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.
The empire never fully recovered the strength and prosperity enjoyed under the Good Emperors. A period of inflation and economic depression, mixed with increasing pressure from invading tribes, pushed the empire into crisis. Coins produced during this era never matched the beauty of ones produced during the era of the Good Emperors—a reflection of the empire in decline. Like many of the 20-plus emperors who rose and fell
in this short 50-year timespan, Aurelian was a soldier (reigned 270-75). His coin here shows him in military gear. He helped secure the empire’s borders with initiatives further developed by Diocletian.
- Ancient Roman
- Aureus (Coin) Portraying Emperor Aurelian
- 272 AD
- Obverse: AURELIANVS AVG "Aurelianus Augustus" Reverse: P M TR P COS P P
- Diam. 2.1 cm; 5.72 g
- Gift of Martin A. Ryerson