Portraits of Nero


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Nero was

Preceded by Claudius

Succeeded briefly by Galba
and later by Vespasian

Son of Agrippina the Younger

Husband of Poppaea (2nd wife)



  William Storage and Laura Maish. Photos by us except where noted.
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Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, (December 15, AD 37 – June 9, AD 68) also known as Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus or Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, was the last Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He ruled from the death of Claudius in 54 until he died in 68, probably by suicide. The verdict of history on Nero has been entirely negative; most know him as the megalomaniac who fiddled while Rome burned. While Nero's rule can be characterized astyrannical, details of his evil deeds provided by the ancient historians obviously contain exaggerations and fiction. Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio all had strong political motives to indict Nero. Josephus's negative coverage was no doubt driven by propaganda needs of his employers in the Flavian dynasty who succeeded Nero. Suetonius does report that Nero was very popular with the public during and for centuries after his reign. It appears that cults emerged that did not believe he was actually dead, or believed that he died and would soon be resurrected.

Much of the imperial portraiture of Nero was mutilated or destroyed after his death. Other pieces were recarved into likenesses of a number of emperors - most commonly they were recarved as Vespasian and Titus, the Flavian rulers who succeeded him.

Coin portraits of Nero can be roughly grouped into five types, four of which are represented by existing marble portrait heads. Additionally, several marble statues of an imperial child have been identified as Nero.

Coin Portrait Types (photos below)

1: Type 1 portraits begin with Nero's adoption by Claudius and are characterized by long comma-shaped locks, presumably parted at the center of his head, as is the case with slightly later marble portraits and a few boyhood statues. His hair completely covers his forehead. This type appears on coins from 51-54 AD, correlating with Nero's introduction to public life and his receiving various honors and titles indicating his status as heir to Claudius. He appears in a military cloak on coins, the details of which are generally omitted. His facial features are rather unexceptional and difficult to differentiate from other portrayals of young males from the period. no specific marble portrait is correlated with these coins.

2: Accession (Oct, 54) - 55 AD. Nero's hair , still with center part, is curlier and he has a fleshier face and more mature features. His hair almost covers his forehead. He is often shown with Agrippina on coin obverse.  Scholars debate over whether these coins are based on on a different model or the same one used for the type 1 coins. This portrait type appears to have lasted only one year, during which time Agrippina disappears from the coins. Some writers link this disappearance with the megalomaniac character for which Nero is famous. This is probably a stretch; coins were a primary means of assuring the populace of the strength of the empire and its leader. The young emperor would need strong personal branding, regardless of his relationship with his mother. Provincial coins continue to depict Agrippina for several years.

3: 55-59. Still youthful, Nero develops his memorable image, with wider face, thick neck (on some coin images), noticeable underchin, longer hair and long locks curving counterclockwise over his forehead except between his right eye and ear where they are clockwise. This is the first coin type to be confidently linked to a portrait model (replica, as they say in the sculpture world), particularly one in the Museo Nazionale, Cagliari. On the basis of the Cagliari head, the youthful portrait now in the Palatine Museum (formerly Terme inv. 616) can be identified as Nero without doubt.

4: 59-64. He wears longer hair on top of the head, similar locks to type 3, but with counterclockwise curving locks from ear to ear. This type appears in hundreds of different coin portraits with minor variations, and all differing from the marble head, which, unlike the coins, includes longer sideburns and a light beard below the chin. Only one marble portrait of the type is known, also in the Palatine Museum (formerly Terme inv. 618).

5: 64-68. The type appears from his deccennalia in 64 to his death in 68. His hair, described by Suetonius (who may have simply drawn on coins for his description) as "shaped into terraces" is arranged in several layers of alternating waves, particularly well shown on a dupondius of Nero from Lugdunum. The striking similarity of these images to late Seleukid and Ptolemaic portraits is probably intentional -- see the coin portrait of Demetrios III below, for example. While historical context might suggest that an intentional reference by Nero to Seleukid imagery would be unlikely, the similarity to Seleukid coin imagery seems more than coincidental; and throughout history, Rome never seemed to avoid imitating another nation simply because it happened to be an enemy.

Many art historians continue to promote the rather silly notion that the vicissitudes of Nero's depraved existence are mirrored in his portraits, corpulence included. This idea can be dismissed on at least two counts. First, if in fact Nero was the debauched and ruthless murderer history records him as being, it is doubtful that his sculptor would survive having intentionally conveyed such nature. Secondly, the common reading of bad character into facial unattractiveness could almost as easily be applied to Vespasian, Nero's successor, whom history treats with kindness. In short, many modern viewers who have read Suetonius have also read Suetonius into Nero's marble portraits.

With this in mind, it's worth noting that the ancient sculpture most famous for conveying Nero's depravity is in fact neither Nero nor ancient. Only a small portion - from the eyes up in the front and even less on the sides - is ancient; the remainder is a restoration. While the coiffure of the ancient piece meets the pattern identified as type  3 Nero, Hiesinger, Fittschen, Zanker and others have noted that this fragment is from a portrait of Domitian. Many portraits of Domitian were recarved from originals of Nero, thus Domitian is often seen with type 3 Nero hair. However other Domitian heads, not recarved from Nero, include the same coiffure (such as the portraits of Domitian recarved as Nerva and Constantine) This may merely indicate that some original Domitian heads were copies of other Domitian heads that were recarved from Nero. Therefore the Nero type 3 coiffure can not by itself be used to link a fragment with Nero; other stylistic elements link this fragment with Domitian. When the Nero restorations are removed there is little in the fragment to suggest Nero.



Demetrios III, Eukairos. Seleukid Kingdom. Damascus mint, dated 89/8 BC. Photo courtesy of Apollux Classical Antiquities.

Ancient graffito of Nero from the
Domus Tiberianus on the Palatine.


50-51 AD

51-54 AD 54 AD
Nero, as Caesar: Cistophoric Tetradrachm. Pergamum mint.
Photo courtesy of CNG Coins
BMC 93. RIC 79. Photo courtesy of CNG Coins
Nero & Agrippina II Aureus. Lugdunum mint.
AGRIPP AVG DIVI CLAVD NERONIS CAES MATER  confronted heads of Nero & Agrippina.
RIC 1. BMC 6. C 6. Photo courtesy of CNG Coins 


55 AD 60 AD 64 AD
Nero & Agrippina Denarius.
Sear 2044, RIC 7, Cohen 4, BMC 8.
Photo courtesy of WildWinds.
Nero Denarius.
RSC 216. RIC 22. Sear 5 #1936.
Photo courtesy of WildWinds
Sestertius of Nero.
RIC 148; BMCRE 188.
Photo courtesy of Ancient Resource


65 AD 64-68 AD 67 AD
RIC 44. Sear-5 1926
Photo courtesy of CNG Coins
Dupondius of Nero, Lugdunum mint.
RIC 604. BN 141.
Photo courtesy of Edward J, Waddell, Ltd.
RIC 68, RSC 356, BMC 107.
Photo courtesy of CNG Coins


        (Click images below for larger versions)



Young Nero Young Nero
Young Nero from the Palatine Museum (formerly Terme inv. 616).
Nero Nero
The "Palatine Nero", sole replica for the Type 4 coin portrait - Museo Palatino (formerly Terme inv. 618)
Young Nero
Young Nero, Museo Capitolino inv. MC427
Glyptothek Nero
Head of Nero from Glyptothek, Munich.
Domitian fragment restored as Nero. Museo Capitolino inv. MC418
Fragment with/without restoration
Nero recarved as Vespasian. Palazzo Massimo Inv. 53.
Nero recarved as Domitian.
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli inv. 6061
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli inv. 6061.
Detail of reworking of Nero's coiffure.
Nero's head recarved as Domitian.
Vatican, Braccio Nuovo, inv. 2213
  Sources of  more information on the portraiture of Nero -

Klaus Fittschen and Paul Zanker: Katalog der römischen Porträts in den Capitolinischen Museen und den anderen kommunalen Sammlungen der Stadt Rom, I: Kaiser- und Prinzenbildnisse  

Ulrich W. Hiesinger: "The Portraits of Nero",  American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 79, No. 2, (Apr., 1975), pp. 113-124.

Diana E. E. Kleiner. Roman Sculpture (Yale Publications in the History of Art) (1994). ISBN-13: 978-0300059489.

Charles Brian Rose. Dynastic Commemoration and Imperial Portraiture in the Julio-Claudian Period (Cambridge Studies in Classical Art and Iconography), Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN-13: 978-0521453820.

Eric R. Varner, Chapter VI. Domitian, Mutilation and Transformation, Damnatio Memoriae and Roman Imperial Portraiture. Leiden: Brill, 2004, pp119-120.


Copyright 2008 William Storage and Laura Maish. Updated 9/2/08.