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caesar's elephant coin

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In the books and reference section under the topic Review of Harlan's book, I was asked about the availability of my first book and I responded that I am working on a revision. Recently, I was doing more work on Acilius’ coin (Crawford 442) for the revision and the course of the research has led me to a new interpretation of Caesar’s elephant coin which I intend to add to the revision. I did not discuss Caesar’s coin in the first edition because I saw the regular workings of the Republic and the Sullan constitution ending at Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. I would like to share my new suggestion here. Those who have the first book might reread the chapter on Acilius. The traditional dating of Acilius’ coin depicting Salus on the obverse and Valetudo on the reverse has been Crawford’s date of 49 which has led to interpretations of the coin as Caesarian propaganda. Dating it to 50 removes that possibility and opens up the possibility that it is Pompeian propaganda. My basic argument is that the coin was issued by the Pompeians in preparation for war with Caesar and that the bulk of the 7,500,000 denarii Caesar found in coined money in the treasury in 49 was Acilius’ issue. The Pompeian message was that they were the ones fighting to preserve the Salus of the Republic. The irony then is that Acilius’ coins were probably counted into the hands of Caesar’s soldiers. The propaganda reality was that both sides claimed to be fighting to preserve the Salus of the Republic. But while working on Acilius’ coin, I happened to read an article on Caesar’s elephant coin by Debra L. Nousek, ‘Turning Points in Roman History: The Case of Caesar’s Elephant Denarius,’ Phoenix, Vol. 62, No. 3/4, 2008. She basically comes down on the side of the argument in favor of Pliny’s description of the fight between the elephant and the python. But in the course of her article she cited a small bronze coin minted by Aulus Hirtius in Gaul that used the same image of elephant trampling serpent on the obverse, but inscribed with his name HIRTIVS in the exergue instead of CAESAR. This got me to thinking. Most interpretations see the elephant as Caesar and the snake trampled by the elephant as the Pompeians. Part of that assumption rests on the big, bold inscription of Caesar in the exergue. But if Hirtius saw no reason to connect the name Caesar with the elephant and replaced it with his own name, should we connect the name Caesar with the elephant? And would the Romans? This question and the fact that I was working on Acilius’ coin at this same time led me in a new direction. What might a Roman readily recognize in the symbols of the elephant and the snake? On Acilius’ coin, Valetudo (another manifestation of Salus on the obverse) holds a snake and the snake is the most commonly recognized attribute of Salus. The other common modern interpretation of Caesar’s coin as representing a triumph of good over evil is because to the Christian mind the snake is associated with evil, but Acilius’ coin makes it clear that that is not the pagan view. And what about the elephant? In my new book I discussed Pompey’s aureus of 71 and how it can be seen as a subtle, or not so subtle, dig at Metellus. The Caecilii Metelli had adopted the elephant as the family badge, the most notable usages were Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius’ coin of 81 and Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius’ coin of 47-46. The Romans would easily recognize the elephant as a Metellan reference since the Metelli themselves promoted it. Quoting from my intended revision of the chapter on Acilius’ coin

Dio Cassius made it clear that the most vehement enemy of Caesar in the Senate debates of 50 was Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio who put forward the motion that Caesar be declared a public enemy if he did not disband his troops. Caesar said that the Senate was intimated by threats from Pompey’s friends and reluctantly adopted Scipio’s proposal. Caesar put much of the blame for the civil war on Scipio who had become Pompey’s father-in-law in 52 and had shared the consulship with Pompey that year. Recounting the reasons for the civil war, Caesar was careful to avoid blaming Pompey directly and he claimed that Pompey had been led astray and corrupted (depravatum) by Caesar’s enemies who were jealous of his glory, while he himself had always promoted Pompey’s honor and dignity.
With a very clever, yet simple, turn on the Pompeian propaganda of Acilius’ coin, the snake has been taken from the hands of Valetudo and trampled by the Metellan elephant. Caesar showed Rome that Metellus Scipio and his supporters were the true threat to the health and safety of the Republic, the true cause of the civil war.


Yes I buy that!

I have never seen a clear representation of the  snake on the coin.

Is it bearded or not?


Interesting theory. 
I'm waiting for the book, hoping for more good stories.  :)

That is a well thought out argument and it is persuasive in my view.  The serpent is clearly viewed incorrectly through our modern, Christian eye as  you don't see it being demonized on other Roman coins that I know of from those times.

Another, albeit much simpler, explanation was put forth in a Celator article a few years back that the serpent isn't a serpent at all; it's a carnyx.  That argument was that this issue was simply advertising the triumphs of Caesar over the Gauls.  Looking at some of my elephant issues, it certainly doesn't look like any snake I've seen because it's got ears!

I frankly like you're argument best because it makes for a much better story.  Thanks for sharing it.

I agree with the Carnyx idea. I think the snake is symbolic of the battle horns the Gauls used that looked like serpents.


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