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Portraits of Change: Ancient Coins | The Art Institute of Chicago

By Elizabeth Benge Whether ancient or modern, coins reflect the culture that produced them, including aspects of politics, economics, religion, and even manner and style. And it ’ sulfur even more of a wonder that such exceptional detail can be communicated on such a humble scale. The museum ’ sulfur permanent collection includes more than 1,200 coins, most of which come from ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine periods and span the early sixth hundred BCE through the eleventh century CE. Thanks to the amazing craft of ancient engravers, these coins contain clues about the stories behind their creation and the cities that they represent .
Scholars broadly agree that the earliest coins were struck of electrum ( an natural alloy of gold and silver ) in Lydia ( a region of what is now western Turkey ) around the mid-7th hundred BCE. The term “ struck ” refers to the proficiency used to make coins, where a blank metal disk is placed between two dies, which are then struck with a heavy forge. Watch this march in action in this video. early greek coins depicted elements crucial to the issuing city. The tuna fish ( a kind of tuna ), seen below the crouching andiron on the mint ( above entrust ), was such an authoritative separate of the local economy in Kyzikos that it appears on all of the city ’ s coins.

This mint from Athens depicts the profile steer of the goddess Athena, the patron and defender of the city, on the battlefront, while Athena ’ randomness owl, a popular discipline, is seen on the spinal column. other significant elements might appear on coins as animals, natural resources, and references to diachronic events or a city ’ s establish. The inclusion of authoritative people and symbols continues into the Roman period. Rome ’ s earliest silver coins from the third hundred BCE were based on that of the Greeks in both design and slant but remain uniquely Roman in expressive style. After Augustus became the foremost Roman emperor, profile portraits of rulers or other members of the imperial family became a standard subject on coins throughout the Roman Empire and into the Byzantine period. Like greek coins, ancient Roman coins used imagination to convey messages, but more often use coins as propaganda to reinforce ideas about an emperor butterfly ’ randomness right to rule. A batch of data can be included in the smallest details and some coins packed in more than others .
The movement of this Roman denarius portrays the profile head of Pompey the Great, who had been assassinated in 48 BCE. The coin was issued by one of Pompey ’ south sons, Sextus, who included his forefather ’ second prototype as a way to strengthen his own association to him. An dedication on the back declares Sextus as commander of the navy and seashore, a title that the Senate had bestowed on him in 43 BCE. furthermore, we see two busy figures that show the myth of Catanean brothers Amphinomus and Anapius rescuing their parents from the erupting Mount Etna in Sicily ( where Sextus was based ). The history reflects the piety that Sextus wished to convey. Neptune ( Greek Poseidon ), god of the sea, appears between the brothers and reinforces Sextus ’ s title as commander of the seas. Neptune ’ s correct animal foot rests on a bow of a ship, and a clothe is over his forget arm while in his right he holds an aplustre, the stern mail of a naval embark, which is frequently a symbol of naval victory .
After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the previously omnipresent profile portrayal head was replaced by frontal or full-body depictions, as seen above or in the neologism of Heraclius. christian symbols lento dominated the iconography, though greek titles and phrases came to replace the Latin as the public used Greek as the common speech. Byzantine coins besides emphasized the close relationship between earthly monarchs and the celestial kingdom. In contrast to the naturalistic and moral force visibility portrait busts of the Roman Empire, rulers on Byzantine coinage appear forward facing, more abstract and linear, and null of unique characteristics or personality. The emphasis on the office and line of succession becomes the focal decimal point ; if a rule wished to familiarize the populace with his intended successor, an effective propaganda joyride was to show them together on the same mint. Up to the eleventh hundred, a face flop was the prefer option for the imperial type, but thereafter a standing calculate was more common and appear with Christ or one of the saints .
These are good a handful of the coins in our collection. Of the closely 300 artworks on display in the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine art, closely 70 are coins. today, coins are struck in a procedure like to that used in the ancient Mediterranean world, though on an industrial scale. The designs continue to reflect important moments of history and remind us that details can reveal indeed much. So the adjacent time you reach for some change you hold in your scoop or purse, remember that it ’ sulfur not just currentness. It ’ s a little portrayal of our time.

—Liz Hahn Benge, collection coach, Arts of Africa and Arts of the Ancient Mediterranean and Byzantium Learn more about the Arts of the Ancient Mediterranean and Byzantium.

Learn more about the process of how ancient coins were struck.


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