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Portraits on coins: A humanising force

The lifelike representation of the human face was a major focus for artists during the Greek Archaic and Classical periods. Their images showed gods or heroes, the Platonic Forms of divinity or beauty. Following the victories of Alexander III, we begin to find on statues and coins depictions of the rulers of Syria, Egypt and Bactria with individualised features: real people rather than abstractions.

The last years of Republican Rome and the early centuries of the Empire saw the highest degree of sophistication in portraits, from stone busts and painted mummy cases to coins. A reincarnated Nero or Nerva would be instantly recognisable them with little difficulty. No other period before the Renaissance, depicted the enigmatic faces of real individuals as if they were still alive.

The nymph Larissa; drachm of Larissa, Thessaly, struck c.365-356 BC

On some rare occasions, this realism has conferred immortality on even ordinary citizens. At the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Cominia Tyche, the ‘chaste and loving wife’ of Lucius Annius Festus is as alive today in her funerary altar with a crooked smile and round chin as during her brief sojourn in this world at the end of the first century AD.

This window into the past was closed all too soon. Some historians attribute the change to an increasingly totalitarian and theocratic nature of Roman society. For example, the image of the emperor in mosaics and on coins became a hieratic facing icon flanked by crosses during the reign of Justinian I (527-65), who closed the only remaining forum for freedom of thought, the Platonic Academy in Athens.

Pompey the Great; denarius of Sextus Pompey, struck in Sicily, 40-39BC 

Similarly, portraiture on British coinage also sank as low as that of any of the successor states to the Western Roman Empire with the facing busts of the short-cross and long-cross coinages of the Plantagenets.

The evocative authenticity of the coins as historical objects is intense and compelling and exact portraiture is a valuable achievement of civilisation: a humanising force. Even when technical skill has not been equal to the task, the attempt has still been made over the centuries to depict faces – from Zeus and Athena to ordinary citizens.

This blog is an abridged version of an article by James Booth, first published in Baldwin’s Fixed Price List, Winter 2018, p. 3-7.

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