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The Pinnacle of Roman Coin Portraiture


David Atherton
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Yes, I purchased this coin primarily because I needed this Mars variant ... but it was the superb portrait that sealed the deal. The reverse isn't too shabby either.

 

V247best.jpg.25162ec82851c1f691aaf6e85e82c54d.jpg

Vespasian

Æ Sestertius, 25.66g
Rome mint, 71 AD
Obv: IMP CAES VESPAS AVG P M TR P P P COS III; Head of Vespasian, laureate, r.
Rev: S C in field; Mars adv. r., with spear and trophy
RIC 247 (C2). BMC 568. BNC 538.
Acquired from CGB.fr, October 2022. Ex Chaponnière & Firmenich SA, Auction 13, 16 May 2021, lot 296. From the P. J. H. D. collection formed between 1970 and 2000.

Struck during the great bronze issue of 71, this reverse features the standard Mars as a 'heroic nude', similar to the same type struck on the denarius. Mars here can best be interpreted as a triumphal type, likely based on a cult image. The magnificent portrait on the obverse is a superb example of early Vespasianic portraiture. C. H. V. Sutherland in his work Roman Coins commented 'Vespasian's aes, however, and not merely the sestertii, developed a full magnificence of portraiture. Again the heads were large, even massive, and normally in high relief, giving the strong impression of the purely profile view of sculpture in the round. And, because of the larger scale which this aes permitted, a wealth of detail could be achieved: close cut hair, finely wrinkled brow, a minutely rendered profile eye, and all the jowls and neck-folds of an old man. The beauty of this work lay in its realism, strong in authority and yet delicate in execution; and it was in the addition of technical delicacy to strength of conception that Vespasian's coinage clearly excelled over Galba.' And more recently, David Vagi in Coinage and the History of the Roman Empire said 'Most numismatists agree that the height of Roman coin portraiture occurred in the 1st Century A.D., when the "Twelve Caesars" chronicled by Suetonius ruled Rome. Many would also agree that the absolute peak occurred from 60 to 75, beginning with the last issues of Nero, encompassing the Civil War of 68-69 and ending with the early issues of the Flavians.' High praise indeed from two imminent scholars for the engravers working at the Rome mint under Vespasian. This coin, I think, exemplifies the fine style which they passionately praise. It's certainly one of the finest portraits of Vespasian I've come across.

I've read elsewhere that the pinnacle of Roman coin portraiture occurred under Nero, or even Hadrian (although I can't precisely recall where I read it). I suppose the title to the thread could've been put as a question as much as a statement. What's your opinion, when did the pinnacle occur?

Also, what's your best portrait? Please show it!

As always, thanks for looking!

Edited by David Atherton
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30 minutes ago, David Atherton said:

Also, what's your best portrait?

Impressive Vespasian !!

As a Faustina II collector, I think immediately of many beautiful portraits (vivid, life-like portraits).

normal_Faustina_II_15_0.jpg.98288bb040628840238fb1b6ec281678.jpg

Faustina Minor
AR-Denarius
Augusta AD 146 - winter 175/176
Obv.: FAVSTINA AVGVSTA, draped bust right, waved hair knotted behind
Rev.: VENVS GENETRIX, Venus standing left, holding Victory and leaning on figured shield with Dioscuri, helmet below shield
Ag, 3.39g. 18.8mm
Ref.: RIC III 734, RSC 280a, CRE 227 [S]

 

normal_Faustina_II_R615_fac.jpg.dc4eb811dc8732efbfcf56347c2b02a8.jpg

 

Faustina Minor
AR-Denar, Rome, AD 175-176
Obv.: DIVAE FAVSTINAE PIAE, veiled and draped bust right
Rev.: MATRI CASTRORVM, Faustina seated left, holding globe surmounted by Phoenix and sceptre; two signa before
Ag, 3.19g
Ref.: RIC 753, CRE 175 [R2]

normal_Faustina_II_16.jpg.c4ab3afa59d11de6f51e20249ecd1bab.jpg

ustina Minor
AR-Denarius
Augusta AD 146 - winter 175/176
Obv.: FAVSTINA AVGVSTA, draped bust right
Rev.: FORTVNAE MVLIEBRI, Fortuna seated left, holding rudder and cornucopiae. (no globe)
Ag, 3.16g, 18x19.6mm
Ref.: RIC III 683, RSC 107, CRE-I 181 [S] var. (no globe)

 

 

normal_Faustina_II_12_0.jpg.6c616d72059f06cb34b97ad76a8343a9.jpg

Faustina II
AR-Denar, Rome mint, posthumous AD 176 - 181
Obv.: DIVA FAVSTINA PIA, draped bust right
Rev.: CONSECRATIO, peacock standing right with head turned right, tail and wings closed
Ag, 3.25g, 16.8mm
Ref.: RIC III 744, RSC II 71, BMCRE 714, CRE 201 [R]

 

Edited by shanxi
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This one has a lovely portrait of Faustina I:

524931937_FaustinaSrCERESSCstandingsestertius.jpg.803481a4cb0072c8e4a596a531487c03.jpg

Faustina I, AD 138-140.
Roman orichalcum sestertius, 28.15 g, 32.5 mm, 11 h.
Rome, AD 160-161.
Obv: DIVA FAVSTINA, bare-headed and draped bust, right.
Rev: CERES, Ceres standing left, holding corn-ears and long torch.
Refs: RIC 1128; BMCRE 1526-27; Cohen 137; Strack 1273; RCV –.

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1 hour ago, David Atherton said:

Yes, I purchased this coin primarily because I needed this Mars variant ... but it was the superb portrait that sealed the deal. The reverse isn't too shabby either.

 

V247best.jpg.25162ec82851c1f691aaf6e85e82c54d.jpg

Vespasian

Æ Sestertius, 25.66g
Rome mint, 71 AD
Obv: IMP CAES VESPAS AVG P M TR P P P COS III; Head of Vespasian, laureate, r.
Rev: S C in field; Mars adv. r., with spear and trophy
RIC 247 (C2). BMC 568. BNC 538.
Acquired from CGB.fr, October 2022. Ex Chaponnière & Firmenich SA, Auction 13, 16 May 2021, lot 296. From the P. J. H. D. collection formed between 1970 and 2000.

Struck during the great bronze issue of 71, this reverse features the standard Mars as a 'heroic nude', similar to the same type struck on the denarius. Mars here can best be interpreted as a triumphal type, likely based on a cult image. The magnificent portrait on the obverse is a superb example of early Vespasianic portraiture. C. H. V. Sutherland in his work Roman Coins commented 'Vespasian's aes, however, and not merely the sestertii, developed a full magnificence of portraiture. Again the heads were large, even massive, and normally in high relief, giving the strong impression of the purely profile view of sculpture in the round. And, because of the larger scale which this aes permitted, a wealth of detail could be achieved: close cut hair, finely wrinkled brow, a minutely rendered profile eye, and all the jowls and neck-folds of an old man. The beauty of this work lay in its realism, strong in authority and yet delicate in execution; and it was in the addition of technical delicacy to strength of conception that Vespasian's coinage clearly excelled over Galba.' And more recently, David Vagi in Coinage and the History of the Roman Empire said 'Most numismatists agree that the height of Roman coin portraiture occurred in the 1st Century A.D., when the "Twelve Caesars" chronicled by Suetonius ruled Rome. Many would also agree that the absolute peak occurred from 60 to 75, beginning with the last issues of Nero, encompassing the Civil War of 68-69 and ending with the early issues of the Flavians.' High praise indeed from two imminent scholars for the engravers working at the Rome mint under Vespasian. This coin, I think, exemplifies the fine style which they passionately praise. It's certainly one of the finest portraits of Vespasian I've come across.

I've read elsewhere that the pinnacle of Roman coin portraiture occurred under Nero, or even Hadrian (although I can't precisely recall where I read it). I suppose the title to the thread could've been put as a question as much as a statement. What's your opinion, when did the pinnacle occur?

Also, what's your best portrait? Please show it!

As always, thanks for looking!

David, Nice score on a truly handsome coin☺️! The slight bit of facial corrosion in no way detracts from the superbly engraved portrait. The robust image of Mars carrying a spear & trophy seems fitting for this sestertius. What the epitome of Roman numismatic art was should stir spirited debate. Personally I believe the best sestertii of Hadrian rank higher than all other Roman coins. My favorite is pictured below.

          1774112342_HadrianPaxsestertiusobv_rev..jpg.3855024479ed5d5eb23af43e19d693ad.jpg

Hadrian, AD 117-138 (struck AD 135). Orichalcum: 25.53 gm, 34.5 mm, 5 h. Obverse: Bare-headed, draped bust of Hadrian facing right, HADRIANVS AVG COS III P P. Reverse: Pax standing & facing left, holding branch & cornucopia, PAX AVG S C.  This breath taking coin was last auctioned by Numismatica Genevensis in 2008 for $2,561,530.74 (including the buyer's premium). 

My favorite Roman sestertius has been posted many times, but I'll post it again since it fits this thread ☺️.

1611201751_SeptimiusSeverusAESestertius(3).jpg.5c89b39fd06b0a11d8575559617fe25c.jpg

 

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That's a great OP coin, I agree that Vespasian has a very impressive portrait, especially on large bronzes.  Here's a lower-grade but still attractive sestertius of Vespasian that I have:

image.jpeg.74b551ee80398d501ede2b0224e0aac7.jpeg

Parthian coins are mostly not known for their beautiful portraits, but some "classical" numismatists make an exception for the tetradrachms of Mithradates II (c.121-88 BC).  While that's a good choice, I have a soft spot for my avatar coin, a tetradrachm of Artabanos IV (10-38), with its unusual and expressive facing bust:

image.jpeg.656977df5fb6637af5d24b86f5e73b1f.jpeg

 

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I have shown these before, but I believe that they are uncommonly good portraits for the issues and thus some of my favorites. 

Postumus. Romano-Gallic Emperor, AD 260-269. Æ Double Sestertius (31mm, 17.73g, 6h). Treveri mint, struck AD 261-262. Obv: IMP C M CASS LAT POSTVMVS P F AVG; Radiate, draped and cuirassed bust to right. Rev: P M TR P COS [... P P]; Emperor standing to left, holding globe and spear; S-C across fields. Ref: RIC V.2 106 or 113 var. (bust type); J. Mairat, The coinage of the Gallic Empire, Wolfson College, Trinity, 2014 (unpublished PhD Thesis), 144 or 219. Good Very Fine; gouge on obverse. From the Antonio Carmona Collection. Ex Roma eSale 83 (5 Jun 2021), Lot 804. Ex Herakles Numismatics, Feb 2022.

image.jpeg.9ced0cd62fcec618e98aedd46251efa6.jpeg

Postumus. Romano-Gallic Emperor, AD 260-269. AR Antoninianus (22.5mm, 3.28g, 12h). Treveri (Trier) mint. 1st emission, 2nd phase, mid AD 260-261. Obv:  IMP C POSTVMVS P F AVG; Radiate, draped, and cuirassed bust right. Rev: SALVS PROVINCIARVM; Rhine, wearing horns on head, reclining left, resting on urn, holding anchor and resting hand on forepart of boat. Ref:  RIC V 87; Mairat 1-5; AGK 88c; RSC 355b. Toned. Good Very Fine. Ex Kurpfälzische Münzhandlung 75 (10 December 2008), Lot 96. Ex CNG eAuction 510 (23 Feb 2022), Lot 821.

image.jpeg.60f7c9d8de3b3c415e27358f94cf2b92.jpeg

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2 hours ago, Edessa said:

I have shown these before, but I believe that they are uncommonly good portraits for the issues and thus some of my favorites. 

Postumus. Romano-Gallic Emperor, AD 260-269. Æ Double Sestertius (31mm, 17.73g, 6h). Treveri mint, struck AD 261-262. Obv: IMP C M CASS LAT POSTVMVS P F AVG; Radiate, draped and cuirassed bust to right. Rev: P M TR P COS [... P P]; Emperor standing to left, holding globe and spear; S-C across fields. Ref: RIC V.2 106 or 113 var. (bust type); J. Mairat, The coinage of the Gallic Empire, Wolfson College, Trinity, 2014 (unpublished PhD Thesis), 144 or 219. Good Very Fine; gouge on obverse. From the Antonio Carmona Collection. Ex Roma eSale 83 (5 Jun 2021), Lot 804. Ex Herakles Numismatics, Feb 2022.

image.jpeg.9ced0cd62fcec618e98aedd46251efa6.jpeg

Postumus. Romano-Gallic Emperor, AD 260-269. AR Antoninianus (22.5mm, 3.28g, 12h). Treveri (Trier) mint. 1st emission, 2nd phase, mid AD 260-261. Obv:  IMP C POSTVMVS P F AVG; Radiate, draped, and cuirassed bust right. Rev: SALVS PROVINCIARVM; Rhine, wearing horns on head, reclining left, resting on urn, holding anchor and resting hand on forepart of boat. Ref:  RIC V 87; Mairat 1-5; AGK 88c; RSC 355b. Toned. Good Very Fine. Ex Kurpfälzische Münzhandlung 75 (10 December 2008), Lot 96. Ex CNG eAuction 510 (23 Feb 2022), Lot 821.

image.jpeg.60f7c9d8de3b3c415e27358f94cf2b92.jpeg

Superb images of an emperor not often found with great images.

 

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My submission is of an emperor whose images sometimes, really do capture who he was. This is an image that Shelley might have had in mind when he wrote of an  emperor from an antique land, "whose frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command...". Certainly Caracalla seems to have had frequent bouts of wrinkled lips and sneers of cold command. The coin is a tetradrachm of the mint of Sidon, a scarcer mint coin, and is Sear, Greek Imperial coins 2679.1894621398_thumbnail_IMG_2426Carobv.jpg.ca9e4f8a2939d5384560cdfa0246a485.jpg1894621398_thumbnail_IMG_2426Carobv.jpg.ca9e4f8a2939d5384560cdfa0246a485.jpg

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I must agree with you about the pinnacle, and your new sestertius illustrates this extremely well! Congratulations!

Pinnacle portraits are awesome, but I enjoy the challenge of finding exceptional portraits outside that range too.  As an extreme example, I recently purchased this Tetricus I coin for the portrait.  The coin itself has problems, but I've never seen a more finely modelled Tetricus on an antoninianus:

image.jpeg.7b6e56c962d11a557cf68d869d290cec.jpeg

As far as a favourite portrait goes, I couldn't possibly choose!  Instead I've assembled my favourite first century emperor portraits for you:

image.jpeg.74f58fb3d2a9055cfe9bb6b849db69e3.jpeg

Edited by Severus Alexander
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I agree that the first and second centuries had very detailed portraits and were the pinnicle. I would also argue that the last decent portraits western europe would see on it's coins until the 1200's were the ones from the 380's to early 400's AD. 

F18DE3A9-32BB-4D67-A586-D6F6D6DDFC69.jpeg.abb0b9d107337dc7c6fb4a4b0e9ff3d0.jpeg

A siliqua of Magnus Maximus, I own. 

See the source image

A solidus of Theodosius I, I regretably do not own.

Edited by Magnus Maximus
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28 minutes ago, Severus Alexander said:

As far as a favourite portrait goes, I couldn't possibly choose!  Instead I've assembled my favourite portraits of the 12 Caesars for you:

image.jpeg.74f58fb3d2a9055cfe9bb6b849db69e3.jpeg

Hats off to you, Sir  🙏 !

 

Edited by LONGINUS
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1 hour ago, Severus Alexander said:

I must agree with you about the pinnacle, and your new sestertius illustrates this extremely well! Congratulations!

Pinnacle portraits are awesome, but I enjoy the challenge of finding exceptional portraits outside that range too.  As an extreme example, I recently purchased this Tetricus I coin for the portrait.  The coin itself has problems, but I've never seen a more finely modelled Tetricus on an antoninianus:

image.jpeg.7b6e56c962d11a557cf68d869d290cec.jpeg

As far as a favourite portrait goes, I couldn't possibly choose!  Instead I've assembled my favourite portraits of the 12 Caesars for you:

image.jpeg.74f58fb3d2a9055cfe9bb6b849db69e3.jpeg

Fantastic portraits all! I particularly like the Titus.

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Great portraits!  I think this is one of the best portraits of a young Domitian


IMP CAES DOMITIANVS AVG P M
Laureate head right

COS VII DES VIII P P
Dolphin coiled round anchor

Rome 81 A.D. (3rd group)

3.3g

RIC 26 (R), RSC 63


Ex-Enrico collection

Extra fine portrait!

 

Domitian_dolphin.jpg

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@Al Kowsky, the Hadrian Sestertius is believed to be from dies engraved by the sculptor Antoninianos of Aphrodisias. It's without any doubt one of the most artistic portraits on a roman coin. And it's the most expensive Sestertius ever sold.

Here is one of my favorite portraits of Vespasian:

Vespasian, AD 69-79. Denarius (3.41 g), Rome, AD 77-78.
Obv. CAESAR VESPASIANVS AVG, laureate head of Vespasian right. Rev. IMP - XIX, modius filled with grain ears. Cohen 216; BMC 216; BNC 190; RIC 980.

 

340_Wa3KGT3vV6_th.jpg.838043ecea8cca57923c421390a4feed.jpg

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Truly exceptional portraits all of you. The realism and expressiveness of portraits made me choose 1st, 2nd and first part of 3rd century as my favorite eras. For my eyes, after these eras, portraits are becoming more generic/less expressive/cartoonish.

Here are some good portraits in my collection

image.png.8234a50389d06549469a39bd8f0fe437.png

image.png.84484a47f0daee101945a96d2ab11fd2.png

image.png.8fb71e70fd489e66a1548de8cab71bfc.png

image.png.49b8742072595f0cdaf268eb8efcfc0b.png

image.png.acb2206fc498acc0d1adcb107108ff62.png

image.png.eb30e9db39b3727f24f244cd1801aa4e.png

image.png.ff0fc7c4dc14608cf3ab00414e15d26f.png

image.png.f050adf6303e5a3e28c23eee03ad5137.png

 

Although this Vespasian's condition is not exceptional, I was extremely attracted to the portrait - this might be subjective because I really wanted this type and had some trouble in getting one. Also, analyzing it further, it is kinda cartoonish but this is one of the most expressive portraits I can imagine.

image.png.158e8b461d58ec3831c44b7de38aff3f.png

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Another great addition @David Atherton, congratulations. That is a mighty fine portrait indeed, as are the many other portraits shown here. I'll toss in a few too. And indeed, big bronzes have enough space for the artist to create a beautiful portrait, altough on the smaller denarius of Commodus, the artist did a great job as well. 

Augustus:

1.1.png.bb858667bcd9907820c968e666aebd54.png

Nero:

8.3.png.e22088d6350589384bbaa0c63fd23a0b.png

I've always had a soft spot for this portrait of Commodus. The strike is on the weak side, but that does not affect the portrait in any negative way. The beauty of this portrait is enhanced because of the flow lines that seem to emanate from the head. 

23.3.png.337f499e17aca59d0800b3b5388b5ed1.png

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