About This Artwork

Roman, minted in Rome

Denarius (Coin) Portraying Marcus Claudius Marcellus, 50/49 B.C., issued by Roman Republic, P. Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus (moneyer)

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.


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

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.

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