It has long been recognized that the hallmark of Roman Imperial coinage is the “portrait gallery” it preserves for us to enjoy so long after Roman civilization has fallen. For more than five centuries engravers cut dies that captured the images of emperors, Caesars, empresses and other members of the royal families who ruled the empire.
Though it is most tempting to discuss the portraits themselves, it is equally worthwhile to examine how they were adorned.
We may start with the base-line image, in which the subject wears no kind of head ornamentation at all. This was a common way to portray rulers during the long period spanning the reigns of Augustus (27 B.C. to A.D. 14) to Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161 to 180).
However, after Marcus Aurelius’ reign, that tradition slipped away. The portraits of emperors afterward rarely show these men bareheaded. This traditional “minimalist” approach came to be reserved mainly for subordinate rulers, usually with the rank of Caesar, as the emperors almost always wear some kind of head ornamentation.
In this installment we’ll discuss the five most common types of head ornamentation on coins of the Roman Empire: laurel wreaths, radiate crowns, diadems, veils, and helmets.
Among the many traditions of the Greeks was the use of wreaths, especially as symbols of victory. The Romans adopted this Greek tradition and applied it to a number of their own cultural mores, including, eventually, as a means of representing the rank of emperor.
During the first 350 years of the empire, this is the most common portrait form for emperors.
The wreath usually comprises laurel branches, though on rare occasions it may be formed of oak leaves, reeds or ivy. It rested comfortably above the ears with its wreath ties hanging at the back of the head.