This coin illustrates Octavian’s use personal connections, symbolism, icons, and power nodes in order to create a powerful and secure position at the head of the Roman state. He firmly connects himself with his adopted father Caesar, hits his audience over the hear with allusions to Caesar’s divine status, incorporates powerful imagery, and uses religion and tradition to reify his right to power. He accomplishes his goal (to legitimate his right to lead) in various interconnected ways which combine to provide a calculated and complete picture of how he wished to be seen.
One the front of the coin Octavian’s head is prominently displayed. His youth and piety are played up though the thin beard that appears to adorn his cheeks (though it is hard to tell if there is a beard. Caesar’s death was long gone). A beard for the ancient Romans was a sign of mourning, as Prof. Tarrant told us in class. This visual sign of youth and (perhaps) devotion to Caesar is underscored by the front inscription: “Caesar divi filius triumvir iterum rei publicae constituendae” [Caesar, son of the divine one, triumvir a second time for managing the state]. Octavian assumes the name of Julius Caesar, granted to him in Caesar’s will, and refers to Julius as “the divine one,” a reference to the deification of Caesar after death. By using Caesar’s name Octavian is underscoring his connection to the leader and thus establishing his legitimate right to rule as Caesar ruled. Then he refers to his powerful position as triumvirate, juxtaposing this with his young appearance in order to create a dynamic tension that ignites sympathy for the youth who is sacrificing in order to help “manage” the state for the people. The term “manage” is no coincidence, it clearly disavows any ownership and stresses the fact that he is making no claim to be king.
On the back side of the coin Octavian provides another set of images designed to strum on slightly more culturally embedded and long established strings. He shows “The Temple of the Divine Julius” with the inscription “to the divine Julius.” On the coin is a picture of a traditional post and lintel, pedimented, temple (even more extensively rooted in its Greek origins). A statue of Julius and a flaming cremation alter are depicted. These symbols conjure the psychological power and awe that religion and death are wont to conjure. These are loaded images that Octavian uses to establish in tradition, and conjure emotional credence for his place as leader. After all, rational goes, one Caesar is dead and buried, and now another Caesar ought to take his place. Even the “crime” of killing such a great man lurks implied in the shadows of the repeated references to divinity and death. And, to gild the Lilly, the comet which was supposed to show the divinity of Julius is in the pediment of the temple.
Octavian is using his relation to Caesar, and the sanctity and emotions that Julius’ death enflamed to solidify and justify his claim to power. He accesses such power nodes as temples, alters, and the gods to reinforce his claims. All in all he presents the audience (the owners of the coins – in other words the people of Rome) with a cohesive and compelling piece of propaganda. In Octavian’s use of such sculpted and Machiavelian propaganda to present himself in a certain light he reveals much. First he reveals that he is crafty and intelligent well beyond his years, and secondly he reveals the importance of the Roman people themselves. If he would go to such trouble over what they think of him rather than ruling by fiat, he must understand that they are the source of his power. So by recognizing and controlling his power base through free state resources (the coinage was a state mint) he maximizes his effectiveness. In fact, the very fact that this is a coin of the Roman empire further legitimizes the message crafted upon it. From the other coins viewed, it seems that Octavian realized (in both senses of the word) the influence and the importance of imagery and propaganda, at least on coinage, to an elevated and comprehensive level. He followed that dictum of life: use what you have to get what you want!
About the Author
Phineas Upham has an extensive educational background in both economics and philosophy. He contributes writing in these fields and curates articles from other authors for Scholastic Daily.