About This Artwork

Roman, minted in Rome

Aureus (Coin) Portraying Emperor Gaius (Caligula), AD 37/38, issued by Caligula

Diam. 2 cm; 7.77 g

Gift of Martin A. Ryerson, 1922.4860

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.


Clean-shaven Romans took up wearing beards that they first saw on Hadrian’s coinage. Coins recorded the ever-changing hair-dos of the royal ladies in Rome and carried the new fashions to the far corners of the empire.

This work appears in the online catalogue Roman Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, featuring art historical essays and conservation reports on artworks from the ancient Roman world in the Art Institute’s collection. Entries include new high-resolution photography, stunning 360-degree views of the works, and in-depth technical imaging and analysis. The volume is free to the public.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

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

Publication History

Theresa Gross-Diaz, “Cat. 37 Aureus Portraying Emperor Gaius (Caligula): Curatorial Entry,” in Roman Art at the Art Institute of Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago, 2016).

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.

Karen Alexander and Mary Greuel, Private Taste in Ancient Rome: Selections from Chicago Collections (Art Institute of Chicago, 1990), n. pag. (n. 53).

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