Few Romans are more famous than Nero (A.D. 54 to 68), the last of
the Julio-Claudian emperors.
His reign was rife with misdeeds, and his reputation has found few
defenders with the passage of time. In his defense, though, he was a
prolific issuer of beautiful and historical coins.
Many of Nero’s Imperial coins have “better” reverse types that
appeal to almost anyone who likes Roman history. To examine all of
them would be an undertaking beyond the scope of a single column, so
we’ll restrict ourselves to six of the most remarkable.
Nero was the only child of Agrippina the Younger, whose brother
Caligula had been emperor from A.D. 37 to 41. She was also a
great-granddaughter of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (27 B.C. to A.D.
14), and her father, Germanicus, was destined to become emperor until
he died mysteriously during the reign of Tiberius.
With such an illustrious family line, Agrippina and Nero were well
placed in the ruling family. In A.D. 49 Agrippina climbed further up
the ladder by marrying her uncle Claudius, a man 25 years her senior
who at that time had been emperor for the previous eight years. Soon
after the wedding, Claudius adopted her son, who assumed the name Nero.
During the four years that remained in Claudius’ life, Nero became
his favored heir, even over his natural son, Britannicus. Claudius did
not hide his favoritism, for he issued coins portraying Agrippina and
When Claudius died in October of A.D. 54 — reportedly of a murder
arranged by Agrippina — Nero became Rome’s next emperor.
Some of Nero’s earliest gold aurei and silver denarii, struck from
October through December of 54, honor his adoptive father. They show
on their obverse the portrait of Claudius, whose recent deification is
noted in the accompanying inscription.
The reverse of that issue also honors Claudius by showing a
horse-drawn tensa, a cart used to carry a representation of a god to
celebratory games. The tensa bears figures of Victory and a chariot,
and its panels are decorated with figures of Victory and seemingly
also of Claudius, who now ranked among the gods.
Also from this early period are some remarkable aurei and denarii
showing both mother and son, for at this time Agrippina was regent for
her son on account of his youth. On the first issue their busts are
confronted, and though Nero occupies the most honorable position, the
inscription is dedicated to Agrippina, suggesting these coins were
issued on her behalf. Nero’s inscription is relegated to the reverse.
The confronted-bust issue was short-lived, perhaps because it so
boldly implied Agrippina’s supremacy. It was replaced with a type
struck throughout most of A.D. 55, which also bears both of their
portraits, but this time they are shown jugate (side by side), with
Nero’s bust still in the more honorable position. There was, however,
an important shift in the inscriptions.
This time, Agrippina’s inscription was moved to the reverse and
Nero’s moved to the obverse. The reverse type is also of some
interest, for it celebrates Nero’s and his mother’s nobility by
showing an elephant-drawn cart bearing statues of Augustus and
Claudius, the only two emperors to have been deified at that time.
We now leave the early months of Nero’s reign and move to A.D. 64,
long after he had murdered his mother to end her meddling in his affairs.
The construction of new facilities at Ostia, the port at which
most goods flowed into Rome, was completed in 64. Engineers and
laborers had struggled since the reign of Claudius to enlarge the
harbor, and it finally was ready to be dedicated.
Nero did not fail to make the most of this event, including
minting brass sestertii that featured an elaborate, bird’s eye view of
the harbor. In addition to ships, the harbor contains a column (or
lighthouse) topped with a statue of Nero or the sea-god Neptune, and a
reclining figure that may represent Neptune or the Tiber, the river
that linked Ostia to Rome.
Unfortunately, in mid-July of A.D. 64 a great fire swept through
the capital, razing to the ground three of the city’s 14 districts and
damaging seven others. Some blamed Christians for the conflagration.
Others believed Nero started it, either out of madness or in a desire
to clear land for a new palace he wanted to build.
The cost of rebuilding Rome may have been the motivating factor
for Nero’s coinage reform of circa A.D. 64 in which the weight of his
gold aurei and silver denarii were reduced.
Additionally, Nero collected great amounts of silver from the
provinces by withdrawing billon coins and replacing them with new,
lower-purity coins. The amount Nero raised is staggering, for he may
have garnered more than 3,500 tons of silver from Egypt alone.
Two coin types are commonly associated with the fire — one with
the fire itself and the other with a consequence. Copper and
orichalcum asses show a striding figure of Nero, in the guise of
Apollo, playing a lyre. The accounts of Dio Cassius, Suetonius and
Tacitus all record it was rumored at the time that Nero played his
lyre as he watched Rome burn — hence the connection often made to
these bronzes. However, they were first struck in about A.D. 62, and
thus were introduced two years before the fire.
The other type occurs on aurei and denarii. It shows a
representation of the Colossus Neronis, a towering bronze statue of
Nero portrayed in the guise of the sun-god Sol. It was a major work of
art that graced the vestibule of the “Golden House” palace that Nero
constructed on a prime piece of land that had been liberated by the
fire. After Nero’s death the statue eventually was moved near the
Colosseum, the famous amphitheater that derives its name from Nero’s
displaced monument. ■