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 BCE. 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 BCE 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.
The front (obverse) of this coin portrays the head of Emperor Caligula facing right, laureate. The back (reverse) portrays a bust of Agrippina I, facing right. Early imperial coin portraits included individualized features that identified each ruler. The first Roman emperor, Augustus (reigned 27 BC–AD 14), dictated that he retain his youthful appearance in his portraits throughout his lifetime). Depictions of subsequent emperors, like Caligula (reigned 37–41), seen here, and Nero (reigned 54–68), were less idealized. The gold aureus gradually replaced the silver denarius as the most common coin for imperial portraits.
- Ancient Roman
- Aureus (Coin) Portraying Emperor Caligula
- 37 CE–38 CE
- Obverse: C.CAESAR.AVG.GERM.PM.TR.POT Reverse: AGRIPPINA.MAT.C.CAES.AVG.GERM.
- Diam. 2 cm; 7.77 g
- Gift of Martin A. Ryerson