In antiquity, coinage not only served as an easily portable means of wealth, it also served as an important medium of propaganda. Through powerful imagery and messaging it was not only possible to influence public opinion, it could wholly reshape it.
At the time of Julius Caesar’s death in 44 BCE, an eighteen-year-old Octavian stood to inherit not only Caesar’s immense wealth but also his unprecedented public legacy. In the chaotic aftermath of the dictator’s assassination it was critical that Octavian protect Ceasar’s legacy as well as bolstering his own political capital. Caesar’s murderers and their cries of libertas could not go unanswered if the Julii were to maintain their prominence within Roman society. Octavian’s actions were as bold as they were decisive. Upon his arrival in Rome, Octavian began to rallying Caesar’s supporters as well as recruiting many of Caesar’s veterans into a standing army (Goldsworthy 2014, 103). In addition to this outward manifestation of military strength, Octavian reservedly supported the call by some members of the senate to deify the slain dictator. Cicero’s advocacy on behalf of Octavian is noteworthy:
Let us then confer on Caesar [Octavian] a regular military command, without which the military affairs can not be directed, the army can not be held together, war can not be waged. Let him be made propraetor with all the privileges which have ever been attached to that appointment. That honour, although it is a great one for a man of his age, still is not merely of influence as giving dignity, but it confers powers calculated to meet the present emergency. Therefore, let us seek for honours for him which we shall not easily find at the present day (Cicero, Philippics 5.45).
Cicero’s support of Octavian’s inclusion into Rome’s highest political body, as well the granting of considerable military authority by the Senate, illustrates how successful Octavian’s claim as heir had been. Caesar’s deification was formalized by the Roman senate on 1 January, 42 BCE, exactly one year after Octavian had been inducted into the senate (at the unprecedented age of nineteen).
Despite dangerous tensions with Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Octavian was able to forge the Second Triumvirate, which was ratified by the Roman Senate on 27 November, 43 BCE. In effect, each of the triumvirs acted with enhanced consular powers. Mark Antony would rule over the provinces of Gaul, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (Lepidus) would control Spain and Octavian, North Africa. As per their senatorial mandate, the triumvirs were to bring those responsible for Caesar’s death to justice and restore order within the Republic (Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 10.3). Again, Octavian (as well as the other triumvirs) wasted no time in exercising his military authority. Coinage from the period (from 44 to 33 BCE) are inscribed with legend “III VIR R P C” served as abbreviation for “tresviri rei publicae constituendae”, which is most often translated as “One of Three Men for the Regulation of the Republic” (American Numismatic Society inventory number 1957.172.251). See Image I. Despite their earlier antagonism, coinage jointly bearing the images of Octavian and Antony was minted (American Numismatic Society inventory number 2012.34.25). In addition to their names and designation as one of the triumvirs (previously mentioned), the legend added the title “IMP” or “Imperator.” See Image II.
As Octavian and Antony prosecuted the war against Sextus Pompey, Marcus Junius Brutus (Brutus) and Gaius Cassius Longinus (Longinus) the need to continuously foster his bond as Ceasar’s son was not ignored by Octavian (Beacham, 2007, 152).
Upon coinage minted during and after the war(s), Octavian’s image and the legend “DIVI F” or “Divus Filius” which is commonly translated as “Son of the Divine [Julius Caesar] (American Numismatic Society inventory number 1941.131.348). The obverse bore an image of Caesar (wearing laurels) and the legend, “DIVOS IVLIVS” which translates as “Divine Julius.” See Image III. By the issuing of coinage and building of temples dedicated to a deified Caesar, it could be suggested Octavian was simply engaging in an act of ancestral veneration and/or devotion, which was a common and respected social norm within Roman society. Through this public veneration, Octavian was able to promote his own interests in a manner most Romans would not only accept, but applaud.
During his tenure as one of the triumvirs, Octavian had continued to honor the legacy of Julius Caesar. As powerful as this association could be it was necessary for Octavian to promote his own military and political power. To this end Octavian ordered the issuing of coinage bearing traditionally powerful symbolism (Wolters 2016, 342-346). For example, a silver denarius (American Numismatic Society inventory number 2012.34.23) minted at Rome in 42 BCE bears the image of Octavian (absent any legend). The reverse bears the image of the goddess Fortuna holding Victory (goddess) in her right hand and cornucopia (a symbol of abundance and prosperity). The legend accompanying Fortuna’s image was C.VIBIVS VARVS, translated as (Consul Vibius Varus). See Image IV. While the value of such imagery as propaganda is obvious, it demonstrates Octavian’s own rapidly developing list of victories and honors. Honors granted and supported by the state.
Upon his confirmation as emperor, Augustus remained aware he needed to continue promoting his temporal and divine relationship with Caesar. As shown earlier, this was accomplished by the incorporation of religious motifs upon Roman coinage (Stevenson 1964, 157-158). One excellent example, minted 19 BCE depicts a comet (falling) incorporated into an eight-rayed sunburst on its reverse (American Numismatic Society inventory number
1957.172.1476). Within the starburst contains the legend, “DIVVS IVLIVS” again which translates as “Divine Julius.” While the obverse contains the image of the Emperor (his head wreathed in laurels), and the unabbreviated legend of “CAESAR AVGVSTVS.” See Image V. What is important to note are two key points. First, that throughout his reign, Augustus continued to promote his familial connection to Julius Caesar as well as Caesar’s status as a divine being (god). While the frequency of such depictions upon coinage decrease after 27 BCE, they do not disappear entirely. The second point is that the radiant starburst and comet imagery were directly tied to mythology designed to support Caesar’s divine origins. The promulgation of Caesar’s divine status was cross-pollinated through every available medium during Augustus’ reign.
Though Aesculapius came as a stranger to our temples, Caesar is a god in his own city. Outstanding in war or peace, it was not so much his wars that ended in great victories, or his actions at home, or his swiftly won fame, that set him among the stars, a fiery comet, as his descendant. There is no greater achievement among Caesar’s actions than that he stood father to our emperor.- Ovid, Metamorphoses, 15.1-2.
In a future post I will further examine Augustus’ claims of divinity and purported apotheosis following his death.
Cicero, Marcus. Orations, The Fourteen Orations Against Marcus Antonius (Philippics), trans. C.D. Yonge. Perseus Digital Library.
Ovid. Metamorphoses, trans. David Raeburn (Penguin Classics). London: Penguin Books. 2004.
Suetonius, Gaius. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Divus Augustus, trans. Robert Graves (Penguin Classics). London: Penguin Books. 1957.
Beacham, Richard. 2007. The Emperor as Impresario: Producing the Pageantry of Power. In Galinsky, K. (Ed) The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus: 151-174. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goldsworthy, Adrian. 2014. Augustus: First Emperor of Rome. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Stevenson, Seth. 1964. A Dictionary of Roman Coins. London: B.A. Seaby LTD.
Wolters, Reinhard. 2016. The Julio-Claudians. In Metcalf, W. (Ed) The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage: 235-51. New York: Oxford University Press.