Coin with portraits of Cleopatra and Antony, Silver, c. 36 B.C.
Diam. 2.6 cm, Weight 15.22 g
The Art Institute of Chicago
"This rare and exquisite silver coin portrays two of the most famous figures of antiquity, the charismatic Egyptian queen Cleopatra and the ambitious Roman warlord Mark Antony. Cleopatra ruled Egypt during the period when Rome was expanding its empire eastward toward the territories she controlled. By allying herself politically and personally first with Julius Caesar and, after his death, with Mark Antony, the queen hoped to maintain Egypt's autonomy and expand her own authority. The powerful political alliance between Antony and Cleopatra threatened Caesar's heir, his great- nephew Octavian, who in 33 B.C. defeated their forces in a decisive sea battle at Actium, which led to the pair's suicides.
"To pay their armies and satisfy their other debts, Antony and Cleopatra minted coins bearing their likenesses. This example is remarkable in that it depicts both the general and the queen. Antony, seen here at bottom, is framed by an inscription that identifies him as a commander and one of Rome's trio of rulers. He is represented with short hair, a flat nose, a strong chin, and a long, thick neck. Cleopatra, shown at top, has a profile that is startlingly similar to Antony's, right down to the Adam's apple on her massive neck. This similarity was purposeful, since other coins issued by Cleopatra display a distinctly feminine profile. More of her figure is depicted than is Antony's, including her upper torso, which showcases her legendary pearl jewelry. An inscription and a crown circling her carefully braided hair identify her as a queen; she was, in fact, Egypt's last.
"Cleopatra appears on the front of the coin, in the place of prestige, and Antony is on the back. This is unusual because, although she was queen of Egypt, her country was a subservient ally of Rome. By pairing their faces on coinage, the rulers advertised a powerful new partnership that put Egypt's enormous agricultural riches at the disposal of one of Rome's rulers. Antony and Cleopatra planned to govern Egypt equally and cooperatively - to the joint venture the queen brought her hereditary right to rule, while Antony brought Roman military power. Their coin relayed this message in its coupling of remarkably similar images and in the inscriptions circling the heads. This kind of bold statement undoubtedly offended their enemies in Rome, especially Octavian, and helped bring about their eventual downfall."