August 21, 2013

Roman Portraiture and Pompey

Denarius with portrait of Pompey the Great

In 45-44 BC in Spain, Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompey the Great, released a denarius series showing the portrait of his deceased father (RRC 477/1-3). The portrait is accompanied by Sextus' name and titles IMP SEX MAGNVS PIVS (Imperator Sextus Magnus Pius). The reverse shows the image of Pietas, a reference to the filial piety of Sextus, whose claim to legitimacy in the civil wars stemmed from his declaration that he was avenging his father and brother. The appearance of Pompey the Great's portrait at this juncture has been seen as extremely significant, and is commonly believed to have been potentially shocking for a Roman audience. But was it so revolutionary?

Denarius of Rufus showing his grandparents

Examining other Roman coin types from this period reveals that from the middle of the first century BC, there was a significant increase in the portrait-style portrayal of ancestors on coinage. In 54 BC M. Iunius Brutus (who would later go on to assassinate Caesar) struck an issue showing his famous ancestor, who was believed to have driven out the Tarquin Kings from Rome and become the first consul in 509 BC (RRC 433/2). Around the same time (c. 54 BC) Q. Pompeius Rufus struck an issue with two portraits of his grandparents, both of whom were consuls in 88 BC (RRC 434/1, image right). In the following years two other moneyers (Marcellinus and Restio) also showed ancestral portraits on their coin issues, with Restio probably displaying the image of his father (RRC 437/1-4, 439/1, 455/1). Seen in this context, Sextus' use of the portrait of Pompey the Great is less shocking; rather it appears to conform to what had become a fashion of the period.

The Togatus Barberini

The display of deceased ancestors was no doubt linked to the Roman phenomenon of imagines, ancestor masks that were used and displayed in a variety of contexts (see the Togatus Barberini statue right for a possible sculptural representation). But why, in the middle of the first century BC, should there have suddenly been a trend towards displaying ancestral portraits on coins? Flower (Ancestor Masks and Aristocratic Power) suggests the increase in ancestral image may have been linked to the turbulent political situation. This may be so, but the sudden use of portraiture in this fashion and at this juncture needs more careful examination. Why Romans began to do this remains, for the moment, a mystery; what is clearer is that it provides an important context for Sextus' imagery.

(Images above reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group (, and Wikimedia Commons).

- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Achillea Millefolia

    Great post, I completely agree. Would you want to go even a little farther and say that in light of Brutus and Caesar’s choices to put their own portraiture on coins, Sextus is in fact making a more obviously conservative choice? Or is the chronology wrong for that and perhaps Sextus’ choice of iconography might be helping drive the urge to more contemporary portraits among the other imperators?

    21 Aug 2013, 14:57

  2. Clare Rowan

    I think that the more radical move was showing Pompey as Janus, which occurred about the same time or shortly afterwards – this is really radical ( This, and the wider use of portraiture of deceased individuals on coinage at this time, probably meant that Caesar’s portrait was just the next logical step (evidenced in the fact that then everyone, even the assassins, started doing it). I wonder if the fact that Dio only mentions Caesar’s title of pater patriae being placed on his coinage, and does not mention the portrait, suggests that actually, it wasn’t all that shocking to contemporary Romans. I wonder if the appearance of Caesar’s portrait, actually, is only shocking and a ‘momentous’ occasion for modern scholars….

    21 Aug 2013, 15:08

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