NGC Ancients: Roman Provincial Coin Portraits

Posted on 1/16/2018

Portraits on Roman provincial coins range from crude to skillfully engraved.

Roman provincial coins—those struck outside of Italy, in the provinces of Rome—are among the most fascinating of all ancient coins. They often have intriguing designs and bear portraits of great interest.

The die engraving on provincial coins varies incredibly, from the cartoonish efforts to artistic masterpieces. In this column we’ll illustrate a variety of the portrait styles a collector of Roman provincial coins is likely to encounter.

We’ll start with several examples with crude die engraving:

26 mm bronze of Calagurris in Spain

First is this 26 mm bronze of Calagurris in Spain, issued for Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14). Its portrait is especially simplistic.

Sestertius-sized bronze of emperor Tiberius

Perhaps struck at “Paterna” in Zeugitana (a region in North Africa), this sestertius-sized bronze has a rudimentary portrait of the emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14-37).

Bronze of Turiaso with portrait of Tiberius

Also bearing a crude portrait of Tiberius is this bronze of Turiaso in nearby Spain.

24 mm bronze of Edessa, in Mesopotamia, struck for Severus Alexander

Similarly crude is this 24 mm bronze of Edessa, in Mesopotamia, struck for Severus Alexander (A.D. 222-235). The composition of the portrait is interesting, even if the style of engraving is poor.

Bronze from Antiochia ad Maeandrum in Caria with portrait of emperor Gallienus

This large provincial bronze from Antiochia ad Maeandrum in Caria bears a crude, military portrait of the emperor Gallienus (A.D. 253-268).

Bronze as of Nemausus with portraits of Augustus and Marcus Agrippa

This bronze as of Nemausus, in Gaul, misses the high mark of artistry often achieved at imperial mints in the empire, yet it’s nowhere near as crude as the five examples above. The obverse bears the portraits of Augustus and his general Marcus Agrippa.

In some instances it can be reasonably assumed that engravers cut dies for both imperial and provincial coins. Below are two coins issued in Spain during the reign of Augustus which illustrate the point: an imperial-mint denarius (top) and a bronze of the mint of Bilbilis (bottom).

Imperial-mint denarius

Bronze of the mint of Bilbilis

The standards of engraving were often quite good on silver coins issued by the Romans in their provinces. What follows are fifteen especially nice examples.

Drachm of Tiberius

This drachm of Tiberius was issued at the mint of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Its portrait is far better than most which appear on this emperor's imperial-mint denarii.

Drachm bearing portraits of Germanicus and Augustus

Also from Caesarea is this drachm bearing the portraits of Tiberius’ nephew Germanicus (died A.D. 19) and Tiberius' predecessor, Augustus (now deified). Augustus' portrait is especially well engraved.

Drachm bearing the portrait of Tiberius and his son Drusus

This drachm from Caesarea bears the portrait of Tiberius and his natural son Drusus, who died of poisoning in A.D. 23. It was struck for the tenth anniversary of the young heir's death.

Cistophori with portrait of Augustus

Among the largest Roman silver coins were cistophori, which were issued at provincial mints in Asia Minor that sometimes also struck Imperial coins. Their portraits often are magnificent, as with the piece, above, depicting Augustus.

Cistophorus with busts of the emperor Claudius and his wife Agrippina Junior

Of equally refined style is this cistophorus with the jugate busts of the emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54) and his wife (and niece) Agrippina Junior.

Cistophorus issued by Claudius with portrait of young Nero

Agrippina Junior’s son, Nero, was adopted by Claudius. A fine-style portrait of young Nero appears on this cistophorus, issued by Claudius in A.D. 50-54, while the young heir held the rank of Caesar. He succeeded Claudius as emperor in 54, and ruled until 68.

Cistophorus with portrait of Hadrian

The coin portraits of Hadrian (A.D. 117-138) often are well-engraved, as on this cistophorus issued for him at Nicomedia, the capitol of Bithynia.

Tetradrachm of Vespasian

Another large-denomination Roman silver coin was the tetradrachm, which was issued at numerous mints throughout the eastern regions of the empire. The piece above was struck at Antioch, in Syria, for Vespasian (A.D. 69 to 79). In this case his portrait is of the very finest style.

Tetradrachm of Laodicea ad Mare with portrait of Caracalla

Also of fine style is this highly ornamented bust of Caracalla (A.D. 198-217), on a tetradrachm struck at the Syrian city of Laodicea ad Mare.

Portrait of Caracalla on tetradrachm of Carrhae

A different style of Caracalla portrait appears on this tetradrachm of Carrhae, in Mesopotamia

Tetradrachm struck at Tyre with portrait of the god Melkart

The city of Tyre, in Phoenicia, had been issuing coins long before the arrival of the Romans. This tetradrachm was struck at Tyre c.A.D. 215-217, during the last two years of Caracalla’s reign. The reverse bears the portrait of the god Melkart.

Roman tetradrachms with portrait of Caracalla

Roman tetradrachms often had unusual portraits, such as the one of Caracalla on an issue of Edessa in Mesopotamia.

Edessa tetradrachm with portrait of Macrinus

Similarly odd is the portrait of Caracalla’s successor, Macrinus (A.D. 217-218), on this tetradrachm of Edessa.

Some of Rome’s largest issues of imperial silver were struck at imperial mints in the provinces. Just like the cistophori shown earlier, these coins skirt the definitions of imperial and provincial coinage. Below are two examples which have particularly outstanding portraits.

Emperor Vespasian and his sons, Titus and Domitian

The emperor Vespasian and his sons, Titus and Domitian (both then Caesars, though eventually they would reign as emperors), are portrayed on this denarius of the Ephesus mint.

Imperial Mint Denarius of Vespasian

While Titus reigned as Caesar (A.D. 69 to 79), Vespasian struck this denarius on his behalf at the imperial mint in Antioch, Syria.

Our final examples of portraits on provincial coins are from the mint of Alexandria in Egypt. Six pieces are illustrated below.

Copper drachm of Hadrian

This copper drachm of Hadrian was struck in A.D. 133/4. It bears an attractive portrait and its reverse depicts the standing figures of the Dioscuri.

Billon tetradrachm of Hadrian and his wife Sabina

Also from Alexandria is this billon tetradrachm of Hadrian and his wife Sabina, struck in A.D. 132/3. Both portraits are in high relief and are of fine style.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius on Copper Drachm

A stately portrait of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180) appears on this copper drachm of A.D. 162/3. The reverse shows the personification of Alexandria crowning the river-god Nilus, who reclines on a crocodile.

Young emperor Severus Alexander and his mother, Julia Mamaea

The young emperor Severus Alexander is portrayed along with his mother, Julia Mamaea, on this billon tetradrachm of A.D. 225/6. The style of the dies are distinct enough that it is generally believed that these dies were engraved at the Rome mint.

Billon tetradrachm of Claudius II Gothicus

As the third century wound down, portraits on Roman coins became increasingly stylized, as exemplified by this billon tetradrachm of Claudius II Gothicus (A.D. 268-270). It bears on its reverse a portrait of the Greco-Egyptian god Hermanubis.

Billon tetradrachm of Harpocrates of Pelusium.

Among the last provincial coins to be produced is this billon tetradrachm of Diocletian (A.D. 284-305), struck at Alexandria in A.D. 291/2. It shows on its reverse the standing figure of Harpocrates of Pelusium. By this time, the imperial portrait is merely a caricature.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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