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.
Coins were the ideal way for Byzantine rulers to rapidly circulate their images throughout the empire and beyond, since they were used to pay for imported merchandise and foreign mercenaries. They could also be employed as powerful vehicles for propaganda, promoting messages of dynastic legitimacy and the divine
source of the emperor’s right to rule.
After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine emperors adopted Christian themes and symbols, most notably the cross, to stand for both the religion and the political state. The previously ubiquitous profile portrait head was replaced by frontal or full-body depictions. Christ dominated the iconography, and Greek titles and phrases came to replace the Latin ones.
Irene was one of only three female rulers to hold sole power in the 1,100-year-long history of the Byzantine Empire. This rare coin, minted during her reign, not surprisingly incorporates remarkable iconographical innovations, with every detail stressing her sole imperial authority. She is designated basilissa (empress) in the inscription, the first time this title is present in Byzantine coinage. Her image appears on both sides, representing the first imperial double portrait on a Byzantine coin. She wears a cross-surmounted crown with pendilia (pearl adornments that reach nearly to the shoulders) and a jewel-encrusted loros (a long imperial scarf) and holds in her hands the globus cruciger (cross-topped orb) and cross-topped staff—all signs of male imperial power and dominion over the Christian world.Irene left a notable mark on the male-dominated world of Byzantine politics. She came to power by blinding and exiling her son Constantine VI. Reversing her husband’s policies, she reinstituted icon veneration. Her reign also witnessed the first major challenge from the Christian West, when in the year 800 Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Irene’s gender was a perceived justifi-cation for this action: a woman could not be a legitimate emperor. This watershed moment initiated a controversy between the rulers of Roman Catholic Europe and those of the Byzantine Empire about rightful claims to imperial authority. Unresolved, the controversy lasted until the end of the Byzantine Empire in 1453.
- Solidus (Coin) of Empress Irene
- 797 CE–802 CE
- Diam. 2.2 cm; 4.46 g
- Gift of the Classical Art Society