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Vipsania on Roman Coins?
© Jasper Burns

(Published by The Celator, May 2004)

Read about my novel - VIPSANIA: A Roman Odyssey

Figure 1. AE dupondius issued by Drusus under Tiberius, A. D. 23. Obverse: Diademed, draped, and
veiled bust of a woman (Vipsania?), right, PIETAS; Reverse: DRVSVS CAESAR TI AVGVSTI F TR POT ITER
(Drusus Caesar, son of Tiberius Augustus, holder of the tribunician power for the second time) around large SC.
Courtesy Numismatik Lanz München.


The gold and silver coinages of the Roman emperor Tiberius are known for their comparative lack of variety. This is not true, however, of his aes issues, particularly those that were struck about A. D. 22-23. These issues are divided into two distinct groups: six types in the name of Tiberius; and three types in the name of his son and heir, Drusus Caesar.

The coins bearing Tiberius' name, struck during his 24th year of tribunician power (26 June, 22 through 25 June, 23) consist of three sestertii, two dupondii, and one as. The sestertii honor his mother Livia, his adoptive father Augustus, and Tiberius himself. The asses bear portrait heads of Tiberius (see Figure 3). Each of the two dupondii bears the portrait of a woman on the obverse, one with the legend IVSTITIA, the other with the legend SALVS AVGVSTA (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. AE dupondii issued by Tiberius, A.D. 22-23. (Left) Bareheaded portrait, almost certainly of Livia, with
legend SALVS AVGVSTA, signifying "Augustan health." (Notice the very serpentine tendril behind the ear - perhaps a
reference to the snake commonly associated with Salus/Hygeia), courtesy Numismatica Ars Classica . (Right) Diademed head
of woman representing Iustitia with apparently idealized features, courtesy Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Figure 3. AE asses of (left) Tiberius (A. D. 22-23) and (right) Drusus Caesar (A. D. 23).
Left photo courtesy Freeman and Sear, right photo courtesy Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.


The second series of coins bears the titles of Tiberius' son Drusus. These are of three types: a sestertius with crossed cornucopias, each topped by the head of a male infant (assumed to represent Tiberius Gemellus and Germanicus Gemellus, the twin sons of Drusus and his wife Livilla); an as with the head and titles of Drusus himself (see Figure 3); and a dupondius with the obverse legend PIETAS and the portrait of a veiled woman (see Figure 1).

Drusus' status as first in line to the throne was recognized in the spring of A.D. 22 (23 April (Footnote 1) ) by the grant of tribunician power. This power was renewed, almost certainly, in April of 23. All of the coins struck in Drusus' name were issued during his second year of tribunician power, as is shown by the legends TR POT II or TRIBVN POTEST ITER (from iterum, meaning "again", "for a second time"). This means that they were first minted after 23 April, A. D. 23 (not in 22 as is often stated) and probably discontinued soon after Drusus' death on 14 September, 23.


The identity of the veiled woman on the PIETAS dupondii of Drusus has been the subject of much speculation over the years. To the Romans, pietas stood for the respect and sense of duty that one feels for the gods, one's parents and other family members, and for one's country. These qualities in an individual are often represented in art by the wearing of a veil. The veil also appears on portraits to designate acts of worship, or on portraits of the deceased.

As there is no identification of the portrait other than the title PIETAS on the coins, it is possible that it was not based on a specific individual. Some scholars maintain that the features (specifically the near continuity of the line of the nose and forehead and the rounded chin) echo the classical ideal too closely for the portrait to represent a real person. However, it has proven irresistible to speculate that a woman of the imperial house served as the model, and there are problems with the "just Pietas" theory:

Figure 4. AE dupondius issued by Drusus under Tiberius, A.D. 23. Note subtle signs
of aging - slightly sagging cheek and jowl. Photo courtesy The
New York Sale IV (lot 348), Dmitry Markov Coins and
, Baldwin's Auctions Ltd., and M & M Numistmatics, Ltd.

On the assumption that Pietas is portrayed with the features of an actual woman, several imperial candidates have been put forward as the model. Traditionally, the portrait has been identified with Livia, and there have also been arguments for Drusus' wife, Livilla, Agrippina the Elder, and Antonia, the mother of Livilla. I would like to toss another name into the ring: Vipsania Agrippina, daughter of the great Marcus Agrippa, ex-wife of Tiberius, and the mother of Drusus.


Vipsania Agrippina was one of the most prominent women of her time. If the PIETAS portrait does represent her, then the aes issues of 22-23 would present the imperial line very neatly: the emperor and his mother and (adoptive) father; the Caesar and his mother, father, and sons. This would account for the entire series of coins except for the idealized IVSTITIA dupondius, which may have been a nod to the other branch of the imperial family - the line of Germanicus, whose supposed murderer had recently been brought to justice.

Vipsania might have become the second empress of Rome, after Livia. However, her husband Tiberius was forced by Augustus to divorce her in 11 B. C., even though she was pregnant at the time. The historian Suetonius reports that Tiberius regretted this divorce and that, on one occasion when he accidentally caught sight of her, he followed her with a sad expression and even burst into tears. Precautions were taken to avoid future meetings of the two. (3)

It was customary in Roman society for children to remain with their father after a divorce. Even Livia's sons lived with their natural father after she married Augustus (then Octavian). However, there is evidence that Drusus remained with Vipsania after Tiberius renounced her. The historian Cassius Dio states that Tiberius hated her new husband, Gaius Asinius Gallus, because he had "claimed" Drusus as his son.(4) If this was true, then Drusus (who was only 2 or 3 when his parents divorced) may have been especially close to his mother. There are a number of arguments in favor of identifying the portraits on Drusus' PIETAS dupondii with Vipsania. These are summarized below:

Figure 5. (Left) AE PIETAS dupondius, struck by Marcus Agrippa's grandson, Drusus. (Right) AE as
of Marcus Agrippa, father of Vipsania, struck by Caligula. Notice the similarities: long nose that continues the line of
the forehead, flared nostril, deeply set eyes, jutting chin, and heavy, straight brow line.
(Both pictures courtesy of Freeman and Sear)

One of the most intriguing, and problematical, lines of evidence in favor of the Vipsania identification concerns the resemblance of the coin portraits to her existing portraits in marble. There is one portrait (from Leptis Magna, Figure 7, top right) that is generally accepted as Vipsania, partly because it is associated with an inscription in her name. Two other portraits are considered likely to represent her (from Rusellae and Puteoli), and another (from Béziers) is identified as Vipsania by Dr. Susan Wood, Professor of Art History at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, because of its close resemblance to the Leptis Magna specimen. (15) (However, some writers prefer to see Julia or Octavia in the Béziers head.)

I would like to add another possible portrait of Vipsania to this list, from the famous Augustan monument, the Ara Pacis Augustae (see Figures 6 and 7). The north and south friezes of the Ara Pacis depict a religious procession that includes numerous members of the imperial family. This monument was voted in 13 B. C. (when Tiberius and Vipsania were still married and Marcus Agrippa was heir to the throne) and dedicated in 9 B. C. (after Agrippa's death, Vipsania's divorce, and Tiberius' marriage to Agrippa's widow, Julia).

Figure 6. The south frieze of the Ara Pacis Augustae in Rome. The author's identifications of the foreground figures:
A. Marcus Agrippa, B. Livia, C. Tiberius, D. Vipsania (holding the hand of Drusus II), E. Drusus I, F. Antonia the Younger
(w/Germanicus and a forgotten daughter(?)), G. Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. On the extreme right (not shown) is a blank space
where a portrait of Antonia the Elder probably once existed.
Photo reproduced by permission of Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome.

Uncertainties caused by the changes in the imperial family and the idealized character of the portraits have frustrated attempts to identify the individuals portrayed on the Ara Pacis. Was the "family portrait" taken at the time of the commission or the dedication of the work? The presence of a living Agrippa argues for the former interpretation; the ages of the children for the latter. In my opinion, the answer to this question is "both." The adults are shown as they appeared in 13 B. C., and the children as they would have been at the dedication in 9 B. C. (The older they appeared, the more viable as future heirs.)

Delicate matters were addressed with subtlety. Agrippa's wife Julia (daughter of Augustus) is shown on the north frieze, remote from her sequential husbands, Agrippa and Tiberius. (Agrippa is shown veiled, a possible allusion to his death). Behind Agrippa on the south frieze is a woman identified as Livia, followed by foreground figures representing Tiberius and a woman I propose is Vipsania (looking away from Tiberius) with her son Drusus. (The usual identification of this woman is Antonia the Younger.) To the right of Vipsania is Livia's younger son Drusus with, I propose, his wife Antonia the Younger (and this portrait resembles her much more closely than the "Vipsania" sculpture), their son Germanicus, and an unidentified girl. A young man behind Antonia is usually identified as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, whose wife Antonia the Elder probably occupied a now blank space at the far right of the frieze.

My identification of the woman behind Tiberius on the Ara Pacis as Vipsania may be controversial, but it fits perfectly with the historical context. If correct, then Livia is followed immediately by her two sons, their two wives, and her two grandsons. As the Ara Pacis portrait also closely resembles other images of Vipsania, I would like to put it forward with the head from Leptis Magna and the head from Béziers for comparison to the coin portraits (see Figure 7).

Figure 7. Possible portraits of Vipsania. (Top left) The Béziers head, identified as Vipsania by Dr. Susan E. Wood,
photo courtesy of Musée Saint-Raymond, Musée des Antiques de Toulouse, inventory number 30004, photograph by J. Rougé.
(Top center) Head of a woman from the south frieze of the Ara Pacis Augustae in Rome, identified by the author as Vipsania,
photo reproduced by permission of Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome, Neg. 72.2403. (Top right) Portrait from Lepcis Magna,
generally agreed to depict Vipsania, courtesy Tripoli Archeological Museum, from Africa Italiana 8 (1941). (Bottom left to right)
Portraits from PIETAS dupondii issued in the name of Drusus, A. D. 23, courtesy of (l. to r.) The New York Sale IV,
Dmitry Markov Coins and Medals, Baldwin's Auctions Ltd., and M & M Numistmatics, Ltd., Freeman and Sear,
Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

The three marble portraits have several features in common with each other and with the coin portraits. The resemblance is especially strong in the angles of the face - the shape of the eyes and mouth, comparatively thick lips, straight brow, slightly jutting chin, full cheek and high cheekbone, and fairly heavy features for a woman. The angle of the forehead and nose is certainly different in the marble portraits than on the coins. However, this may reflect an attempt to assimilate the coin portraits to Vipsania's father, Marcus Agrippa, or it may be due to a partial idealization of features.

Pictures are worth more than words and the reader is invited to reach his or her own conclusions. In my view, there is some resemblance between all of the portraits in Figure 7. When considered in conjunction with the historical and contextual arguments for Vipsania as the model for the coins, these similarities may be persuasive.

Figure 8. Provincial AE issues that seem to copy the PIETAS dupondii. (Top left) AE-20 of Corinth, Greece, issued 32-33,
Amandry XVI20. Dh RIf1, courtesy Numismatik Lanz München. (Top center) AE-24 of Dium (or Pella), Macedonia,
PIETAS (AVGVSTA), struck after 23, Sear, GIC, 195, RPC 1543/8 (this example), courtesy Numismatik Lanz München.
(Top right) AE-22 of Agrippia, Cimmerian Bosporus, RPC 1935. On the reverse is a ship's prow, presumably referring
to the naval victories of Vipsania's father, for whom the city was named. Perhaps the portrait represents his daughter?
(Bottom left) AE-31 of Caesaraugusta, Spain, PIETATIS AVGVSTAE, struck under Tiberius, RPC 363, courtesy Classical
Numismatic Group, Inc. (Bottom center) AE-22 of Thessalonica, Macedonia, ANTONIA SEBASTI, struck under Caligula,
RPC 1573, courtesy Dr. Busso Peus Nachf. Münzhandlung. (Bottom right) AE-36 of Nicomedia, Bithynia, RPC 2073, struck
under Claudius, 47-48, courtesy Freeman and Sear.


Livia - As the wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius, Livia was the only woman to have received the title Augusta up to the time the PIETAS dupondii were minted and was without question the ranking woman of the Empire. Livia was almost certainly portrayed on the SALVS AVGVSTA dupondii issued by Tiberius, which seem to have celebrated her recovery from a serious illness in 22. On these coins (see Figure 2), the portrait is quite individualized and resembles her image on numerous statues and gems - but not the portrait on the PIETAS coins. Also, it does not seem that Drusus would have needed to honor his grandmother Livia while Tiberius was honoring her twice already (the SALVS AVGVSTA dupondius and a sestertius showing Livia's carpentum.)

Antonia - Antonia was the mother of Livilla, Germanicus, and Claudius, and was one of the most admired women in the Empire. Her association with Pietas would make sense as she had lost her elder son Germanicus in A. D. 19 and was often celebrated for her devotion to duty and family, especially to her deceased husband Drusus I. However, it seems unlikely that Drusus would pay tribute to someone outside of his direct line when he had only recently been designated Tiberius' heir and was anxious to establish himself and his sons as the future rulers of the Empire. Honoring Antonia would have tended to support the dynastic claims of Drusus' nearest rivals for the throne, the sons of Antonia's son Germanicus.

Agrippina the Elder - As the widow of Germanicus, Agrippina could well have been associated with Pietas at this time. Drusus was on good terms with his sister-in-law (through adoption) and with her sons. On the other hand, as with Antonia, it seems unlikely that Drusus would give such prominence to a member of a rival branch of the imperial family. Also, bronzes (16) issued by Corinth in 32/33 (see Figure 8, upper left) that seem to echo Drusus' dupondii were struck at a time when Agrippina was in exile (she died in 33) and in very ill favor with the emperor Tiberius.

Why not Livilla? - Most of the recent speculation about the identity of Pietas has focused on Drusus' wife.(17) At the time of the coin's issue, she was in good favor for having recently (A. D. 19) given birth to twin boys. It seems reasonable that Drusus would honor as much of his family as he could on his coins. However, though this identification has become widely accepted in recent years, there are compelling arguments against it:

Figure 9. Two AE PIETAS dupondii issued by Titus, A.D. 80-81. (left) Courtesy Harlan J.
Berk, Ltd., (right)
Harlan J. Berk, Ltd., (right) Courtesy Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Figure 10. Portrait of Livilla as Ceres from a cameo in Berlin, used with permission of the
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, after a photograph by Jutta Tietz-Glagow.


Roman imperial coins were an important medium for reporting events and official policies to the public. In addition, they conveyed information about the imperial family, such as births, deaths, marriages, special honors, comings and goings, deifications, and promotions. Thus, for the aes coins of A. D. 22-23, the twins sestertius announced the birth and prospering of imperial heirs, the carpentum sestertius observed honors bestowed on Livia, the SALVS AVGVSTA dupondius celebrated Livia's recovery from illness, the as of Drusus recognized his recently acquired powers and position as heir to the throne, and the IVSTITIA dupondius presumably marked the punishment of the murderer of Germanicus.(21)

But what event or information was reported by the PIETAS dupondii? I propose that Drusus used these coins to express his pietas, his devotion for his deceased mother, Vipsania Agrippina. Though the truth may never be known for certain, it seems to this writer that the iconographic and historical evidence points to Vipsania, the mother of the Caesar in whose name the coins were minted and the beloved former wife of the emperor, Tiberius.

AFTERTHOUGHTS (January 2006)

After scrutinizing many more examples of this coin, I remain on the fence about this question, and have even tended a bit more toward the "just a personification" idea lately. However, I remain convinced that the coin portrait HAS to be Vipsania IF it is modelled on any real person. Some of the portraits seem pretty clearly to be idealized and no one in particular while others are quite individualized - and there is some consistency of features among the latter, as I observed above. So I think the answer may be "both" - it's just Pietas officially, but some of the celators (knowing that Drusus was mourning his mother) applied her features to the portrait. Maybe.


Figure 11. Frontal view of the Béziers head (left) and a restored view by the author (right), with a PIETAS dupondius
in foreground. Sculpture: courtesy Musée Saint-Raymond, Musée des Antiques de Toulouse, inventory number 30004,
photograph by J. Rougé, drawing copyright Jasper Burns.


Figure 12. Probable portrait of Vipsania, restored by Jasper Burns (copyright 2005).
Sculpture from Lepcis Magna, courtesy Tripoli Archeological Museum, from Africa Italiana 8 (1941).


SOURCES (partial list)

Barrett, Anthony A,. Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2002.
----, Caligula: The Corruption of Power, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1989.
Burnett, A., Amandry, M., Ripollęs, P., Roman Provincial Coinage, Volume 1, London and Paris, 1992.
Cary, M., et al, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1961.
Cassius Dio, Roman History.
Grant, Michael, Roman History From Coins, Cambridge University Press, 1958.
Kleiner, Diana E. E., Roman Sculpture, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1992.
Levick, Barbara, Tiberius the Politician, Routledge, London and New York, 1986.
----, Claudius, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1990.

Rose, Charles Brian, Dynastic Commemoration and Imperial Portraiture in the Julio-Claudian Period, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997.
Sear, David R., Greek Imperial Coins and Their Values, London, 1982.
Spaeth, Barbette Stanley, The Roman Goddess Ceres, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1996.
Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars.
Tacitus, Annals.
Wood, Susan E., Imperial Women: A Study in Public Images, 40 B.C.-A.D. 68, Leiden: Brill, 1999 (also personal communication).


  1. Barrett, Anthony, Caligula: The Corruption of Power, p. 17, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1989; Tacitus, Annals, III, 56.1.
  2. Also, see the specimen on Plate 45 in Kent and Hirmer's Roman Coins, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1978.
  3. Suetonius, Tiberius, 7; Barrett, Anthony A., Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome, p. 41.
  4. Cassius Dio, LVII.2.7, Gallus sparred with Tiberius in the Senate until A. D. 30 when he was arrested and imprisoned for three years, culminating in his death by starvation.
  5. A near contemporary example of this use of Pietas to advertise imperial devotion to a deceased ancestor is the sestertius struck by Caligula (RIC Gaius 36) in honor of his great grandfather, Augustus. A veiled and seated Pietas appears on the obverse of these coins; the reverse shows a veiled Caligula dedicating a temple to the deified Augustus.
  6. Living empresses were sometimes shown on coin reverses wearing the veil while conducting worship (e.g. Julia Domna with the Vestal Virgins). Silver coins minted at the official mint in Cappadocian Caesarea under Nero with veiled busts of Agrippina II might be considered exceptions to the rule for imperial issues.
  7. Tacitus, Annals, IV.1; Wood, Susan E., Imperial Women: A Study in Public Images, 40 B.C.-A.D. 68, p. 327, Leiden: Brill, 1999. Three of the five or six sons of Vipsania and Gaius Asinius Gallus attained the office of consul. Also, portraits of Gaius Asinius Gallus as proconsul appeared on coins of Temnus in the Roman province of Asia in 5 B.C. (RPC 2447) and his name appeared as moneyer on some of the coins of Augustus.
  8. Tacitus, Annals, III.
  9. Rose, Charles Brian, Dynastic Commemoration and Imperial Portraiture in the Julio-Claudian Period, p. 65.
  10. Ibid, p. 116.
  11. Ibid, p. 65.
  12. Wood, Susan E., Imperial Women: A Study in Public Images, 40 B.C.-A.D. 68, pp. 71-72. A very similar portrait, reportedly found at Caere, Italy, is usually identified as Julia, but probably also represents Vipsania (see Rose, Charles Brian, Dynastic Commemoration and Imperial Portraiture in the Julio-Claudian Period, Plate 43, also Wood, p. 72, on the "Béziers -Copenhagen" portrait type.)
  13. Antonia (RPC 1573, Sear GIC 490); Agrippina I (See Grant, Michael, Roman History From Coins, plate 28, number 4, Cambridge University Press, 1958.); Livia (RPC 362-363, 642-643, 1542-1543, 1570).
  14. The only other deceased imperial woman in good standing at this time was Augustus' sister Octavia. However, she died 33 years previously and neither Tiberius nor Drusus were descended from her.
  15. Wood, Susan E., Imperial Women: A Study in Public Images, 40 B.C.-A.D. 68, pp. 71-72.
  16. Amandry XVI20. Dh RIf1, XVI12. Di RIb9
  17. See Matt Kreuzer's article in The Celator, February 1995.
  18. Suetonius, Tiberius, 62; Tacitus, Annals, V.
  19. Tacitus, Annals, V.
  20. with the questionable exception of aurei and denarii (RIC2 219-220) that feature an unidentified, seated woman holding a scepter and branch, whom some have identified with Livia.
  21. Another possibility, which does not necessarily exclude a reference to Germanicus, is that the coins marked the 10th anniversary of the dedication on 8 January, A. D. 13 of the Temple of Iustitia in Rome, recorded by Ovid (Epistulae ex Ponto, 3.6.25).

Read about my novel - VIPSANIA: A Roman Odyssey


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