A popular way to collect ancient Roman coins is by emperor
Portraits are one of the hallmarks of coins of the Roman Empire. For centuries, collectors have marveled at the images of emperors and members of their families that appear on coins. Not surprisingly, portraits often are the focus of collections.
The reigns of most emperors were short enough that there is no real opportunity for the style of their portraits to change significantly. Also, most emperors reigned while already adults – yet another factor that limited the opportunity for “maturing” portraits.
On some occasions, though, emperors began their reigns young and ruled long enough that a meaningful transformation in their appearance can be observed.
We’ve selected four such emperors to illustrate this phenomenon. We’ll start with the infamous Nero (54-68 CE), whose reign ended amid a civil war while he was still a relatively young man.
Shown above is a silver cistophorus (three denarius coin) of 50-51 CE from the provincial mint of Pergamum, which portrays Nero at about age 13, before he became emperor. At this time, he held the title of Caesar and was being groomed for the throne by his uncle Claudius (41-54).
Nero was about 19 years old when this artful portrait appeared on silver denarii of 56-57 CE. Nero appears to have aged significantly since his portrait of six years earlier.
Three years later, Nero as a 22-year-old man is shown with a light beard. He’s portrayed on a silver tetradrachm struck in the period 59-60 CE at the provincial mint of Antioch in Syria.
Still another three years later, when Nero was about 25 years old, he’s shown rather youthfully on this gold aureus struck at the Rome mint 62-63 CE.
After yet another three years had passed, we observe a significant change in Nero’s appearance. When this menacing portrait appeared on a silver tetradrachm of 65-66 CE from the mint of Antioch in Syria, Nero was about 28 years old.
Our final coin of Nero was struck within about a year of his suicide. He was about 30 years old when this silver denarius was struck at the Rome mint in 67-68 CE. At this late stage of his reign, Nero’s portraits become almost caricatures.
Our next subject is Marcus Aurelius (161-180), who was given the title Caesar in 139 – long before he was hailed Augustus (emperor) in 161. His portraits undergo a significant evolution during the approximately 40 years he appeared on coins of the Roman Empire.
One of his earliest coin types, illustrated above, is a silver denarius issued 140-144, when he was age 19 to 23. On this piece, he appears almost fictionally young for his age.
The brass sestertius above is from the same period as the previous coin. On this piece, however, Marcus Aurelius appears to be more mature. It may have been struck at the end of the date range, whereas the denarius may have been issued toward the beginning.
On this silver denarius, issued 147-148, Marcus Aurelius has matured further still, with a light beard. At the time he was 26 or 27 years old.
Marcus Aurelius now looks like a mature adult with a full beard, being 37 or 38 years old when this silver denarius was issued at the Rome mint in 158-159.
Now about 44 years old, Marcus Aurelius appears older still. This denarius was issued in 165, as proven by the dating formula on the reverse: He was hailed imperator for the third time in 165, with his fourth occurring in 166, thus restricting this coin precisely to 165.
Issued in 172, this silver denarius portrays Marcus Aurelius at about 51 years old. He looks still older than he did on the previous denarius, with his beard being longer.
This denarius of 179 was issued the year before Marcus Aurelius died of natural causes. He was about 58 years old, when this portrait was engraved, and he now has the full, flowing “philosopher beard” for which he was known.
We’ll now examine the coin portraits of Marcus Aurelius’ only surviving son, Commodus, who succeeded him as emperor of Rome, holding that title from 177 to 192. Above is a gold aureus portraying Commodus as heir to the throne. It was struck in 175-176, when Commodus was 14 or 15 and held the rank of Caesar.
In 179, when this silver tetradrachm was struck at the provincial mint of Antioch in Syria, Commodus held the rank of Augustus (emperor) alongside his father, who was nearing the end of his life. Commodus was about 18 years old when this elegant portrait was engraved.
Two years later, in 181, this gold aureus was struck at the Rome mint. Commodus was then about 20 years old and at the helm of the Roman Empire, for his father had died in March of the previous year. He no longer has the appearance of an adolescent.
After another two years had passed, this brass sestertius was issued in 183, with Commodus then being about 22 years old. He looks substantially older than on the previous coin, as if he’d aged many years. Sometimes emperors were portrayed fictionally youthful or elderly with a political purpose in mind, and this may be just such a case.
On this silver denarius issued at the Rome mint in 186, Commodus appears positively elderly, though he was only 25 years old.
Issued in 191, the year before he was murdered in a palace coup on New Year’s Eve of 192, this silver denarius depicts a haggard man, even though Commodus was only about 30 years old.
Our final subject in this brief survey is Caracalla, who held the title of Augustus from 198 to 217. His real name was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, but he came to be known as Caracalla because of a particular style of Gallic cloak of that name that he enjoyed wearing.
We’ll start with the child-portrait of this future emperor which appears on the silver denarius above. It’s of a type issued at the Rome mint from A.D. 196-198 before Caracalla had been hailed emperor. During those years, when Caracalla was just eight to 10 years old, he bore the junior title of Caesar.
When this gold aureus was issued at the Rome mint in 202, Caracalla was about 14 years old, and already shared the title of Augustus with his father (though at this age he hardly could have performed any serious functions as emperor).
Late in 203, when this silver denarius was issued and Caracalla was about 15 years old, his portrait remained almost unchanged. Indeed, he looks more like a child than a teenager.
Several years later, in 209, this silver denarius was struck at the Rome mint. At about age 21, Caracalla has finally taken on the looks of a young man, having shed the cherubic portrayals of his early years.
Merely two or three years later, Caracalla has transformed from a relatively innocent looking young man to a fearsome individual. His bearded portrait on this sestertius of 211-212 depicts the emperor as a 23- or 24-year-old.
This great leap forward in Caracalla’s appearance surely had more to do with political circumstances than rapid aging, for in 211 he had assumed supreme control of the empire with the death of his father (of natural causes) and his murder of his co-emperor brother, with whom he nursed a bitter rivalry.
In 216, when Caracalla was about 28 years old, this silver double-denarius was issued at the Rome mint. It bears the same mature and menacing portrait of the sestertius shown previously. It would have been interesting to see what Caracalla’s portraits looked like 20 or 30 years later, but that was prevented by his murder in a military coup in April of 217.
Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group (CNG)