EID MAR: Brutus’ Famous & Rare Coin Ancient Coins
In William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599), a soothsayer famously warns Caesar to “Beware the Ides of March”. Ignoring the warning, Caesar goes on to meet his tragic end.
In real life, it is, of course, doubtful that Caesar was ever warned by a soothsayer. However, he undeniably had every reason to beware the Ides of March, i.e. the equivalent of March 15 in the old lunar Roman calendar. Because it was on that day in 44 BCE that he was stabbed 23 times by 60 members of the Senate in a bloody event that changed the course of Roman history.
For Marcus Junius Brutus, a leader of the conspiracy against Caesar, the Ides of March was not a day to beware. The very opposite. For him, it was the day on which the Republic was spared from the hands of a dangerous tyrant. A tyrant who, in Brutus’ eyes, was diverting the Romans from their traditional values. He even commemorated the event on his coins that featured the phrase EID MAR, short for Eidibus Martiis (Ides of March). Known today as the EID MAR coin, this is without a doubt one of antiquity’s most famous coin series.
Extremely rare and popular, the EID MAR coins fetch remarkably high prices today. Auctions for the approximately 100 silver issues that survive today typically surpass 500,000 USD, while the three only known gold examples can sell for millions. In 2020 an aureus fetched the record sale price of 4,188,393 USD. On May 30, 2022, Numismatica Ars Classica is going to auction another aureus that was exhibited at the British Museum from 2010 to 2021 with an estimate of 780,000 USD (UPDATE 5/31/2022: realized price was 2,200,000 CHF, or about $2,300,000 USD).
Why Did Brutus Issue the EID MAR Coins?
Caesar’s death ushered in a fierce civil war, also known as the Liberators’ civil war, between two factions: a) the Caesarians of the second triumvirate comprised of — Caesar’s adopted son — Octavian, Marc Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, and b) the Caesaricides/Republicans under the leadership of Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. The conflict was resolved in 42 BCE with two consecutive confrontations near the Macedonian city of Philippi. The result was a triumph for the Caesarians. Although Brutus managed to escape, he committed suicide shortly after by falling on his sword after realizing that his cause was doomed. As Cassius had already died during the first confrontation at Philippi, the Caesarians were now the rulers of Rome.
The EID MAR coins were a product of this turbulent period. Dating between 43 and 42 BCE, the coins were minted in both gold and silver under the orders of Brutus, to pay for the salaries of his legionnaires and meet the needs of his campaign. The precious metal came from the rich cities of Asia Minor that Brutus had spent time looting to assemble the capital necessary to confront his opponents.
Three centuries later, the Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote about the coin:
“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.” (Roman History 47.25.3)
Let’s take a better look ourselves.
The obverse side looks rather unremarkable at first glance. However, that is not the case.
The legend BRVT IMP L PLAET CEST is short for Brutus Imperator Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus. Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus (L PLAET CEST) was the moneyer responsible for issuing the coin. The moneyer’s name was typically present on Roman coins of the period, so nothing special here. The name of Brutus (BRVT), however, is interesting in that it is accompanied by the title Emperor (IMP[ERATOR]). At the time of the Republic, the word denoted a magistrate with imperium, that is the authority to command, mainly a military entity. Over time, the word came to describe a general who had been honored with a triumph by the Senate. The first Roman to ever use it on his coinage was Julius Caesar. The title caught on and Brutus adopted it, possibly to match the authority of his adversaries' imperator coins.
Yet, the most fascinating part of the obverse side is without a doubt the bust of Brutus, and not just because it is probably the only known bust of the famous Roman. For the Romans of the Republic, adorning coins with busts of living individuals was perceived as an eastern practice, linked with the tyranny of kingship as opposed to the republican values of their own system. The first Roman to have his bust on a coin was Caesar. His enemies interpreted this as a sign of his tyrannical ambition. For them, only someone wishing to impose their authority over the Republic would imitate the kings of the east. Still, Caesar had created yet another tendency that would outlast him. Portraits of Pompey, Marc Antony, and Octavian were featured on their respective coins and so, when the time came for Brutus to issue his own series, he could not go against the tide. How ironic. The man who feverously sought to restore and protect the old traditions of the Republic was adopting the iconography of its greatest enemy. Even more ironic is that Brutus is using one of Caesar's novelties in a coin meant to commemorate Caesar's death. It seems that Caesar’s reforms had changed Rome irreversibly.
The Reverse Side
The reverse is the truly iconic side of the coin. It features two daggers flanking a pileus cap and the writing EID MAR. The daggers, possibly one for Brutus and one for Cassius, quite blatantly commemorate Caesar’s assassination, while the cap — a special cloth worn by slaves when they were freed — symbolizes freedom from tyranny. The message here is clear: the assassination of Caesar was an act of liberation from tyranny. This narrative is enforced by the reference to the Eids of March, a day that held powerful connotations for the Romans.
March 15 was, according to the old Roman lunar calendar, the first full moon of the year as well as the Roman New Year’s Eve. On that day, the Romans celebrated the festival of Anna Perenna, a goddess linked with the circle of life. Anna Perenna seems to have been an older Italian deity regarded as the giver of life, health, and plenty. During the festival, the Romans would pray and sacrifice to Anna Perenna in order to ensure a healthy, productive year and longevity. The parallelism is obvious. Brutus employed the religious symbolism of the Eids of March to present the day of Caesar’s assassination as the day on which the Republic ensured its survival and longevity. In this context, the death of Caesar, the tyrant, is almost like a sacrifice breathing new life into the worn-out Republic. This way the Republic is renewed and a new circle in its life opens.
In a sense, Brutus was right. The assassination of Caesar on the Eids of March did open a new circle in Roman history, just not the one that Brutus hoped for. This time, all the roads led to the Empire. Shortly after Brutus’ death, Octavian, also known as Augustus, became the first in a long line of Roman emperors.