The worn silver face stares up at me. Struck over 2000 years ago, the infamous man on the face of this coin is still and forever Dante's devil, Shakespeare's villain, history's most notorious traitor. Sitting in a large, open room on the 11th floor of a building in lower Manhattan, I imagine him watching Caesar slumped in a bloody, lifeless heap on the cold Senate floor.
For me, this is the power of coins. Ten years ago my grandfather, a lifelong collector, started me out collecting state quarters. I quickly moved on to older U.S. coins and read every coin book my seven-year-old hands could physically hold. When I was a little older, I received my first ancient coin. I still remember thinking that Caesar could have held this very coin, and that feeling of awe and excitement is what drives me to learn more about ancient coins and history. These ancient coins tell stories of clashing ideals, massive wars, great triumphs and painful defeats. Just as when I read a great novel, when I open a plain cardboard box of coins, I find a hundred stories: from Roman wars to Spanish treasure ships, from American patriots to Dutch merchants. These coins are tangible relics that let me see the faces of great rulers, translate the worn Latin inscriptions and literally feel history.
For the past two summers, I took three (unreliable) commuter trains into Lower Manhattan to work as an intern at the American Numismatic Society (ANS), a museum and center for the research of coins. The entire commute was an adventure, from timing where the train doors would stop, to fighting my way through the flood of bankers and construction workers, to the fast paced walk to the ANS office. While working at the ANS, I met PhD's and graduate students in various fields with whom I had in depth conversations on everything from Visigothic Tribes in Spain to the high cost of housing in NYC for the graduate students. Most of my work at the ANS centered on organizing and cataloguing a newly purchased collection, but at times I also played the role of a teacher, helping a benefactor I was working with better understand ancient coins. This summer, I worked on a recently acquired collection of ancient coins, which included the Eid Mar (Ides of March) denarius.
Brutus's story is written in his face, his jaw line, his worn cheekbones staring defiantly onward, looking ahead toward the coming fight against the powerful forces of Octavian and Mark Antony. When I look at this coin, multiple questions race through my mind, but the most striking is why Brutus put his face on a coin, when he killed Caesar for that very crime, trying to turn the Republic into a dictatorship. This is what I love about history and coins — the unanswered questions, the ambiguity, the mysteries waiting to be solved.
Bob's comments: Jacob reminds us of many important aspects to this wonderful hobby of numismatics. We are all students, but we can all be teachers as well — spreading the joy of collecting bits of history can be done by collectors of all ages. And the word JOY should not be an overstatement. If we do not enjoy our coins and the stories they tell, we are missing the most enjoyable aspect of the hobby. We cannot escape the more financial aspects of buying and selling coins and notes, but I hope that those factors never supplant the pleasure of the piece.?
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