The Portraiture of Carus


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Carus was

Preceded by Probus

Succeeded by (and father of) Carinus and Numerian


  William Storage and Laura Maish
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Marcus Aurelius Carus, born in Narbo, Gaul, (~223-230 to late July/early August, 283) was a Emperor of Rome from 282 to 283.

Carus succeeded Probus, either by revolt against Probus or by proclamation of troops upon the unrelated murder of Probus. The latter claim is made by the Historia Augusta, Eutropius and Aurelius Victor, against the Greek writers, Zonaras and John of Antioch, who hold that a revolt by Carus was the cause. Tom Jones, in a review of Piero Melini's Regno di Caro, Numerio e Carino, suggests that Zonaras may have had first-hand access to the Imperial Chronicle, strengthening the argument of involvement by Carus.

In any case, Carus assumed the title of emperor on Probus's death in 282, and appears to have informed the senate that he was now emperor, rather than requesting their approval. He saw to the deification of Probus, and appointed his elder son Carinus as caesar. After a successful campaign against the Sarmatians, Carus headed to Parthia to avenge the capture of Valerian with his younger son, Numerian. This campaign was successful, but Carus was soon found dead in his tent, the ancient sources report, victim of a lightning strike. Lightning deaths being fairly rare, and murder after a successful campaign seeming unlikely, it may be that disease was the cause, as suggested by the usually incredible Historia Augusta, here exercising skepticism of earlier accounts. 

A marble portrait at the Ostia Museum (Inv. 75), discovered in the Mitreo della Planta Pedis, bears a reasonable resemblance to coin portraits of Carus. Von Heintze argued for a date for this bust between the time of Aurelian and that of the tetrarchs. In that period, Carus would be the only imperial candidate for the subject.

Other marble heads in Rome, Antioch and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek in Copenhagen have been proposed as possible portraits of Carus, though none are well accepted.

Many of Carus's coins bear surprisingly naturalistic portraits, given their position between prior and later abstract coin portraits. The silvered antoninianus below (RIC 39) is a beautiful example. A truly remarkable gold aureus of Carus (bottom, photo courtesy of Glenn W. Woods), shows Carus in a less serene, but appropriately imperial pose.

For other coins of Carus, see the online reference at


Ostia Antica Museum, Inv 75.


Emperor Carus Coin Portrait


Carus Antoninianus
IMP CARVS P F AVG; radiate cuirassed bust right  /
IOVI VICTORI; Jupiter standing left holding Victory & scepter. Eagle at foot. KA B in ex.
RIC 39; Sear 2005 12171 (Billon, 4.19g. 21.5 mm. aEF)
Personal collection, ex CGB.



Antoninianus of Carus


Carus Antoninianus
Obverse: IMP.CARVS P.F.AVG, radiate and cuirassed bust right
Reverse: PAX EXERCITI, Pax standing left holding standard and olive-branch. PXXI in exergue
RIC 75; Ticinum mint, (Copper, 3.16 grams, 23.5 mm)
Personal collection, ex WCNC.



Gold aureus of Carus -


Gold Aureus of Carus
IMP C M AVR CARVS P F AVG - Laureate, draped and cuirassed bust of Carus facing right /
SPES PVBLICA - Spes advancing left, holding flower and raising skirt
RIC-V-I-63, Cohen-76, Calico-4276, struck 283 at Rome, 4.48 grams, 19.3 mm. Choice EF
Photo courtesy of Glenn W Woods -



Bill Storage, 5/3/08