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The Archaic Smile on Ancient Coins

The Archaic Smile on Ancient Coins

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..

Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues,
You can tell by the way she smiled…

— Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna”, Blonde on Blonde (1966)

ANCIENT GREEK COINS struck before 500 BCE are called “archaic” by numismatists. Actually, archaic features continue to appear on coins for at least another century or so. Male and female faces on many of these coins bear a faint, enigmatic smile, something that is also found in sculpture and vase painting from this era. For centuries, art historians have been fascinated by this “Archaic Smile”, and many different theories have been proposed to explain it[1].

For example:

The radiant smiles of aristocrats and statues alike – the geleontes or “smiling ones” as the aristocracies of some Greek states referred to themselves – assimilated them to the gods whose favor they enjoyed and whose life style – also characterized by ease and a joyful smile – they in part shared (Tanner, 264).


Ionia, Phokaia EL Hekte. Circa 521-478 BCE. Female head left, wearing helmet or close fitting cap; seal to right / Quadripartite incuse square. Bodenstedt 31; BMC Ionia -; SNG Copenhagen -; SNG von Aulock 7943; SNG Kayhan 518. 2.57g, 11mm. Near Mint State. Very Rare, Bodenstedt cites only four specimens. Roma Numismatics Ltd > Auction XIII 23 March 2017 Lot: 238. realized: 3,200 GBP   (Approx. 4,009 USD).

An early example is found on a 2.57 gram electrum hekte (one-sixth stater) of Phokaia (or Phocaea[2]), a coastal town in Ionia (on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea). Dated to c. 521-478 BCE, the coin bears a female head wearing a “helmet or close-fitting cap.” The only female figure in ancient art usually depicted wearing a helmet is Athena, in her aspect as a war goddess. On the coin, her full lips are slightly upturned, and although the head is shown in profile, the large almond-shaped eye appears as if viewed frontally. This is a standard feature of archaic portraiture.

In a 2017 London auction, this rare coin realized over $4,000[3].


THESSALY, Larissa. Circa 500-479 BCE. Hemidrachm (Silver, 2.61 g 4). Head of Jason to left, wearing petasos with ties under his chin. Rev. ΛΑ – [ΡΙ]-ϞΑΕ Jason’s sandal to left; all within incuse square. Herrmann Group I, p. 3 b var. (different legend). Extremely rare. Nicely toned and very well preserved. About extremely fine. This is a lovely coin, with a powerful, still-archaic portrait of Jason. He has a fully frontal eye and the hint of a smile. Nomos AG > Auction 4: BCD Collection of Thessaly 10 May 2011 Lot: 1096 realized: 32,000 CHF   (Approx. 36,438 USD).
Larissa was the capital of the ancient Greek region of Thessaly. Jason, who led the mythical quest for the Golden Fleece, was a local hero. His portrait appears on a little hemidrachm (2.61 grams) of Larissa, issued c. 500-479 BCE[4].

The cataloguer writes:

“This is a lovely coin, with a powerful, still-archaic portrait of Jason. He has a fully frontal eye and the hint of a smile.”


Macedon, ALEXANDER I. (498 – 454) Octodrachm, around 480 BCE Naked youth with Petasus and two spears behind a horse with bridle to the right, on the horse’s croup Kerykeion (!) To the right. Rev .: Quadruple square. Svoronos XII, 1 and 5, Kraay – (493 var., There without an additional character Kerykeion; there Alexander I.), Raymond ANS NM 126 – (compare table 2/6 var., Ditto), SNG ANS – (ditto), AMNG P. 49, no. 7 (only one other copy known with Kerykeion), SNG Munich -, BMC -, Svoronos, collection Pozzi, Gaebler -. 27.29g. Very rare. Numismatik Lanz München > Auction 159 8 December 2014 Lot: 82 realized: 15,000 EUR   (Approx. 18,434 USD).

The ancient Macedonians spoke a distinctive dialect of Greek. While their neighbors were creating novel forms of government like democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny, Macedonians clung stubbornly to their archaic tribal kingship. King Alexander I, who ruled c. 498-454 BCE, issued massive (over 27 grams) silver oktodrachms with the image of a naked youth carrying two javelins walking beside his horse[5]. Examined closely, an archaic smile graces the young warrior’s face.

On Harlan J. Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this type is #49 (Berk, 23).


Mantinea. Hemidrachm (Silver, 3.06 g), c. 465-460. Zeus Lykaios, seated left on low throne with footrest and with swan’s head at the top of the backrest, holding long scepter in his right hand and thunderbolt in his left; to left, eagle flying to right. Rev. Head of Kallisto to right, her hair in a sakkos and wearing a simple necklace with a single pendant; all within incuse square. BMFA 1242 (same dies). Kunstfreund 29 (this coin). Williams II, 1, 104d (this coin). Very rare. A lovely coin beautifully toned and with a superb late Archaic head. Extremely fine. LHS Numismatik AG > Auction 96 8 May 2006 Lot: 1451 realized: 46,000 CHF   (Approx. 37,456 USD).

A city in the southern Greek region of Arcadia, Mantinea was founded about 500 BCE. The reverse of a silver hemidrachm, c. 460 BCE depicts a female identified as Kallisto[6], a mythical nymph who was seduced by Zeus and turned into a bear by Hera. One of the moons of Jupiter is named Callisto in her honor. Described as “ a lovely coin beautifully toned and with a superb late Archaic head,” this very rare piece sold for over $37,000 in a 2006 European auction[7].


Syracuse. Gelon I, Circa 485-478 BCE. Drachm (Silver, 15.5 mm, 4.22 g, 3 h), circa 485-480. Nude horseman riding to right. Rev. ΣV -RAKOΣION (first three letters retrograde) Head of Arethusa to right, wearing necklace and pearl diadem, her hair tied up in a krobylos that is bound up and falls over the diadem. Boehringer 54 (V29/R37). Nanteuil 329 (same dies). SNG ANS 12 (same dies). SNG Copenhagen 616 (same dies). Rare. The head of Arethusa is particularly appealing: her archaic smile makes her appear remarkably friendly and kind. Nomos AG > Auction 20 10 July 2020 Lot: 65 realized: 3,000 CHF (Approx. 3,192 USD).

With a superb natural harbor and a reliable source of fresh water (the “Fountain of Arethusa[8], Syracuse became a great power in Sicily, producing some of the most beautiful ancient Greek coins ever issued. On a silver drachm issued by the tyrant Gelon I, c. 485-478 BCE “the head of Arethusa is particularly appealing: her archaic smile makes her appear remarkably friendly and kind.”[9]


Naxos. Tetradrachm circa 460 BCE, AR 17.25 g. Bearded and ivy-wreathed head of Dionysos r., his hair tied in a krobylos at nape of neck. Rev. Ν – ΑXΙ – ΟΝ Silenos, squatting on the ground, raising a cantharus to his lips and supporting himself with his l. hand. Regling, Sammlung Warren, 271 (this coin, not illustrated). Rizzo pl. XXVIII, 12 (these dies). SNG Lloyd 1150 (this coin). K. Schefold, Meisterwerke griechischer Kunst, Basel, 1960, 482 (this coin). Cahn, Naxos 54.20 (this coin). Very rare and among the finest specimens known of this prestigious and fascinating issue. Undoubtedly one of the finest examples of Archaic engraving in Sicily and one of the most impressive representations on a Greek coin. Struck on a very broad flan with a wonderful old cabinet tone. Extremely fine. Numismatica Ars Classica > Auction 110 24 September 2018 number: 8 realized: 725,000 CHF   (Approx. 754,972 USD).

Naxos, near the modern town of Taormina, was the first Greek settlement in Sicily in 735 BCE. About the year 460 BCE, an unknown master engraver created the dies for a magnificent silver tetradrachm. The obverse depicts the head of Dionysos, god of wine, identified by his signature wreath of ivy leaves. Art historians note how the portrait cleverly “breaks the frame” by extending beyond the coin’s dotted border. The bearded god’s lips curl in a wry, subtle smile.

In a 2018 Swiss auction, an example, “among the finest specimens known of this prestigious and fascinating issue,” brought over $750,000[10]. On Harlan Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this type is listed as #4 (Berk, 32).


Lapethus, Uncertain King. Stater, circa 425, AR 10.93 g. Head of Athena l., wearing crested Corinthian helmet decorated with a floral motif on the bowl. Rev. Head of Heracles r., wearing lion’s skin headdress, all within incuse square. Boston Suppl. 253 (these dies). Kraay, NC 1962, p. 11, 8 and pl. 2, 16. ACGC 1094. Extremely rare. Numismatica Ars Classica > Auction 100 29 May 2017 Lot: 165 realized: 9,500 CHF   (Approx. 9,756 USD).

On the north coast of Cyprus, Lapethus was founded by Phoenicians but by the fifth century BCE it was a Greek town. A charming silver stater dated c. 425 BCE presents two archaic smiles — Athena on the obverse, and Herakles on the reverse[11].


Sicily, Leontinoi (c.460 B.C.), Silver Tetradrachm, 17.01g, 8h. Head of Apollo facing right, wearing a laurel-wreath, his hair in a chignon. Rev. ΛEONTINON, lion’s head facing right, four barley-grains around (Boehringer, ‘Zur Münzgeschichte von Leontinoi in Klassischen Zeit’, in Studies to Price, 34 (this reverse die); SNG ANS 219 (these dies), Rizzo pl. XXIII, 6 (these dies); Kraay-Hirmer, pl. 21 (these dies)). Outstanding style and extremely fine. A rare variety. Ex F. Sternberg, Auction XX, Zurich, 20 April 1988, lot 285. The New York Sale XXX 9 January 2013 Lot: 19 realized: 12,000 USD   (Approx. 9,200 EUR).

Located on the edge of the fertile Catania plain, Leontinoi (now Lentini, Sicily) was founded in 729 BCE. Apollo was the city’s patron god, and his androgynous, laurel-wreathed image features prominently on the coinage–for example a silver tetradrachm dated to c. 460 BCE.

The cataloguer writes:

“This is the only Leontinoi die of the Apollo head type which fully expresses the middle to mature Greek archaic stylistic idiom, c.550-490 B.C., in its adoption of the Greek archaic anatomic conventions of eye structure, a high cheek and prominent lips forming the archaic smile, and defined protuberant chin.”[12]


ATTICA, Athens. Circa 475-465 BCE. AR Tetradrachm (23mm, 17.18 g, 11h). Head of Athena right, with frontal eye, wearing earring, [necklace with pendants], and crested Attic helmet decorated with three olive leaves over visor and a spiral palmette on the bowl / Owl standing right, head facing, with spread tail feathers; olive sprig and crescent to left, AΘE to right; all within incuse square. Starr Group IV (unlisted dies); Svoronos, Monnaies, pl. 9, 8–12; HGC 4, 1595; SNG Lockett 1837; Rhousopoulos 1970. Good VF, toned. A wonderful small owl, neatly presented in the incuse. Classical Numismatic Group > Triton XXII 8 January 2019 Lot: 208 realized: 4,750 USD.
Because it controlled the greatest silver mine[13] in the ancient Mediterranean world, Athens grew rich, and its abundant coinage, mostly tetradrachms of about 17.2 grams, circulated widely. The “owls” of Athens are some of the most popular ancient coins, particularly the archaic types, on which the obverse profile portrait of Athena shows the almond-shaped “frontal” eye. Millions of these were issued from c. 510 down to c.404 BCE. On some of the best dies, but by no means all, Athena wears a definite archaic smile[14].

Attica, Athens-Decadrachm circa 465, AR 42.13 g. Head of Athena r., wearing crested helmet, earring and necklace; bowl ornamented with spiral and three olive leaves. Rev. A – Q – E Owl standing facing., with spread wings; in upper field l., olive-twig with two leaves and berry. Gulbenkian 515 (these dies). Jameson 2080 (these dies). Svoronos pl. 8, 13. Seltman 448, group O (A303 / P 383) Estimation: CHF 180000.Numismatica Ars Classica > Auction 29 11 May 2005 Lot: 183 realized: 290,000 CHF   (Approx. 240,624 USD).

On Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this type is #10 (Berk, 36). The smile is even clearer on the very rare dekadrachm of Athens[15].

In his autobiography, the American coin dealer Bruce McNall describes a visit to the famous numismatist Leo Mildenberg (1913-2001):

In an almost reverent voice I quietly asked him which was the best. He reached for a tray that held one single silver coin.

“This my good friend, is the greatest coin in the world.” (McNall, 24)

Only about 40 examples of this massive (over 42 grams) chunk of silver are known, half of them in museums. Struck about 467-463 BCE, possibly to commemorate an Athenian naval victory over Persia[16], the type ranks as #2 on Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins (Berk, 30).


Antimachus ruled Baktria, the Greek kingdom in Afghanistan established by successors of Alexander the Great, in approximately 171 – 160 BCE. But like most dates in Baktrian history, the margin of error is wide.

Antimachus I, circa 174 – 165. Tetradrachm, Balkh circa 171-168, AR 16.92 g. Draped bust of Antimachus r., wearing causia. Rev. BAΣIΛEΩΣ – ANTIMAXOY Poseidon standing facing, holding trident and long palm with ribbon; in inner r. field, monogram. SNG ANS 276. Bopearachchi, Series 1. Light iridescent tone, minor areas of porosity, otherwise very fine Ex Gorny & Mosch sale 196, 2011, 1941. Numismatica Ars Classica > Auction 123 9 May 2021 Lot: 880 realized: 1,200 CHF   (Approx. 1,321 USD).

Aside from his coins, almost nothing is known about Antimachus.

He placed a graceful standing figure of Poseidon on the reverse of his coins. Since Poseidon was the god of the ocean, this might seem odd for a landlocked country. But Poseidon was also the patron god of horses, for which Baktria was famous, and of earthquakes – not uncommon in the region. The coin portrait of Antimachus shows him wearing a kausia, the Macedonian shepherd’s hat, similar to the distinctive Afghan pakol. On the best dies, the king’s face has a gentle, ironic grin that, like Mona Lisa’s signature smile, has fascinated generations of numismatists. The inscription is BASILEUS THEOU ANTIMACHOU (“of King Antimachus the God”). Although Hellenistic rulers often asserted claims to divinity in their court protocol or monuments, for a living ruler to call himself a god on his coinage was unprecedented.

This could be regarded as the last appearance of an “archaic smile” on a coin.

Collecting Smiles

Archaic Greek coins are considerably more scarce than those of the Classical (post 500 BCE) and Hellenistic eras (post 323 BCE.) At auction, competition for the best examples can be fierce.

The inspiration for this article was a delightful, slim booklet that I picked up recently at a local coin show. The author, Jasper Burns, wrote:

It seems to the writer that the smile is a somewhat peculiar expression — one that would raise eyebrows if one walked into a crowded room wearing it. It seems to beam energy and betray an inner state of contentment and confidence that is quite different from a smile that merely reflects temporary satisfaction with one’s surroundings (Burns, 15).

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[3] Roma Numismatics Auction XIII, March 23, 2017. Realized £3,200 (about $4,009 USD; estimate £3,000).

[4] Nomos Auction 4, May 10, 2011, Lot 1096. Realized CHF 32,000 (about $36,438 USD; estimate CHF 1,500).

[5] Lan Auction 159, December 8, 2014, Lot 82. Realized €15,000 (about $18,434 USD; estimate €20,000).


[7] LHS Auction 96, May 8, 2006, Lot 1451. Realized CHF 46,000 (about $37,456 USD; estimate CHF 6,500).


[9] Nomos Auction 20, July 10, 2020, Lot 65. Realized CHF 3,000 (about $3,192 USD; estimate CHF 2,250).

[10] NAC Auction 110, September 24, 2018, Lot 8. Realized CHF 725,000 (about $754,972 USD; estimate CHF 600,000).

[11] NAC Auction 100, May 29, 2017, Lot 165. Realized CHF 9,500 (about $9,756 USD; estimate CHF 8,000).

[12] New York Sale XXX, January 9, 2013, Lot 19. Realized $12,000 USD (estimate $12,500).


[14] CNG Triton XXII, January 8, 2019, Lot 208. Realized $4,750 USD (estimate $2,000).

[15] NAC Auction 29, May 11, 2005, Lot 183. Realized CHF 290,000 (about $240,624 USD; estimate CHF 180,000).



Berk, Harlan J. 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, 2nd edition. Pelham AL (2019)

Boardman, John. Greek Art. London (1996)

Oxford History of Greek Art. John Boardman, ed.. Oxford (1993)

Burns, Jasper. The Archaic Smile and Greek Coins. Waynesboro, VA (2017)

Devambez, Pierre. Greek Sculpture. New York (1980)

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

Laisné, Claude. Art of Ancient Greece. Paris (1995)

McNall, Bruce. Fun While it Lasted: My Rise and Fall in the Land of Fame and Fortune. New York (2003)

Tanner, Jeremy, “Nature, Culture, and the Body in Classical Greek Religious Art”, World Archaeology 33. (October 2001)

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Mike Markowitz - CoinWeek Ancient Coin SeriesMike 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.

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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