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.
During the previous period of the five “Good Emperors,” succession was not hereditary. It was instead based on merit, with the current ruler formally adopting his successor. This pattern ended with Marcus Aurelius’s son, Commodus (reigned 177–92), who inherited the crown. He promptly abused his power and died a tyrant’s death. The Severan dynasty followed with the rise to power of Septimius Severus (reigned 193-211). His two sons, Caracalla and Geta, were proclaimed co-emperors upon his death. Within a year the conflict between the brothers resulted in Caracalla (reigned 211–17) killing Geta in order to rule alone.
- Ancient Roman
- Aureus (Coin) Portraying Emperor Commodus
- 180 AD
- Obverse: M COMMODVS ANTONINVS AVG Reverse: LIB AVG TR P V.IMP IIII COS II PP
- Diam. 2 cm; 7.14 g
- Gift of Martin A. Ryerson