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Not Just a Pretty Face: 10 Beautiful Women on Ancient Coins

10 Beautiful women on ancient coins.

By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
 

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

— John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819)

ANCIENT GREEKS AND Romans regarded their deities as having perfect human forms. Their gods were (mostly) divinely handsome, and their goddesses were supernaturally beautiful. When ancient coin engravers began to represent real men and women, they naturally followed the conventions of beauty long established by sculptors working in three dimensions and painters working in two.

What makes a face beautiful? This is a subject that has been intensively studied by social psychologists, as well as plastic surgeons. In general, Greco-Roman standards of beauty were much the same as those prevailing in our own time in the West, with the possible exception that ancients favored plumper cheeks–an indication of high status, in a world where only the elite were well fed.

Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the following is offered as a highly personal selection of beautiful women on ancient coins.

Aphrodite

Tetradrachm of Knidos.
CARIA, Knidos. Circa 350-330/20 BCE. AR Tetradrachm (27.5mm, 15.00 g, 12h). Theumelon, magistrate. Head of Aphrodite right, hair tied at back, wearing stephanos, triple-pendant earring, and pearl necklace; behind neck, Phrygian helmet right / Forepart of lion right; ΘEYMEΛΩN to upper right, KNI below. Ashton, Late 14 (A8/P14); SNG Copenhagen –; SNG Keckman –; BMC 39A (same obv. die); Gulbenkian 1004 = Jameson 1537a (same dies). EF, lightly toned. Well centered and struck on a broad flan. Very rare. Image: CNG.

As the goddess of love, Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans) was the archetype of feminine beauty. A magnificent depiction appears on a silver tetradrachm dated to c. 350-320 BCE[1] from Knidos, a coastal town in the southwest corner of Anatolia. Knidos had an important temple of Aphrodite.

Artemis

Stater of Epeiros.
Kingdom of Epeiros. Pyrrhos AV Stater. Syracuse, circa 278-275 BCE. Head of Artemis right, hair caught up behind, wearing beaded necklace and earring with drop pendant, quiver on left shoulder; bee behind / Nike alighting to left, wearing chiton girdled at waist, carrying trophy in left arm and holding wreath in right hand, above which crescent; BAΣIΛEΩΣ ΠYPPOY around. Image: Roma Numismatics.

Goddess of the hunt, nature childbirth, the Moon, and (among other things) chastity, Artemis (Diana to the Romans) was the sister of Apollo the sun god. She is frequently represented in art, and on coins, with a bow an quiver, accompanied by her graceful companion animal, a deer. A superb portrait of Artemis appears on a gold stater issued during the occupation of Syracuse in Sicily by King Pyrrhus of Epirus (278-275 BCE).

A cataloguer writes:

The portrait of Artemis is beautiful and refined, thoroughly Syracusan in style. Artemis’ hair and slightly parted lips are reminiscent of Euainetos’ Arethusa heads, as the same combination of delicacy and strength is evident in her features[2].

Arethusa

Syracuse Decedrachm of Arethusa.
Sicily, Syracuse. c. 400-370 BCE. Decadrachm, 43.30g. (5h). Obv: Quadriga galloping left, driven by a charioteer holding reins and directing the horses with a goad. Above, Nike flying right to crown the charioteer. In exergue, panoply of arms on two steps: cuirass, two greaves, and a Phrygian helmet. Border of dots. Rx: ΣΥΡΑΚΟΣΙΩΝ Head of nymph Arethusa left, wearing a reed wreath, triple ear pendant, and necklace. Beneath her chin, pellet; around, four dolphins. Image: Gemini.

Arethusa was the nymph who presided over a freshwater fountain[3] in the Sicilian city of Syracuse. Some of the greatest coin engravers of antiquity rendered her image in metal. Some of these artists are known to us by name, notably Euainetos and Kimon, because they signed their work in tiny Greek letters. The massive silver decadrachms (over 43 grams!) of Syracuse are widely regarded as artistic masterpieces[4].

Kyme

Tetrdrachm of Aeolis featuring Kyme.
AEOLIS. Kyme. Circa 165-140 BCE. Tetradrachm (Silver, 34 mm, 15.83 g, 12 h), struck under the magistrate Kallias. Head of the Amazon Kyme to right, wearing taenia. Image: Nomos.

According to legend, Kyme (or Cyme) on the Aegean coast in the province of Aeolis, was founded by an Amazon of the same name, who is depicted on the city’s handsome silver tetradrachms[5]. A mythical tribe of female warriors, the Amazons fought against many Greek heroes.

Isis

Bronze of Ptomely V or VI.
PTOLEMAIC KINGS of EGYPT. Ptolemy V or Ptolemy VI. 204-180 BCE or 180-145 BCE. Æ (17.5mm, 4.46 g, 12h). Alexandreia mint. Series 6E. Head of Isis right, wearing wreath of grain ears, and her hair in long curls / Eagle standing left, head right, on thunderbolt; filleted cornucopia over shoulder. Image: CNG.

Isis was a much-loved Egyptian goddess. Her cult spread widely throughout the Greco-Roman world where she was seen as a protector of marriage and ships at sea. Romans often adopted the gods of people they conquered. A temple of Isis was found in the ruins of Pompeii[6]. She is often depicted on coins of the Ptolemaic kings, wearing a wreath of grain ears, with her hair in elaborate curls[7].

Antonia

Lugdunum Denarious
Antonia (mother of Claudius) AR Denarius. Lugdunum, AD 41-42. ANTONIA AVGVSTA, draped bust to right, wearing wreath of grain ears / CONSTANTIAE AVGVSTI, Antonia, as Constantia, standing facing, holding long torch and filleted cornucopiae. Image: Roma Numismatics.

Born in 39 BCE, Antonia “the Younger”[8] was the daughter of Marc Antony and Octavia (sister of Octavian, who became the first Roman emperor, Augustus). Her husband, Nero Claudius Drusus, died in 9 BCE at the age of 29 from injuries sustained when he was thrown from his horse. Antonia was the mother of Emperor Claudius and the grandmother of Emperor Caligula, who either poisoned her or drove her to suicide at the age of 72. Most coins depicting Antonia were issued in her honor by her son Claudius; for example, a portrait denarius dated to c. 41-42 CE[9].

Lucilla

Aureus of Rome featuring Lucilla.
Lucilla. Augusta, AD 164-182. AV Aureus (18mm, 6.07 g, 12h). Rome mint. Struck under Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, AD 161-162. LVCILLΛE ΛVG ΛN TONINI ΛVG F, draped bust right, hair waved and knotted low at back in chignon / VOTΛ/ PVBLI/CΛ •/ • in three lines within laurel wreath. Image: CNG.

Born about the year 149, Lucilla was the daughter of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his remarkably fertile spouse, Faustina the Younger[10], who bore 14 children in 30 years of marriage. Lucilla’s father was the Emperor Antoninus Pius (ruled 138-161 CE). Her charming portrait with a faint smile (unusual in Roman imperial portraiture) appears on a gold aureus dated to the first year of her husband’s reign[11].

Julia Domna

Aureus of Rome featuring Julia Domna.
Julia Domna (wife of S. Severus) AV Aureus. Rome, AD 201. IVLIA AVGVSTA, draped bust right / AETERNIT IMPERI, confronted laureate, draped and cuirassed bust of Septimius Severus facing right and Caracalla, laureate draped and cuirassed facing left. Image: Roma Numismatics.

Empress Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus, was born about 160 CE in Emesa (now Homs, Syria) to a family of hereditary high priests of the sun god Elagabal. Her mother tongue was Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Arabic and Hebrew, but the Syrian elite, which had lived for centuries under the Seleucid Empire, was fluent in Greek. Highly educated, Julia was a patroness of philosophers and writers. She bore two sons (“an heir and a spare”): Caracalla and Geta. Geta was murdered in 211 by his brother. Julia’s distinctive hairstyle was adopted by several later empresses, as well as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra. A superb portrait of Julia appears on a gold aureus dated to 201 CE[12].

Plautilla

Roman Aureus of Plautilla.
Aureus 202-205 (?), AV 7.28 g. PLAVTILLA – AVGVSTA Draped bust r. Rev. VENVS – VICTRIX Venus standing l., holding apple and palm branch and resting l. elbow on shield; to her r., Cupid standing l., holding helmet. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.

Born about the year 185 CE to a distinguished elite family (the gens Fulvia[13]), Plautilla married Emperor Caracalla in April 202. The marriage was not a happy one. When Plautilla’s father, the commander of the Praetorian Guard, was executed in 205, Plautilla and her brother were exiled, treated harshly, and eventually strangled on orders of the demented emperor. Coins bearing Plautilla’s portrait were mostly issued during the reign of her father-in-law Septimius Severus[14]. A gold aureus in Plautilla’s name bears an image of Venus and Cupid on the reverse.

Aelia Eudocia

Gold medallion of Aelia Eudocia.
Medallion of 2 solidi, Constantinopolis 423, AV 8.94 g. AEL EVDO – CIA AVG Pearl-diademed and draped bust r. Rev. SALVS REI – PVBLICAE The Empress, nimbate and draped, enthroned facing; her feet resting on cushion. In l. field, star and in exergue, CONOB. Image: Numismatica Ars Classica.

Born about the year 400 in Athens, the daughter of a pagan philosopher and teacher of rhetoric, Aelia Eudocia received an excellent classical education, something rare for a woman of that era. Her father left her a small bequest of just 100 gold solidi, expecting that her beauty and intelligence would enable her to make her way in the world. In Constantinople, she gained the favor of the empress Pulcheria, the powerful sister of Theodosius II, who arranged for her to be baptized as a Christian and to marry the emperor in 420. Eudocia’s aristocratic profile image appears on a magnificent gold medallion dated to 423 CE[15].

Eudocia should not be confused with her mother in law, the empress Aelia Eudoxia, wife of Emperor Arcadius.

Collecting Beautiful Women on Ancient Coins

The value of any ancient coin depends strongly on “eye appeal” – a quality that is difficult to define but that collectors know when they see it. In making a judgment about the beauty of long dead or even imaginary women depicted on ancient coins, what we are really evaluating is not so much the features of a face but rather the skill of the engraver in creating, on the surface of a small metal disc, a pleasing representation of a person.

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Notes

[1] CNG Auction 105, May 10, 2017, Lot 371. Realized $16,000 USD (estimate $7,500).

[2] Roma Numismatics Auction 5, March 23, 2013, Lot 162. Realized £30,000 (about $45,718 USD; estimate £25,000).

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_of_Arethusa

[4] Gemini Auction IX, January 9, 2012, Lot 5. Realized $120,000 USD (estimate $50,000).

[5] Nomos obolos 21, January 2, 2022, Lot 442. Realized CHF 1,600 (about $1,752 USD; estimate CHF 400).

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_of_Isis_(Pompeii)

[7] CNG E-auction 515, May 4, 2022, Lot 287. Realized $225 USD (estimate $100).

[8] To distinguish her from her older sister, Antonia Major (“the Elder”), the grandmother of Nero.

[9] Roma Auction XXV, September 22, 2022, Lot 949. Realized £3,200 (about $3,605 USD; estimate £2,000).

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faustina_the_Younger

[11] CNG Triton XXV, January 11, 2022, Lot 6644. Realized $4,500 USD (estimate $4,000).

[12] Roma Auction XX, October 29, 2020, Lot 638. Realized £72,500 (about $93,560 USD; estimate £60,000).

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fulvia_gens

[14] NAC Auction 54, March 24, 2010, Lot 505. Realized CHF 190,000 (about $177,703 USD; estimate CHF 70,000).

[15] NAC Auction 84, May 20, 2015, Lot 1293. Realized CHF 200,000 (about $213,129 USD; estimate CHF 150,000).
 

References

Holum, Kenneth. Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity. Berkeley (1982)

Kent, J.P.C. Roman Coins. New York (1978)

Kraay, Colin. Archaic and Classical Greek Coins. New York (1976 reprint)

Pangerl, Andreas. Portraits: 500 Years of Roman Coin Portraits. Munich (2017)

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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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