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.
Cleopatra (69–30 BC) was queen of Egypt when the Roman Empire was gradually expanding into the wealthy eastern Mediterranean. By allying herself first with the powerful Roman generals Julius Caesar (100–44 BC) and then Mark Antony (83–30 BC), she hoped to maintain her country’s independence and her own authority. The political alliance between Antony and Cleopatra worried Caesar’s heir, Octavian, who, in 31 BC, defeated the couple in a sea battle. Rather than suffer the humiliation of surrender, Cleopatra and Antony killed themselves.
This coin was minted during Antony and Cleopatra’s alliance. By pairing their faces on coinage, the rulers advertised their powerful partnership, which was so strong that Cleopatra’s profile is an exact copy of Antony’s portrait (see below). Cleopatra’s image appears on the front of the coin, which identifies her as the more important of the two rulers. A crown circling her carefully braided hair symbolizes her status as a queen.
- Ancient Roman
- Tetradrachm (Coin) Portraying Queen Cleopatra VII
- 37 BC–33 BC
- Obverse: ΒΑCIΛICCA ΚΛΕΟΠΑΤΡΑ ΘΕΑ ΝΕω[TERA] Reverse: ΑΝΤωΝΙΟC ΑΥΤΟΚΡΑTωΡ ΤΡΙΤΟΝ ΤΡΙωΝ ΑΝΔΡωΝ
- Diam. 2.6 cm (1 1/16 in.), 15.22 g
- Katherine K. Adler Memorial Fund