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.
Roman emperor Nero killed himself in 68, bringing an end to his chaotic reign. What followed was an equally chaotic struggle over who would succeed him. The year 69 saw one general after another rule and die in quick succession: Galba (reigned June 68–Jan. 69), Otho (reigned Jan.–Apr. 69), Vitellius (reigned Apr.–Dec. 69), and finally Vespasian (reigned 69–79), who founded the Flavian dynasty that ruled until 96. The harsh character of these four emperors is emphasized by the realistic features of their coin portraits—the hooked nose of Galba, the double chin and vain curls of Otho, the plump features of the gluttonous Vitellius (seen in this coin), and the lined complexion of battle-hardened Vespasian.
- Ancient Roman
- Aureus (Coin) Portraying Emperor Vitellius
- 69 CE
- Obverse: A VITELLIVS GERMAN IMP TR P Reverse: S P Q R OB C S
- Diam. 2 cm; 7.26 g
- Gift of Martin A. Ryerson