By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
It hardly needs repeating here that the gap between ancient and modern sensibilities is unbridgeable.
— Caroline Vout (2007)
FOR MUCH OF the year, the Mediterranean climate is hot, and it makes a certain amount of sense for clothing to be optional. Every bit of thread in the ancient world was spun by hand; every scrap of fabric was woven by hand. Even the simplest ancient clothing was costly, something we easily forget, living in a world of cheap, machine-made fabrics. The Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus threw dice to see who would get His tunic; even torn and bloodstained, it was worth something.
Our visual image of ancient people is strongly influenced by famous statues that survive from antiquity, and many of these statues are naked. But as the eminent classicist Larissa Bonfante observes, nudity in ancient Greece was a costume, one that served specialized functions, and when we understand this it helps us to interpret the nude images we see on ancient coins.
Nudity was particularly a costume of gods and heroes, as examples of physical perfection. Some of the earliest examples of nudity on archaic (prior to 500 BCE) coins come from Greek cities in southern Italy. Silver staters of Kaulonia depict the youthful god Apollo striding naked, accompanied by a small daimon (nature spirit) and a stag.
The town of Poseidonia celebrated its namesake, the god of the sea, with a similar stater showing the god brandishing his trident. These coins are unusually thin, being struck with “incuse” reverse dies that mirror the obverse image. The naked god’s long hair is elaborately braided and a pleated cloak is draped across his back. On Harlan Berk’s list of the 100 greatest ancient coins, the Poseidonia stater is #26.
Nudity was also the characteristic costume of Greek athletes. According to one legend, this custom originated with the 15th Olympic games in 720 BCE when Orsippus, a runner from Megara, lost his loincloth during the foot race. Still naked, he was crowned as the winner.
One of the earliest Greek coins to depict a nude athlete is a very rare silver “triple siglos” from the Aegean island of Cos, c. 480 BCE, depicting a discus thrower, with a tripod (a common prize in competitions) in the background. The coin stands close to the transition between the stiff, stylized Archaic style and the more naturalistic Classical style in sculpture.
The cataloguer’s vivid description is worth repeating:
The sense of animation and energy portrayed on the obverse of this coin has been achieved through truly exceptional and original die engraving talent. It is the most successful rendering of an athlete ever to appear on an ancient Greek coin. The moment that the athlete has rotated his body back, clutching the discus above him, and just reaching the point when he is about to fling himself forward and release the discus, has been superbly captured.
A common example of Classical style in representing nude athletes is a silver stater of Aspendos, on the southern coast of modern Turkey. Two muscular naked wrestlers bend to face one other, as one grasps the arm of his opponent. This type was issued from c. 380 to 325 BCE.
Another popular coin with classic nude figures is the silver stater of Tarentum, on the “heel” of the Italian “boot”. On the obverse, a young warrior naked except for the round shield slung across his back sits bareback (literally!) on a prancing horse. On the reverse, another naked youth rides on a dolphin – according to legend the city’s founder, Taras, was saved from drowning by a friendly dolphin. This type, struck from c. 480 down to c. 200 BCE, was the most abundant circulating coinage in southern Italy, and there are over 100 varieties. The finest style Tarentum stater, struck c. 340 – 325 BCE, is #45 on Berk’s list of the 100 greatest ancients.
During the “Hellenistic” era (c. 323 – 30 BCE) the cool, rather detached style of Classical art gave way to more emotional and powerfully direct imagery of the human body. Sculptors gained technical mastery over the depiction of muscles in motion or at rest, and this was reflected on coins of rulers who demanded the highest standards of artistry on their money.
A Macedonian king, Demetrius Poliorcetes (Demetrius “The Besieger”), celebrated a naval victory over his rivals with a magnificent silver tetradrachm. The reverse bears a full-length image of the sea god Poseidon standing naked, seen from behind. The god draws his right arm back, about to hurl his trident, while extending his left arm wrapped in a pleated cloak.
Demetrius, who ruled 306 – 283 BCE, was the first living ruler to put his own portrait on his coinage. The reverse of this type shows a naked muscular Poseidon at rest, slightly bent, resting one foot on a rock.
In contrast to Poseidon’s rippling musculature, the softer, almost feminine, naked body of the god Apollo was often featured on the coinage of the Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty. On the reverse of a tetradrachm of Seleucus II (246 – 226 BCE) Apollo leans languidly on a tripod, checking the straightness of an arrow held in his extended right hand.
While admiring many aspects of Greek civilization, sternly puritanical Republican Romans were scandalized by the custom of athletic nudity and the way the Greeks depicted naked gods. Full nudity is very rarely encountered on coins of the Roman republic. An exception is the heroic demigod Hercules, who is usually naked except for the lion-skin draped over his arm. On the reverse of a denarius of the moneyer C. Vibius Varus (42 BCE), the hero stands in his characteristic pose, one hand resting on his massive club.
Naked gods and heroes became more common on Roman imperial coinage, as emperors came to consider themselves as patrons of Greek culture. Many of these images reproduced famous Greek statues that were copied and recopied for wealthy Roman collectors. A popular theme was “weary Hercules”, showing the hero seated on a rock, resting from his labors. A striking interpretation of this image appears on the reverse of a gold aureus struck for Hadrian c. 119 – 122 CE. A naked Hercules, legs spread wide, sits atop a pile of captured weapons and armor, his club in one hand and a distaff, symbolic of peaceful wool spinning, in the other.
The deranged emperor Commodus (177 – 192), villain of the film Gladiator (2000), considered himself to be a reincarnation of Hercules. Images of Hercules feature prominently on his extensive coinage. A magnificent large bronze medallion shows the naked hero standing between a tree and an altar, crowning himself.
As the empire declined, representation of human figures on the coinage became more coarse and less realistic. This was partly because mint engravers lost the skill to execute fine designs in classical style. And the tough generals who came to the throne simply preferred a more “brutalist” style for the images of their gods. A good example of such “post-Classical” art is an aureus of Diocletian from the eastern capital of Nicomedia in 294. The lumpy reverse image of Jupiter, with its exaggerated muscles, abandons any attempt to maintain the realistic proportions of classical sculpture, but clearly expresses the idea of power.
That sculptors were never tempted to explore woman as woman … was probably less a direct product of the impropriety of displaying a woman’s body, and more the product of women having no independent place in society: always they appeared as the daughters or wives of men… (Osborne, 84)
Female nudity is rare on ancient coins. As you might expect, an exception is the goddess of love. On Greek coins, Aphrodite is almost always modestly draped at least from the waist down (I could not find any counter-examples), but Roman representations of Venus can be rather more daring. A startling denarius of Octavian (32 or 31 BCE) shows Venus “seen from behind, half nude with drapery hanging low beneath her posterior.” Octavian’s adoptive father Julius Caesar claimed descent from Venus, so this reverse expressed a family connection.
A renowned and widely copied statue by the sculptor Praxiteles (c. 395 – 330 BCE), Aphrodite of Knidos, showed the goddess naked, covering her groin with one hand. In some copies, her other hand covers one breast, an image the Romans called Venus Pudica (“Modest Venus”). This representation was very popular on provincial coins honoring Roman empresses. An example is a large bronze (c. 202 – 205) from Pautalia in Thrace in the name of Plautilla, wife of Emperor Caracalla.
The most frequent appearance of female nudity on ancient coins is probably on Roman provincial issues showing the Charites, or “Three Graces”. Their mythology is complex and highly variable, but in the standard version they were daughters of Zeus, named Aglaea (“Splendor”), Euphrosyne (“Mirth”) and Thalia (“Good Cheer”). The definitive study of this coinage lists some 57 different issues from many different cities, extending from the reign of Antoninus Pius (138 – 161) down to Gallienus (253 – 268). A typical example shows the naked sisters frontally, standing and clasping each other’s arms.
Following the adoption of Christianity by Roman emperors in the fourth century, nudity in any form disappeared from the coinage. It would not reappear until the rediscovery of classical art during the Renaissance, 10 centuries later.
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 Vout, p 8.
 Matthew, 27:35; John, 19:23. The Greek text says chiton, a common everyday garment.
 Roma Numismatics Auction XIII, 23 March 2017, Lot 30. Realized approx. $50,106 USD.
 Heritage-Gemini Signature Auction, April 2011, Lot 80. Realized $80,000.
 CNG Auction 106, 13 September 2017, Lot 441. Realized $575.
 Ira and Larry Goldberg Auction 96, 14 Feburary 2017, Lot 1496. Realized $4,000.
 Heritage ANA Signature Sale, 3 August 2017, Lot 3005. Realized $17,000.
 Nomos AG Auction 14, 17 May 2017, Lot 100. Realized $4,086.
 Ira and Larry Goldberg, Auction 96, 14 February 2017, Lot 1771. Realized $6,250.
 CNG Triton XVI, 8 January 2013, Lot 849. Realized $600.
 NAC Auction 87, 8 October 2015, Lot 238. Realized $28,956.
 NAC Auction 97, 12 December 2016, Lot 169. Realized $63,976.
 Gemini Auction II, 11 January 2006, Lot 511. Realized $7,000.
 Roma Numismatics, E-sale 36, 27 May 2017, Lot 526. Realized $2,430.
 CNG Electronic Auction 351, 20 May 2015, Lot 476. Realized $380.
 Staal (2004)
 CNG Electronic Auction 156, 17 January 2007, Lot 108. Realized 311.
Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins. Atlanta (2008)
Boardman, John (ed.). The Oxford History of Classical Art. Oxford (1993)
Bonfante, Larissa. “Nudity as a Costume in Classical Art”, American Journal of Archaeology 93 (1989)
Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Princeton (1972)
Mouratidis, John. “The Origin of Nudity in Greek Athletics”, Journal of Sport History 12 (1985)
Osborne, Robin. Archaic and Classical Greek Art. Oxford (1998)
Staal, Mark. The Three Graces and Their Numismatic Mythology. Santa Clara, CA (2004)
Stevenson, Tom. “The Problem with Nude Honorific Statuary and Portraits in Late Republican and Augustan Rome”, Greece & Rome 45 (1998)
Vout, Caroline. Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome. Cambridge (2007)
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Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.