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The Port of Ostia and its Numismatic Depiction under Nero

Given its larger-format size (corresponding to a diameter between that of a standard Half Dollar and Silver Dollar), the Roman Sestertius was always the prime candidate for more artistically ambitious designs. This broad canvas allowed the celator great leverage to pack as much detail as possible onto the flan—an aspect that was essentially impossible upon other denominations given their smaller diameters. As such, it made the Sestertius the perfect vehicle for commemorative events. Given the highly propagandizing nature of some Roman coinage, it presented an opportunity for an emperor to promote various events and locales that would garner even more support from the populace. One such event was the massive works project of constructing the Port of Ostia, a city that (at the time) connected the inland city of Rome with the Tyrrhenian Sea via the Tiber River. As the Roman Empire continued to grow in power and influence in the decades following the death of Augustus, the need for easy access to the sea was obvious. As such, work commenced under Claudius in A.D. 42. Rather interestingly, one of the “pleasure galleys” of his predecessor, Caligula, was scuttled and filled with cement, with a lighthouse and statue dedicated to Neptune constructed upon it. Though a finishing date is not known, numismatics can point to a probable answer, as it was under Nero, the successor of Claudius, that the magnificent port received a depiction monetarily that would solidify it in the mind of not just all Romans, but collectors to this day.

The Port of Ostia Sestertius of Nero, issued circa A.D. 64, presents busts of the emperor facing either left or right on the obverse, and with a very detailed bird’s eye view of the recently constructed port upon the reverse. From here, the viewer is instantly transferred to that time and place, with seven ships under sail within the harbor, and the aforementioned lighthouse and statue prominently placed near the top. Near the bottom, a reclining male figure—a personification of the Tiber River itself—holds firm to a rudder. All around, a crescent-shaped pier envelops the harbor, with numerous breakwaters seen on each side. Though history seemingly lacks renditions of this consequential public works project, the Sestertii issued under Nero offer a tremendous glimpse into its look and feel. As the centuries progressed, however, the port’s usage began to diminish, with silting from the Tiber causing the area to become a damp breeding ground for diseases—not entirely that different from the declining empire herself.

Our upcoming Summer 2022 Global Showcase Auction will feature one such Port of Ostia Sestertius in a condition that is generally far superior to those normally encountered in the marketplace. Graded by NGC as “VF Strike 5/5, Surface 3/5,” and with the ever-important “Fine Style” designation, this issue presents a captivating rendering of the port along with a solid portrait of the rather infamous emperor. Furthering its appeal is the fact that this elegant specimen has been off the market for some 40 years, last appearing in a Robert Myers fixed price list in 1981. As such, we expect this coin to generate great interest, as it is a true touchstone to the past.

To view our upcoming auction schedule and future offerings, please visit our Stack’s Bowers website where you may register and participate in this and other forthcoming sales.

We are always seeking coins, medals, and paper money for our future auctions, and are currently accepting submissions for our Official Auction of the 2023 NYINC next January and our ensuing Hong Kong auction next spring. Additionally, we are accepting submissions for our Collectors Choice Online (CCO) auctions, the next of which will be in October (and is rapidly filling up). If you would like to learn more about consigning, whether a singular item or an entire collection, please contact one of our consignment directors today and we will assist you in achieving the best possible return on your material.

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