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CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series: Two Heads Are Better Than One


By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..

THE RICH VOCABULARY of numismatics has many terms to describe the things we see on coins. When a coin depicts two heads side by side, the usual description is “jugate busts”. The word derives from the Latin iuga, meaning “yoke”. Think of a pair of oxen yoked together.

Jugate busts are intended to represent a close relationship between the two figures: husband and wife, brother and brother, ruler and divinity. They also appear on some famous ancient cameos[1] (small carvings in semi-precious stone, prized as elite ornaments). This is not surprising, since the master artisans who engraved the finest coin dies often carved cameos and seals.


The curious obverse type has been variously interpreted as representing the Dioskouroi, the rising and setting sun, and the supposed two branches of the river Danube (or Ister).”
— David Sear[2]

The earliest coins bearing jugate busts are from the city of Istros (or Istrus) on the Black Sea coast in what is now Romania. The design is startling: two young male heads pressed closely together, one inverted[3].

Founded by Greek colonists in the seventh century BCE, Istros enjoyed a very prosperous trade because the coinage, dated to c. 400-280 BCE, is common. Collectible examples of the drachma (ranging from four to six grams) can be found for under US$100, and even high-grade examples rarely exceed US$400. The tiny silver obol with the same design is scarce but typically sells for even less.

The Ptolemies


Under the long reign of Ptolemy Philadelphos II (285–246 BCE), Egypt flourished economically and culturally. Abundantly supplied with gold from mines in the Eastern Desert and Nubia, Ptolemy issued a high-denomination gold piece weighing about 28 grams (more than three times as much as the typical 8.5 gram Hellenistic gold stater of the era). The contemporary name of the coin was mnaieion, but it is often called an oktodrachm (or octadrachm) since the weight was eight drachmas. One type, struck at Alexandria circa 265-246 BCE, bears jugate busts on both sides.

The obverse shows Ptolemy II and his second wife Arsinoe II, who was also his sister (Ptolemy II’s epithet Philadelphos means “sibling-loving”[4]). The inscription is a single word: adelphon (“siblings”). On the reverse, Ptolemy honored his parents: the founder of the dynasty, Ptolemy I, and his wife, Berenike I. The one-word inscription is theon (“gods”).

The CoinArchives Pro database lists 63 examples of this type, including some rare half-oktodrachms. In recent auctions, the type has sold for about $6,000 to $8,000, with outstanding examples bringing over $34,000.

Serapis was a “Greco-Egyptian” god invented as a patron of the Ptolemaic dynasty, one that would be equally acceptable to Greeks and Egyptians. His characteristic attribute is a modius worn on top of his head. The modius was a bucket used to measure grain; symbolism represents him as a protector of the food supply.


Isis was the ancient Egyptian goddess of nature and magic.

On 22 June 217, the army of Ptolemy IV defeated the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III at Raphia (near Gaza in Palestine). To celebrate this victory, Ptolemy IV issued a commemorative tetradrachm bearing the jugate busts of Serapis and Isis. This was a break with tradition since most Ptolemaic coins depict a ruler. CoinArchives Pro lists 24 examples of this handsome type. In recent auctions, examples have sold for $1,700 – $4,000, with one superb coin going for over $16,000.

The Seleucids

The history of the Seleucid Empire (312–63 BCE) is an epic full of intrigue, betrayal, revolt, assassination and assorted shenanigans worthy of pay-TV. The coinage inevitably reflects this.

Demetrius I (born 185 BCE) was raised as a hostage in Rome, to ensure the good behavior of his father, Seleucus IV (reigned 187-175 BCE), who was murdered by his finance minister. Demetrius’s uncle, Antiochus IV (reigned 175-164 BCE), avenged this murder, and seized the throne.

Demetrius escaped from Rome, killed the nine-year-old boy king Antiochus V (172-161 BCE) and put down a rebellion in Mesopotamia. To celebrate this victory, he overstruck silver tetradrachms on coins of the defeated rebels. Crudely struck, the rare type bears jugate busts of Demetrius and his wife Laodicea (or Laodike), who may have been his sister (there are a lot of Laodiceas in this period of history; the evidence is inconclusive[5]). An example of this coin brought over $20,000 in a 2014 Swiss auction[6].

alexbalDemetrius was killed by Alexander Balas, “of humble origin”, but he “gave himself out to be the son of Antiochus IV…”[7]. Alexander’s claim was supported by Rome and Ptolemaic Egypt. He married Kleopatra Thea, an Egyptian princess. The marriage was commemorated on handsome silver tetradrachms struck in 150 BCE at Ake in Palestine. Unusually, the wife’s profile appears in front of the husband’s, perhaps reflecting her higher rank. An exceptional example of this type sold for $25,000 in CNG Auction 99 (13 May 2015, Lot 339).

Antiochus VIII Grypus, son and murderer of Kleopatra Thea, ruled the disintegrating Seleucid Empire from 125 to 96 BCE. His queen, Tryphaena, bore five sons who also became kings. Two of them, Antiochus XI and Philip I, were probably fraternal twins. In the confused series of civil wars that plagued this period, these brothers issued joint-reign coinage in northern Syria, bearing their jugate busts. An example of this rare type sold for over $12,500 in a 2008 Swiss auction[8].

Roman Republic


Romans had a special reverence for the mythical twin brothers Castor and Pollux (known as the Dioscuri, or Dioskouroi), who appear in the sky as the constellation Gemini. They are frequently utilized on the coinage of the Republic, usually as caped and helmeted riders bearing spears, with stars above their heads. A particularly fine jugate bust of the twins appears on a silver denarius issued by Manius Fonteius, 108-107 BCE[9] .

The officials who presided over the mint of the Roman Republic liked to advertise their illustrious ancestry on the designs they chose for the coinage. In 88 BCE, Caius Censorinus placed on his silver denarius the jugate busts of two of Rome’s legendary early kings: Numa Pompilius (ruled 753-672 BCE) and his grandson Ancus Marcius (ruled 677–616 BCE). Presumably, these kings were counted among his ancestors. The type is relatively scarce (only 18 examples on CoinArchives Pro), and in recent auctions it has sold for prices in the range of $200-$600, depending on condition.

Octavia (lived 69 – 11 BCE) was the elder sister of Octavian, the man who would eventually become Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire. She married Mark Antony in October 40 BCE to seal a political alliance between the two men. She bore two daughters, Antonia “the Elder” and Antonia “the Younger”. Antony abandoned Octavia in 36 BCE to return to his Egyptian queen, Cleopatra VII, who bore him three children. A rare silver tetradrachm of Ephesus (Antony’s base in the East) celebrates his marriage to Octavia with an obverse jugate bust, surrounded by Antony’s name and titles: “M. Antonius, Commander and designated Consul for the second and third time.”

An example of the type sold for over $2,200 in a 2013 Swiss auction[10].

Roman Empire


One of the most spectacular jugate bust coins of the Empire is a gold aureus of the rebel emperor Postumus struck at Cologne on the Rhine in 266 CE. On the obverse, Postumus pairs himself with Hercules, and the inscription calls him “dutiful and fortunate” (PIVS FELIX). On the reverse we see jugate busts of Victoria and Pax, the female personifications of victory and peace, and the inscription hails the “happiness of the emperor” (FELICITAS AUG). An example of this rare type sold for nearly $70,000 in a 2008 European auction[11]. Postumus was a military commander in Gaul who rebelled against the emperor Gallienus in 260. The diverse and abundant coinage of Postumus’ rebel “Gallic Empire” (ruled 260-269) is notable for its high artistic quality.

Probus was a successful military commander proclaimed emperor by his troops in 276 when Emperor Tacitus died of a fever (or possibly an assassination – it was a tough era). Coins of Probus are common (despite his reign of only six years), but a jugate bust issue in gold is very rare; only nine examples are known. On the obverse, Probus associates himself with the sun god Sol Invictus (the “Indomitable Sun”), who was a favorite of the soldiers during this period. The coin was struck at Siscia in Croatia in 277, and a “superb EF” example sold for $180,000 in a 2014 auction[12].

carausiusCarausius commanded the Roman fleet in the English Channel, tasked with fighting Frankish and Saxon pirates. The emperor Maximian (reigned 286-305) ordered his execution when it was reported that Carausius cooperated with the pirates in exchange for a cut of the booty. Before this could be carried out, Carausius revolted and declared himself emperor of Britain and Gaul. Maximian’s campaign to oust him failed, and Carausius ruled effectively until his finance minister Allectus killed him in 293.

Carausius struck coins at mints in Rouen, London, and an uncertain British town. An extraordinary bronze type features the only triple-header jugate bust in all of Roman coinage. In a bid to establish his legitimacy as a co-emperor, Carausius had himself depicted shoulder-to-shoulder with his rivals in Rome and the East, Maximian and Diocletian. The inscription is “Carausius and his brothers” (CARAUSIUS ET FRATRES SUI). One of the finest known examples of the type sold for $25,000 (against an estimate of $10,000) in 2003[13].

Head Hunting

As part of the classic visual vocabulary of numismatics, jugate busts often appear on modern types, although they seem to be far more common on commemorative medals than on circulating coins.

Some examples include:

  • Most British denominations of the joint reign of William III and Mary II (1689-1694)
  • Brazilian and Portuguese gold coinage of Maria I and Pedro III (1777-1786); Maria and Pedro have strikingly similar profiles – Maria’s husband was also her uncle. Some of these pieces circulated in colonial America.
  • 1921 US Alabama commemorative half dollar (Thomas Kilby and William Bibb)
  • 1923 Monroe Doctrine half dollar (James Monroe and John Quincy Adams)
  • 1924 Hugenot-Waloon half dollar (Gaspard de Coligny and William the Silent)
  • 1926 Sesquicentennial half dollar (Washington and Lafayette)


The author is grateful to Dr. Bradley Bowlin, M.D. for suggesting the topic for this article. Any errors of fact or interpretation are entirely the author’s

* * *


[1] The most famous example is the “Gonzaga cameo” in the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

[2] Greek Coins (1978), p.166

[3] The French term tête-bêche is sometimes used to describe this arrangement.

[4] The marriage of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II produced no offspring. For the controversy over the effects of inbreeding on the later Ptolemies, see Ager, 2005.

[5] Helliesen, 1980 p. 296

[6] NAC 78, 26 May 2014. Lot 328.

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Balas

[8] NAC 46, 2 April 2008. Lot 290.

[9] CNG Triton XI, 8 January 2008. Lot 592. Realized US$1,000.

[10] NAC 70, 16 May 2013. Lot 178.

[11] NAC 49, 21 October 2008. Lot 383.

[12] CNG Triton XVII, 7 January 2014. Lot 781.

[13] CNG Triton VI, 14 January 2003. Lot 1074.


Ager, Sheila. “Familiarity Breeds: Incest and the Ptolemaic Dynasty”, Journal of Hellenic Studies 125 (2005)

Crawford, Michael. “A Roman Representation of the Keramos Troikos”, Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971)

de la Bedoyere, Guy. “Carausius and the Marks RSR and I.N.P.C.D.A”, Numismatic Chronicle 158 (1998)

Helliesen, Jean. “A Note on Laodice Number Twenty”, Classical Journal 75 (1980)

Hoover, Oliver. “A Revised Chronology for the Late Seleucids at Antioch”, Historia 56 (2007)

Johnson, Carl. “The Divinization of the Ptolemies and the God Octadrachms Honoring Ptolemy III”, Phoenix 53 (1999)

Nock, Arthur. “The Emperor’s Divine Comes”, Journal of Roman Studies 37 (1947)

Sear, David. Greek Coins and Their Values, Volume 1. Seaby (1978)

Ancient Roman Coins Currently Available on eBay


Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
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.

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