Roma Numismatics Ltd > Auction XXXAuction date: 21 March 2024
Lot number: 422

Price realized: 18,500 GBP   (Approx. 23,436 USD / 21,577 EUR)   Note: Prices do not include buyer's fees.
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Lot description:

Nero Æ Sestertius. Rome, AD 62-68. NERO CLAVDIVS CAESAR AVG GER P M TR P IMP P P, laureate head to left / Port of Ostia: seven ships within harbour; at top is pharus surmounted by statue of Neptune; below is reclining figure of Tiber, holding rudder and dolphin; to left, crescent-shaped pier with portico, terminating with figure sacrificing at altar and building; to right, crescent-shaped row of breakwaters or slips; AVGVSTI above, SPOR OST C below. RIC I 182; BN 291 (same rev. die); BMCRE 135 var. (seven ships). 28.32g, 37mm, 6h.

Near Extremely Fine. Scarce.

Ex Jesus Vico S.A., Auction 162, 12 July 2022, lot 131 (hammer: EUR 22,000);
Ex Numismatic Fine Arts Inc., Auction XVIII, Beverly Hills, 11 April 1987, lot 441;
Ex Bank Leu AG, Auction 33, 3 May 1983, lot 27.

This precise and intricately designed masterpiece of numismatic design depicts on its reverse an exquisite interpretation of the recently completed harbour at Ostia, begun by Claudius in AD 42 and simply named Portus ('Harbour'). The porticos of the harbour curve around the left of the image and the breakwaters the right. A statue of Neptune, god of the sea, watches over the harbour from a lighthouse and at the entrance of the harbour the reclining river god Tiber is depicted holding a rudder and dolphin. These details are just the frame of this elaborate design, which has as its central focus a series of ships coming and going from the harbour supplying goods and grain to the people of Rome.

A site of tremendous importance, Ostia was once (as its name, derived from the Latin word for mouth, os, suggests) the seaport of the city of Rome located at the mouth of the Tiber, through which goods could arrive from overseas into the city. Settled first in the 7th Century BC as most likely the first Roman colonia (colony), it shows signs of continuous development into the Imperial period, by which time its primary importance was as the site through which the huge overseas grain imports reached the city of Rome, long since swollen beyond any ability to self-sustain. Yet it had a debilitating feature: sandbars, which prevented large ships from penetrating beyond its coastline and meant that goods had to be transported from vessel to vessel in order to reach the city. Both Augustus and Julius Caesar had plans to expand the harbour and render it more useful for the centre of the empire. Yet the considerable cost and engineering required to complete the works held them back and it was not until the reign of Claudius that the project was finally begun.

Suetonius describes the remarkable technological feats that Claudius initiated: "He constructed the harbour at Ostia by building curving breakwaters on the right and left, while before the entrance he placed a mole in deep water. To give this mole a firmer foundation, he first sank the ship in which the great obelisk had been brought from Egypt, and then securing it by piles, built upon it a very lofty tower after the model of the Pharos at Alexandria, to be lighted at night and guide the course of ships." (Suetonius, The Lives, 20.3). The marvel of the works was commented on far and wide, and it even appeared on Pliny the Elder's list of the 'most marvellous buildings in Rome', NH 36. 121125.

Ancient sources notably do not give any mention to Nero's involvement in the completion of the harbour although it has often been cited as the reason for the issue of this remarkable series of sestertii. The literary evidence, however, suggests that Portus was perhaps completed while Claudius was still ruling. Naomi A. Weiss ('The Visual Language of Nero's Harbour Sestertii', MAAR 58, 2013) argues convincingly instead that its primary message was of the security of the grain supply route under Nero, intended for an audience of the urban poor of Rome who would have dealt on a daily basis with low-denomination coins such as this. She states that the grain fleets' "protection by architectural, technological, military and divine means" is encompassed in the symbols of this depiction. While the oared war-galley in the top right leaves the harbour as an extension of Roman military force, suggesting armed protection of the grain convoys, a narrative of the continuous and secure travel of these convoys is told by the merchant ship entering into the bustling harbour from top left while others lie at anchor in the centre. Overseeing all of this with divine favour is the reclining Tiber, through whose benevolent waters the grain is able to flow upriver to the hungry masses.

Estimate: 17500 GBP