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Aureus (Coin) Portraying Emperor Hadrian

A work made of gold.
CC0 Public Domain Designation

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  • A work made of gold.


120-123, issued by Hadrian


Roman; minted in Rome

About this artwork

Portraits of important people appear on local currency all around the world. The same was true in ancient Rome, which began producing its first coinage in the late 4th century BC. Early coins depicted the heads of gods and goddesses on the front side, often in profile, while the back depicted animals, natural resources, symbols, and references to historical events. It was not until 44 BC that the portrait of a living person—Julius Caesar—appeared on coins. Thereafter, profile portraits of rulers or other members of the imperial family became the standard subject on coins throughout the Roman Empire.

Inscriptions on coins help identify the ruler. While the front side depicted the sovereign’s portrait, the back was often used to communicate the ruler’s accomplishments or aspirations. Until Late Antiquity, portraits usually appeared in profile. The tiny images were carved by engravers into bronze dies, with one for the front and another for the back. The coins were then struck, one by one, in a process similar to how coins are created today.

Starting in 96 with the reign of Emperor Nerva, Rome was ruled by five wise leaders who came to be known as the “Good Emperors.” Nerva (reigned 96–98) was an honest and respected senator who enacted compassionate social programs. His rule ushered in a period of peace and prosperity, which is suggested by the sheer abundance of coins produced during this era as well as by the skill and artistry of the images created. Coins of this period, especially gold aurei like this one, were often perfectly round, well struck, and centered.

On this coin Hadrian - another “Good Emperor” - wears a short beard, initiating a trend that was popular among his successors for the next two centuries.


On View, Gallery 153


Arts of the Ancient Mediterranean and Byzantium


Ancient Roman


Aureus (Coin) Portraying Emperor Hadrian


Roman Empire (Minted in)


Struck 120 CE–123 CE




Diam.: 1.9 cm (3/4 in.)

Credit Line

Katherine K. Adler Memorial, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Alexander, and Ancient Art Purchase Funds

Reference Number


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Extended information about this artwork

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