One of Julius Caesar's most famous mintings is the "elephant denarius." As shown in this photograph, the obverse features a group of religious symbols (culullus [ritual cup], aspergillum [sprinkler], an animal-headed axe, and apex [cap]). On the reverse, the silver denarius shows a right-facing elephant with the word "CAESAR" in the exergue (an area on the reverse where the minting information may appear). The minting is attributed to a military unit that accompanied Caesar, probably in the days after the outbreak of civil war (49-45 B.C.).
Caesar Minted Millions of Silver Elephant Denarii
In her article "Turning Points in Roman History: The Case of Caesar's Elephant Denarius," Debra Nousek says that an estimated 22.5 million pieces were minted, making this coin the third most minted one in the Republican era and adequate to pay eight legions. This coin is listed as RRC* 443/1. It is often dated to 49 B.C., which coincides with the time Caesar took large quantities of gold and silver bullion from the Temple of Saturn treasury in Rome. The date is one among the questions about the coin that continue to be debated. Other undecideds include what the elephant is standing on.
What Is the Elephant On?
The elephant may symbolize Caesar's Gallic campaign against Ariovistus in 58 [Battle of Vosges] or more generally, it may symbolize victory over the Gauls, especially if the object on which the elephant treads is a Gallic war trumpet. In such a case, the coin might date from the 50s B.C., or before the civil war-launching Rubicon crossing. If -- more likely -- the object on which the elephant strides is a snake or dragon, the coin might symbolize the overcoming of evil and it could have come later. Nousek elaborates the possible political agenda that might have led to Caesar's use of the elephant. Among other propagandizing purposes, it could have been intended to humiliate the self-important Pompey, who had, earlier in his career, tried to associate himself with Alexander the Great by riding one of Alexander's symbols, the elephant, in his triumphal procession. Pompey had embarrassingly failed to fit the beast into the city+.
Clearly, the elephant is walking on something. If not a snake or the like, it could be an element familiar to the users of the coins from the imagery of Ceres or Juno Sospita. It might represent the snake as a natural enemy of the elephant.
The Pontifical Symbols
The religious symbols associate Caesar with his prestigious pontifical position as the head of Rome's religious hierarchy. Caesar had been Pontifex Maximus since 63 B.C. The symbols are similar to the augural ones that are more common on Republican Roman coins. Augural symbols include the lituus (curved staff or crozier) and jug. Because Caesar did not become an augur until 47 B.C, and since the coin is dated to, at the earliest, the 50s, or more likely 49 (or possibly 48), the symbols would not be augural.
- "Turning Points in Roman History: The Case of Caesar's Elephant Denarius," by Debra L. Nousek; Phoenix, Vol. 62, No. 3/4 (Fall-Winter/automne-hiver 2008), pp. 290-307.
- "Rites of the State Religion in Roman Art," by Inez Scott Ryberg; Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 22, Rites of the State Religion in Roman Art (1955), pp. iii+v+vii+ix-xi+xiii-xvi+1-227.
- Beast Coins: Roman Imperatorial: Julius Caesar (43-33 BC)
- Coins: Julius Caesar
RRC=Roman Republican Coinage, by Michael Crawford, 1974, according to Companion to Roman Religion, "Chapter 11: Religion and Roman Coins," by Jonathan Williams.+
"Pompey, it is said, to gall and vex them the more, designed to have his triumphant chariot drawn with four elephants, (having brought over several which belonged to the African kings,) but the gates of the city being too narrow, he was forced to desist from that project, and be content with horses."
~ Plutarch's Life of Pompey