From Art to Artifact:  Making Sense of Roman Coins

Denarius of Julius Caesar

Research Commentary

The silver denarius (3.9 g) minted by Julius Caesar in 49 BCE was his first coin issue in the civil war that resulted in Caesar’s sole rule over the Roman state. These types offer insight into the ideological transition from the Republic to the Empire.

The coin’s reverse face (featuring the elephant) is the subject of interpretive disagreement. A close examination of the iconographic tradition on Roman coins supports an interpretation of the type as an advertisement of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. The reverse helped establish the precedent for future emperors to secure their army’s loyalty through conquest.

The obverse face shows assorted ritual implements, recalling Caesar’s election as pontifex maximus (head priest) in 63 BCE. Caesar’s self-identification is significant because it identifies his authority is not dependent upon the Senate, echoing the numismatic legacy of the prior military dictator, Sulla in 82 BCE, and its use of religious symbolism to claim legitimacy. After Caesar’s death in 44 BCE the obverse face was re-issued on his successors’ coins, visually associating themselves with Caesar and claiming his authority. The obverse’s legacy is its impact on the development of political theology.