Interpretive Resource

Related Story: Roman Coins and Coinage

Related Story: Roman Coins and Coinage

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Aureus (Coin) of Emperor Diocletian, A.D. 293. Roman, minted in Cyzicus. Gold; 5.27 g. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mr. Roger Trienens, 1996.350.

While other coins were made from bronze or silver, the solidus was a type of coin made specifically in the Roman Empire, which was struck from solid gold. The standard weight was approximately 4.5 grams. It was literally the gold standard of Roman currency, and only minted by the imperial court. The emperor Diocletian (r. A.D. 286–305) was the first to produce in limited quantity the solidus, in order to replace the less-dense aureus, seen here.


Hand holding US quarter. ©

Portraits of past presidents, kings, queens, and cultural figures grace the coins of many currencies today. What if today’s political leaders minted coins with their own image on them? One of earliest known coins to depict a living ruler was that of the dynast Mithrapata, which was minted in the 4th century B.C. in Anatolia (modern Turkey). This format came to be used throughout the ancient Mediterranean and eventually became the standard for modern coinage.

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Solidus (Coin) of Emperor Theodosius I, A.D. 383 (25 Aug.)–388 (28 Aug.). Byzantine, minted in Constantinople. Gold; 4.50 g. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Martin A. Ryerson, 1922.4904.

Constantine included a variety of images on his coins in addition to his portrait, including himself triumphant on horseback (as on this coin), the Roman sun god, and allegorical figures of victory. In the late Roman Empire, the emphasis began to shift away from the personality of the emperor and more toward the office. Many coins in this case include allegorical images of Rome to support the emperor’s claim to the imperial title.


Coin Showing the Emperor Augustus, 19–18 B.C. Roman. Silver; 3.90 g. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Martin A. Ryerson, 1922.4856.

Coins were the original political propaganda. It was Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, who adopted the name Augustus when he became emperor (r. 27 B.C.–A.D. 14), and included his august title on his coin. This tradition continued; the word august can be seen in the reverse of Constantine’s coin. These were important visual tools for Constantine, who, after defeating his rival emperors, needed to establish the legitimacy of his sole rule over the newly united Roman Empire.

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Solidus (Coin) of Emperor Leo V, A.D. 813/20. Byzantine, minted in Constantinople. Gold; 4.46 g. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mrs. Emily Crane Chadbourne, 1940.22.

It wasn’t until much later that the imagery on the coins of early Christian and Byzantine emperors became increasingly Christianized. In cases 106 and 130 are several Byzantine coins, all with Christian imagery paired with the emperor’s portraits. These examples show a famous cross once erected at the site of the Crucifixion in Jerusalem, Emperor Leo V (r. 813–20) holding a cross, and Emperor Romanus III (r. 1028–34) being crowned by Mary.

Byzantine, coin, portraits, Roman

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