About this artwork
Portraits of important people appear on local currency all around the world. The same was true in ancient Rome, which began producing its first coinage in the late 4th century BC. Early coins depicted the heads of gods and goddesses on the front side, often in profile, while the back depicted animals, natural resources, symbols, and references to historical events. It was not until 44 BC that the portrait of a living person—Julius Caesar—appeared on coins. Thereafter, profile portraits of rulers or other members of the imperial family became the standard subject on coins throughout the Roman Empire.
Inscriptions on coins help identify the ruler. While the front side depicted the sovereign’s portrait, the back was often used to communicate the ruler’s accomplishments or aspirations. Until Late Antiquity, portraits usually appeared in profile. The tiny images were carved by engravers into bronze dies, with one for the front and another for the back. The coins were then struck, one by one, in a process similar to how coins are created today.
Octavian so utterly defeated the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC that both committed suicide rather than be humiliated as prisoners of Rome. Octavian advertised his triumph with this coin, announcing boldly “Egypt [is] captured.” To the Romans the crocodile, an exotic inhabitant of the Nile River, symbolized Egypt. To the Egyptians it was the incarnation of the god Sobek.
- Ancient Roman
- Denarius (Coin) Portraying Octavian
- Roman Empire
- 28 BC
- Diam. 2.1 cm; 3.52 g
- Gift of William F. Dunham