Gold aurei of Nero

Roman, mid-1st century AD

The changing face of Nero

The coinage of the earlier Roman Empire allows us to study the portraits of rulers as distinct individuals. The art of this period is often highly naturalistic, and as the coins display the image of an individual along with his or her name, this is often the primary (and sometimes only) source of how a notable person from antiquity looked. These coins also help us to identify their surviving statues. An emperor could ensure that he was portrayed in as flattering a light as possible, but this does not always seem to have happened. In the portraits of the emperor Nero (reigned AD 54-68) on these gold aurei, the creation of an imposing aura was clearly considered important.

Coins, being struck on a regular basis, provide a continuous sequence of portraits over time, and in many cases the portraitist faithfully follows the changing physical development of his subject, often to a remarkable degree.

Nero's image here shows a drastic change from his first depiction, aged twelve, on coins of the reign of Claudius (AD 41-54), his step-father, until his premature death at the age of thirty. Of course there are certain features that remain unmistakably 'Nero' in all the portraits - the long, almost vertical nose, the prominent chin and the general shape of the head. However, it seems incredible to us that Nero, as notorious for his vanity as his gluttony, should allow his developing obesity to be shown to the people in this way. His poor physical condition contrasts almost comically with the elaborate hairstyle and heroic air of his final coin portraits.

1) Aureus of Claudius I, showing young Nero, minted AD 51-54 (age 14-17)
2) Aureus of Nero, minted AD 56-57 (age 19-20)
3) Aureus of Nero, minted AD 57-58 (age 20-21)
4) Aureus of Nero, minted AD 61-62 (age 24-25)
5) Aureus of Nero, minted AD 64-65 (age 27-28)
6) Aureus of Nero, minted AD 65-66 (age 28-29)

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Gold aurei of Nero

Nero AD 51-54

  • Nero AD 56-57

    Nero AD 56-57

  • Nero AD 57-58

    Nero AD 57-58

  • Nero AD 61-62

    Nero AD 61-62

 

More information

Bibliography

S. Walker, Greek and Roman portraits (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)

M. Griffin, Nero, the end of a dynasty (Routledge, 1987)

M. Grant, Nero (Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1970)

C. Scarre, Chronicle of the Roman emperor (London, Thames & Hudson, 1997)

Dimensions

Diameter: 18.000 mm (range)
Weight: 7.300 g (range)

Museum number

CM BMC Claudius 92;CM BMC Nero 12;CM BMC Nero 15;CM BMC Nero 33;CM BMC Nero 52;CM BMC Nero 87

CGR87942;CGR87965;CGR87968;CGR87981;CGR87994;CGR88020

Location

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