On the Ides

BM 1855,0512.40; RRC 508/3

For though the tyrant has been removed, the tyranny remains.  … We who could not be enslaved to him, now serve his memoranda. As to the Liberalia, who was able to resist the summons? Suppose that I could have done so; even so when I did attend, could I possibly speak my opinions freely? … The Ides of March gave our friends, those divine men, entrance to heaven, but did not give the Roman people liberty. … will the senate be permitted to choose freely?  If it is allowed, then I shall rejoice that liberty has been recovered. If not, what will that change of masters have brought me except the joy  of our eyes beholding the just killing of a tyrant?  …

Cic. Att. 14.14, Shuckburgh modified

Some 30 years ago, Erskine problematized the truism of Rome’s hatred of kings, pointing out the degree to which this hatred was a rhetorical convenience of late republic.   To do so he opened with a passage of Cicero’s de Re publica:

when Tarquin had been banished, the title of king came to be  as bitterly hated by the Romans as it had been longingly desired after the death, or rather the departure, of Romulus.  Hence, just as they could not bear to be without a king, so now, after the banishment of Tarquinius, they could not bear even to hear the title of king (nomen regis) mentioned.

Cic. Rep. 2.52

I begin with this passage for two reasons. First, because of how Cicero is emphasizing that it is the title itself that the Romans abhorred, not specifically the institution of monarchical rule. Second because of date of this treatise, 51 BCE and that it is written in the shadow of Pompey’s sole consulship the year before, and how it seemed to bring to fruition deep fears regarding the continued survival of the republican constitution.

BM 2002,0102.4374; RRC 435/1; 53 BCE

The mid fifties BCE were a period of intense debate over autocratic rule, one I might argue that shaped the construction of not only Julius Caesar’s but Augustus’  choices. In 53 BCE, one moneyer was the son of one of the consuls, M. Valerius Messalla – as so often happens, father and son share the same name. Curiously, we think the young man who made this coin is the very same as he who will go on to be appointed consul in 31 BCE over Antony and to be patron of the famous literary circle that included Tibullus and Sulpicia.  The same who was to be treated as an exemplary figure in the Principate and beyond.   In Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis, the deified Augustus is even made to quote him saying pudet imperii (“power is shameful”).

I must fall back on the remarks of that great orator, Messala Corvinus, and say “I am disgusted with power”. 

Sen. Ap. 10.2 ; deified Augustus speaking; Penguin trans.

As a young moneyer he celebrates his father’s consulship, writing PATRE COS, ‘in the consulship of my father’ prominently on the reverse. His father’s curule seat rests on a scepter and diadem, the symbols of Hellenistic kingship. The message is clear: it is my father who stands between the Roman state and autocratic rule. His father was unable to enter his office until July of 53 BCE, seven months late, and every attempt he and his colleague made to hold elections for the consuls of 52 BCE was defeated by mob violence. The year 52 BCE opened with no consuls, precipitating the sole consulship of Pompey.

Messala’s coinage is directly in dialogue with the ideologically charged images used by two moneyers the previous year. 

On the one hand, Brutus…

yes, THAT Brutus, the one who will get stabby 10 years hence

….promotes his ancestors as not only expelling kings and establishing libertas, but also through his maternal line, the memory of Servilius Ahala, who according to tradition stopped a would-be popular tyrant by murdering him. 

The would be tyrant’s crime? 

He was an equestrian who was taking it upon himself to feed the people during a grain shortage without Senatorial authorization or approval. The pairing of the two Brutus and Ahala predates these coins, not just in historical narratives, but also political discourse of the period. Brutus is leaning in to a well-established historical framing of contemporary events.

he said that “an eloquent consular, …, had said to him that there was need of some Servilius Ahala or Brutus being found.“

Cic. Att. 2.24, August 59 BCE

On the other hand, Q. Pompeius Rufus celebrates his two grandfathers, both consuls of 88 BCE.  Not only does he create a limited run of double portrait coins, but his parallel large issue shows their curule chairs and religious office.  We might read this iconography as a nostalgia for the restoration of senatorial authority at almost any cost.  His own father had been killed in the clashes between the consuls of 88 BCE and the tribune Sulpicius over the question of enrolling the Italians in the tribes.  And the most important legislation of Sulla and Rufus as consuls was the strengthening of the Senate in the aftermath of Sulla’s first march on the city, the murder of Sulpicius, and the expulsion of Marius.  Of course the young Rufus who made these coins will go on to be himself a Tribune of the Plebs in 52 and a backer of Clodius, who will be prosecuted and exiled himself in 51 BCE for his part in the civil unrest.

There is significant evidence that the 50s BCE generally saw positive, nostalgic portrayals of Sulla put forth not only by his son Faustus, but also a number of other descendants and members of the senatorial class.  In lieu of a full survey of that evidence here, I offer just a bit of Valerius Maximus. 

C. Marius acted like a great citizen and public benefactor in crushing L. Saturninus, who had summoned the slaves to arms by showing them a pileus in lieu of a standard. But when L. Sulla and his army were breaking into the city he raised the pileus to call in the help of the slaves. So imitating the misdeed he had punished, he found another Marius to bring him down.

Val. Max. 8.6.2

The passage makes clear that Sulla’s violent actions against Marius were justified in light of the threat to the state.  While I don’t think we should believe that either in fact tried to rally servile allies, the accusation plays to the largest fears in Roman society and symbolizes the general threat to the social order posed in each case.

Having set the scene a bit in the 50s I want to return to this question of problematic vocabulary and how it emerges in the historiography of the Augustan Era. What words do we now use to describe autocratic rule, and what was the language deployed in the past? How is tyranny different from dicatorship? Sole consulship from a principate? or monarchy or kingship?

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing after Actium, in the fifth book of the Roman Antiquities spends a good deal of time on the strictly legendary origins of the dictatorship.  His narrative culminates in a final chapter in which he claims that it is a type of constitutional tyranny, but that it was viewed positively until its name was wrecked by Sulla, after which the title dictator becomes loathsome, even when a similar constitutional tyranny is desirable for the state as a whole, hence Julius Caesar’s failure, and by implication, Augustus’ success.   Dionysius thesis is simple:

Monarch is useful and necessary, but it needs a new name.

But in the time of our fathers, a full four hundred years after Titus Larcius, the institution became an object of reproach and hatred to all men under L. Cornelius Sulla, the first and only dictator who exercised his power with harshness and cruelty; so the Romans then perceived for the first time what they had along been ignorant of, that the dictator­ship is a tyranny.

Roman Antiquities 5.77

Another Augustan Author, Livy rewrites Polybius’ account of Scipio the Elder being hailed ‘king’ in Spain, he re-frames it as a lesson as to how they may think him kingly, but they must avoid the word itself, because of Roman sensibilities.  This line of reasoning is completely absent from Polybius’ version. Taken together, Cicero, Dionysius and Livy suggest a strong discourse in Rome at the end of the first century BCE around how autocratic forms of government may be at once problematic in name, but practical in function. And moreover, how those problems of perception stem from specific negative historical exempla.

All the Spaniards…with one accord saluted him as “King.” He ordered silence to be proclaimed, and then told them that the title he valued most was the one his soldiers had given him, the title of “Imperator.” “The name of king,” he said, “so great elsewhere, is insupportable to Roman ears. If a kingly mind is in your eyes the noblest thing in human nature, you may attribute it to me in thought, but you must avoid the use of the word.” Even the barbarians appreciated the greatness of a man who stood so high that he could look down on a title the splendour of which dazzled other men’s eyes.

Livy 27.19.3-5

I would argue that the attitude of Livy, Dionysius, and even the late Cicero, is markedly different than Roman rhetoric less than two decades earlier.  In the aftermath of the Catilinarian conspiracy Cicero was upset by accusations that his behavior approached that of a king. 

you called me Tarquin, and Numa, and the third foreign king of Rome. … do not call me a king, lest you be laughed at.  Unless, indeed, it appears to be the conduct of a king to live in such a manner as not to be slave not only to any man, but not even to any passion; to despise all capricious desires; to covet neither gold nor silver, nor anything else; to form one’s opinions in the senate with freedom; to consider the real interests of the people, rather than their inclinations; to yield to no one, to oppose many men. If you think that this is the conduct of a king, then I confess that I am a king. If my power, if my sway, it lastly, any arrogant or haughty expression of mine moves your indignation, then you should rather allege that, than stoop to raise odium against me by a name, and to employ mere abuse and insult.

62 BCE, Cic. pro Sulla 22 and 25

The accusation and Cicero’s rebuttals seen here in public oratory also emerge elsewhere in his writings including in the more personal letters to Atticus.  In 62 BCE Cicero still thought he could rhetorically make hay out of the definition of kingship, emphasizing its positive characteristics, and embrace the descriptor as a form of praise even while denying any interest in authoritarian power.  What changed?

Part of it is, of course, Julius Caesar and events like the Lupercalia of 44 BCE where he publicly rejects the diadem and yet leaves no one confident of his wishes or who was behind the offer in the first place–a delightfully messy historiographical tangle of texts and traditions, but not one for today.

We can, however, be confident that anti-regal rhetoric was integral to the views of the liberators, not just through the texts, but also through the choice of numismatic imagery. 

RRC 507/2

This type uses the same symbolic vocabulary of the scepter and diadem as we saw on the coin of a decade earlier struck by Messala in response to Pompey.  Victory surrounded by Brutus’  name and title strides over the broken scepter and holds before her the ripped diadem. A title, imperator, which will become synonymous itself with autocrat rule and enduring for millenia to come.

RRC 505/3

This type commemorates Cassius’ victory over the Rhodian fleet allied with the Caesarians.  Notice the diadem used for the Caesarians under the crab symbolizing Cos, where the battle was fought.

The EID MAR coin is perhaps the most famous of all Roman Coins.  The coin has no explicitly regal imagery on it.  Yet, it is only legible to a viewer who has internalized certain conceptions of kingship and the rhetoric of the assassins.  In short, it claims that the murder of Caesar was necessary to free the Romans from a state of slavery and thus promotes the idea that to live under monarchy is the same as living in a state of enslavement.

Let’s us, however, not be hasty and instead start from first principles. We ought to reconsider what we are seeing and question how we read it and how its ancient audience may have interpreted it.  The obverse has a portrait of Brutus.  The legend BRUT over the crown clearly identifies the portrait.  IMP stands for imperator.  Behind the head is another name of the Roman responsible for the creation of the coinage L. Plaetorius Cestianus. The reverse has two daggers with different style handles on either side of a pileus, the felt cap given to the formerly enslaved as a symbol of their manumission. Below is the legend by which we ref to the coin EID MAR.

The legend refers to the date of Caesar’s assassination making explicit the connection of the images to the event. The daggers represent the tools of the assassination itself and the difference in handles, may be intended to recall that it was a communal act, not that of a single blow.  The line down the center of each blade is our visual clue that this is a weapon made for stabbing, not some other type of knife.  The most common type of knife to appear on coins, is the single bladed slicing knife associated with animal sacrifice, as seen on another coin of a similar date used to celebrate Brutus’ as a pontifex.

I have some times wondered if the EID mar design might have not been inspired by the reverse on the left above (RRC 500/7). The two blades on either side of a semi circular object with a single legend below. The parallels are striking, but any connection is only speculative.

But of course the crux of the visual code is the pileus as a symbol of libertas, and more specifically particularly liberation from “enslavement” under a monarch.  The pileus as the primary attribute of Libertas, the divine personification, is evident on the coinage from the later second century BCE, and re appears on the coinage in 75 BCE (relevant CRRO entries).

75 BCE is a crucial year for Libertas on the coinage (CRRO link). She not only appears in a chariot as on the previous figure, but also as an archaic cult statue in her shine, and on two different obverses, in all cases identified by a pileus.  I’ve argued elsewhere these coin are in reaction to the Sullan constitution, specifically rejecting the idea of Sulla as a new Romulus figure (Yarrow 2018).

Yet notable on all the representations of Libertas after 74 BCE as a goddess the pileus is wholly missing (CRRO link). This includes Brutus’ own coinage explicitly linking the founder of the Republic and the expeller of the kings to the Libertas and both to himself.  In the 50s of course the threat of autocracy was seen as originating in Pompey, not Caesar.  And even Caesareans in the 40s proudly displayed Libertas on their coinage, associating her with Roma herself and the tribunes’ bench upon the Rostra.

Coins of the partisans of Brutus and Cassius that explicitly celebrate Libertas, unlike the EID MAR coin, forego any visual evocation of the pileus.  These coins, like those of earlier in the 50s and 40s, use the legend to identify the goddess, but she as a goddess has no consistent iconography.

By contrast, the EID MAR coin centers the pileus.  A symbol that has not been in regular use on the coins in the previous three decades, that is not used in at least a generation.  What would contemporaries have made of it and would they have seen it in anyway a statement about monarch?  I think so, largely based on reading the iconography against rhetoric in our surviving literature. In Appian we have a claim that the pileus was raised on the Ides of March itself as a sort of standard.  However, I sincerely doubt this was part of the event itself.  We have no mention of it in Cicero’s various anecdotes from the day in his letters and speeches.  And it is wholly missing from the lengthy account of Nicolaus of Damascus.   

The murderers wished to make a speech in the Senate, but as nobody remained there, they wrapped their togas around their left arms to serve as shields, and, with swords still reeking with blood, ran, crying out that they had slain a king and tyrant. One of them bore a cap​ on the end of a spear as a symbol of freedom, and exhorted the people to restore the government of their fathers and recall the memory of the elder Brutus and of those who took the oath together against ancient kings. With them ran some with drawn swords who had not participated in the deed, but wanted to share the glory, among whom were Lentulus Spinther, Favonius, Aquinus, Dolabella, Murcus, and Patiscus. These did not share the glory, but they suffered punishment with the guilty.

App. BC 2.119

Nicolaus’ biography of Augustus was written in Augustus’ lifetime.  His account of the Ides emphasizes the expected rhetoric of tyrannicide and freedom, but also repeatedly returns to the idea that the assassins had coordinated a large body of gladiators and slaves as a back up force and it was only through the use of this force that they were able to make it to the Capitol.

… there was a continuous tumult until the people saw the assassins and Marcus Brutus trying to stop the outcry and exhorting the people to be of good courage, for that no evil had taken place. The sum and substance of his words (as the rest of the assassins also loudly boasted) was that they had slain a tyrant.

… Then rushing forth the assassins fled in haste through the forum up to the Capitoline, carrying their swords bare and shouting that they had acted in behalf of common freedom. A great crowd of gladiators and slaves, who had been prepared for the purpose, followed them.

Nic. Aug. 92 & 94

These passages in Nicolaus’ narrative account of the Ides seem intended to lend credence to the rumors that have been reported earlier in the text as Octavius himself learns of his Great Uncle’s death and the events of that follow.  Not only is his mother unable to properly prepare the body for burial, but Brutus and Cassius would go so far as to offer freedom to slaves to protect themselves. 

Futhermore, they said, the assassins with Brutus and Cassius had seized the Capitol and were guarding it, and that they had called on slaves to ally with them in return for their freedom.

Nic. Aug. 49

Herein lays the problem with the pileus as symbol and the metaphor of enslavement for life under monarchy. No one wishes to be enslaved and thus the metaphor is desirable, but the enslaving class fears, perhaps more than anything, is a general liberation. Equally distasteful is the thought of being equated with someone who had once been enslaved.

The suggestion that the assassins flew the pileus as standard on the Ides of March and even the suggestion in Nicolaus that they were offering the enslaved freedom in exchange for support, fits a literary motif.  We’re told that Saturninus flying the pileus, specifically to offer freedom to the enslaved, was the very reason Marius crushed his one time ally.  And, then when Marius himself held the pileus aloft and sought aid from the enslaved, Sulla likewise rightly brought him down. The same topos of summoning the help of slaves through the pileus is even found in accounts of Gaius Gracchus in the Ampleius, a simple Latin school book of the Trajanic era or later. And in Plutarch’s life of Marius, Octavius the consul of 87 BCE dies rather than take the advise to promise the slaves freedom in exchange for opposing the Cinnan regime. It is clear within Plutarch’s telling that Octavius is the tragic hero of the episode for his good principles. Likewise, in the late Latin de viris illustribus it is villainous Cinna who ‘calls the enslaved to the pileus’.

Returning to the EID MAR coin, the pileus starts to look like a brave, even dangerous, metaphor. Why did he think it would work rhetorically in his favor? It really only works if he and his followers believe others will see Caesar as a king AND accept that they thus owe a debt of gratitude to Brutus.

The equation of servitude and kingship is an old trope in Latin literature.  

All who, like us, are slaves under regal power, are tamed and hardened to respect commands

Pacuvius 72-73

Those men had learned to obey kings ever since the foundation of the city, but we from the time when the kings were driven out have forgotten how to be slaves.

Cic. Phil. 3.9

And yet, no free born Roman citizen wanted to be indebted to another Roman, as a freedman was indebted to his former enslaver.  Three exemplum well illustrate this point. The case of the Senator Culleo following the triumphal car of the elder Africanus in a pileus following his liberation from Carthaginian imprisonment is a powerful exemplum because of how shockingly unimaginable it is.  The Romans has a well established legal doctrine around the right of postliminium, that allowed Culleo to resume his life in Rome after capture without legal limitations: the metaphorical pileus of Culleo is shocking because it is unnecessary.  There is good evidence that the pileus and freedman status was an anathema to the free-born:  Polybius’ famous distain of king Prusias’ performance and Plutarch’s account of the Siege of Amisus. 

… Q. Terentius Culleo, born of a praetorian family, and of distinguished rank among the senators, should follow as he did the triumphal chariot of the elder Africanus, wearing a cap of liberty, because after being a prisoner of the Carthaginians, he had been recovered by him. And therefore he deservedly paid back, in view of the, his acknowledgment of a benefit received from him, as if from his former master, who was the author of his liberty.

Val. Max. 2.5

 In the first place when some Roman legates had come to his court, he went to meet them with his head shorn, and wearing a white hat and toga and shoes, exactly the costume worn at Rome by slaves recently manumitted or “liberti” as the Romans call them. 4 “In me,” he said, “you see your libertus who wishes to endear to himself and imitate everything Roman”; a phrase as humiliating as one can conceive.

Polyb. 30.18.3-4

Tyrannio the grammarian was also taken prisoner at this time. Murena asked to have him as his own prize, and on getting him, formally gave him his liberty, therein making an illiberal use of the gift which he had received. For Lucullus did not think it right that a man so esteemed for his learning should first become a slave, and then be set at liberty. To give him a nominal liberty was to rob him of the liberty to which he was born. But this was not the only case in which Murena was found to be far inferior to his commander in nobility of conduct.

Plut. Luc. 19.7

Part of the failure of the Liberator’s messaging is a belief in their own rhetoric, that kingship, in the sense, of the rule of one, was intolerable to the Romans.  Even as Brutus in the 50s was willing to create double headed coins with ancestor portraits that could easily be mistaking for portraits of living Romans, and then put his own portrait on the coinage just as Caesar had done.

For all Pompeius Rufus failed as a Roman politician ending his life in exile and unheard of after 51 BCE, his nostalgia for law and order at any costs was more closely aligned with the political realities of the moment and the distaste for further civil war and urban unrest. As Cicero in his letters so rightly points out killing the tyrant does not remove the tyranny.  The reset of story is more familiar.  Augustus crafts a public persona as princeps embracing the virtues of monarchy but rejecting the problematic titles.  His coins are nearly devoid of regal images or even references to Rome legendary past. 

The coins stop offering historical exempla and instead celebrate virtues of the good autocrat.

I delivered a version of this paper at a workshop in preparation for a forthcoming edited volume “Making Sense of Monarchy” edited by Christopher Mallan and Eleanor Cowan. In the end I have submitted to them another chapter solely focused on Dionysius. A fuller version of this paper will become a chapter in my next single author book.

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