Numismatic Notes on Naso’s Nose

A communal digest

[Note to readers: The Antigone team approached three respected numismatists in Scotland, Germany and Canada. All expressed the firm opinion that, were Ovid’s nose prominently prominent by Roman standards, the numismatic record would exhibit portraits of the poet whose identity could be guaranteed, by crook or by hook – but we have nothing. Yet such an argumentum ex inviso is invidious at the best of times. We seek here to offer a more optimistic account on the basis of careful and considered argument.]

What can the evidence of Roman coins tell us about the nasal realities of Ovid’s proboscis? Let’s adduce some facts and work towards a conclusion, in the hope of elucidating the “New Naso“!

Fact #1The Greek myths that the New Naso treats are amply nosed in the numismatic record

Space only allows us to illustrate this self-evident truth with one example each, but that will more than suffice to demonstrate the claim.

Bronze drachm, Athens, AD 145-75 (Kroll 276)

Although it is unfortunate that the head of Theseus has been obscured as he kills the Minotaur (cf. New Naso, ll.2-5), it’s better news on the obverse: dressed, for reasons that remain disputed, as Athena, Theseus reveals the appreciable size of his nose.

Silver denarius struck under Commodus, Rome, AD 192 (Gnecchi 32 var, bust type)

The depiction of Hercules on the reverse is a standard handling of the Nemean Lion trope – save for the conspicuous hesitation on the artist’s part about how to handle the head. It is impossible to ventriloquise the thoughts of such a figure, but it would surprise and alarm if they were not along the lines of “How the hell am I going to be faithful to the substantial nose of the subject and yet not create a monstrosity? Let’s just leave it vague.” The reverse of the coin shows the Emperor Commodus as Hercules, wearing one of the fashionable lionheads of the time. Although his nose is not particularly remarkable, we would like you to remember that it is visible.

While it may be objected that these two coins come after the lifespan of Ovid (at least using the conventional deathdate), it is accepted by most numismatists that the crucial elements – bronze, silver, coinage, Hercules, Theseus, noses – were in circulation both at and before the time in which Ovid lived. That truth cannot be lightly disregarded.

Fact #2: Apollo, the god of poetic inspiration, is amply nosed in the numismatic tradition

Again, it would be otiose to overburden either the argument or the reader with plural examples, so let this do:

Silver quinarius, Rome, 97 BC (Crawford 333/1)

On the reverse, the goddess Victory, marked out as being ‘Homa’ (i.e. in ‘Roma’), stares at herself in a fancy mirror. More significantly, we have on the obverse the god Apollo in his most amply-nosed cultic form (Phoebus Nasutus), readily recognisable whenever the top of his laurel crown is joined to the tip of his nose by that telltale straight and unbroken line.

Fact #3: Roman Emperors after Ovid also start to appear in the quasi-divine guise of Imperator Nasutus

We acknowledge that it is methodologically unsound to consider the coinage of Augustus in our analysis, because his intimate interplay with and banishment of Ovid means that their scents were cross-contaminated. We shall therefore focus on the post-Ovidian emperors. And when we do that something remarkable emerges: the post-Ovidian emperors are found to have depicted themselves not never as the Imperator Nasutus figure. In fact, we may take any emperor at random, such as Nerva:

Silver denarius struck under Nerva, Rome, AD 98 (Cohen 98): note that the reverse places the hands above a rostrum, early Latin slang for the nose.

Or Domitian:

Silver denarius struck under Domitian, Rome, AD 91 (RIC 719)

Or, to choose a random Gordian, the Third:

Bronze tetrassarion, Thrace, AD 238-44 (Varbanov 748): on the obverse Gordian III gazes at his wife Tranquillina, whose expression regrettably cannot be gauged; on the reverse Athena clutches the tip of a hasta suggestively.

The Imperator Nasutus cult thus pervades imperial coinage of the first through to the third centuries, especially in Rome. Before we move to the obvious conclusion, let us bring in the final relevant piece of evidence.

Fact #4: While it is commonly supposed that no likeness of Ovid survives from his lifetime, another line of thought is possible.

No bust from the Augustan period has been conclusively identified as Ovid. We have seen no candidate that is probable. But in a world where noses are knocked off busts routinely, either by design (‘beaking’) or by error (‘conking’), we must face the likelihood that there are in fact many Nasonesd among surviving statuary but that, bereft of his nose, any Ovid cannot be identified. Far from seeing this absence of evidence as reason to suspend judgement, we see it as highly suggestive: if bigger noses are more likely to suffer beaking by the outrage they provoke, or to suffer conking by getting clipped accidentally, an amply-nosed Ovid becomes more likely with every new noseless statue we find.

Have we been overlooking Ovid’s nose all along?

Some Hasty Conclusions:

Ovid lived in an age where, every day, he would see coins that showed his heroes – Theseus, Hercules, Cocles, Apollo – as fellow owners of a feature to which he could relate in spades. But he also lived in an age when none of his contemporaries, such as Augustus, allowed themselves to be depicted in a similar way. Yet Ovid decided that he would continue to write poetry regardless: while he seemed to be respectful to Augustus, his subversive poems such as Ars Amatoria and – evidently enough – the poem from which De Naso comes[1] showed a different reality. Augustus cottoned onto this and banished Ovid and his nose as far as possible out of sight. But Ovid could still sing to the heavens, where Phoebus Nasutus could grant his prayer for poetic immortality. Subsequent emperors were spellbound and sought to honour Ovid’s contribution to art as both heroic and divine. What better way to do that than to circulate an image of themselves – not just as nasutus than as Nasonicus?


1 Our own hypothesis is of a twelve-book Nasalia, charting the highs and lows, the bumps and scrapes, of his nose throughout the calendar year. In later life he attempted to broaden the scope with the Fasti, but his heart was no longer in it.