Portraiture of Numerian

Emperor Numerian portrait


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Numerianus was

Preceded by (and son of) Carus

Succeeded by (and brother of) Carinus


  William Storage and Laura Maish
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Marcus Aurelius Numerianus (born ~250, died. November, 284), was Emperor from December 283 to November, 284.

Edward Gibbon had a low opinion of Numerian, finding him feeble and a stranger "to that conscious superiority, either of birth or of merit, which can alone render the possession of a throne easy, and, as it were, natural." [1]  Fortunately, we need not rely on Gibbon's overconfident and imaginative prose; we have access to the same meager primary sources on Numerian from which Gibbon drew his odd conclusions, as it were.

Most of what the ancients wrote about Numerian deals with his strange death during a Persian campaign.

Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus, explains:

  Numerian, after losing his father, at the same time decided that the war was over, but while he was leading his army back he was murdered through the treachery of Aper, the praetorian prefect and his father-in-law. An infection of the young man's eyes provided the opportunity for this. In short the deed was concealed for a long time, while the body was being carried in a closed litter on the pretext that he was ill, so that his eyesight might not be troubled by the wind.  

Eutropias (Breviarium Ab Urbe Condita, Boox IX, Brian Gibbons translation) tells us that Numerian was of excellent character, and that Aper was the instigator of the plot that killed him:

  Carus Augustus had been lost to a lightning strike, and Numerian Caesar to a plot... Diocletian, in the first assembly of the soldiers, swore he had nothing to do with the death of Numerian, and since Aper, who had formed the plot against Numerian, was standing beside him, he was slain in view of the army with a sword by the hand of Diocletian.  

The unreliable Historia Augusta Lives of Carus, Carinus and Numerian  (Loeb Classical Library, 1921) adds to the above account that Aper concealed the dead Numerian from his soldiers claiming that Numerian was ill and that his eyes could not stand daylight; but at last the stench of his body betrayed the lie. It also praises Numerian's eloquence:

  Numerian, the son of Carus, was of excellent character and truly worthy to rule; he was notable, moreover, for his eloquence, so much so, in fact, that even as a boy he declaimed in public, and his writings came to be famous, though more suitable for declamation than in keeping with Cicero's style. In verse, furthermore, he is said to have had such skill that he surpassed all the poets of his time... The speech, moreover, which he sent to the senate is said to have been so eloquent that a statue was voted him not as a Caesar but as a rhetorician, to be set up in the Ulpian Library with the following inscription: "To Numerian Caesar, the most powerful orator of his time."  

A few scattered marble heads have been proposed as possible portraits of Numerian - most significantly, one in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (58.1005), identified convincingly by Cornelius Vermeule [2] on the basis of style, similarity to numismatic portraits, and elimination of other contemporary identities already established. The style of the Boston head fits nicely between that of late Gallienus portraits and those of the early Constantinian period. It differs from the Capitoline Museum's Carinus (Numerian's brother) in several ways that could be seen as a consequence of geography. I.e., the Numerian head has more eastern (Greek or western Asiatic) elements, and Numerian's career, unlike that of Carinus, was in the eastern empire (western Asia). Vermeule also notes that Numerian's family name, Marcus Aurelius, might be grounds for the portrait's late-Antonine elements.

For other coins of Numerian, see the online reference at Wildwinds.com.



Numerian Antoninianus
IMP NVMERIANVS AVG; Radiate and cuirassed bust right, medaillon on cuirass /
PIETAS AVGG; In ex: KAΔ; Mercury standing l. holding purse and caduceus
RIC 416F; 4.30g; 21mm; aEF.
Private collection, ex Gert Boersema.



      [1]  The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire By Edward Gibbon, David Womersley, Henry Hart Milman. Chapter 12, (Accession of Carinus and Numerian) Penguin Classics, ISBN:0140437649.

      [2]  A Graeco-Roman Portrait of the Third Century A. D. and the Graeco-Asiatic Tradition in Imperial Portraiture from Gallienus to Diocletian. Cornelius C. Vermeule III. Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 15, (1961), pp. 1-22


Keywords: portraits of Numerian, Bill Storage, Laura Maish iconography, imperial portraits, Rome, Roman Empire, ancient Rome, numismatics, coin portrait, Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Copyright 2008 by William Storage. All rights reserved.