By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….
Is there anything better suited to honor the famous figures of history than a coin?
Different artifacts associated with an individual may still exist, but these objects are frequently irreplaceable and irreproducible, with much of the appeal based on a personal connection to the individual instead of intrinsic worth–though even that can be improved upon, as coins owned by such famous people enjoy the same kind of reflected glamour.
Extant works of art may have been commissioned by an individual or even portray them. Sometimes both conditions are true. Sometimes individuals are famous for the art they themselves produced. But unless you have the budget to collect it or manage a museum, you must go to the art yourself, it does not come to you.
Various places and buildings associated with a given individual might be established to house the art or artifacts of a given individual if they are famous or important enough. A museum or two might house a collection of such items for a limited time.
But a coin? A coin can last forever, it seems. It often has value in and of itself, and assuming you haven’t collected it, a coin goes wherever you do.
This is because nothing as durable as a coin is as mobile, and nothing as mobile as a coin is as durable.
And whether by design or just a happy coincidence, this fact wasn’t lost on our leaders.
The Propaganda Value of Coins
We’ve talked about propaganda before. Most coins are propaganda of one sort or another. The ancient turtle coins of Aegina and the silver owls of Athens, for example, served as marketing material and advance press for their home cities wherever they circulated, projecting both power and a brand into the world.
And of course, innumerable kings, queens, tyrants and pretenders have historically sought to strengthen their own positions by placing themselves or symbols of significance (including other people) on the coinage they control.
Indeed, controlling the production of money and deciding who or what goes on it is one way to “frame the narrative”. Done effectively, the people come to believe that their money, with their particular constellation of gods, heroes and ideals on display, means something and has worth beyond whatever precious metals it may or may not contain. This meaning and worth, in turn, becomes something that be exploited by the powerful, whether for personal gain, the greater good, or some admixture of the two.
Keep that in mind as you consider our list; “The Top 10 Women on Coins“.
Also, keep in mind that we make no claim to objectivity. This is a purely subjective survey, arbitrarily limited to 10 women. We applied no mathematical methodology to our choices and examined no statistics. Nevertheless, some deference to generally-accepted notions of “importance” and “greatness” was paid.
Having said that, we realize one or two selections may be more “obscure” than the others. We hope that by writing about them we’ve satisfied a curiosity you didn’t even know you had, perhaps starting with…
Marianne is the national symbol of the Republic of France, a fusion of the personifications of Liberty and Reason. Born of the 18th-century Enlightenment, she has stood for Democracy at its best and, sometimes, at its worst.
As with her cousin across the Atlantic, Marianne was conceived as an intentional break from monarchic representational conventions. Which is only natural since her first appearance was on a 1789 medal honoring the storming of the Bastille, a Parisian fort used as a state prison. The Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 is often considered the initial conflict of the French Revolution (much like the First “Battle” of Ft. Sumter was to the American Civil War).
During the First Republic, established by the revolution in 1792, Marianne is portrayed in repose, but by the Reign of Terror in 1793, she is portrayed as a more violent, bare-breasted figure leading revolutionaries into battle. After the Terror, she loses some of her fearsomeness but a precedent for representing her dual nature had been set.
1935-36 100 franc gold coin. Image courtesy APMEX.
After the Napoleonic Era, in which she was used as a subversive symbol, came the Second republic and the revolutionary year of 1848. This time, the republic embraced both versions as needed: the bare-breasted militant wearing a Phrygian cap and a red corsage, and a more conservatively demeanored Marianne, whose notable features include rays of sunlight around her head–much like the Statue of Liberty, which was designed by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.
In 1849, she made her first appearance on a French postage stamp, as frequent a home for her as French coins and paper money.
Between the start of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and the Nazi occupation of France in 1940, the Third Republic made much use of Marianne as a symbol of the French nation. It was a time of nation-building and the rise of nationalism across Europe, and many of the national symbols we associate with Western Europe have, if not their origins, then at least their “formalizations” born out of this period. The version of Marianne we are familiar with today is based on the main figure in Triumph of the Republic, a sculpture created by artist Aimé-Jules Dalou in 1899 and located at the Place de la Nation in Paris.
Perhaps one of the most influential portrayals of Marianne comes from this period: sculptor-engraver Oscar Roty’s design for La Semeuse (1897), otherwise known as The Sower, from which Adolph Weinman drew a heavy amount of inspiration for his Walking Liberty half dollar obverse design in 1916.
Yes, Marianne is the spiritual grandmother of the design of the American Silver Eagle bullion coin.
Then, in 1940, the Nazi war machine occupied the seat of government in Paris along with the northern and western regions of the country. A southern district bordered on Spain, Italy, Switzerland and the Mediterranean Sea–known as Vichy France for its substitute capital in Vichy–was “allowed”, for a time, to administer itself, although it was subservient to the German regime.
And like the French have done in all such times, they resisted.
And one of the symbols of that resistance was Marianne.
After the liberation of France by Allied forces in 1944, into the immediate postwar period and beyond, there was less social and psychological need for such propaganda, and the French became less personally invested in such symbols even though Marianne continued to appear on coins and currency in a formal manner. She was the last person portrayed on the French franc before the changeover to euros, and her effigy has adorned the national side of different French euros since 1999.
Cleopatra (lived 69 BCE – 30 BCE) entered the romance and mythology of Western European culture long ago, but that romanticism exerts an attraction still today.
And depending on what a word like “great” means to you, she also represents one of the quandaries of being labeled one of the great women of history. Equal weight is given to her reputed beauty and charm as is given to her iron will and deft (if ultimately doomed) leadership. A descendant of the Macedonian general Ptolemy I Soter, the successor of Alexander the Great in Egypt, her commitment to her adopted homeland and its people not only won hearts and minds but also motivated everything she did that has come down to us in both legend and fact.
This commitment, too, is a recurring theme in this list.
Cleopatra VII Philopator (“Beloved of (the) father”) was born in 69 BCE to the pharaoh Ptolemy XII Auletes. He was regarded as a weak king and a bad ruler, and in fact a native rebellion forced him into a three-year exile in Rome between 58 and 55 BCE. His first- and second-oldest daughters Cleopatra VI Tryphaena and Berenice IV ruled in his stead. He returned to power with the help of the Roman general Pompey the Great.
Upon his return, he beheaded his daughter Berenice (Cleopatra VI died while he was in exile) and appointed Cleopatra (our Cleopatra, barely a teenager) his co-ruler.
When her father died in 51 BCE, an 18-year-old Cleopatra married and became co-pharaoh with her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII. The duo had to contend with many of the problems their father had left for them, and Cleopatra wasn’t about to let another Ptolemy muck it up again. Later in the year, she made her move, removing his name from government letterhead and his portrait from the coinage.
With this act she became the first female to appear alone on Egyptian coins.
Dealing with yet another entanglement of her father’s making, she soon made enemies of the Romans who had helped her father regain power. This, along with a conspiracy of her brother’s supporters, resulted in her overthrow in 48 BCE–just in time for another Roman civil war.
When Pompey sought sanctuary in Alexandria after losing the Battle of Pharsalus to Julius Caesar, Ptolemy XIII had him beheaded. He then made a present of Pompey’s head to Caesar, who arrived a few days later following Pompey’s forces to Egypt. Unfortunately this had the opposite effect than Ptolemy intended, and Caesar captured the city for himself.
This was a golden opportunity for Cleopatra.
If you’ve seen Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963), then you’ve seen how she smuggled herself naked into Caesar’s private chambers in a rolled-up rug. The ancient writer Plutarch tells the story, and it’s a good one, but no one can say that it actually happened. What did happen, however, was that Cleopatra became Caesar’s mistress and gave birth to a son, Caesarion. Yet despite Cleopatra’s efforts, Caesar would not make him his heir, adopting his nephew Octavian instead.
Still, she got her throne back, albeit alongside a second brother.
After Caesar returned to Rome, she followed him there, where the married Caesar scandalized Roman society with his none-too-discreet affair. She was in the city when he was assassinated on the Ides of March (March 15), 44 BCE.
Her brother soon died (poison?) and Caesarion became her heir and co-ruler.
Meanwhile, Octavian and Roman general Marc Antony fought another civil war against the party of the assassins. Because of her allegiance to Caesar, Cleopatra supported his nephew and his allies. After the dust settled, Antony ordered her to meet with him in 40 BCE; naturally, her seduction of Marc Antony was complete and total.
She bore him twins.
Cleopatra and Marc Antony silver denarius, 32 BCE. Obverse: Cleopatra w/ diadem. Inscription: CLEOPATRA[E REGINAE REGVM]FILIORVM REGVM (In the reign of Queen Cleopatra and her sons); Reverse: Marc Antony. Inscription: ANTONI ARMENIA DEVICTA (Antony Conquered Armenia).
Years later in 36 BCE, Antony–still married to Octavian’s sister–returned to Alexandria for good. This did not help relations between the two Roman leaders, and eventually yet another civil war took place. Antony was finally defeated at the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BCE when Cleopatra and her fleet abandoned the fight and Marc Antony followed her.
Both Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide before Octavian could capture them. Legend says she took an asp to her bosom and died from a snakebite.
After the death of Marc Antony, Octavian was the de facto ruler of the Roman world. The Roman Senate would grant him the title Augustus in 27 BCE, the year that officially marks the beginning of the Roman Empire.
Livia was his wife.
She would become the first empress of Rome.
Livia Drusilla (lived 58 BCE – 29 CE) was born into a political family; it just happened to be the wrong one. Her father and first husband supported the assassins of Julius Caesar and fought against the faction of Octavian and Marc Antony. And when the assassins were defeated (her father committing suicide alongside Brutus and Cassius), her husband joined Marc Antony in his fight against Octavian.
Having received amnesty from Octavian, Livia and her young family (including future emperor Tiberius), returned to Rome from their refuge in Greece. Octavian was sufficiently charmed upon meeting her that he eventually divorced his current wife (on the day she gave birth to their only child, no less) and forced Livia’s husband to divorce her. The union lasted over 50 years until the death of Augustus (Octavian) in 14 CE.
Over that time she served as the living embodiment of Augustus’ revival of conservative family values, which lent much moral force to Augustus’ campaign to reform Roman society. Taking advantage of the supposed moral superiority or position of woman in society is one of the major reasons we see women used on coins as a means of propaganda; to that end Livia became the first Roman woman to appear on the provincial coinage of the Empire in 16 BCE.
But she was also Augustus’ most trusted advisor, and fiercely ambitious when it came to the political fortunes of her sons Drusus and Tiberius – both of them fathered by her first husband. Several mysterious deaths later, Augustus adopted Tiberius as his heir and future emperor in 4 CE.
British writer Robert Graves, author of I, Claudius (1934), did much to popularize the idea of Livia as politically-motivated poisoner, but the rumors had been around since her own lifetime.
After Augustus died and Tiberius ascended the throne, Livia continued to enjoy status and power. Eventually, however, she outwore her welcome in her son’s court, to the point where, in 29 CE when she died, the emperor didn’t even attend her funeral.
Not only that, but he undid any and all honors that the Roman Senate had bestowed upon her. And in a peculiarly Roman twist, Tiberius refused to deify his mother, which she desperately wanted for herself not because of vanity (and who knows if that were the case) but because Livia believed that the only way she would escape punishment for the sins she had committed in this life was to become a god.
Tiberius died in 37 CE and was succeeded by his great-nephew Caligula. At the death of Caligula in 41 CE, Livia’s grandson Claudius became emperor. It was Claudius who restored his grandmother’s honors and, finally, deified her.
But while she did appear on provincial issues, Livia was never directly portrayed on Roman coinage. Instead, allegorical figures or female deities such as Vesta (goddess of the hearth and family) were clearly modeled on her. And oddly enough, the majority of issues were released during the reign of her son Tiberius.
7.) Isabella I of Spain
Most Americans know Isabella I of Spain (lived 1451 – 1504) as the “Isabella” half of “Ferdinand and Isabella”. They are the royal duo who sent Christopher Columbus to the New World.
But that mission was only possible after the Reconquista of Spain was completed during their reign, with a victorious campaign against the Muslim Emirate of Granada.
And Isabella was a significant part of the unification of Spain as a modern country.
She was born the daughter of John II, king of Castile and Leon. At the time of her birth and right up until the successful Reconquista, the Spain we know today consisted of several smaller kingdoms, both Christian and Muslim. Her older half-brother Henry IV became king after the death of their father, and following years of forced isolation and the military rebellion of a group of nobles–who first took their younger brother Alfonso as champion before he died of the plague–Isabella became Henry’s legal heir.
Since the political situation in this divided Spain was dicey at best, Isabella had been promised in marriage to the son of a potential ally by the age of six. Her husband-to-be was none other than Ferdinand of Aragon, whom she would eventually marry… but not until the court intrigue and political machinations had reached “Byzantine” levels. The betrothal to Ferdinand was called off at least once, and she was promised to several other candidate grooms before everyone involved finally agreed that yes, Isabella would marry Ferdinand.
In the end, they even needed special permission from the pope since they were second cousins. They didn’t get it, but a forgery made by cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (a future pope and member of the notorious Renaissance family) and a well-timed elopement made the marriage happen.
She inherited the Castilian throne in 1474, and immediately had to deal with plots against her. War with Portugal lasted until 1476, but at its conclusion Ferdinand and Isabella were secure in their positions.
Isabella then did two things that solidified her place as rightful monarch: one, she personally put down another rebellion while Ferdinand was campaigning elsewhere, and two, she bore a son. This is yet another way in which “greatness” means something different for women in history than it does for men–both the “manly” arts of war and statecraft and “womanly” attributes like fertility are often required of them.
And much like Cleopatra, she was forced to fix the mess her male predecessor left behind. And frequently, the enactment of her reforms were strict and unforgiving, leading to such travesties as the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews from Spain.
In this regard, she shares a similarly mixed legacy in common with Catherine the Great of Russia, whom we will learn more about below.
1893 World’s Columbian Exposition Isabella Commemorative Quarter. Image used by permission from Heritage Auctions (www.ha.com).
With the conquest of Granada in 1492, Isabella was ready to embark on an even more ambitious project. Further imperial expansion having been stymied by the Portuguese presence closer to home, she financed the expedition of Christoforo Colombo, better known in English as Christopher Columbus. His goal was to establish a new trading route to the East Indies for Spain, though it’s possible that the Spanish had become aware of the New World already through its extended war with Portugal and needed to maintain a cover story in order to evade Portuguese intervention.
Once Columbus claimed the New World for Spain, a new day would soon arise for the Spanish Empire, born of the gold and especially the silver of the Americas–not to mention the heinous acts it took to extract this treasure from the land and from the people who already lived here.
As it is, Queen Isabella was the first foreign ruler, let alone queen, to appear on a coin issued by the United States – the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition quarter dollar.
6.) Catherine II of Russia (“The Great”)
Empress Catherine II of Russia (lived 1729 – 1796) was not the first, or the only, female ruler of Russia, but she was the most famous, and for her achievements is commonly granted the epithet “The Great”.
Catherine was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, a German princess from an old noble family. She was wed to her cousin, who became tsar Peter III of Russia since he was the grandson of Peter the Great. Catherine’s Peter was also German, but unfortunately he had no interest whatsoever in Russia, the culture or its people, and he pursued a pro-Prussian policy once on the throne.
His rule lasted all of six months. A coup led by his wife deposed him, and he died under mysterious circumstances.
But the key to this episode takes place a couple of decades earlier, when princess Sophie first visited Russia under empress Elizabeth in 1744. Sophie’s mother had schemed long and hard to perhaps one day make Sophie the empress of Russia, and Sophie, to her credit, decided to embrace this possible future role for herself and do whatever it took to be a worthy ruler. She became a favorite of the empress, going to great lengths to learn the Russian language and get to know the Russian people.
She even converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity, which very much endeared her to the Russians. This is where she received the name Catherine (Yekaterina).
So, after overthrowing her husband and possibly killing him in 1762, Princess Yekaterina became empress of Russia.
Catherine then proceeded to transform Russia into a European power. The most territorial expansion in the empire’s history occurred during her reign, with about 200,000 square miles added to its domains. Much of this land came under Russian control as a result of the military defeat of old enemies – such as the Turks, from whom the Crimean Peninsula was wrested in 1783.
New colonies were also established, such as Alaska.
Catherine embarked on her own modernization campaign, like her grandfather-by-marriage tsar Peter the Great had begun. She, too, admired the ideas of the Enlightenment, but turned away from the intellectual movement once the French Revolution began. Other reforms were designed to better control or integrate the Empire’s various religious and ethnic groups, such as Muslims and Jews. Some were successful; others produced mixed results.
For many Russians, however, the reign of Catherine the Great represents the Golden Age of the Russian Empire.
Interestingly, the Assignation ruble–the first paper money issued in Russia–came out during her rule. Used between 1769 and 1849, it was originally valued on par with the silver one-ruble coin, but as time went on it became considerably undervalued in comparison.
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