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About This Artwork
Tetradrachm (Coin) Portraying Emperor Otho, A.D. 69
Diam. 2.8 cm; 14.51 g
OB: ΑΥΤΟΚΡΑΤωΡ ΜΑΡΚΟC ΟΘωΝ ΚΑΙCΑΡ CΕΒΑCΤΟC
Gift of Martin A. Ryerson, 1922.4929
Ancient and Byzantine Art
Not on Display
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.
PORTRAITS: REALISM OR IDEALISM
The primary purpose of portraiture was to create an accurate likeness of the subject. During the three-month rule of Otho (r. A.D. 69), he issued two coins. They show him at his real age, sixty-eight years old (not pictured here), and as a more vital younger man.
—Permanent collection label
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.