(This post is expanded & reposted [by request] from last year's Imperator tournament... hopefully enough time has passed that it will seem fresh again! Plus I'd really like some feedback on the theory...) Here is one of the most famous and most enigmatic issues in ancient coinage: Julius Caesar, denarius 49-48 BCE, military mint traveling with Caesar Obv: Pontifical implements (simpulum, aspergillum, securis, and apex) Rev: Elephant advancing right, trampling on serpent, CAESAR in exergue References: Cr 443/1; Sydenham 1006; RSC 49 Note: Most dealers have obverse and reverse the other way around, but since exergues are otherwise exclusive to the reverse on Republican silver, I have gone with the minority opinion. BTW, it's not a fourrée. The dark stuff in the edge crack at the top is dirt, not base metal. First, some historical context for this coin, which I think of as a numismatic Darth Vader: the denarius that destroyed the Republic and sowed the seeds of Empire. It is 49 BCE. Caesar has done the unthinkable: crossed into Italy with his army and thus plunged his world into civil war. Having scared off Pompey and the conservative faction, he has now entered Rome and is flinging his rhetoric at a sparse, nervous Senate. “The Gaulish threat is no more, so the sacred treasure no longer serves a purpose. Give it to me so I can defend the Republic!” Finally the senators are ready to concede, when a noisy tribune by the name of Lucius Caecilius Metellus shouts “Sacrilege!” and dares to interpose his veto. Caesar is not pleased. “Come to me with your petty scruples when armies no longer march the length and breadth of Rome’s dominions. As it is, Caesar shall simply take what is rightfully his.” At his command, soldiers gleefuly batter down the door to the storerooms beneath the ancient Temple of Saturn. Inconceivably, though, the odious Metellus again interposes, not his veto, but his very body! Caesar’s rage is monumental. (At the same time he is mystified why he envisions himself clad entirely in black, wielding a red sword of light, and slicing the hapless burlap-clad tribune in two. Feel the power of the Dark Side!) Drawing himself to his considerable height, with great difficulty he manages a venemous whisper: “Get. Out. Of. My. Way. Killing you will be easier than saying it.” An enveloping silence. Metellus pales, hesitates… and steps aside. The treasure now belongs to Caesar, who smiles. Let law and sacred duty be damned… he must win! * Pliny reports that Caesar removed fifteen thousand bars of gold, thirty thousand bars of silver, and coins worth fifty million sestertii. The silver bars became elephant denarii, an estimated 22.5 million of them (based on the number of dies). Where did my coin’s silver originate? Carthaginean reparations? booty from Macedon or the East? Caesar’s enormous haul from Gaul enabled him to pay his debts, but it was the money from the state treasury that won him the war. In five years it would be passed down to his heir Octavian/Augustus, who used it to establish the Empire. The elephant denarius is truly one of the hinges upon which history turned. Site of the action, the Temple of Saturn (on the left) The state treasury that Caesar raided was in the basement. Some of the substructure visible in the photo may date from the time of the kings, so yes... you can walk around where Caesar did! With the obverse type (the accoutrements of his office as Pontifex Maximus), Caesar advertised his (alleged) legitimacy. The reverse type must also be some sort of propaganda, but what would Romans of the time have seen in it? I would like to offer some support for an intriguing theory recently proposed on Forvm by Michael Harlan, and further developed by “crispina.” I’ll add a couple thoughts of my own here. Given the problems attending other hypotheses, I really think this new idea should be taken seriously. Briefly: Previous elephants on Republican coins are most strongly associated, by far, with the Caecilii Metelli (see the coin pictured below). Now, it seems that Caesar regarded his principal enemy in the conservative faction to be Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio, upon whom he laid most of the blame for the civil war. Reasonably so; Scipio was behind the past few years’ moves to declare Caesar an outlaw and to deprive him of his troops, a consulship, and protection from prosecution. Remember also that our obstinate tribune was a Caecilius Metellus! If the elephant represents the enemy Caecilii Metelli, what is it trampling? There are a few possibilities, not mutually exclusive: 1) Salus, the health of the Republic; 2) the People, whom Caesar always claimed to champion; and/or 3) Caesar’s household genius. I suspect the snake represents all three. Its connection with Salus is straightforward, we've all seen examples. Representations of the People’s guardian spirits (their household “genii locii”) and the genius of the paterfamilias are less familiar to us because they were not public; but they would have been familiar to every Roman. According to unrv.com, “the genius was a kind of spiritual double, often portrayed as either a snake or a stately male in a toga and covered head. Somehow connected with the family line, the genius imbued the individual with procreative and inspirational powers. The genius was a kind of tether to the family line which, through the act of procreation, a paterfamilias was able to pass to the next generation.” You can see an example below, from Pompeii, of this very common household representation… a crested and bearded serpent, exactly as on the coin! I find this to be a very convincing detail. In Caesar’s view, the Caecilii Metelli had assaulted the Republic’s health, trampled on the People, and dealt a mortal insult to Caesar’s personal and family dignitas, which was the fundamental cause of his crossing the Rubicon. Moreover, these messages would be decipherable by everyday Romans of the time. Note that Scipio was also deeply jealous of Caesar’s position as Pontifex Maximus, as depicted by Caesar in the Bellum Civile, so both sides of the coin would do a tremendous job of pushing Scipio’s buttons. Coincidence? I think perhaps not! It is natural for us to assume that the name in the exergue must denote one of the animals on the coin, but there was no such convention at the time. In fact, quite the opposite was true. Representing a clan was one thing, but a living individual, whether figurative or otherwise? That was unheard of on Roman coinage. (Of course, Caesar would upend that convention eventually, but it would take a few more years!) Painting from a house in Pompeii showing the head of household’s “genius” or guardian spirit (just to the left of the niche). Interpreting a coin's iconography always takes the form of an inference to the best explanation, which means you can't evaluate a theory without comparing it to its competitors. I think the other theories of the elephant/snake symbolism have some fairly major problems: Conquest of Gaul, with the snake being a carnyx: The biggest problem I see with this is that the snake simply doesn't look like a carnyx! There are several other examples of Gaulish war trumpets on RR coins and they never look like this (see an example below), whereas the household genius representation is exactly right. (Also see below for problems with the idea that the elephant represents Caesar.) Triumph over evil (Crawford): This is simply anachronistic. There's no evidence the snake represented evil to the ordinary person at this time. Elephant vs. snake = the civil war tussle: There's an element of this in my favoured hypothesis (the familial conflict), but there's a specific snake-elephant trope that some have proposed as a basis for contemporary understanding of the image. From Pliny and one or two others comes the idea that the snake and the elephant are iconic enemies in constant conflict. One problem is that this belief does not seem to have been widespread. Another is that it doesn't actually tell us who or what families the snake and elephant actually represent. Third, Pliny says the two end up killing each other, so there is no victor. Fair enough, war has no winners... but this is not exactly great propaganda! (At least not without an element of my favoured Harlan/crispina hypothesis as well.) Any theory proposing the elephant = Caesar or (better) Caesar's family: There's very little to associate Caesar's family with elephants. A few much later authors, in trying to explain the issue, state that one of Caesar's ancestors killed an elephant, or that the name "Caesar" resembles the Punic word for elephant. These writings have an air of desperately trying to make sense of something that makes no sense to the author. I actually think this desperation supports the Harlan/crispina idea. The family of the Caecilii Metelli were reduced to nonentities soon after Caesar's victory, and disappeared from history in the first century CE. As a result, the association that was obvious in Caesar's time was utterly gone a couple centuries later, causing puzzlement to numismatists ever since. (Harlan also mentions that the type exists with "HIRTIVS" in place of "CAESAR" on an issue of Aulus Hirtius, one of Caesar's lieutenants, further weakening the link to Caesar's family.) There is one theory that dovetails with Harlan/crispina's: that Caesar was referring to and mocking Pompey by means of the elephant. Pompey had a couple of rather embarrassing and very public experiences with elephants, one where he tried to enter Rome in his triumph pulled by elephants (they got stuck!), and another where the games he sponsored involved the slaughter of elephants, much to the chagrin of the viewing public. Unfortunately for him, poor Pompey was sardonically associated with elephants in the public's mind, so the coin could imply criticism not only of the Caecilii Metelli but also of Pompey, who was equally trampling on the health of the Republic, the People, and Caesar's genius. That would leave only one of Caesar's principal enemies unalluded to on the coin, namely Cato. He was perhaps impossible to attack due to his reputation for uprightness. Plus his power was rather limited as he didn't have much money... in a way, he just didn't matter much at this point. I should note that these issues and others are nicely discussed by Debra Nousek in her paper “Turning Points in Roman History: The Case of Caesar’s Elephant Denarius,” Phoenix, 2008, 62:290-307. She highlights Pompey's embarrassing elephants in particular, and also suggests that Caesar was appropriating the imagery of the Caecilii Metelli and using it to represent himself in a positive way. I doubt this since it seems a stretch to suppose the general public would appreciate such a subtle move; but it was Nousek's paper that gave Harlan his original idea. Overall conclusion: The type represents the "enemies of the Republic", particularly the Caecilii Metelli and perhaps Pompey, trampling on the health (Salus) of the Republic and the household genii of both the People and their champion, Caesar. The overall message is: see why I'm embarking on civil war? It's for my own dignitas, yes, but also for the People of Rome and our Republic! So... what do you think? An enigma solved? or merely deepened? Plus: post your coins from Caesar and the civil war! --------------------- * True story! Well OK, I made up the light sabre bit. Sources: Plutarch (Caes. 35, Pomp. 62), Lucan (Phars. III.153-168), Pliny (Hist. Nat. XXXIII.17), Cassius Dio (XLI.17). Unsurprisingly, Caesar himself skims over the episode.