NGC Ancients: Heroic Busts of the Ancient World

Posted on 12/13/2022

Ancient rulers often used coins as propaganda to improve their image.

Leaders throughout history have desired to portray themselves as symbols of power and authority. In ancient times this was sometimes shown through statues and public works, such as arches or columns. These were especially popular among Roman emperors to commemorate their great deeds.

However, due to the static nature of such works, the number of people who could view them was limited. Rulers figured out coins were a great medium to promote themselves across their kingdoms. One way they did this was to portray the king in a heroic or powerful bust, such as on the silver tetradrachm below, made for the Bactrian king Eucratides I (170 to 145 B.C.).

In an early attempt at photoshop, the artist has placed the kings helmeted head on a somewhat disproportionate muscular torso. The reverse shows the Dioscuri riding into battle with their spears levelled.

The above tetradrachm was made nearly a century later in the Bactrian Kingdom under King Heliocles II (90 to 75 B.C.). The helmeted bust of the king is shown holding a spear and wearing on his shoulder an aegis, a protective layer made of animal skin. The reverse shows the god Zeus holding a thunderbolt and scepter.

Moving from the Greek to the Roman world, we encounter this silver denarius made in the Roman Republic under the moneyer Lucius Caesius around 112 to 111 B.C.

It’s stylistically similar to the previous coins of the Bactrian kings. There is some debate as to who is portrayed on the obverse, with scholars suggesting it could be either the god Apollo or Vejovis. The reverse shows two Lares with a dog. The Lares were Roman guardian deities.

All the coins we’ve viewed so far have had one thing in common: the main subject holds a spear in an aggressive military display. However, this is not required for a portrait to be classified as heroic, as we see on many coins beginning with the reign of the emperor Trajan (A.D. 98 to 117).

With that in mind, we’ll discuss the two coins of Trajan shown above: a brass sestertius and a silver denarius. Trajan is shown bare-chested on the obverse with light drapery over his shoulder. Another interesting feature is how the ties of his laurel wreath billow behind his head, giving the impression of movement from a soft breeze.

On the reverse of the sestertius is the goddess Ceres holding grain ears and a torch with a modius at her feet. On the denarius the Genius of the Roman people holds a cornucopia and a patera, ready to sacrifice at a burning altar near his feet.

A similar heroic bust appears on this brass sestertius of Hadrian (A.D. 117 to 138), also engraved in fine style. The reverse shows Jupiter holding a small figure of Victory while seated on a throne.

The 38mm bronze above was made at the city of Cyme, in modern day Turkey, in honor of Antinous, the companion of the emperor Hadrian. The obverse shows Antinous bare-chested, as if inspired by a statue. The reverse shows a seated divinity, likely Apollo, as he rests his elbow on a lyre and holds what may be a branch.

Starting early in the 3rd Century A.D., Rome faced ever-more-aggressive enemies on its borders, ushering in an age of military chaos in which coin designs often were militant in character. All of the coins shown hereafter are good examples of that trend.

A perfect example is the 37mm bronze above, from the Thracian city of Anchialus during the reign of Gordian III (A.D. 238 to 344). On this coin, the emperor is shown almost as if he is charging into battle, holding a spear and shield decorated with an eagle. The reverse shows the third labor of Hercules, where he captures the Ceryneian Hind.

The exceedingly rare billon denarius above was made for the emperor Gallienus (A.D. 253 to 268). The ruler is shown in fantastic detail with both his armor (a cuirass) and shield bearing a gorgoneion. The reverse has an important scene from Roman mythology wherein the god Mars descends on the sleeping Rhea Silvia. Their meeting led to the birth of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.

Despite its crude reverse and rough surface, the above bronze double-sestertius is actually quite nice for the issue. Postumus (A.D. 260 to 269), who in A.D. 260 founded the Romano-Gallic empire, wears an elaborate helmet and holds a spear and shield. The hero Hercules on the reverse holds a club and bow with a lion skin draped over his arm.

Another coin showing some disproportioned photoshop work is this billon double-denarius of the emperor Aurelian (A.D. 270 to 275). The emperor's head is clearly placed on a body not his own, giving this piece an interesting look! The radiate bust of the emperor is adorned only with drapery, and he rests a spear on his shoulder. The reverse has Aurelian extending his hand toward Concordia, the Roman personification of harmony.

Aurelian assumed power in a time of chaos and was remarkably successful in restoring the borders of the empire. This coin was made fairly early in his reign and perhaps was intended to show him as a leader of strength, using the military bust. But the other side of the coin depicts him as an emperor who desired not just victory, but harmony.

The wonderful billon nummus above was made for the emperor Maximian (A.D. 286 to 305). He is shown wearing the garb of the hero Hercules, which includes a lion pelt and a club over his shoulder. On the reverse, the Genius of the Roman people holds a cornucopia and patera.

Maximian chose Hercules as his patron deity, and occasionally portrayed himself in the guise of the mythological hero.

Our last selection is the gold solidus above, made at the Italian mint of Aquileia for Crispus, the eldest son of Constantine I, who ruled as Caesar from A.D. 316 to 326. His heroic bust is seen on the obverse, holding a spear and shield. On the reverse he’s shown holding a spear and a globe, hailed as the ‘prince of youth’.

All photos courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group and Heritage Auctions.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here.

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