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The Measure of a Man or Woman - Beyond the Physical Appearance on Coins and Works of Art


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The coins that we collect, be they ancient or modern, and everything in between, depict rulers in varying degrees of "realism".  Of course realism can be a sticky subject.  What did Alexander III really look like?  How accurate were the Romans in their representation of their emperors and empresses?  How much liberty (artistic license) was taken to depict the ruler? 

While it would be expected that a ruler would wish to convey a handsome, authoritative portrait to his or her subjects, history has plenty examples where realism, or at least an approximation to realism, is the preferred approach.  Such is the case of Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor from July 1658 to May 1705, the second longest reigning emperor in the long running Hapsburg line.  He, like some of his predecessors had a congenital deformation of the jaw, sometimes referred to as the "Hapsburg jaw".  This deformation caused the jaw and lower lip to protrude, giving the appearance of an oversized lower lip.  

With such a deformity, surely a little alternation of a coin portrait or a painting depicting Leopold I would produce a pleasant, if not accurate impression of this important ruler.  But this was not to be with Leopold I.  Instead his portraits on coins and in paintings all display the deformity in all of its honesty, perhaps to an exaggerated degree with the coins .


The theme of this thread is beyond the physical, for truly Leopold was a remarkable man of industry and education, a patron of the arts (and composer) and a leader of an empire embroiled in conflicts with the Ottoman Empire and European powers, notably France under Louis XIV.   The War of the Spanish Succession, the costly struggle between the Hapsburg Holy Roman Empire and Bourbon France over the succession of the Spanish throne following the death of Spain's Charles II began towards the later years of his reign.  The ensuring peace in 1714, nine years following his death, resulted in a diminished Austria, with the installment of Bourbon Philip V on the Spanish throne and the continued ascendency of France as the dominant European continental power. 

This is a thaler that arrived today, from World Wide Coins of California, lot 33 in their fall auction.  I used to have a couple examples years ago, but they were sold as part of a fundraising effort to buy the house, so the return of Leopold I is a welcomed addition to the world crowns section of the collection.

Holy Roman Empire, Leopold I, AR thaler, 1691, Hall Mint (Tyrol).

KM 1349; Her 633-634; Dav ECT 3242

28.41 grams



What other examples are out there?



Edited by robinjojo
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I don't own one but Julius Caesar doesn't look great on his portraits. 


His baldness is still quite obvious, as is his elongated head. He has a thin neck and his jaw/chin doesn't look particularly strong 

Vespasian was unapologetically bald and made no attempt to hide it, unlike his son Domitian who although sometimes appears slightly receded, appeared unwilling to betray the full extent of his hairloss.


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One of the Roman Emperors that fits this bill is Maximinus thrax..

Protruding brow, nose and lower jaw and supposedly of huge stature...

His coins don't hide this... Here is my example from earlier in his reign. These features become even more pronounced in his coinage of 238...It's said that he possibly suffered from a disease called acromegaly...


Maximinus I Denarius. AD 235-238...3.18gr
Obverse..IMP MAXIMINVS PIVS AVG, laureate, draped bust right.
Reverse..FIDES MILITVM, Fides standing left, a standard in each hand.
RIC 7A Minted AD 235-236

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The portraiture of Henry VIII runs from that of a young king to an old, and at least with this example, a somewhat deranged or at least wizened appearance.  Not a noble end in numismatic style for such an important figure, one that was a pivotal in the transformation of England into a major European power, and one who ruthlessly put two queens to death!

 Henry VII, debased groat, Bristol Mint, 5th bust.


Edited by robinjojo
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I've always felt that the Philetairos portraits (this one on a Eumenes I coin) seemed realistic.


Struck circa 255/0-241 BCE
AR Tetradrachm 29mm, 16.89 g, 1h
In the name of Philetairos. Pergamon mint
Laureate head of Philetairos right
Athena enthroned left, elbow resting on shield to right, crowning dynastic name; transverse spear in background, grape bunch to outer left, A to inner left, bow to right.
Westermark Group V (unlisted dies); SNG BN 1618
Ex CNG 2015
Ex Lampasas Collection
Ex CNG 2022

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Another would by Ptolemy I

Ptolemy I Ar Tetradrachm 300-283 BC Obv Bust right diademed and draped Rv. Eagle standing lift i=on thunderbolt wings folded. Svoronos 252 CPE 132 14.01 grms 27 mm Photo by W. Hansen Sv252-1ptI.jpg.87756aea7758ba17c9c339bd66dc87e4.jpgMany years ago when VHS was still a going concern and you could rent these things at almost any 7-11 I walked in and saw this 


looking at Andre the Giant I thought... He looks like Ptolemy I.  He does have a number of features similar to Ptolemy The massive jaw and the protruding forehead20220401_SD_Andre--e5294c86f9dc8109f4f8f9b62f22a77f.jpg.b773011e6e6551732fe67213e761af9d.jpg

Andre suffered from some form of giantism. One might think that Ptolemy may have had something similar. However Ptolemy proved to be a very successful king and managed to die in bed something that very few of his opponents managed to achieve. 

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On his coins Augutus looked young even in old age. Not so Julia Maesa:


Julia Maesa
AR Denar
Obv.: IVLIA MAESA AVG, draped bust right.
Rev. IVNO REG, Iuno standing left, holding patera and sceptre; to left, peacock.
Ag, 3.59g, 18.2mm
Ref.: RIC IVb, 259 var (IVNO REG not REGI), RSC 23a, CRE 480 [R]


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Queen Christina of Sweden ascended to the throne upon the death of her father, Gustavus Adolphus at the battle of Lützen on November 16, 1632.  A patron of the arts, she became known as the one of the most learned women of the 17th century.  Indeed, she actively attracted many scientists to Stockholm, wanting the city to become the "Athens of the North".

A complex personality, she was also known to wear male clothing on occasion.  Her coinage and public paintings depict her in conventional 17th century female clothing.  This aspect of her personality was not, as far as I know.

Sweden, Queen Christina, riksdaler, 1645.

D-4525, SM-17

28.7 grams


Edited by robinjojo
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A Leopold I picked up years ago, a 1697 3 Kreuzer, also shows a protruding lower jaw. Some of the Hapsburgs, possibly including Leopold, apparently ate mostly in private because their jaws caused food to fall out of their mouths and liquid to dribble down their faces. Yet, and this is of course speculation, they may have also seen this physical inconvenience as a true sign of their royal lineage. If so, they may have not wanted to cover it up or conceal it.


A coin I just received this week, and created another thread for here, shows the Byzantine emperor Phocas. Some historical records describe Phocas's appearance as "grotesque" and some say he had a disfigurement. The coin, though not "realist," doesn't appear romanticized or overly altered in a way to make the emperor look more aesthetically pleasing. Though it remains hard to tell without some idea of what he actually looked like in person - a problem that arguably applies to many pre-photographic historical figures.


Phocas (602-610), Æ Follis (33mm, 11.79g), Cyzicus, Dated RY 4 ? (605/6); Obv: δN POCAS+PERPAVG, Crowned bust facing, wearing consular robes and holding mappa and cross, small cross to left; Rev: Large XXXX, ANNO above, II/II (date) to right, KYZA, Sear 665

Oliver Cromwell's "warts and all" claim, as well as Queen Elizabeth I's depictions, also relate to this discussion. In one of the biographies of Elizabeth I, it says that people who met the Queen in person were apparently warned by her staff that she did not resemble her public portraits and that flattering her beauty remained the best path to success. I don't have a great example of an Elizabeth I coin, but her minted portrait didn't seem to vary much as she aged. Elizabeth I might serve as a counter example to realism in royal portraiture. This contrasts sharply with the depiction of her royal namesake Elizabeth II, who aged quite visibly on the coins of the realm. Elizabeth I didn't have to contend with the constant presence of media.


Edited by ewomack
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Hi All,

A Ptolemaic portrait not often seen in silver which I think is realistic: Ptolemy III Euergetes.



Size: 25 mm
Weight: 14.2 g
Die Axis: 0
Refs: Lorber CPE-798 (This); Svoronos 914, pl xxvii, 10 [1 listed, Dattari];
COP-0691 var: sim rev style.

Broucheion Collection P-1997-06-01.001

OBV: Ptolemy III head facing right, wearing diadem and lion skin or aegis Plain border (not dotted).
REV: Εagle on thunderbolt facing left, wings closed. Legend to left: ΠΤΟΛΕ [ΜΑΙΟΥ]. In left field: inverted "N" above club. To right: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ. In right field: bunch of grapes. Plain border (not Dotted).
Provenance: CPE Plate Coin. Ex Auctiones AG Basel, Auction 26 (16-19 Sep 1996), Lot #336.
Notes: Same dies as EH 105 The "Syria" 981 Hoard, pl 51, #747. Obverse die links known with CPE 797 & 799.

- Broucheion


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How about Claudius?  Here is an emperor who was said to have a disability, which caused a limp in his walk, along with a stammer and partial deafness.  His depiction on the coins of reign generally do have have an "imperial" quality when compared to those of later emperors, such as Vespasian and the almost haughty profile of Nerva, nor do they generally possess the confidence conveyed through a Hadrian portrait. 

And yet there is no discounting the achievements of Claudius, including the expansion of the empire to include much of Britain, and the developing of the harbor at Ostia along with other major public works, restoring a measure of stability to Rome following the turbulent years of Caligula and his literary contributions including a twenty-volume history of the Etruscans, a work which unfortunately no longer exists today.

Since this is a provincial issue, from Gaul, the portrait quality is not as refined compared to those produced by Rome, so perhaps this crude example is not representative.



Edited by robinjojo
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George III was famously mad and unattractive, probably also due to inbreeding. Unfortunately, I don't have a 'Bull Head' halfcrown, where he is so unattactive as to be handsome.

George III New Coinage Shilling, 1816
London. Silver, 24mm, 5.62g. Laureate bust with date below; GEOR III D G RRITT REX F D (broken B punch). Crowned Royal shield overlaid with smaller crowned shield, all within Garter; HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE (S 3970).

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Augustus did have a long reign, from 31 BC to 14 AD.  Robert Graves described him as a worn, tired man towards the later years, with his wife, Livia, managing many of his affairs behind the throne,  

Speaking of powerful women, how about Elizabeth I of England.  The daughter of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth spent her youth under the shadow of Henry VIII's later reign, followed by the relatively brief reign of her brother, Edward VI and finally the turbulent years of here sister Mary I, before ascending to the throne in 1558. 

Elizabeth I suffered, as many did in the 16th century, from a smallpox infection in 1562 which nearly killed her and left her face scarred for life. In later life, she suffered the loss of her hair and her teeth.

Her reign became known as England's "Golden Age" a worthy credit for a daughter deemed illegitimate by her father.

Her portraits both in paintings and on coins do not depict the scarring; indeed Elizabeth I wore thick lead-based makeup to cover them.  


The "Darnely Portrait", circa 1575

Elizabeth I, Crown, mm 1, 1602.


Edited by robinjojo
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  • 2 weeks later...

Frederick Christian, Elector of Saxony

A weak child since his birth, he suffered paralysis in one foot and was dependent on wheelchairs early in life. In a well-known portrait, which shows his Wettin and Wittelsbach relatives around him, he appears in his wheelchair.

Becoming very overweight, his mother tried repeatedly to induce him to take monastic vows and renounce his succession rights in favour of his younger brothers, but he refused, having his own ideas of the future. Even before becoming Elector, Frederick Christian had written in his diary: "Princes exist for their subjects, not subjects for their princes. His subjects' wealth, public credit and a well-standing army make up the true happiness of a prince," thereby openly declaring himself open to the ideas of the Age of enlightenmment.


Sadly his reign lasted only 74 days before dying of smallpox, hence it is a single year of issue Thaler

Type     Standard circulation coin
Year     1763
Value     4⁄3 Saxon thaler = 1 Conventionsthaler = ⅒ Cologne Mark
Currency     Thaler (1493-1805)
Composition     Silver (.833)
Weight     28.8 g
Diameter     43 mm
Shape     Round
Orientation     Medal alignment ↑↑
Demonetized     Yes
Number     N# 32813
References     KM# 962, Dav GT II# 2677, Schnee# 1052, Buck# 14

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On 12/8/2022 at 4:01 AM, Achori Pe said:

@panzerman , I am Victor. Nice Lima portrait 8 Escudos. Choice example for that type, great strike and lustrous. Here is my Peru Imaginary bust 1 escudo. This portrait of Ferdinand VII was used in Peru from 1808-1811. 



Nice AV Escudo Victor! I like the so called imaginary busts from the Lima Mint. They are rare in MS.

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