About This Artwork

Roman, minted in Antioch, Syria

Tetradrachm (Coin) Portraying Emperor Otho, AD 69, issued by the city of Antioch

Diam. 2.8 cm; 14.51 g
Reverse: εTOVC A (below)

Gift of Martin A. Ryerson, 1922.4929

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.


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

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

Publication History

Theresa Gross-Diaz, “Cat. 42 Tetradrachm Portraying Otho: 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.

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