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Small token of a Roman’s murderous ambitions

Museum of Fine Arts

When the Frenchman Gaston Bachelard wrote “Miniature is one of the refuges of greatness,” he wasn’t thinking specifically of coins. But coins, which are among the smallest objects collected by art museums, can be hugely charismatic.

One of the star objects in the marvelous new gallery for ancient coins at the Museum of Fine Arts, this coin was issued by Marcus Junius Brutus, the most famous of Julius Caesar’s assassins.

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The year was 43 or 42 BC, and Brutus was gearing up for war with Mark Antony and Octavian. These two men — one of whom would become Rome’s first emperor, Augustus — had formed an uneasy alliance intent on avenging Caesar’s death.

Brutus, whose mother was the mistress of Julius Caesar and the mother-in-law of Caesar’s other assassin, Cassius (those crazy Romans!), needed money for the battle to come — hence the striking of coins. But, as a confessed assassin, he also needed a good propagandist.

This coin, struck within a year or two of Caesar’s murder, conveys a clear message. On one side, over the letters EID MAR (a reference to March 15, the Ides of March, the day of Caesar’s assassination), is a pair of daggers. The daggers have distinctly different handles, which may identify them as belonging to the two chief conspirators, Brutus and Cassius.

The pileus, a brimless hat worn in Greece by freed slaves, was adopted by Roman republicans, and later by revolutionists in France and America. It was a symbol of freedom from tyranny. Here, it obviously signals Brutus’s belief that his murderous plot was justified: he was killing a tyrant, a man who, in what was supposed to be a republic, had just declared himself dictator for life.

And there he is, on the other side of the coin, Brutus himself. Seen in profile, he looks gaunt but virile and resolute.

In republican Rome, leaders were not supposed to promote themselves on coins they issued. Ancestors, however, were acceptable, and Brutus had previously issued coins showing one of his purported ancestors, Lucius Junius Brutus, the founder of the Roman Republic. (A bronze bust of that Brutus, the famous “Capitoline Brutus,” is currently on loan to the MFA from Rome).

Now, in the political emergency he had helped create, more urgent concerns overrode the ban on self-promotion. Brutus needed to win hearts and minds.

He almost succeeded, but was finally defeated in battle by Octavian’s forces. Brutus and what was left of his army took off for the hills, where he committed suicide.

“By all means must we fly,” he said, according to Plutarch; “Not with our feet, however, but with our hands.” He was resolved, in other words, to deliver his own escape, by his own hand.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at
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