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'The Portraiture of Nero on Roman Imperial Coins- Joe Geranio

NeroSestertius. ca 65 AD. NERO CLAVD CAESAR AVG GER P M TR P IMP P P, laureate head right, aegis on far shoulder / PACE P R TERRA MARIQ PARTA IANVM CLVSIT S-C, Temple of Janus with latticed windows & garland hung across doors; doors to the right. Cohen 146.

 

Gold Aureus of Nero and Agrippina

Gold Aureus of Nero

Period: Early Imperial, Neronian
Date: A.D. 54

The Realistic Portraits of Nero on Coins  by   Joe Geranio

 

On or about 64 A.D., the portraits on the coinage of Nero as well as reverse images take on a dramatic change.  Many feel that coins of the Roman empire reach the peak of artistic excellence especially on his obverse portraits.  The Author Sydenham 1 on his study of systematic research on Neronian coins has come to this conclusion.   The realism on Neroís portraiture during this time show not only the Roman image of realism, but also show some Greek technical art of high quality.   


Neroís early portraiture on coins shows a young man through the maturation process.    These younger portraits are skillfully done, and have realism belonging to the young emperorís (princeps) age.  He is much thinner and does not have the heaviness of the jowls and bloated face as we have come to love in his later portraits.   This is Roman realism in portraiture.  We never see Augustus or Tiberius age on Roman Imperial coin portraits, there are some portraits of Octavian that seem younger looking, but are not the same quality as Neronian  portraits from the imperial Mint.  Tiberius has never aged on his coins from imperial Rome, especially the big flan coins with nice room for portraits, yet even on Neroís portrait on denarii and aureii we see a high achievement in artistic quality in his portraiture.  Caligula was young and always had a sense of youthful realism, and Claudian coins have a more realistic sense to them on imperial coinage like Nero.  The difference in wanting to convey realism on Neroís portraits is the high quality and die cutters ability for detail with the Hellenistic technical skills added. 2 




The Beard and Physiognomy/ Hairstyle of Nero and the Importance of Numismatics in Portraiture


There are not many numismatists, no matter of what stage of their expertise who does not recognize the emperor (princeps) Nero immediately on his later coinage.  Again, I must reiterate as I do in all articles on the subject of numismatics that if it were not for the coins of any emepror (princeps) of the Julio Claudian dynasty, or for any Roman period of dynastic change; we would not know what the emperor (princeps) looked like.  Most, if not all portraits in the round of  emperors (princeps) are not found with any inscribed base to tell us who the emperor is.   Numismatics plays a crucial role in any Roman portrait study because of the legend or inscription found on the coin.3   Nero is an easy one, especially on his later coins.  Portraits in the round are also easy to recognize because of the hair style and the bloated face.  So realism seems to be a sound doctrine on coins of Nero, except for the beard that we see on Neroís portraiture.   The beard could be symbolic of his ancestry? (speaking of his identification to the Claudian gens)  Nero had first shaved his beard in 59 A.D. according to Cassius Dio.4  We know that the beard appears on coins of 66/7 A.D. even though Suetonius tells us that Nero was clean shaven on the Greek tour of 66/7. 5    The main strength that is recognizable on the portraiture of Nero is his hairstyle.  We know that his hair was  keeply kept according to Suetonius in the coma in gradus formata form of curls that are easily recognized for Neroís portraits on coins and in the round. 6     The Neronian hairstyle is worn by Apollo when represented by Apollo Auriga or Citharoedus. 7   We see in the slight upward tilt of the head and the deep setting of the eyes a Hellenistic influence.  Neroís hair as discussed was realistic and although influenced the Hellenistic style that Nero actually wore, was somewhat idealistic, but you know Nero the Greek actor and his hair needed to be perfect and idealistically Greek.    I argue for realism on Nero's coinage.  except for the beard as discussed by ancient sources, we are seeing Nero as he really appeared, and he wanted to be perceived as such.   Look at his coin of him playing the lyre.  Nero felt his musical talents were a wonder to behold and so shared hem with everyone he could force to listen.  He won prizes at every competition at which he performed while touring Greece, and upon his return to Italy, he led a procession to the capital while he was cheered by the incredulous spectators along the way.  He caused to be set up many statues of himself playing the lyre along the route, and even Suetonius mentions a coin with the same device.  This is that type mentioned by the ancient writer.

 

1. E.A. Sydenham The Coinage of Nero (London 1920) , 33f.  This has never been dispute of Sydenhamsí statement of the high quality of Neroís portraiture on coinage.  See also, M. Griffin, Nero: The End of a Dynasty (Yale Press 1984) 120.  


2.  M. Griffin, Nero: The End of a Dynasty (Yale Press 1984) 120.     


3.  Joe Geranio, The Portraits of Caligula:  The Seated Figure?  Society for Ancient Numismatics- vol. xx. No.1.  Also on American Numismatic Society library index.  The importance of numismatics and portrait in the round studies.


4.  Dio 61.19 He was about the average height, his body marked with spots and malodorous, his hair light blond, his features regular rather than attractive, his eyes blue and somewhat weak, his neck over thick, his belly prominent, and his legs very slender. His health was good, for though indulging in every kind of riotous excess, he was ill but three times in all during the fourteen years of his reign, and even then not enough to give up wine or any of his usual habits. He was utterly shameless in the care of his person and in his dress, always having his hair arranged in tiers of curls, and during the trip to Greece also letting it grow long and hang down behind; and he often appeared in public in a dining-robe,156 with a handkerchief bound about his neck, ungirt and unshod.


5.  Suetonius Nero 12, Dio 63. 9, I


6. Suetonius Nero, 51. 

7. J.M.C. Toynbee, NC7 (1946), 136-7.  Also see:  D.W. Macdowall, The Western Coinages of Nero, American Numismatic Society Notes and Monographs no. 161 (1979), 31 c.f. 42.