The Roman Empire
Octavian, with Divus Julius Caesar





Coin Details

Design Description: Octavian Denarius with Divus Julius Caesar
Item Description: AR Denarius rv temple of Divus Julius c.36 BC. Italian mint.
Full Grade: NGC XF Strike: 4/5 Surface: 3/5
Owner: Kohaku

Set Details

Custom Sets: The Roman Empire
Competitive Sets: This coin is not competing in any sets.
Research: NGC Coin Price Guide

Owner Comments:

Whether serendipity or divine intervention, a bright new star appeared over Rome in 44 BC, coinciding with the festival of Ludi Victoriae Caesaris, the funeral games honoring Julius Caesar. That celestial newcomer reportedly lasted for a week, its luminosity sufficient to be visible at midsummer’s day. Perhaps one of the five brightest comets ever recorded, it is often referred to as either sidus Iulium (the Julian star) or Caesaris astrum (the star of Caesar). Not surprisingly, many Romans interpreted the comet’s appearance as proof of their former dictator-for-life’s divinity.

Among the earliest and most fervent believers was Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, later known as Augustus. While the concept of a divine political leader was not unprecedented in other cultures (e.g., the Egyptian Pharaohs), Octavian’s promotion of Caesar’s divinity was extraordinary for ancient Rome. Nonetheless, the Senate posthumously deified Julius Caesar, defining a new religion that worshipped – for the first time – one of Rome’s own.

For Octavian, the appearance of Caesar's comet provided a golden opportunity. For years afterwards, he struck coins that advertised his relationship to Caesar and the latter’s status as a god. Presumably, these coins contributed to Octavian’s growing power and his subsequent transformation of Rome’s government into an autocracy.

This propagandistic masterpiece, a denarius struck by Octavian’s travelling mint, circulated in Rome the decade after Caesar’s murder. The obverse depicts the bare head of Octavian sporting an impressive beard. At the time in Rome, such a visage was unusual, at least for Octavian’s age (beards were more commonly seen on the elderly, or adolescents prior to their first ceremonial shave). In this case, Octavian grew his beard to indicate he mourned Caesar. Octavian kept up the effort for at least several years, and he probably even ceremoniously shaved and re-grew it for added effect. Whether viewed in person or on his coinage, Octavian’s mourning beard advertised his link to his holy father. On this coin, the obverse legend reads IMP CAESAR DIVI F III VIR ITER RPC, indicting that Octavian was the son of the deified Caesar (as well as one of Rome’s Triumvirs).

The coin’s reverse provides further interest, featuring the Temple of Julius Caesar. Within the impressive tetrastyle structure stands a statue of Caesar beside a lit altar, and DIVO IVL (to the divine Julius) boldly proclaimed on the architrave above. Notably, a large star, i.e., sidus Iulium, appears within the building’s pediment. Completing the coin’s reverse is the inscription COS ITER ET TER DESIG, a reminder that Octavian served as consul for the second time, and was designated for a third term. Intriguingly, these consular titles suggest this coin’s strike may have occurred around 32 BC, although many numismatic sources cite several years earlier. In any case, this coin circulated during the period that Octavian consolidated power and emerged as Rome’s Augustus.

Augustus’ political savy allowed him to wrest power away from a Senate that ruled over Rome for five centuries. He was able to achieve nearly complete control by maintaining the illusion that he was restoring the Republic (not to mention he ingratiated himself by granting the Senate hereditary membership). An integral part of Augustus’ agenda was Rome’s religious revival. To this end, he promoted mos maiorum, the way of the elders, a complex concept encompassing long-established morals, behavioral norms, and social practices relating to sociopolitical and military life. Augustus established himself as the Princeps senatus, or first among equals in the Senate, and his ruling Principate achieved an unprecedented breadth, totality, and duration.

Augustus died in 14 AD, marking the end of his impressive, four decade long reign. Just like Caesar, he posthumously achieved the status of an official Roman god. Even before Augustus’ apotheosis, many revered him as the world’s savior. After all, he sustained peace and prosperity after nearly a century of constant civil strife. This remarkable achievement befitted the man who leveraged a billion-to-1 astronomical and sociopolitical convergence into a new Imperial cult, whose historical impact is best imagined in context of religion's influence in modern times.

Additional Reading: NB Pandey, 2013, “Caesar’s Comet, the Julian Star, and the Invention of Augustus,” Trans Amer Phil Assn 143:405 - 449.

Coin Details: ROMAN IMPERATORIAL, Octavian, AR Denarius, 36 BC(?), Mint moving with Octavian, NGC Grade: XF, Strike: 4/5, Surface: 3/5, Obverse: Bare head right, IMP CAESAR DIVI F III VIR ITER RPC, Reverse: Tetrastyle temple with Julius Caesar standing within, DIVO IVL on the architrave, star in pediment, lit altar to left, COS ITER ET TER DESIG, References: Crawford 540/2; Syd 1338; Babelon 139; RSC 90; Sear Imp. 315; Sear 1545.

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