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The portraits of Sabina represent a shift in the representation of imperial women in the Roman Empire. Sabina is the first empress to appear as the obverse portrait of a continuous coin production at Rome and the first woman to appear on all of the main denominations at the central mint. Her portraiture is also more varied than that of any previous empress. She is represented on imperial coinage with five different portrait types—i.e., modes of representation—most easily distinguished by hairstyle, all of which are depicted below. This is matched by an increased presence of Sabina’s portraits in provincial coinage and sculpture. This greater visual prominence for the Empress set a new standard that was followed by subsequent administrations, making the portraits of Sabina an integral corpus in the history of Roman imperial portraiture.

I addressed two primary research questions in my dissertation work on these portraits. First, what do the portraits of Sabina reveal about her role in the administration’s self-presentation? Second, what can they tell us about the practicalities of the production and dissemination of Roman imperial portraiture in the Roman Empire? In this post, I will be focusing on a few of my findings related to the second question.

In order to address either query, I had to establish the chronology of Sabina’s portrait types. While some points in the chronology were already firmly proven, others were still debated. I used die studies to create the typological sequence. This method involves reproducing the manufactuing process of the coins by figuring out the different stamps, called dies, that were used to strike each side of the extant coins. Since both dies were not often replaced at the same time, this produces chains of linked coins that share the same die on one face but not the other, which replicates the sequence of coin manufacture (Figure 1).

A stemma of ancient coins with depictions of Sabina on them. Two coins sit at the top, connected with five coins in the next generation, followed by five other coins in the third.

Figure 1: An excerpt from my die study of Sabina aurei from the Roman imperial mint.

Through my die studies of imperial aurei and dupondii/asses, I was able to create the following chronology with help from stylistic and iconographic analyses, including reference to an abundance of previous scholarly works. Overall, the die studies prove that there is no chronological overlap of portrait types, something often assumed in previous scholarship. I have given each portrait type a name based on the construction of its hairstyle, some of which are found in previous scholarship, others of which are my own.

A gold coin with an image of Sabina looking to the right. Her hair is intricately braided into an updo.

Figure 2. Aureus, Rome, 127/8–130. American Numismatic Society inv. 1967.153.145.

The earliest portrait type on the imperial coinage (Figure 2), which I call the nest, has been known since the coins’ earliest publications to appear first in late 127/early 128, corresponding with Hadrian’s decennalia. Sabina appears on these coins with a hairstyle reminiscent of those of her mother and grandmother, prominent women during Trajan’s reign. The type appears on the imperial coinage for around two years.

A gray coin featuring an image of Sabina. Her hair is braided into a low chignon bun.

Figure 3. As, Rome, 129/130. British Museum inv. 67837001. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The second type (Figure 3), which I call the chignon, is very short-lived and is reminiscent of portraits of Livia. Hadrian’s emulation of Augustus is well-known, which explains the presentation of Sabina likened to Augustus’s wife.

A gold coin featuring an image of Sabina looking to the right. Her hair is long and flowing without braids.

Figure 4. Aureus, Rome, 130/1–137. American Numismatic Society inv. 1960.175.29.

The third type, named the queue (Figure 4), appears on imperial coinage for the longest time (130/1–137) and was struck on the largest number of imperial coins. It was likely first introduced in Egypt while the imperial couple was present, a finding first discussed by Abdy. The type shows Sabina with free-flowing hair without any braiding, a shift towards the new, Hadrianic style.

A dull gold coin featuring an image of Sabina looking to the right. Her hair is loosely secure into an updo.

Figure 5. Aureus, Rome, 137/8. British Museum inv. 658400001. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The final lifetime type was the basket (Figure 5), introduced in 137/138. It follows the queue’s looser style. It was introduced at Rome during the year of the vicennalia and continued in use on coinage until just after Sabina’s death around the beginning of 138.

A gold coin featuring an image of Sabina looking to the right. Her hair is covered by a veil.

Figure 6. Aureus, Rome, 138. American Numismatic Society inv. 1955.191.14.

Following Sabina’s consecration in early 138, a new type was introduced on the coinage for the short period leading up to Hadrian’s own death in July of the same year (Figure 6). This is a veiled version of the chignon type.

For my work on the provincial coins, I used Roman Provincial Coinage to develop a database of a total of 216 types at 93 mints that feature Sabina’s portrait. I created an annotated catalogue of sculptured portraits previously identified as Sabina, divided between those identifications that I accepted and those that I rejected. In the final catalogue, I accepted 39 sculpted portraits as representations of Sabina.

Distinctions in quantities of each portrait type among coins produced at the Roman imperial mint (which was overseen by imperial officials), provincial coins, and sculpture are revealing about the effects of medium, location, commissioner, and other factors on the production of portraiture in the Roman world.

A gray coin with an image of Sabina looking to the right. Her hair is braided into an updo.

Figure 7. Copper alloy coin, Tarsus, 128–137. British Museum inv. 691550001. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

A different portrait type is most plentiful in each of the three categories. On the imperial coinage, it is the queue, the type which was produced for the most years. On provincial coinage, however, it is the nest, the first imperial coin type that only appeared at Rome for two years (Figures 2 and 7). It is not only the most plentiful type, but it constitutes 81% of all provincial coin portraits of the Empress. Dated provincial coins prove that the nest type’s use spanned the entire ten years of Sabina’s official imagery. The predominance of the nest — with other types appearing rarely, and mostly at times when the imperial couple was present in the area of the mint — is evidence that each new portrait type was not intentionally sent to the provinces for copying. Instead, this was only done for the first portrait type, which runs counter to common assumptions about the automatic and thorough nature of portrait type dissemination from Rome to the provinces.

Table 1. Percentage of total portraits of Sabina in each category by portrait type

In sculpture, the most common type is the basket, a type which was introduced on imperial coinage at the very end of Sabina’s life and never appeared on provincial coinage (Figures 5 and 8). This type is found in 20 replicas. The next most common type is the nest, found in 9 replicas.

A stone bust of Sabina facing left. Her hair is gathered up, and the nose is missing.

Figure 8. Bust of Sabina, Ra76, Musée Saint-Raymond, Musée d’Archéologie de Toulouse, photo: Daniel Martin.

I argue that this discrepancy can be explained by the differences in commission and production of portraits in sculpture compared with coins. Coins were produced for practical purposes and, for that reason, their distribution of types is more or less representative of how long a type was in use. In contrast, sculpted portraits were expensive commissions that required an individual or group to request a piece be produced at that particular time. Their production is thus much more uneven than coin images. Most extant portrait sculpture comes from Rome and its environs. The likely concentration of production to 127/128–130 and 137/138 is, I argue, evidence of the influence of imperial jubilees on the production of sculpted images of Sabina. This should not be used as evidence that new portrait types and large quantities of statuary were always produced in connection with jubilees. It is, however, illustrative of the potential for such events to skew statue production.

Looking at the three groups of material together creates a coherent picture of the production and dissemination of portraits of Sabina throughout the Empire. The administration first makes Sabina an official part of the imperial iconographic program around the beginning of 128, when her portrait first appears on imperial coinage using the nest type. Models of this type are also disseminated to provincial centers and the type is reproduced at various mints. Perhaps as part of the decennalia celebration, or perhaps just because there is now an official model for Sabina’s portraiture, there is also substantial production of sculpted portraits.

During the next eight years, four additional portrait types appear at the Roman imperial mint but are not intentionally sent to provincial centres for copying. As a result, only a handful of mints ever produce coins using anything besides the nest. Few sculpted portraits are produced after the initial nest portraits until the celebration of the vicennalia, when a huge amount of basket type sculpture is produced. Sabina dies shortly thereafter, and some posthumous portraits appear in both imperial coinage and sculpture.

The portraits of Sabina illustrate the importance of understanding production, audience, medium, and function, among others, when interpreting portraiture. They show a lack of consistent communication between Rome and provincial mints, as well as a strong correlation between imperial celebrations and portrait-statue production. They also illustrate the value of a multimedia approach to portrait studies.

In addition to the support I received from McMaster and Mount Allison Universities for this project, I must also thank the following museums and collections that allowed me access to their artifacts, without which this project would not have been possible: American Numismatic Society, The Getty Villa, The Louvre, Musée archéologique Théo Desplans, Musée départemental des Antiquités Rouen, Musei di Fiesole, Musée Saint-Raymond, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze, Museo Nazionale Romano, Musei Reali di Torino, Palazzo Ducale di Mantova, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Quadrereia G. Cesarini, the Uffizi Gallery, the Vatican Museums, the Villa Medici, and the Yale University Art Gallery. I would additionally like to thank the archaeological park at Ostia for allowing me access to their library and photo archives.

Do you want to write a spotlight on your dissertation or thesis, or want to recommend someone to do one on theirs? Get in touch with the SCS Blog’s Editor-in-Chief, T. H. M. Gellar-Goad!

Header image: Bust of Sabina, Rome, Capitoline Museums inv. MC 0848 (Sala dei Fasti Moderni II 7). © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro.

Fae Amiro (fae.amiro@utoronto.ca) is a postdoctoral fellow in Historical Studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She received her PhD from McMaster University in 2021 and held the J. E. A Crake Doctoral Fellowship at Mount Allison University in 2020-2021. Her work has been published in Selected Papers in Ancient Art and Architecture (2021) and will appear in the next volume of the American Journal of Numismatics (2022). She is currently studying the use of portraits of imperial women on Roman provincial coinage. She is also currently developing a book, The Portraits of Sabina, based on her dissertation. Her dissertation can be found here: https://macsphere.mcmaster.ca/handle/11375/26930.