symbols, Octavian celebrated his semi-divine status on coins recalling that he was the son of Caesar, who had been declared a God (Caesar divi filii) (picture n.6). He also showed a representation of the Curia, seat of the Senate, that he had restored and adorned with statues recalling his victory against the "Egyptians" (picture 7) and later renamed "Curia Giulia". The new portrait of Augustus did not require any explanatory caption, fixed in an eternally youthful appearance, with a divine superiority fit to last for centuries, a model for future emperors (picture 8). Marc Antony instead was convicted to a damnatio memoriae, so that his numismatic portraits are the only certain representation of him that we have left. All busts and statues that are normally cited are attributed to him only on a hypothetical basis, having been removed or destroyed after a decree of Cicero's son, who was Consul in 30 BC.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics