A Lost Contorniate of Nero?

Niall W. Slater

Emory University

The contorniate medallions produced in the latter half of the fourth and early fifth centuries AD by the official mint in Rome, probably for use as New Year’s Day gifts, seem to have been part of a “culture war” for traditional pagan values and heritage (Alföldi-Rosenbaum 1997).  Most bear portraits of the emperors, ranging from Augustus down to Philip the Arab, including some of imperial women, but also some of other cultural icons such as Apuleius.  The largest groups feature portraits of Trajan and Nero.

When systematic study of ancient coinage and medallions began in the Renaissance, the distinction between coins struck for circulation as money and medallions minted for gift exchanges was by no means immediately apparent, especially as some of the contorniates are based on earlier coin types.  Sebastiano Erizzo (1525-1585) in particular argued for the view that Roman imperial medaglie served purely commemorative purposes.  Others, including Enea Vico (1523-1567), author of several illustrated books on Roman coinage, espoused the ultimately correct view that imperial portraits had indeed circulated on the standard coins of the empire.

Even the proponents of the latter view, however, often failed to distinguish particular examples of non-monetary contorniate medallions from coinage.  The earliest printed volumes interest themselves in the imperial portraits on obverses. When woodcuts and engravings of reverses begin to be published, contorniate reverses from the late empire can be mixed indiscriminately among coin reverses of the early imperial period.  Notable examples include chariot racing scenes in the Circus Maximus on contorniates of Nero, alongside well known coin types such as the harbor at Ostia. 

One reverse, published by Vico in 1548 and again later by Erizzo (both of whom attribute it to a coin of Nero), shows a scene now unattested in either the exhaustive standard corpus of contorniate medallions (A. and E. Alföldi 1976 and 1990, catalogue and plates) or any of the standard publications of Nero’s coinage.  The scene, showing a trireme at sea and inscribed ADVENTVS AVGVSTI, seems most likely to come from a contorniate.  This motif also highlights still doubtful issues about the role contorniates played and why, in particular, a “bad” emperor such as Nero (recognized as such by both pagan aristocracy and newly ascendant Christians alike) should have featured so prominently on these gift medallions.  The possible persistence of popular (as opposed to elite) hopes for the “return” of Nero, even in late antiquity, should be considered.

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