NGC Ancients: Exaggerated Portraits on Roman Coinage

Posted on 4/24/2013

This month, NGC Ancients examines portraiture on coinage.

Throughout the course of Roman history, a vast number of rulers and other members of the elite classes appeared on the coinage of the realm. Some of these portraits were strikingly rendered and stand as masterpieces of ancient art. A particularly interesting field of study within this genre is portraits that feature extremely exaggerated facial characteristics, whether the artists intended to create them that way or not.

For example, this gold aureus of the Gallic usurper Carausius (AD 286-293) displays such characteristics. The obverse features a portrait so crude that it is almost barbaric in style.

In a similar vein, this aureus of Majorian (AD 457-461) not only features a wonderfully crude bust type, but also a very interesting reverse type. The emperor is depicted holding a long cross and Victory, while standing on a man-headed serpent. This late Roman emperor is generally considered to have been one of the more capable rulers in an era that is notoriously bereft of such leaders.

Rome’s first ruling dynasty, the Julio-Claudians, were distinguished by their extremely long necks. A fine example of this characteristic is displayed on this gold aureus of Claudius (AD 41-54), struck at Rome in AD 46-47.

Further evidence of this familial trait may be seen on this aureus of Augustus (27 BC – AD 14), struck at Lugdunum in AD 13-14. It features the founder of the dynasty (Augustus) on the obverse, and his successor Tiberius (AD 14-37) as Caesar on the reverse. An even more exaggerated portrait of Augustus appears on this earlier aureus, struck at Tarraco in 17-16 BC. It is noteworthy not only for the bold portrait, but also for the interesting reverse type of a Capricorn holding a globe attached to a rudder, with a cornucopia above its back.

An interesting subject within Roman portraiture is the infamous emperor Nero (AD 54-68). This silver denarius was struck at Lugdunum in AD 60-61, relatively early in the emperor’s reign. Here, a slim Nero looks to be not much older than a teenager. There is an amazing contrast with this denarius, struck at Rome in AD 66-67. Here, the emperor almost looks monstrous – his neck is impossibly broad and his face is rather piggish. It is interesting to speculate on the engraver’s intentions with this portrait. By this time, Nero was very unpopular with the Roman people – might this unflattering depiction of the emperor be a political commentary of sorts?

Of course, exaggerated portraiture was not limited to imperial Rome. There are Republican pieces that display this characteristic too, including this silver denarius issued by the moneyer Cn. Blasio in 112-111 BC. The obverse depicts either Mars or Scipio Africanus (a famous Roman general who had lived about a century earlier). Everything about the facial features is exaggerated, producing a wonderful effect.

There are many different ways to collect the coinage of imperial and republican Rome, with style of portraiture being just one of them. The coins presented here represent just the tip of the iceberg – there are literally thousands of fascinating portraits available at reasonable prices to collectors of ancients, especially when the coins were produced at branch or provincial mints – these issues merit a separate study all their own!

As an example, this silver tetradrachm of Nerva (AD 96-98) was struck at the Antioch (Syria) mint in AD 97-98. The portrait is of excellent style, but what the viewer is immediately attracted to is the huge size of the nose in proportion to the face and the large bulge of the forehead. We cannot know whether the engraver intended this effect or not, but it is striking nonetheless.

First image courtesy of Numismatica ARS Classica, additional images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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