About This Artwork

Roman, minted in Sicily

Denarius (Coin) Portraying Pompey the Great, 42/40 BC, issued by Roman Republic, Sextus Pompeius Magnus

Diam. 2 cm; 3.95 g
Reverse: PRÆF (above) CLAS.ET.ORÆ / MARIT.EX.S.C

Gift of Martin A. Ryerson, 1922.4851

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. After Pompey’s defeat by Julius Caesar, his sons tried to revitalize their father’s reputation and thereby enhance their own stature by issuing coins with Pompey’s portrait.

—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

Exhibition History

The Art Institute of Chicago, Private Taste in Ancient Rome: Selections from Chicago Collections, Gallery 141, March 3 - June 3, 1990.

The Art Institute of Chicago, Ancient Art Galleries, Gallery 155, April 20, 1994 - February 6, 2012.

The Art Institute of Chicago, Power Struggles: Cleopatra's Relatives and Their Rivals, Gallery 155 (Coin Case), November, 2001 - 2007.

The Art Institute of Chicago, Of Gods and Glamour: The Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art, Gallery 152, July 2013 - present.

Publication History

Theresa Gross-Diaz, “Cat. 32 Denarius Portraying Pompey the Great: Curatorial Entry,” in Roman Art at the Art Institute of Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago, 2016).

Karen Alexander and Mary Greuel, Private Taste in Ancient Rome: Selections from Chicago Collections (The Art Institute of Chicago, 1990), n.pag. (n. 63).

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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