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 BCE. 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 BCE 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.
The front (obverse) of this coin portrays the head of Roman Emperor Augustus facing left, with a civic oak crown. The back (reverse) depicts a comet. Early imperial coin portraits included individualized features that identified each ruler. Augustus (reigned 27 BC–AD 14), was the first Roman emperor and dictated that he retain his youthful appearance in his portraits throughout his lifetime.
- Ancient Roman
- Denarius (Coin) Portraying Emperor Augustus
- 19 BCE–18 BCE
- Obverse: CAESAR AVGVSTVS "Augustus Caesar" Reverse: DIVVS IVLIVS "Divine Julius"
- Diam. 2 cm; 3.90 g
- Gift of Martin A. Ryerson