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.
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).
An early example is found on a 2.57 gram electrum hekte (one-sixth stater) of Phokaia (or Phocaea), 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.
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.
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.”
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. 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).
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, 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.
With a superb natural harbor and a reliable source of fresh water (the “Fountain of Arethusa”, 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.”
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. On Harlan Berk’s list of the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, this type is listed as #4 (Berk, 32).
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.
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.”
Because it controlled the greatest silver mine 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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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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 Roma Numismatics Auction XIII, March 23, 2017. Realized £3,200 (about $4,009 USD; estimate £3,000).
 Nomos Auction 4, May 10, 2011, Lot 1096. Realized CHF 32,000 (about $36,438 USD; estimate CHF 1,500).
 Lan Auction 159, December 8, 2014, Lot 82. Realized €15,000 (about $18,434 USD; estimate €20,000).
 LHS Auction 96, May 8, 2006, Lot 1451. Realized CHF 46,000 (about $37,456 USD; estimate CHF 6,500).
 Nomos Auction 20, July 10, 2020, Lot 65. Realized CHF 3,000 (about $3,192 USD; estimate CHF 2,250).
 NAC Auction 110, September 24, 2018, Lot 8. Realized CHF 725,000 (about $754,972 USD; estimate CHF 600,000).
 NAC Auction 100, May 29, 2017, Lot 165. Realized CHF 9,500 (about $9,756 USD; estimate CHF 8,000).
 New York Sale XXX, January 9, 2013, Lot 19. Realized $12,000 USD (estimate $12,500).
 CNG Triton XXII, January 8, 2019, Lot 208. Realized $4,750 USD (estimate $2,000).
 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 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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I always love Mr. Markowitz’ writings about coins, and I love that he’s from NYC!