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Left-Facing Reverses and Seated-Left Imagery, 4th BCE to 5th CE. (Zeus, Athena, Roma... It's all Baal!)


Curtis JJ
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At first I was commenting on @Ocatarinetabellatchitchix's interesting thread on Right-Facing Portraits, but decided to split my comment between the two, and put the reverses here. (I'm still editing my left-facing obverses comment over there, but it's coming!)

Just as obverses have a tendency to face right, there seems to be a preference for Left-Facing Reverses

I have a mini-collection of "seated left" imagery. It began in late archaic / early classical Greek coinage (and other art), which probably influenced the later coins, but my examples begin with the influential AR Stater of Tarsos under Mazaios, c. 361 - 334 BCE, shortly before the city and mint were taken by Alexander III.

One great detail from this turning point in history is Alexander's adoption of the Baaltars imagery for his own Tetradrachms. (I think it's obvious, though others may disagree; see Biblio at end.) This was more than an artistic choice: Alexander III wanted a design that could appeal both to the local population (who would see it as Baal, the "old god") and to Alexander's Greeks (who would see it as Zeus). (See esp. Rowan 2016, in Biblio note.)

Over 750 years, from Baaltars of Mazaios, to Zeus of Alexander III, to Athena of Lysimachos and the other Diadochi, then outward to other Greek Kingdoms and cities, to Vesta and Roma et al., the imagery persists all the way to 19th and 20th century coinage (and today). Zeus, Athena, Roma, Britannia, Liberty... It's all Baal. S'all Baal, man!

(Some of these images are from my previous posts)

image.png.4b3a71e53977a8cf6558cf7404e79f9c.pngimage.png.c016101b8847d9ba8a7ae1da5af173dd.pngimage.jpeg.9dc5fc927eaad07d2c6731412f609a68.jpegimage.png.c794735c60de3bbf4edb18bc9c6d9aa0.pngimage.jpeg.8f38b1888baea1ab984f102d6cb3a2bc.jpegimage.jpeg.990e370ad9cef4fcb527e7f9d27b9446.jpegimage.jpeg.16b028af93e175aaaaf5be2f9a9502b6.jpegimage.jpeg.aaaf7c2d5525a618fc50bf45b37d3c70.jpegimage.png.53ae6256649dff807bb0905d6187b81c.pngimage.jpeg.f3f8b1a1f7d19da047e5db5885bdf1f4.jpegimage.png.f140bb87a8e97a701653a7aace0d0f66.pngimage.png.ef001587e8685f8bdbe824790fd5909e.png

 

I have a bunch of others "seated left" but, at a quick glance, I only notice a few "seated right" in my collection. These ones come from Parthia (and maybe Persis), probably less constrained by Greco-Roman convention (interesting, the obverses also face the "wrong" way from a Greco-Roman perspective, leftward):

image.jpeg.fdba5e72978c370462fb0d8881145fdd.jpegimage.jpeg.8c401fbea6110051b22080a553ef7c55.jpeg

 

WHY?

Hypothesis 1: Since there's a preference for right facing obverses, a left-facing reverse gives the illusion of the obverse figure gazing toward the reverse (which gazes back). (Even if the coin doesn't have a 12h die axis, one imagines the viewer reorienting the coin properly to "see" the full tableau created by the two sides.) Only a tentative hypothesis. I'm interested to hear others.

H2 (not mutually exclusively with the first): "Institutional inertia." It's how the early, trend-setting examples were done. Later versions, wanting to borrow from the familiar design elements, and have their coinage readily accepted, adopted the general imagery. This is more-or-less the explanation given by Thonemann (2015). Having once-upon-a-time studied a bit of the "new institutionalism" in sociology and economics, this explanation makes good sense to me.

 

NoteShort Baal-Zeus Biblio.
Clare Rowan’s 2016 “Ambiguity, Iconography, and Entangled Objects" ;
- Reid Goldsborough, including rival hypotheses: http://rg.ancients.info/alexander/tets.html ;
- Orestes Zervos vs. MJ Price, 1982, “DEBATE: The Earliest Coins of Alexander the Great,” pages 166-190, including pp. 167-170 on "Derivation of the Seated Zeus" ; 
- similarly for Samarian Baal coinage, Wyssmann [2014, “The Coinage Imagery of Samaria and Judah in the Late Persian Period”]: pp. 232-234 (incl. notes, esp. 38), see also pp. 245, 247 ;
- Thonemann’s (2015) The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources (available here, on Archive, at least for the moment... though I found it worth it to get the paperback copies of the Cambridge "using coins as sources" series).

Edited by Curtis JJ
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3 minutes ago, Curtis JJ said:

At first I was commenting on @Ocatarinetabellatchitchix's interesting thread on Right-Facing Portraits, but decided to split my comment between the two, and put the reverses here. (I'm still editing my left-facing obverses comment over there, but it's coming!)

Just as obverses have a tendency to face right, there seems to be a preference for Left-Facing Reverses

I have a mini-collection of "seated left" imagery. It began in late archaic / early classical Greek coinage (and other art), which probably influenced the later coins, but my examples begin with the influential AR Stater of Tarsos under Mazaios, c. 361 - 334 BCE, shortly before the city and mint were taken by Alexander III.

One great detail from this turning point in history is Alexander's adoption of the Baaltars imagery for his own Tetradrachms. (I think it's obvious, though others may disagree; see Biblio at end.) This was more than an artistic choice: Alexander III wanted a design that could appeal both to the local population (who would see it as Baal, the "old god") and to Alexander's Greeks (who would see it as Zeus). (See esp. Rowan 2016, in Biblio note.)

Over 750 years, from Baaltars of Mazaios, to Zeus of Alexander III, to Athena of Lysimachos and the other Diadochi, then outward to other Greek Kingdoms and cities, to Vesta and Roma et al., the imagery persists all the way to 19th and 20th century coinage (and today). Zeus, Athena, Roma, Britannia, Liberty... It's all Baal. S'all Baal, man!

(Some of these images are from my previous posts)

image.png.4b3a71e53977a8cf6558cf7404e79f9c.pngimage.png.c016101b8847d9ba8a7ae1da5af173dd.pngimage.jpeg.9dc5fc927eaad07d2c6731412f609a68.jpegimage.png.c794735c60de3bbf4edb18bc9c6d9aa0.pngimage.jpeg.8f38b1888baea1ab984f102d6cb3a2bc.jpegimage.jpeg.990e370ad9cef4fcb527e7f9d27b9446.jpegimage.jpeg.16b028af93e175aaaaf5be2f9a9502b6.jpegimage.jpeg.aaaf7c2d5525a618fc50bf45b37d3c70.jpegimage.png.53ae6256649dff807bb0905d6187b81c.pngimage.jpeg.f3f8b1a1f7d19da047e5db5885bdf1f4.jpegimage.png.f140bb87a8e97a701653a7aace0d0f66.pngimage.png.ef001587e8685f8bdbe824790fd5909e.png

 

I have a bunch of others "seated left" but, at a quick glance, I only notice a few "seated right" in my collection. These ones come from Parthia (and maybe Persis), probably less constrained by Greco-Roman convention (interesting, the obverses also face the "wrong" way from a Greco-Roman perspective, leftward):

image.jpeg.fdba5e72978c370462fb0d8881145fdd.jpegimage.jpeg.8c401fbea6110051b22080a553ef7c55.jpeg

 

WHY?

Hypothesis 1: Since there's a preference for right facing obverses, a left-facing reverse gives the illusion of the obverse figure gazing toward the reverse (which gazes back). (Even if the coin doesn't have a 12h die axis, one imagines the viewer reorienting the coin properly to "see" the full tableau created by the two sides.) Only a tentative hypothesis. I'm interested to hear others.

H2 (not mutually exclusively with the first): "Institutional inertia." It's how the early, trend-setting examples were done. Later versions, wanting to borrow from the familiar design elements, and have their coinage readily accepted, adopted the general imagery. This is more-or-less the explanation given by Thonemann (2015). Having once-upon-a-time studied a bit of the "new institutionalism" in sociology and economics, this explanation makes good sense to me.

 

NoteShort Baal-Zeus Biblio.
Clare Rowan’s 2016 “Ambiguity, Iconography, and Entangled Objects" ;
- Reid Goldsborough, including rival hypotheses: http://rg.ancients.info/alexander/tets.html ;
- Orestes Zervos vs. MJ Price, 1982, “DEBATE: The Earliest Coins of Alexander the Great,” pages 166-190, including pp. 167-170 on "Derivation of the Seated Zeus" ; 
- similarly for Samarian Baal coinage, Wyssmann [2014, “The Coinage Imagery of Samaria and Judah in the Late Persian Period”]: pp. 232-234 (incl. notes, esp. 38), see also pp. 245, 247 ;
- Thonemann’s (2015) The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources (available here, on Archive, at least for the moment... though I found it worth it to get the paperback copies of the Cambridge "using coins as sources" series).

Curtis, Thanks for the interesting writeup ☺️! As Ocats writeup I never gave the subject much thought. Your ideas seem reasonable.

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@Curtis JJ....Interesting write up and some beautiful looking coins!

The Brits obviously didn't know which way to turn (Not much different now!)....Here's a left facing portrait with seated figure right on the reverse....

1852047394_cunobelin_black(2).jpg.a2acabe17a7ca6afef1cdb36e1c7324f.jpg

Britannia, Trinovantes & Catuvellauni. Cunobelin. Circa 9-41 AD. AE Unit (2.437 g, 14mm).
Obv: Winged head left, CVNO in front, BELIN behind.
Rev: Metal worker, presumably the smith god known as Sucellus in parts of Gaul, sitting on a solid seat with a detached upright back, holding an L-shaped hammer in his right hand, left hand holding a metal bowl, there is always a distinct bun of hair behind the smith's head, TASCIO (Tascionus his father) behind, beaded border.
Van Arsdell 2097; ABC 2969; SCBC 342. Hobbs 1972-83;..VF.

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26 minutes ago, Spaniard said:

The Brits obviously didn't know which way to turn (Not much different now!)....Here's a left facing portrait with seated figure right on the reverse....

Lol... And wow, what a cool coin! Aside from the interesting reversal of obv. bust and figure on reverse, I love that there's a smith-god doing metalwork on the back. I had no idea you could find a coin depicting a full blacksmithing scene on it!

Also really cool for the place and time period. Just at a glance I'd have thought, "Hm, that's an intriguing Roman Provincial Bronze from somewhere in Roman Asia..." I'm assuming the end date of 41 is for Claudius' invasion of Britannia. Even if influenced by Roman Pronvicials (or Roman-friendly coins in the West), that makes it a proper pre-Roman British coin, which I would never have guessed. Didn't even know there was such a thing. Still something new to learn every day, I love it!

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The problem with H1 is, that the "illusion of the obverse figure gazing toward the reverse" is IMHO a modern observation mainly based on pictures of the reverse and obverse side by side. If you have to rotate the coin this effect is mainly gone.

I tend to H2, also because in other cultural groups it's just the opposite, e.g. Elymais or the Parthia coin you showed.

 

normal_elymais_15_0.jpg.6a6aaf641fdbe18a80d8c3897c8d5d4f.jpg

Kingdom of Elymais
Prince A
Late 2nd-Early 3rd Cent
Æ Drachm
Obv.: Bust to left; Hair tuft at back Head; Anchor with 1 Crossbar
Rev.: Artemis standing right; Bow at right; reaching Left for arrow
Æ, 1.9g, 13 mm
Ref.: Van´t Haaff Type 19.1, Subtype 1-1Bb THIS COIN
Ex Van't Haaff Collection

 

Also even  in Rome it could be the other way:

 

normal_Claudius_02.jpg.aeff7b572fcaa55c6854a7bcd93a5b2d.jpg

Claudius
Copper As, Rome Mint
Obv.: TI CLAVDIVS CAESAR AVG P M TR P IMP, bare head left
Rev.: LIBERTAS AVGVSTA S C, Libertas standing facing, head right, holding pileus and extending left arm
AE, 10.87g, 28.9mm
Ref.: RIC I 97, BMCRE I 145

 

Here is another example with usual orientation but two seated figures:

normal_G_406_Tarsos.jpg.c8746a42dc3d707556d446ae29084c08.jpg

CILICIA. Tarsos.
164-27 BC
Obv: Tyche seated right on chair, holding grain ears; to lower right, river god Kydnos swimming; TEN / ONT / OC to left.
Rev: TAPΣΕΩΝ. Zeus Nikephoros seated left on throne, holding sceptre; APC / AK / OY to left.
AE, 12.90 g. 26 mm
Ref.: Ziegler 650; SNG BN 1380-2; SNG Levante 982.

 

 

Edited by shanxi
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Posted (edited)
11 hours ago, shanxi said:

The problem with H1 is, that the "illusion of the obverse figure gazing toward the reverse" is IMHO a modern observation mainly based on pictures of the reverse and obverse side by side. If you have to rotate the coin this effect is mainly gone.

Yes, I agree with you on that, it's a very good point, that this observation may be mostly a "presentist" bias, influenced by how we see coins now: in photography.

BUT... maybe not always? I have seen people argue otherwise, and seen examples I found compelling. (Even if correct, it may only apply to those coins.)

Alan Walker (I assume he's the cataloger below, but I'm not certain) suggested how that hypothesis might be confirmed/supported -- by finding a piece of artwork that is portrayed on a single coin across both sides. (Unfortunately, though, it's harder to see it could be falsified.)

From Nomos 21 (21 Nov 2020), Lot 229 [NOT MY COIN]:
“CILICIA. Tarsos. Circa 410-385 BC. Stater (Silver)… [SNG Levante 61.]
The types found on Greek coins are often related to each other [i.e., the obv. and rev. of the same coin], as Athena and her owl, but they only rarely depict an action that continues from one side to the other. Here we have a Persian horseman, his sword held downwards by his right leg (oddly enough not raised in attack), starting to charge to the right, seemingly against a Greek hoplite who is kneeling left to meet the attack. Could this be taken from a contemporary painting or a sculptural group?

7552360.m.jpg.1bbfdedf597d540de8de016bc928157d.jpg

 

Remarkably (if the two sides do form one tableau), the coin has a 3h die orientation! That would be the support that people mentally imagined each side rotated upward, rather than applying the literal, physical orientation of the two sides as struck.

On your related point, though (that the effect disappears on the left facing obverse with right facing reverse), I'd actually say your first two examples could be seen as supporting H1:

The King and Emperor are still gazing at Artemis and Libertas, who are staring back at them, it's just across the other edge (to see it in two dimensions, the reverse photo is on the left).

[From above, NOT my coins]   image.png.e636c2700fe944ff52c12191f91ce20a.png

Not saying I'm convinced that people ever did see the obverses and reverses as forming a single tableau. But I think it's plausible, at least in certain cases, and stronger evidence might appear.

Edited by Curtis JJ
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Ok, but if we now consider coins with two busts, wouldn't one always have to face left, if H1 is correct? So that they look at each other? 
That is not the case. In my collection, fpr something like 90%  both busts look to the right or both left.

 

Here are some examples.

 

normal_R791_Antoninus_Pius_fac_0.jpg.a3376ace9ac19fb679b6added0af5e13.jpg

normal_elymais_18_0.jpg.be0612da7650fd6437767d5893bdda31.jpg

normal_R790_Faustina_II_fac_1.jpg.29cc4b97b1f02d64d01a5c8c825c146e.jpgnormal_G_374_Pergamon_b.jpg.1329a359f45bd23bf9a55af526c9df2b.jpgnormal_Octavian_Antoninus_R695_fac.jpg.43f706cd1f6cdf6b07da41d456c07da4.jpgnormal_Faustina_II_64_2.jpg.3aa99799b1bcf91920011b46a7d6a492.jpgnormal_Livia_Julia_R694_Pergamon_fac.jpg.369249ac02b4456495ed1a7f952179f2.jpgnormal_Elagabal_08.jpg.2689666f62763b6b9175e92b6400da85.jpgnormal_Domitian_03.jpg.b5335f9bfcac229fdf33978d4533bee9.jpg

 

 

Edited by shanxi
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No, not really. The hypothesis (at least not in any version I've seen) isn't that it's the only artistic concern (or necessarily even the primary concern, except in cases like the Tarsos Hoplite / Charging warrior coin above), or that every single coin should work that way. Just as with the busts facing rightward because it's good luck, or the coins tending to continue in the tradition of a preference for right-facing obverses and left-facing reverses, there are obvious exceptions. No one disputes that there are all four combinations of orientation.

It's only an explanation for the overall quantitative tendency (which is present, mathematically; right-facing is the most frequent obverse, left-facing the most frequent reverse).

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