Portraits of Gallienus


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Gallienus was

Preceded by Valerianus and Aemelianus

Succeeded by Claudius Gothicus

Co-emperor with (and father of) Saloninus

Son of Valerianus and Mariniana

Father of Valerianus II

  William Storage and Laura Maish
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Publius Licinius Egnatius Gallienus (born ~218, died 268) ruled the Roman Empire as co-emperor with Valerian, his father, from 253 to 260, and as sole emperor from 260 to 268. He appointed his eldest son Valerian II as caesar in about 257 and his second son Saloninus as caesar in 260. Gallienus is probably best known for his long (~15 year) during a period of short-lived emperors commonly known as the military crisis of the 3rd century.

The portraiture of Gallienus shows an amazing variety of styles even in consideration of his long career. There is a general trend toward abstraction during his reign; but it is incorrect to view this as simply a natural procession from the naturalism of the 2nd century to the abstraction of the Byzantine era. Third century imperial portraiture shows coexistence and overlapping of disparate styles, some classicizing, some expressionistic, and some very abstract. Many art historians have followed the natural tendency to infer trends from a small number of samples and then to identify the "political causes" for these trends. Radically different styles within the portraits of short-lived emperors (e.g. Gordian III) should be sufficient to keep us humble about understanding third century eclecticism and inferring too much from too little data.

Scholars of the portraiture of Gallienus have grouped his imagery into several reasonably distinct types, which (unlike those of Gordian) actually do show continuity through his reign. His earliest type is characterized by an oval face, relatively high forehead, and pointed chin. The styling is of hair and beard recalls the laate Republicans and early Julio-Claudians. A slightly later style recalls Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. A third style is heavily abstract and hints at the Byzantine . The face is a simple, broad oval; mustaches and eyebrows are scratched-in unrealistically; and the beard is impressionistic.

Both Eutropias (Breviarium Ab Urbe Condita, Boox IX, Brian Gibbons translation) and the Historia Augusta describe Gallienus' rule as initially good, then declining progressively until he was murdered. The HA praises the secessionists, Postumus and Victorinus, and then blames Gallienus for causing the world to be "laid waste by pretenders about twenty in number." Zosimus reports Gallienus to be effective in his rule, but doesn't really offer an opinion on his character. The HA acknowledges that Gallienus was accomplished in "oratory, poetry, and all the arts" and gives examples of his cleverness and sense of humor.

Art historians of the past century seem to have looked a bit too hard for global trends and for abrupt turning points in 3rd C Roman art. The so-called Gallienic Renaissance is a case in point. Type1 portraits of Gallienus obviously have references to the portraiture of Augustus and Hadrian, but they retain some impressionistic elements of the preceding decade; and they include spiritualistic elements that had become gradually more pronounced over most of the previous century. Much has been written on this topic. See Gervase Mathew [1] and Susan Wood [2] for more reasonable assessments of the Gallienic Renaissance; both avoid the tendencies to read too much into artistic trends and to correlate those trends too strongly with politics. And both seem to allow that some elements of imperial portraiture result to some degree from personal tastes of the sculptors and their patrons, and that experimentation in art happens for unknown and unknowable reasons. Wood insightfully comments that the marked difference (called a schism by earlier art historians) between the portraiture of Decius and of Gallienus can be seen as differences in the selection of a small set of traditional elements applied to the portraits; i.e., calling this a schism is going way too far.

Gallienus was an adherent of the philosopher, Plotinus, whose writings seem to address a significant aspect of the sculpture of the 3rd century, including the wide range of styles under Gallienus. To capture life in a marble portrait, 3rd century sculptors experimented with different combinations of classical accuracy of proportions, emphasis of asymmetry and flaws, impressionism, and abstraction; but ultimately they rejected classicism in favor of abstraction. As Plotinus put it:

  We have to recognize that beauty is that which irradiates symmetry rather than symmetry itself and it is that which truly calls out love. Why else is there more of the glory of beauty upon the living and only some faint trace of it upon the dead, even though the face still retains its fullness and symmetry? Why are the most living portraits the most beautiful even though others seem to be more symmetric?  

Coin portraits of Gallienus traced the transition that occurred in his marble portraits, and even went a step farther. By 268, the year Gallienus was murdered, his coin portrait had transformed into a bizarre caricature; his head is but a rectangle extending barely beyond the neck (last coin below), onto which his features have been distilled down to their essential lines - more Guston than Rodin.

For a huge listing of coins of Gallienus, see the Ed Flinn's Coins of Gallienus and Family.



Gallienus (Type 1)
Museo Capitolino, Palazzo Braschi, Salone, inv. 487.




Gallienus, Type 1 (Samtherrschaftstypus)
Museo Capitolino, inv. MC360.



Gallienus, Type 2
Musée du Cinquantenaire, Brussels




Gallienus antoninianus - 259/260
RIC 397 or 399, Viminacium or Mediolanum
IMP GALLIENVS AVG; radiate and cuirassed bust right /
SALVS AVGG; Salus standing
21mm, 4.6g, early, high-silver content, reverse die very worn, amazing portrait




Gallienus Billon Antoninianus - 254 AD
RIC Vii 132f
IMP C P LIC GALLIENVS AVG; Radiate cuirassed bust right /
CONCORDIA EXERCIT; Concordia standing left holding patera and cornucopia
21.18 mm, 3.05 grams, aEF/VF




Gallienus Antoninianus - 254 AD, Rome mint
RIC V 170
IMP C P LIC GALLIENVS AVG; radiate and cuirassed bust right /
VICTORIA AVGG; Victory standing left, holding wreath and palm
20-21 mm, 3.39 g, EF, reverse die worn.




Gallienus, silvered antoninianus, ~ 268 AD
RIC 160
GALLIENVS AVG radiate bust right /
AETERNITAS AVG Aeternitas standing facing
Photo courtesy of Ephesus Numismatics


  [1] Mathew, Gervase. "The Character of the Gallienic Renaissance". The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 33, Parts 1 and 2, (1943), pp. 65-70.

[2] Wood, Susan, Roman Portrait Sculpture, 217–260 A.D.: The Transformation of the Artistic Tradition, Leiden: Brill, 1986.




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