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About This Artwork
Denarius (Coin) Portraying Marcus Claudius Marcellus, 50 B.C., issued by Marcellinus
Diam. 1.8 cm; 3.93 g
Gift of Martin A. Ryerson, 1922.4846a
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 AS PUBLICITY
Coins were an efficient form of publicity, particularly when new rulers needed to legitimize their succession or strengthen their reputation. Forbidden by Roman law to picture a living person on coinage, the politician Marcellinus pictured his famous ancestor Marcellus.
—Permanent collection label