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.
Starting in 96 with the reign of Emperor Nerva, Rome was ruled by five wise leaders who came to be known as the “Good Emperors.” Nerva (reigned 96–98) was an honest and respected senator who enacted compassionate social programs. His rule ushered in a period of peace and prosperity, which is suggested by the sheer abundance of coins produced during this era as well as by the skill and artistry of the images created. Coins of this period, especially gold aurei like this one, were often perfectly round, well struck, and centered.
Succeeding Antoninus Pius (reigned AD 138-61) was a young man also chosen by Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius (reigned AD 161–80), who was only seventeen at the time of his appointment. Emperor Marcus Aurelius recorded his thoughts about life, today known as Meditations. It was his unhappy fate, however, to face the growing aggression of the nomadic tribes from the East that looked west for more land and rich cities to plunder.
- Ancient Roman
- Aureus (Coin) Portraying Emperor Marcus Aurelius
- 167 AD
- Obv: M ANTONINVS AVG ARM PARTH MAX Rev: TRP XXII IMP IIII COS III
- Diam. 2 cm; 7.26 g
- Gift of William F. Dunham