About This Artwork

Roman, minted in Rome

Aureus (Coin) Portraying Emperor Caracalla, A.D. 216, issued by Caracalla

Diam. 2 cm; 6.62 g

Gift of Martin A. Ryerson, 1922.4885

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. This coin portrays Caracalla (r. A.D. 211–217) as an adult who killed his brother in order to rule alone.

The god Serapis was invented by Ptolemy I, who saw the benefit of a deity that could be worshipped by both Egyptians and Greeks. Serapis was later whole-heartedly adopted by the Romans. The new god represented two aspects important to both cultures—fecundity and the promise of life after death. Serapis is portrayed as an older man, fully bearded, resembling the Greek god Zeus. He is identified by the grain measuring basket, or modius, he wears on his head.

— Exhibition label, When the Greeks Ruled: Egypt After Alexander the Great, October 31, 2013–July 27, 2014, Gallery 154.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

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

The Art Institute of Chicago, When the Greeks Ruled: Egypt After Alexander the Great, October 31, 2013 - July 27, 2014.

Publication History

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.

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