About This Artwork

Roman, minted in Spain, possibly Colonia Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza) or Colonia Patricia (Cordoba)

Denarius (Coin) Portraying Emperor Augustus, 19/18 BC, issued by Augustus

Diam. 2 cm; 3.90 g
"Augustus Caesar"
"Divine Julius"

Gift of Martin A. Ryerson, 1922.4856

The purpose of the first portrait coins was to identify the ruler. The front side became a mirror of the sovereign’s self-image. The back was often used to communicate the ruler’s accomplishments or intentions. The profile portrait was used because it suited the very shallow depth and limited surface of the coin. The tiny images were carved by engravers into bronze dies, one for the front and another for the back. Whereas modern coinage is cast by pouring molten metal into molds, these coins were struck, one by one. In place of human ancestors, some rulers substituted real or mythic heroes or even the gods as their progenitors. When a great comet appeared in the sky after Julius Caesar’s assassination, Caesar’s heir Augustus (r. 27 B.C.–A.D. 14) claimed it was proof that Caesar had become a god, making Augustus the son of a god.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

The Art Institute of Chicago, Ruling Families: Imperial Dynasties of the Early Roman Empire 31 B.C.- A.D. 235, Gallery 155 (Coin Case), November 1, 1997 - November 2001.

The Art Institute of Chicago, Power Struggles: Cleopatra's Relatives and Their Rivals, Gallery 155 (Coin Case), November 2001 - 2007.

The Art Institute of Chicago, Of Gods and Glamour: The Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art, Gallery 152, July 2013 - present.

Publication History

Theresa Gross-Diaz, “Cat. 35 Denarius Portraying Augustus: Curatorial Entry,” in Roman Art at the Art Institute of Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago, 2016).

Elizabeth Hahn Benge, "From Aegina to Andronicus: A Survey of Coinage at the Art Institute of Chicago," in Historia Mundi n. 5 (January 2016), pp. 209, 210, fig. 12.

Karen B. Alexander, "From Plaster to Stone: Ancient Art at the Art Institute of Chicago," in Recasting the Past: Collecting and Presenting Antiquities at the Art Institute of Chicago, by Karen Manchester (Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, 2012), p. 29.

Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, vol. 72, no. 5 (September-October, 1978), p. 2.

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