By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
Born on December 15 in the year 37 CE, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was not necessarily destined for greatness. He was, however, the son of one of history’s most famous women, Julia Agrippina (the Younger).
After her husband, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, died in 40 CE, Julia quickly remarried to the popular Roman politician Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus. Eight years later, Crispus died under suspicious circumstances, leaving Agrippina extremely wealthy.
She then saw a further opportunity to advance both her and her sons’ interests when her uncle, the emperor Claudius, executed his third wife for treason in 48 CE. After their marriage the next year, Claudius adopted Lucius and had him renamed Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. The mother-son pair were one step closer to the throne.
While no definitive proof exists, most historians agree that after a series of public arguments and a dramatic rise in marital tensions, Agrippina poisoned Claudius. The emperor’s health worsened quickly, and he died on October 13, 54 CE. With Claudius’s death, Nero became emperor at the age of 17. Thanks in part to the historians Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio Cassius, there are few Roman emperors who can claim as much historical bad press as Nero. Interestingly, all three historians wrote well after Nero committed suicide in 68 CE.
Regardless of how cruel and despotic Nero became once he donned the purple, his coinage was highly realistic and evolved over time to accurately reflect his portrait. This was a departure from the Julio-Claudian tradition of idealized youthful portraiture started by Augustus almost 80 years prior.
As part of his imperial propaganda, Augustus tightly controlled how his image appeared on statues, coins, and paintings. Coins minted at the beginning of his reign bare almost the exact same portrait as those struck near the end of it. The two coins below are emblematic of this trend, with the first one struck in the middle of his reign around 19/18 BCE and the second over 30 years later when he was 75 years old and dying in 13/14 CE – yet they look remarkably similar.
Even though this trend continued throughout the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the successor emperors Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius continued to use stylized portraiture, they were nevertheless more realistic (as can be seen below).
While the coin of Caligula was struck when he was only about 25 years old, it depicts a brutal and tough portrait. The gold aureus from Claudius’s reign however was struck when he was approximately 60 years old and shows a man reaching advanced years. Instead of the previously popular youthful portrait, this example accurately illustrates the wrinkles and general aging that everyone experiences.
Transitioning into the coinage of Nero we see an interesting piece that harkens back to an earlier coin struck by Augustus in 13 BCE to honor Agrippa, Augustus’ “boyhood friend, lieutenant and eventual chosen heir” before his death in 12 BCE (Coin Archives – Lot 95). The Augustan denarius depicts Augustus on the obverse and Agrippa on the reverse as Caesar.
Similarly, the Claudian example depicts the emperor Claudius on the obverse and a young Nero on the reverse. Both coins employ the Julio-Claudian idealized youthful portraits. At the time of striking, Nero was only 14 years old, so he truly was a child as this portrait suggests. This example fits within the first of four types within which historians and numismatists group Neronian portraiture. The first type is identified by the “helmet” of hair and the soon-to-be emperor’s extreme youthfulness (Littlewood, 354).
With the average reign for Roman emperors until the end of the fourth century lasting only eight years, many emperors did not have the chance to grow old in office (Olsen). Ascending to the throne at 17 and ruling until he died at age 30, Nero provides us with more than 13 years of evolving numismatic portraiture to study. He quickly transitions from a thin, youthful teenager to a portly 20-year-old, and by the end of his reign, he has transformed into an overweight adult.
Coins minted between 54 and 58 CE fall into the second type of Neronian portraiture. Type II coins still display the helmet style of hair yet now depict a more mature teenager.
Agrippina initially tried to control the young emperor and an early series struck from 54-55 CE, with some provincial examples struck until 57, depict both the emperor and the empress as seen in this example. Struck in 55, this coin features the famous Neronian jugate, or double, bust and is full of imperial propaganda. On the obverse, it ties the son and mother together by demonstrating Agrippina’s power and control over the young emperor. On the reverse, Divi Augustus and Claudius are driving a chariot with elephants and links the current rulers to the previous members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Struck in 56/7 CE at Lugdunum (modern-day Lyon) this denarius’s exceptional portrait still depicts a youthful emperor and belongs to the second type. [[COIN8]]
The third portrait type is marked by a slightly more natural hairstyle, a more deeply set eye, and the beginning of the emperor’s weight gain. Most examples of this type were struck between 58/9 and 62/3 CE. This more mature image debuted shortly after his mother Agrippina was murdered, as most academics agree, on Nero’s orders.
A billon tetradrachm, an alloy of silver and bronze, struck in Alexandria, Egypt around 58/9 CE. It depicts the standard crude design with heavy features that is characteristic of Roman provincial coinage. However, the portrait is still recognizably a youthful Nero.
Again, from Lugdunum, where most early imperial gold and silver coins were produced, this high-grade aureus was struck in 60 CE. At 27 years old, Nero was still a young man. However, the portrait shows a slight fattening of the cheeks and some drooping of the emperor’s nose.
Perhaps the most famous and recognizably as Neronian, the fourth and final type was struck from circa 63 CE to the emperor’s death in 68. The “fleshy swelling” of the face and intense “scrutiniz[ing]” gaze give the emperor an almost sinister appearance (Littlewood, 375). However, this glowering depiction was not a “revolution of form”, as the main stylistic elements, hair and facial expression were borrowed from earlier Julio-Claudian sculptures. (Littlewood, 358)
From the mint in Rome, this sestertius was struck in 63 CE. Depicted on both sides, the emperor’s image is really beginning to change. At age 26, Nero is developing his distinct double chin and accompanying neckbeard.
Two years later when this coin was struck circa 64-66 CE at Rome, Nero’s image was almost completely different than the youthful portrait from a decade previous (though he retains the piercing glare characteristic of his early years). It is interesting to note that this was less than one year after the Great Fire of Rome. On the reverse, the emperor is depicted distributing charity to the citizenry of Rome.
An anachronistic provincial tetradrachm struck at Antioch in approximately 65-66 CE shows a much younger and thinner emperor with an old fashioned Julio-Claudian-style youthful portrait. Although provincial mints had a certain amount of freedom whilst designing their coins, this is extreme. The moneyer in question may have been working off of old dies. But if not, it is an interesting design choice perhaps intended to flatter a famously capricious and egomaniacal tyrant.
This aureus, an attractive example struck in 66-67 CE, features the typical late-style portrait of the emperor on the obverse and Salus, goddess of safety and well-being, on the reverse. This portrait type is one of the last produced during Nero’s reign and when he died a year later, it had barely changed.
Next, this denarius, from 67-68 CE, was one of the very last designs struck before the civil war that followed Nero’s suicide. Interestingly, NGC posited that this late-style Neronian portrait is not very realistic and is in fact bordering on a “caricature” (NGC, 2019). This may be true. However, while there was a veneer of senatorial control over the design and production of bronze coins, as demonstrated by the SC – meaning Senatus Consulto – included on the reverse of the empire’s bronze coinage, the emperor retained final say over all designs on the specie coinage.
The real question is why Nero agreed to have such an unflattering transformation of his portraiture struck on his coinage and mirrored by his sculpture. The historical reason, that imperial coinage mirrored the “vicissitudes of Nero’s depraved existence”, is illogical (Storage & Maish). If, as Suetonius claimed, Nero was a “debauched and ruthless murderer” with a strong megalomaniacal bent, then he almost certainly would not have willingly allowed his engravers to employ such unflattering imagery (Storage & Maish).
Additionally, the study of facial features to analyze an individual’s personality is a slippery slope that can lead to the darker pseudo-scientific practice of phrenology and other related practices.
When taken in its entirety, the coinage of Nero depicts a maturing emperor who grew into a man that the powerful politicians of Rome hated. This hatred reached such a degree that these individuals conducted a damnatio memoriae against the emperor. This means that many of Nero’s coins and much of his statuary have been defaced and that many later Roman historians condemned him posthumously for both his real and his perceived wrongdoings.
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Hekster, O., Manders, E., & Slootjes, D. “Making History with Coins: Nero from a Numismatic Perspective”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 45(1). 25–37. (2014)
Hiesinger, U. W. (1975). “The Portraits of Nero”, American Journal of Archaeology 79(2). 113–124.
Littlewood, C., Freudenburg, K., & Bartsch, S. (Eds.). “Nero’s Image: The Four Portrait Types”, The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Nero. Cambridge University Press. (2017)
Sydenham, E. A. “THE COINAGE OF NERO: An Introductory Study”, The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society 16. 13–36. (1916)
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).