Roman Republican Coins

A generally art-historical look at some ancient coins

Julius Caesar – and scholarly uncertainty

Julius Caesar denarius, 49-8 BC. 19.9mm, 3.71g, 5h. Obv: elephant advancing r. towards symbol of differing identification (snake? dragon? carnyx?), CAESAR. Rev: symbols of the pontificate. RRC 443, RBW 1557, BMCRR Gaul 27, Babelon Julia 9.

This coin is one of the most famous ancient coins of all time; however, its imagery is not particularly well understood. In this, I’ll be thinking about the side without the elephant on. I say that rather obliquely because scholars are not even in agreement which is the obverse and which is the reverse.

I’ll be considering the opinions of five different scholars in this post, each writing rather different types of work: three catalogues, consisting of Grueber, who wrote the famous catalogue of the British Museum’s Republican coinage; Crawford who wrote what is still the standard catalogue of Republican coinage; Babelon who wrote a catalogue that is now largely significant only for its historical interest; an academic article on this coin by Nousek; and a scholarly work on priestly implements by Siebert. (For bibliographic references, see bottom of page).

I’ll go through each element of the image and consider their differing opinions, starting from a Panofskian pre-iconographic description.

Object 1

Description: A shallow bowl with a pinched lip seemingly for pouring, with thick handle attached, having a squat cylindrical finial.

Grueber, Babelon: simpulum
Siebert: simpuvium
Crawford, Nousek: culullus

All scholars agree that this object is a ritual object used for wine at a sacrifice, and as such an appropriate object to represent priestly functions. We can deal with the discrepancy between simpulum and simpuvium as merely linguistic: Siebert’s simpuvium is the more normative form but simpulum tends to be used in numismatic works (though I am not certain why). Both refer to a ladle used for pouring out wine at a sacrifice.

Crawford (and Nousek who surely follows him here) refer to the implement as a culullus, which is more of a drinking bowl than a ladle: however, the problem here with Crawford’s identification can be exemplified by considering the vanishingly rare denarius of Caius Antonius (an example sold by CNG can be seen here). The two implements left of the axe are called two cululli by Crawford, two simpula by CNG, but are clearly different shapes: one is smaller-bowled with a longer handle (like a ladle) and one bigger-bowled with a shorter handle (like it is designed for sipping). Only Siebert appears to appreciate this difference, calling them a simpuvium and a culullus respectively. For these reasons, I think it appears that the iconography of the coin is closest to a simpuvium and I must side against Crawford here.

Conclusion: simpuvium ( = simpulum)

Object 2

Description: a cylinder with symmetrical guard and finial decoration either end; at the base, a loop; at the top a flowing bundle resembling long loose hairs.

Grueber, Sieber, Crawford, Nousek: aspergillum
Babelon: aspersoir

Though Babelon’s term here is slightly imprecise, there is no real discrepancy. All scholars identify the object as a handle, with hoop for hanging, and a long hair brush to be dipped in water and wafted at the sacrificial animal, participants or audience. The implement is used in worship, scarcely changed in form or usage.

Conclusion: aspergillum

aspergillum as used in Catholic ritual. Image source:

Object 3

Description: A slightly tapered vertical shaft with wide finial at base, fitted into thick gently tapered single bladed axe-head; above, gaping mouthed canid with shaggy hair, most likely wolf.

Crawford: axe = Babelon: hache
Siebert: sacena
Grueber: securis terminating in wolf’s head

While scholars are clear on the object being an axe, two issues come up here: the technical name of this type of axe (sacena or securis) and the presence of the animal head sat pez-like on top.

The axe is more likely to be a sacena than a securis, on the balance of probabilities, if only because the former is a traditional and ancient pontifical emblem whereas the latter is more usually the practical object wielded by the lower-status workers of the sacrifice. It is surprising to me that the otherwise very careful Siebert does not mention the wolf’s head which is to be seen atop the axe, but it does suggest a symbolic rather than practical implement; whether a real or decorative animal head, it would not make for a serviceable chopper given its gory role. This all supports Siebert’s identification of the axe as a sacena rather than a securis.

Conclusion: sacena.

Object 4

Description: a smooth domed hat having cheek pieces with raised edge ending in tassels, a lozenge shape on top denoting a disk, and a pointed spike surmounting.

Grueber, Crawford, Nousek: apex
Babelon: bonnet de flamine
Siebert: galerus

The discrepancy here is only superficial. The term apex is synecdoche for the distinctive hat of the flamines, referring strictly to the olive-wood spike on top but coming to signify the hat itself. Siebert’s term is more precisely referring to the close, domed cap.

Conclusion: apex

Obverse or Reverse?

A final point to note is the discrepancy between which side scholars identify as the obverse and reverse. Grueber and Babelon identify the elephant side as the obverse, Crawford and Nousek the reverse. Siebert, seemingly in error, identifies both sides as the obverse. (To say nothing of the fact that Grueber and Babelon, unhelpfully, identify the imagery right to left – everyone else does the opposite).

L-R Grueber Crawford Babelon Nousek Siebert
1 simpulum culullus simpulum culullus simpuvium
2 aspergillum aspergillum Aspersoir aspergillum aspergillum
3 Securis terminating in wolf’s head Axe Hache Axe sacena
4 apex apex Bonnet de flamine apex galerus
Obv Elephant Implements Elephant Implements Implements?


Grueber, H. A. (1910) Coins of the Roman Republic in the British Museum, 3 volumes, London.
Crawford, M. (1974) Roman Republican Coinage, Cambridge.
Babelon, E. (1885) Description Historiques et Chronologique des Monnaies de la République Romaine, 2 volumes, London.
Nousek, D. L. (2008) “Turning Points in Roman History: The Case of Caesar’s Elephant Denarius”, Phoenix 62: 290-307.
Siebert, A. V. (1999) Instrumenta Sacra: Untersuchungen zu römischen Opfer-, Kult- und Priestergeräten, Berlin.