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Representing the Roman Emperor (S. 373-374)
The new world of dynastic rulership required a visual, symbolic language, which could be disseminated and understood throughout the Empire.1 The emperor’s portrait was the most powerful medium through which that need could be answered. Coins with his profile image, minted by the central and local mints, reached the widest audience both geographically and socially.2 The portraits of the emperor validated the coins, while they advertised his legitimacy, authority and made his image omnipresent, throughout the Empire.
The narrative scenes, deities and personifications on the reverses were equally important for convincing his subjects that he possessed the qualities which not only made him an ideal ruler but also transported him beyond his fellow mortals.We know hardly anything about the mechanisms behind the selection of reverse (and obverse) types – whether, for instance, the themes on some nominations were targeted at a specific audience – and there is controversy among scholars as to how active a role the emperor and central government played in creating and selecting these themes.3 However, there remains no doubt that the themes on the coinage represented how the emperor wanted to appear to his subjects across the Empire. The obverses remained fairly constant throughout the imperial period depicting the profile bust portrait of the ruling emperor accompanied by his name and titles.
The iconography of the bust piece itself in broad terms follows that of the free-standing bust type of the emperor (and private people) described above. Until the second century the emperor is most frequently shown with nude breast and from the late Iulio-Claudian period when the bust had increased substantially in size, the paludamentum is often added on one shoulder. The nude or semi-nude breast remains a bust type depicted on coinage throughout antiquity.
Prior to the Hadrianic period, the cuirass bust is only occasionally deployed and usually in combination with the paludamentum. From the Antonine period onwards the cuirass becomes much more frequent and it is worn on its own without the paludamentum. The toga, worn both capite velato and aperto, often featured on the full figure representations of the emperor on the reverses. It is not worn on the busts on obverses until the second quarter of the third century when it is depicted as a half figure statue with a stacked sinus.5With regard to the toga therefore, bust representations on coins essentially followed the iconography of the freestanding bust of the emperor.
A variety of different types of headgear contributed to the meaning of the emperor’s portrait on coins. The most common type of headgear during the Early Empire was the corona civica, referring to the emperor as saviour of the state.6 Perhaps because it is almost impossible to distinguish from the laurel wreath on a worn coin, it was from the Flavian period on only shown on the reverse. The laurel wreath, however, remained popular from the time of its introduction on the coinage of Augustus in 11 B.C., as a reference to triumphs and military victories. The corona radiata, the radiate crown of Sol first seen on coins commemorating Divus Augustus, initially symbolized the deified emperor’s place within Roman state religion but was worn by the reigning emperor too already from Nero on.