Evil Emperors - An exhibition in the coin collection
Nov 12, 2019 - Mar 31, 2022
Ticket: €16.00*
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The image of Roman emperors transmitted by classical tradition continues to influence how we see and judge them today. Our view of Roman emperors is strongly affected by how classical tradition depicts them – Caligula, Nero or Commodus, for instance, are poster-boys for megalomania. For posterity is the final arbiter of a ruler’s life and deeds, deeming them benign or evil regardless of his assertions and efforts.

Most of the authors whose works have come down to us were members of the Senate, or at least belonged to Rome’s intellectual and economic elite. Some were part of the emperor’s inner circle, others had joined the political opposition and may even have had cause to fear for their lives. This means that their appraisals are anything but objective; often they recount mere hearsay or rumours, or focus more on individual events than on the overall picture.

Compared to these tendentious, at times circumlocutory literary recollections, coinage appears much more sober, business-like, and almost cold. Throughout and after the end of classical antiquity, the images and inscriptions on coins functioned as the most important medium of (imperial) self-display. Devised by the emperor or his closest advisors, they cleverly helped to present the ruler in the best possible light.

The exhibition confronts statements and appraisals from classical antiquity – some of them contemporary, some written down several generations after the emperor’s death – with coinage. The two sources differ greatly in their origins and how they were formed and have very different aims. At times, they seem to clash and are difficult to reconcile. Although most of what we know about the history of classical antiquity is based on them, this reflects the gulf that separates personal opinions from official accounts.

The exhibition examines clichés and anecdotes and tries to illustrate them with coins selected from the holdings of the Coin Cabinet, one of the largest and most important collections in the world comprising around 600.000 objects including 90.000 Roman coins. The choice of rulers runs from murderous Caligula and Nero, the arsonist of Rome, to the persecutors of Christians, to Julian the Apostate, thus, well into the fourth century AD.
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