What you see: A gold Eid Mar coin, dating to 42 B.C.E. (Before Common Era). Roma Numismatics Limited estimates it at $500,000.
The expert: David Vagi, director of ancient coins at Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC).
The Eid Mar has been described as “the most famous ancient coin of all”. Do you agree? I do. Typically, with coins, you have a cultural or a national interest–Americans want American coins, Indians want Indian coins. Ancient Greek and Roman coins transcend nationalism. In that sense, the Eid Mar jumps out as the most famous ancient coin.
Do we know the story of how and why the Roman government chose to commemorate the assassination of Julius Caesar on gold and silver coins in 42 B.C.E? At that point, Rome was gearing up for civil war between competing factions. One carried on Caesar’s cause and included Mark Antony and Octavian. The other included Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. In the Senate, there was sympathy for both parties.
So the Brutus and Cassius side had this coin made, I’m guessing. Why? The faction led by Brutus and Cassius was gathering a great army to go to war with the other faction. When trying to defend their cause, they had to appeal to the sympathies of soldiers and Senators. There were many who considered Caesar a tyrant and were glad to be rid of him. With this coin, Brutus doubled down on what got him to this stage to begin with.
So this coin acted kind of like a political lawn sign does today? It advertised and boosted a political cause? This is an attempt by Brutus–a very blatant attempt–to make the case that Caesar’s assassination was not only good for Rome, it was justifiable. It’s a peek into the mind of Brutus. The stakes were life and death. He went with the justice of his cause.
Let’s talk about the iconography on the gold Eid Mar coin. I see two daggers on the reverse side. Why two daggers, when a big group of Senators stabbed Julius Caesar to death? It isn’t necessarily recorded anywhere, but the natural conclusion is one dagger represents Brutus and the other represents Cassius, who were the ringleaders of the plot to murder Caesar.
The designer of the gold Eid Mar coin has placed between the daggers an image of a cap that was given to Roman slaves who have gained their freedom. Nothing subtle about that… It’s such a clear, bold statement linking the act with the result of the act.
This side of the coin features the words “Eid Mar”, which is a shortened form of the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar–the Ides of March, aka March 15. Why include the date? The incident was notorious enough that the designer didn’t really need to include it. Everyone understood the context. The date was just a design choice. I would have loved to have been in the room when they made that choice.
Why does the other side of the coin, the obverse, show a profile of just Brutus, and not Brutus and Cassius? The two leaders of these armies, which were eventually conjoined before the Battle of Philippi, struck their own coins. If you’re paying soldiers, you want to put your face on the coins. There was no overlap between Brutus’s and Cassius’s coinage. The Eid Mar coin is of Brutus’s design, and is the most spectacular of them. It’s of Brutus, by Brutus, and for Brutus.
So Cassius’s coins were not as evocative? No coins of Cassius directly allude to the murder of Caesar. They speak to local conditions rather than the act that got them there. Brutus’s coin is as blunt and as straightforward a message as could be delivered. It’s really a masterpiece in that respect. It’s very fortunate that Brutus undertook this coin, but in the end, it didn’t save him. [Brutus killed himself in October of 42 B.C.E. after losing the second Battle of Phillipi.]
The Eid Mar coin represents Brutus pushing all of his chips onto the table, then? This is evidence that Brutus was not backing down. He’s saying, “I did it, I did it for the right reasons, and you should support me because of that.”
Is the Eid Mar coin a better-looking coin than most ancient coins? Not necessarily. I would say its strength is not in its artistry. It resonates because of its historical importance.
How would the gold Eid Mar coin have been struck? Typically, coins of this era were struck by hand. The die would be engraved in reverse. They’d take two of these dies, put a blank piece of metal between them, and hammer it several times.
How did the striker know when to stop? Experience. Gold coins of narrow diameter took fewer strikes than a copper coin. With something like this, they’d get away with two or three hammer blows.
Do we have any idea how many Eid Mar coins might have been produced in 42 B.C.E? Unfortunately, we don’t have any surviving records. In warlike circumstances such as this, they would have struck coins based on what they could provide. They probably turned every bit of metal–gold or silver–into coinage to pay the soldiers and suppliers.
So it’s not like Brutus swung by the Roman Mint and placed an order for 100 gold Eid Mar coins and 10,000 silver Eid Mar coins. No. Under other conditions, coinage was planned out and targets were met. These were struck under field conditions. They did whatever they could. With this, it was get it, melt it, strike it.
How much gold is in this Eid Mar coin? Its purity is extremely high. It’s very close to 100 percent pure. There’s some copper and trace elements in it. It weighs a touch over eight grams, which is about $500 in melt value.
How much purchasing power did a gold Eid Mar coin have in the world of ancient Rome? There’s very limited info on this subject. It’s known that in the time of Augustus, a soldier’s annual pay was 225 silver denarii, and there’s 25 denarii per gold aureus. It’s [a soldier’s annual pay in silver seems to be] equivalent to nine gold coins a year. This was an unusual and expensive coin. The average person in the Roman Empire and the late Roman Republic would never handle gold coins. They were for larger payments.
When Mark Anthony and Octavian later assumed power, did they deliberately target the Eid Mar coin for removal from circulation? We don’t know for sure if that happened in this particular case. Coins were melted for all sorts of reasons, and sometimes, they circulated for well over a century. One of the gold Eid Mar coins that does survive is quite worn, and some of the silver ones are worn almost absolutely slick. But there probably was some effort to reduce the coins in circulation, if only to melt them and strike coins in their own image.
To what extent, if at all, has the Eid Mar coin served to burn the memory of Caesar’s assassination into the collective consciousness? Has it helped keep that historical event alive? The sparking of the Renaissance in Europe was promoted strongly by the discovery of ancient coins. When antiquarians studied these coins, getting an Eid Mar was the ultimate prize. There’s something about having an object speak directly to a moment in history. The coin gives it context, meaning, and a tactile reality–here’s the proof of the history, the proof of what you read about. And it inspired Shakespeare. It’s hard to dismiss the coin’s impact on why the assassination is still a memorable occasion. [The Wikipedia pages for the assassination of Julius Caesar and Brutus prominently show photographs of silver Eid Mar coins.]
Do you mean that the gold Eid Mar coin is, in and of itself, historical evidence? Without this coin, one might be able to introduce a scholarly concern about how the assassination was described. But if you get this type of evidence, it’s very hard to dispute that it did occur and Brutus took credit for it. Coins help us have confidence in certain statements. Without a coin to back it up, it’s easy to assume something is exaggerated for political gain.
How did this gold Eid Mar coin emerge? I have no idea. Our role at NGC Ancient doesn’t have to do with the buying or selling of coins. I made no investigation into that.
According to what I have here, this gold Eid Mar coin was sitting, largely unnoticed, in a European collection until now. So it’s a previously unknown example of THE most desirable ancient coin, in its rarest metal form, in something close to mint condition. I assume that alarm bells went off in your head when you got word of this? When you hear that, as you describe it, I assume I need to be very careful. Ancient coins have been collected systematically and aggressively for 500 years. The possibility exists of a coin, even of this stature, being around without being brought to the notice of anyone in the business.
Did you examine the gold Eid Mar coin before it was encapsulated? I have to sign off on it as the director of the department.
What details or clues convinced you, as you looked at this coin, that it was the genuine article? [Laughs] It’s so funny. There’s an initial gut reaction you have, a visceral response, the instant you see a coin. You’re extremely wary, or quite pleased. From the second I saw it, it rang true. Then I looked for any reason to contradict my initial reaction. One way to look at it is as if it were any other gold coin of Brutus or Cassius. We’ve had quite a number of both over the decades. If it was another Brutus or Cassius type, would it give us alarm bells? The answer is no. It really did perform extremely well. There was literally nothing we could find about this coin that raised concerns.
How much experience do you have with handling ancient coins? My business partner, Barry Murphy, and I have over 60 years’ experience. We’ve looked at over five million ancient coins, and looked at them very clinically. Is it something real? Is it altered? That’s always been the principal focus. This coin fits in perfectly for where it should be–a field-mint issue of Brutus from 42 B.C.E. It’s everything we could expect.
Have you seen either or both of the other two gold Eid Mar coins in person? I’ve seen one of the other two.
I take it you’ve examined dozens of silver Eid Mar coins. Absolutely. Between Barry and myself, we’ve handled 30 to 35 of the silver ones. And we see a lot of counterfeits. What’s most important to know is what should it generally look like? There are so many aspects to determine authenticity, and it’s so easy for a forger to mess up on one. With this coin, we did not encounter any of those.
What is the gold Eid Mar coin like in person? It’s wonderful, and in the holder [the plastic encapsulation], it’s equally wonderful. It doesn’t take anything away from it–it showcases it, honors it. And it makes it possible to take the coin and hand it to somebody else. What people don’t know about coins is if you drop them or rub your thumb across them and you have slightly rough fingers, you can change their appearance. Gold is a soft metal! With the holder, you can reach a broader audience that poses no potential harm to the coin.
The gold Eid Mar coin is described as “mint”. What does “mint” mean when we’re talking about something that’s more than 2,000 years old? It has no observable wear from circulation. That doesn’t mean it isn’t dinged here or there, or hasn’t been cleaned. If it was in a mint state when it was buried, and it wasn’t affected by disruption or acid in the soil, it can come out absolutely perfect. There weren’t any banks in this period. People buried their coins. Then they died, or forgot about them, or were unable to retrieve their treasure. That’s how ancient coins survive in a mint state.
What’s your favorite detail of the gold Eid Mar coin? I’m a fan of Brutus as a historical figure, and I love the portrait on the Eid Mar coin. It captures what I perceive to be his personality.
How does the portrait capture Brutus’s personality? He was a very motivated individual. He had a sense of destiny and was very committed to his cause. To plan a coup, he had to have very strong political convictions. It may be my imagination, but I see it in the portrait. I see the intensity and the laser-focus of his ambitions. This is not an idealized portrait. It’s extremely individual. I could stare at it for hours.
I’d like you to walk me through the grades that NGC applied to the gold Eid Mar coin. You gave it five out of five on “Strike”. What does that mean? On a five-point scale, a five is not necessarily literally perfect. Everything about this coin was done by hand–it was hand-struck, it was melted by hand, the dies were cut by hand. You rarely get what, in a modern coin, would be described as perfection. A five out of five means that for what it is, it’s close enough to perfection.
The gold Eid Mar coin gets three out of five on “Surface”. Explain? “Strike” affects everything up to when the coin left the die. “Surface” covers things that happen after it leaves the mint. There can be circulation wear, or damage. This falls pleasantly in the middle of the range, very typical of coins of this era.
And “Fine Style” means what? It has to do with whether or not the engraver of the dies was inspired. This was carved by a gifted artist on a good day who produced a wonderful work of art in relation to the coin art of the period.
Why will this gold Eid Mar coin stick in your memory? It’s truly one of the highlights of my career. This is the coin everyone dreams of handling. Being given the responsibility to make a determination about it was an honor. When you’re evaluating a coin, you try not to let emotions enter the equation on any level. You try to do a scientific job. Now that it’s out of our possession, I can sort of allow myself to put my guard down and soak in the pleasure of the coin and reflect upon how and why it’s the most important Roman coin we’ve ever handled. That did not hit us initially. We had to keep it at bay.
Only after it left the NGC building you and your colleagues could enjoy the experience of having handled it? Correct. There are two towers of emotion: assuming it’s not genuine and it’s too good to be true, and wanting to believe. I had to shelve my emotions completely. But I have images of it, and the memory of holding the coin. When it actually sells, I’ll be there in spirit.
Images are courtesy of the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC).
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