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August 03, 2016

The generic Roman emperor?

palmyrene_token
Token of Palmyra (TM Pl.LXXIII no. 48)

The Roman author Fronto, writing to his former student, the emperor Marcus Aurelius, commented:

You know how in all money-changer's bureaus, booths, bookstalls, eaves, porches, windows, anywhere and everywhere there are likenesses of you exposed to view, badly enough painted most of them to be sure, and modelled or carved in a plain, not to say sorry, style of art, yet at the same time your likeness, however much a caricature, never when I go out meets my eyes without making me part my lips for a smile and dream of you.

(Loeb vol. 112 p. 206-7)

Fronto's comment on the 'badly painted' images of Marcus Aurelius has always reminded me of the 2012 restoration of a Spanish fresco by an older amateur, or the painting presented to Queen Elizabeth II in Germany that prompted her to ask "Is that supposed to be my father?" These 'rustic' images of Roman emperors are rarely studied, but they must have formed a large part of the everyday experience of people outside the city of Rome. Many of these images (e.g. weights in the form of an emperor's bust) may have originally been intended to show a specific emperor (e.g. Nero), but they bear only a superficial (if any) resemblance to the official portraiture of the emperor concerned. The same can be seen on many provincial coins, particularly in the transition from the Republic to the principate, where it is often hard to know whether the male bust on the obverse of coins is Augustus, or a deity or some other figure.

One token from Palmyra, shown right, supports Fronto's statement, with Side A (shown on the upper side) showing a laureate portrait of a Roman emperor hanging on a wall over a banquet scene. This type of representation suggests the ubiquitous nature of the Roman imperial portrait, though the finer details of the portraiture are harder to see, suggesting to the viewer, 'Roman emperor', with the particular name of the emperor supplied by the mind of the viewer. If this token was in use for a longer period of time (unlikely) the identity of the emperor 'seen' on the wall would likely change. To what extent, then, might we speak of a 'generic' Roman emperor, whose precise identity was supplied by the viewer? A portrait of Caracalla in Rusicade, Numidia, that was later converted into a monument honoring Constantine, suggests that Caracalla's quite recogniseable visage was, in late antiquity, re-interpreted (at by some viewers).

A similar 'generic' image can be seen on a token from Rome, perhaps issued for use in the celebration of games by a curator. One side of the token shows a laureate portrait of a Roman emperor (perhaps Tiberius?), while the other side names the person responsible for the token and organising the celebration. Again the viewer would supply need to the identity of the emperor themselves, an identification that might change according to context. As well as expensive marble busts and other portraits, there existed the 'everyday' portrait of the emperor, and these types of images are something worth more detailed investigation.

screen_shot_2016-08-03_at_151657.png

Token showing a laureate imperial portrait on one side, with the legend Q. CAECILIVS Q.F. OINOGENVS CVR on the other. (Numismatica Classica 12, 1983, 39, Rostowzew 514b).


This blog entry was written by Clare Rowan as part of the ERC-funded Token Communities project.


Further Reading:

Dahmen, K. (2001). Untersuchungen zu Form und Funktion kleinformatiger Porträts der römischen Kaiserzeit. Münster, Scriptorium.

Du Mesnil du Buisson comte, R. (1944). Tessères et monnaies de Palmyre. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale (France). Département des médailles et antiques.

Franke, P. R. (1984). Q. Caecilius Q.F. Oinogenus F. Curator. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 54: 125-126.

Rostowzew, M. (1903). Tesserarum urbis romae et suburbi. St. Petersburg.


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