Among my many strange interests is a fascination with ancient Roman coins. In particular I like the silver and gold coinage of the Roman “imperatorial” period and early empire, starting in 49 BC and extending through the mid-second century. It’s a fascinating time in history when epic figures like Julius Caesar, Pompey, Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Augustus, Livia, and Caligula duked it out with their rivals for control of the empire. To be clear, my interest isn’t in hard-core academic issues like Roman monetary policy or the provincial economies. I focus on the lurid stuff like political intrigue, badass gladiators, illicit love affairs, and assassinations. Roman coins interest me because they record all this craziness in their designs—they’re a visual bonanza for present-day gawkers like me.
One particularly amazing silver “denarius” features Marc Antony—who looks surprisingly like Tony Bennett—on one side and a tiara-wearing Cleopatra on the other. Who wouldn’t be psyched to see the actual portraits of these near-mythical figures right in his hand? My favorite coin, known as the “EID MAR denarius,” was minted by Brutus after he murdered Julius Caesar. The obverse features the killer himself looking grim and sanctimonious. The other side shows a pileus cap, a symbol of freedom, set between two assassin’s daggers. Talk about an audacious bit of propaganda. Then there’s a later bronze “sestertius” with a decidedly more somber tone. It shows a mule-drawn wagon bearing the remains of Agrippina the Elder, the mother of Caligula, who died in exile from starvation and was brought back to Rome by her grieving son.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of some Roman coins, though, is how the portraits of emperors never seem to age. For example, the early coins of Octavian (who renamed himself Augustus when he took control of the empire) show a slender and intense young man with a scruffy beard. When he becomes emperor, the portraits stop looking so realistic and morph into a kind of state-sanctioned representation of the ideal Roman man: aquiline nose, muscular neck, serious but compassionate eyes, small mouth with lips set tight against each other. Over 40 years of Augustus’s reign, his image remains suspended in this state of perpetual youth. The same thing happened in varying degrees with other emperors like Tiberius, Claudius, Domitian, Trajan, and Hadrian. It leaves you wondering at what point Augustus and the imperial portrait artists decided to freeze his image and, more enticingly, what the legendary emperor looked like in his 70s.
Freeze-Framing Our Lives
This kind of idealized portraiture isn’t really a Roman thing. In fact, the Romans were more known for extreme realism—“warts and all”—in their portraits during the Republican period. When emperors began depicting themselves as godlike and ageless, they were borrowing from Hellenistic portrait traditions, Rome having conquered Greece in the second century BC and begun to register Greek influence in their own art and philosophy soon after.
When I look at portraits of Augustus, I can’t help but think how his coinage manipulated the public narrative of his life. “I’m still powerful and potent,” the images proclaim. “The passing of time has no effect on me.” I think there’s a 21st-century business opportunity here. After all, we’re all obsessed with aging and mortality. I can imagine a technology that lets us present ourselves in a perpetual state of salubrity where every aspect of our lives is ideal, uplifting, optimistic. Just as Augustus and Domitian did, we could sanitize our personal narratives, eliminating from our stories antidepressant prescriptions, bald spots, chronic disease, and dark family secrets. The world would see us as gleaming paragons of a life well lived.
Never mind. Facebook has that covered.
You have to admit, though, the Romans were way ahead of us.