Arvind Murthy - Ancient Coinage

"When considering ancient portrait sculpture, most people think of life-size works done in marble or bronze but overlook ancient coins,
an area significant not only for the exceptional number of portrayals but also for the quality to be found in them
      - Marit Jentoft-Nilsen (Jentoft-Nilsen 6)

This brief passage just about sums up my thoughts on coinage in relation to portraiture before I took this class. I had never thought of coins as having anything but economic, monetary value, and if there was any artistic value in money it would have to be in paper money, which (with the glaring exception of our own country) sports a multitude of beautiful designs from all across the globe. There is, however, one problem with paper money – the bills in my wallet are worn out enough having been around only a few years – as a historical document, paper money is not the best option. Furthermore, paper money is more of a recent development, so the history it could give us is a somewhat recent one at that. Coinage, on the other hand, serves as a splendid document of history, not only dating back to ancient times but also being crafted out of materials that could withstand the passage of that time. Indeed, unlike tools or weapons, which many times have symbols on them or don’t have enough room for more detailed drawings, coins provide a fantastic framework on which not only symbols but more involved drawings can be made…like portraits, for example! Coins provide wonderful insight into many aspects of history, the most obvious being economic history but also political and, to our luck, art history.

The first coins were made out of a material called electrum, an alloy of gold, silver, and traces of other metals that occurs naturally. Dating from before the 6th century BC, these first coins were few and far between and contained mostly symbols rather than the future ubiquitous portraits. These early coins are fascinating, not only for the surprising amount of detail contained in the drawings of the symbols but the somewhat irregular shape of the coins as well – it seems they hadn’t yet perfected the circular shape! The portrait coins are what interests us, though, and one of the earliest I could find a picture of came out of Athens, one of the most important early coin producers. It dates from the 6th century BC, and bears the head of Athena on one side and an owl on the reverse with the name of the city. The owl is significant because it is Athena’s sacred bird. These early Greek city-states were very proud, independent entities and symbols like the owl were their way of differentiating coins of one city-state from another. Also noteworthy of this time is the usage of a god/goddess rather than the actual ruler of the city-state as the portrait on the coin. This can perhaps be at least somewhat attributed to the artistic style of the time, which was still in the idealistic/stylized phase – what could be more perfect than the head of a great god or goddess gracing your city-state’s coinage?

5th Century B.C.
portrait, Athena
Reverse side

The portrait of Athena is very much indicative of the time period in which it was made – not too idealistic, with hardly any detail on her face. Her headdress/helmet, though, does exhibit a good deal of detail, although much of it is obscured by the reflection in the lighting. Her eyes and lips seem to be somewhat exaggerated, somewhat bigger than in real life, giving her an overall impression like that of a cartoon character. The shape of the coin is also somewhat irregular. This particular coin offered me a great opportunity to see how the same coin design evolved over time; another reference has the same coin as the first, but from three different, successive time periods. The earliest, from 495 to 480 BC, has much of the same qualities as the previous one I just described. The second coin, dated from 449 to 413 BC, shows markedly more detail in its engravings although being only 50-75 years younger than the previous. Part of this may be attributed to the superior condition of the second coin, but I thought I could notice more detail and realism in general. The facial features are not so exaggerated, the helmet is more finely detailed and the owl is infinitely easier to recognize than in the older coin. Even the owl’s individual feathers around his head are noticeable, an amazing achievement while still remembering this is from about 2500 years ago. The third coin, dating from 160 to 157 BC, represents a quantum leap over the other in terms of both realism and detail, reflecting the Hellenistic artistic style of the time. The features of Athena are very lifelike and proportionally closer to real life. One can almost detect a hint of expression in her face, even if that expression is a serious one. Her helmet is exquisitely detailed with clearly recognizable olive leaves and detailed hair. Even the owl has more detail, with many more Greek letters engraved around it still readable.

(1 coin)

(2 coins)

Helios coin portrait
Helios, or Apollo
eagle, ancient greek coin

Siphnos, 540 BC - 525 BC


Let us try and trace the same evolution with a different set of coins. The first weblink {no longer online; see alternate image, Helios, above} is to another one if the oldest coins I could find a picture of. This particular coin was struck in Siphnos, another Greek city, around the fifth century BC, and bears the head of Apollo on one side and an eagle on the other. Apollo is another famous Greek god, perhaps again reflecting the stylized, somewhat idealistic style of the Archaic period, although this practice was continued in subsequent years as well. The coin itself is somewhat irregularly shaped, another sign of its age. Apollo’s features, much like the first coin of Athena we looked at earlier, are somewhat exaggerated, with little detail, especially in the facial area. His eyebrow is very thick, his eye is huge, his lips almost swollen. The other side of the coin has an eagle in flight, with some detail given to the feathers and wings – note the differentiation between the feather of the eagle’s body and wings - but still not much overall. Part of this can be attributed to the coin’s wearing away with time, but for the most part we can conclude that there is minimal detail and realism portrayed in this early coin.

The second weblink {no longer online; see alternate image, Athena, below}contains the next two coins – the first hails from about 425 to 400 BC and is from a slightly different area than the others – Lucania, in Italy. However, Greek influences abound, as one side of the coin holds a portrait of Athena. Athena’s features are more realistic than Apollo’s in the previous coin, with less exaggeration of features and very close to the correct proportions, it seems. There is more detail in her helmet – one can make out olive branch on the helmet very clearly – and overall much more realism.

Athena - obverse; Owl - reverse
Athena with the Attic helmet decorated with olive tree; owl with an olive branch

Even the bull on the other side is somewhat realistic; although the fish is hard to see, one can easily make out the Greek letters, a display of amazing detail. Another coin was struck around 281 to 272 BC {see alternate image, below}, and comes from Calabria, also in Italy. This coin demonstrates another important aspect of Hellenistic art – that of movement. One side of the coin shows Taras, the founder of the city, riding a dolphin with a bow and arrow in his hands. He is not posing; this is a portrait of a man in motion, and while it is somewhat hard to see, one can make out extremely delicate work in crafting the detail of the bodies in motion. The reverse side shows a boy son a horse being crowned by another man – a reference to horse racing. Even here, although the coin is somewhat more worn away, the detail is admirable and the sense of motion readily apparent.

Taras coin
302-281 BC; Taras carries cup & trident

The evolution in the above coins is a definite one: The stylized, somewhat more simple style of the Archaic period in which the very first coins were struck gives way to the somewhat more detailed, yet still idealistic style of the Classical period in which coin production began to flourish which in turn progresses even further to the extremely detailed, lifelike, often motion-filled renderings of the Hellenistic period in which one can almost begin to detect a hint of expression in the characters’ faces. I hope that my admittedly elementary analysis of the coins did not come across as judgmental – the stylized early coins have just as much artistic value as the later, detailed ones and I admire the craftsmanship in both highly. My only intention was to demonstrate that the evolution of styles we discussed in class could be seen quite wonderfully in the coinage of the times.


Jentoft-Nilsen, Marit. Ancient Portraiture: The Sculptor’s Art in Coins and Marble. Richmond: Virginia Museum, 1980.
Starr, Chester G. Athenian Coinage 480-449 B.C. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Gardner, Percy. A History of Ancient Coinage: 700-300 B.C. Chicago: Ares Publishers, 1918.
Carradice, Ian. Greek Coins. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.