The ancient Romans are famous for many things, including the
variety and quality of the portraits on their coinage.
Unlike most other Roman art objects, coins almost always bear
identifying inscriptions, making them especially useful to modern historians.
Under the Roman Republic, coins were struck from the late fourth
through the late first centuries B.C. Most portraits on Republican
coins are of divinities, and it was not until the late Republic that
portraits of living humans began to occur with any regularity. This
became a standard practice under the Roman Empire, from 27 B.C.
onward, and most Imperial coins bear the portrait of an emperor or a
member of his family.
The usual format for Roman coin portraits is straightforward: a
single head or bust shown in profile facing right or left; it was not
until the A.D. 350s that it became increasingly normal to issue coins
with a single portrait shown facing the viewer.
However, on some occasions more than one portrait is shown. Those
coins often are ornate, and every one is historically significant.
Except for unusual types that pair a person with a divinity,
multiportrait coins usually were struck to promote political alliances
or to celebrate members of the ruling dynasty.
We’ll examine various formats in which more than one portrait was
displayed, and in the process will encounter some important coin types.
The most common way two portraits were shown on Roman coins was to
have a single portrait on each side. Even so, this was a less common
practice than one might expect. It was most extensively used during
the reigns of the emperors Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138 to 161) and Marcus
Aurelius (A.D. 161 to 180).
More interesting are those coins that feature more than one
portrait on a side. Sometimes two portraits are shown face to face — a
style usually called “confronted” or “vis-à-vis.” An interesting
aspect of this format is that depending upon the facial expressions,
it may look like a friendly encounter or a hostile standoff.
Though used only occasionally on Imperial coins, confronted
portraits were used often on coins issued for use in the provinces.
The style is best represented by provincial coins struck at cities in
Eastern Europe and Asia Minor from about A.D. 200 to 260, all of which
promote the dynasties that ruled the empire in that era.
The opposite of the vis-à-vis portrait is the dos-à-dos, in which
the heads are arranged back to back, looking outward. This was seldom
used, with the best-known examples being from Nemausus, in Gaul, which
on their obverse portray Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (27 B.C. to
A.D. 14), and his chief general, Marcus Agrippa. The reverse shows a
crocodile chained to a palm branch.
A more usual presentation of back-to-back portraits shows the
heads melded together to create a fanciful image of a single head with
two faces. It is best associated with Janus, the Roman god of
beginnings and endings — hence his simultaneously peering forward and
backward. His name is preserved in “janiform,” the term used to
describe this portrait style.
Janus is routinely portrayed this way, usually on copper asses of
the Republic. Another common usage of this portrait style is for the
Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), who appear on silver quadrigati struck
circa 225 to 212 B.C., during the Second Punic War.
The portrait of the Roman warlord Pompey “the Great” (died 48
B.C.) was cleverly incorporated into that of Janus on copper asses
struck by one of his sons, Sextus Pompey, not long after the father’s
execution. The Emperor Commodus (A.D. 177 to 192) was fond of using
this portrait style for himself on medallions, often pairing his own
features with those of a deity.
Another way of showing two portraits was to have them face in the
same direction, slightly overlapping. Usually called “jugate,” this
format is appealing since the dies must be engraved in reasonably high
relief to achieve the desired effect. It was used on several occasions
during Republican times, when gods were shown, and during the empire,
when at least one of the portraits usually was a person.
One famous example of this type was struck by the Emperor Nero
(A.D. 54 to 68) early in his reign; he is portrayed alongside his
mother, Agrippina Jr., who he eventually had murdered. The jugate
format became popular for ceremonial issues of the third century A.D.,
being used by the members of dynasties founded by Carus (A.D. 282 to
283) and Diocletian (A.D. 284 to 305), and by rulers of Roman
separatist empires in Gaul and Britain.
Some jugate coinages even show three portraits. A bronze struck at
Ephesus, Ionia, after circa 44 B.C., depicts Marc Antony, Octavian and
Lepidus, the members of the Second Triumvirate. Equally historical is
a billon double-denarius of Carausius, who in A.D. 286 or 287 founded
a rebel empire based in Britain; this remarkable type coin portrays
Carausius and his enemies, the Roman emperors Diocletian and Maximian.
One can only guess whether he was trying to curry favor with the
emperors, or if he was trying (disingenuously) to make his own
subjects believe the three men were on good terms.
Finally, some compositions were irregular. A silver denarius of
the Emperor Augustus, struck in 13 B.C., bears on one side the
portraits of his daughter, Julia, and her sons, Gaius and Lucius, all
three of which are shown in profile, lined up on the reverse. Since
Julia was Augustus’ only child, and her sons were being groomed as
heirs, it clearly was a dynastic issue.
Two other dynastic coinages are also of interest. One is a gold
aureus of Septimius Severus (A.D. 193 to 211) that shows on its
reverse the portraits of his wife and two sons; her portrait is
full-facing and those of her sons face inward from her left and right.
The other is a provincial bronze of Nicaea, Bithynia, which shows the
father-and-son emperors Valerian I and Gallienus, with the son of
Gallienus, Valerian II; this time two of the portraits face right, and
one faces left. ■