From Art to Artifact:  Making Sense of Roman Coins

Sestertius of Nero

Research Commentary

On this coin the emperor Nero appears to be a peaceful emperor who ended armed conflict throughout Rome’s territory. Within historical context, however, the design becomes a reminder of the difficulties facing the emperor as he presented himself to the Roman people on his aes coinage late in his reign, two years before the Roman Senate declared him an enemy of the state and he committed suicide.

This coin also reveals Nero’s character: In Nero’s hands, things are never quite as they seem. The obverse of this coin is part of live action, not just static commemoration.

By touting his closing of the temple doors, Nero claimed the legacy of Augustus (the only other emperor before him to close the temple doors) and invoked the memory of Rome’s legendary Republican and Regal leaders. Nero lifted the language on his reverse from Augustus’s epitaph, the Res Gestae. Nero added to his own legacy on the coin, pioneering a new use of the double-sided round field as a creative space for later emperors (e.g. Hadrian) to exploit.

Nero’s coinage also welcomes a study of art and aesthetic. Nero appears on coinage from his adolescence and his obverse portraits change with time. Nero’s Western reverses also present seventeen different renderings of the Temple of Janus.