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Facing Heads on Greek Coins (then Roman and Byzantine and Medieval and …)

Curtis JJ

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One of the earliest and most influential facing heads on a Greek coin:

Kimon’s facing Arethusa Tetradrachm (Syracuse, 406-400 BCE). Few collectors will acquire a specimen of that type, but coins influenced by it are often well within reach.

The finest example, the Robert Käppeli specimen, has twice sold in the ballpark of $2 million dollars-plus (at NGSA in 2019 and NAC in 2014).



I’ve settled for buying pictures of them. Here’s the Nelson Bunker Hunt Collection specimen in the 19 June 1990 Sotheby’s auction of Part I:


The influence of this coin was almost instantaneous by the standards of antiquity.

For the first time, coin engravers began to overcome the technical, artistic barriers to depicting ¾ facing busts with realistic proportions. (On this topic, I recommend Harlan Berk’s 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, which I found very accessible to a non-artist.)

Below is one of the first dies in the series of Facing Head Drachms struck at Thessaly, Larissa. These are now typically dated to 400 – 370 BCE (i.e., beginning immediately after the Kimon type, which is clearly the inspiration):


Description off-site

Similar designs had spread through Peloponnesos and Central Greece by the mid-fourth century. Likely inspired by another Syracusan Tetradrachm (the facing Athena of Eukleiadas), the small Federal bronze coin of Phocis (c. 350s-340s BCE) below depicts Athena in an elaborately crested helmet:


Within decades, mints in Asia Minor were copying the design. Though not as close to the original as the Thessalian type, the coinage of the Satraps of Persian Caria began striking facing heads. Below is a Tetradrachm of Hidrieus, whose predecessors had already struck these coins for two generations by 350 BCE:


Description off-site

This image inspired centuries of Rhodos coinage depicting Helios (including perhaps images of the Colossus itself), which in turn inspired the so-called "Pseudo Rhodian" coinage (imitating Rhodian design) as late as the Roman invasion of Greece.

The following “Drachms” (of a light standard, these ones 2.46-2.77g) are thought to have been struck by Perseus during the Third Macedonian War (c. 172-168 BCE) to pay mercenaries from Crete and elsewhere, who were used to Rhodian coinage with a 3/4-facing head of Helios (along with a rose, P-O ethnic, and magistrate name on the reverse).

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The facing Gorgon is one of the few that may have preceded the Syracusan tradition above. The “drachm” below, is traditionally dated to 5th century Parion (but perhaps Olbia?).

Unlike the ¾ facing heads above, the Gorgon’s frontal facing pose may have been necessary for its “atropaic” properties. That is, the Gorgon could ward of the “evil eye” and evil spirits.


As the more Archaic versions transformed to more Classical style, the Gorgoneion typically remained forward-facing:



I could continue from here with Roman, then Byzantine, Medieval, even a few Islamic. But hopefully others will share their thoughts and examples of facing heads on coinage – ancient and beyond!



For variety, a great overview is the ”David Herman Collection of Facing Heads on Greek Coins,” CNG MBS 73 (13 Sep 2006) and Triton X (8 Jan 2007).

Unfortunately, the full PDF catalogs (and all their introductory materials) are unavailable online. But CNG’s Archive has 117 of the MBS 73 lots and all 71 of the Triton X lots. ACSearch has all 119 lots from CNG 73 and 71 lots from Triton X. (There were a few more in MBS 74 and a large group in EA 148.) It's very impressive, from Etrurian to Parthian and everything in between.

Edited by Curtis JJ
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Facing heads are always interesting, if only someone could have solved the nose problem.:classic_biggrin:



Caria, Rhodes
Drachm (Circa 88/42 BC-AD 14).
Obv: Radiate head of Helios facing slightly right.
Rev: P – O, Rose seen from above. Control: below, grain ear left.
AR, 4.08g, 18mm
Ref.: HGC 6, 1456; SNG von Aulock 2839



Laranda, Lycaonia
4th century BC
Obv: Facing head of Herakles, with club over shoulder; H to left
Rev: Forepart of wolf right; star above.
Ag, 0.69g, 10.2mm
Ref.: Göktürk 68-9; SNG BN –; SNG von Aulock –.



Pisidia, Selge
AE13, 2nd-1st centurie BC
Obv.: Head of Herakles facing, wreathed with styrax
Rev.: Stag kneeling r., head turned l. ΣE in field, arrow below
Æ, 3.17g, 12.9mm
Ref.: SNG France 1963 var.



Larissa, Thessaly
AR Obol, Circa 356-342 BC
Obv.: Head of the nymph Larissa facing slightly left, hair in ampyx, wearing plain necklace
Rev: Horse grazing right; ΛAPIΣ-AIΩN above and below.
Ag, 10mm, 0.84g
Ref.: BCD Thessaly II 328



Parion, Mysia
4th century BC
Obv.: Facing gorgoneion surrounded by snakes
Rev.: ΠΑ / ΡΙ, Bull standing left, head reverted. star below
Ag, 13mm, 2.41g
Ref.: SNG von Aulock 1322


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Two facing heads for the price of one!



Moesia, Istros.

 Drachm, 4th century BC.

Facing heads of the Dioskouroi, one inverted / Eagle standing on dolphin left, IΣTPIH above, A below.

SNG BM Black Sea 247ff.

6.26g, 12mm.


Although this one is off centre and somewhat crystallised I have always thought that the head of the nymph Larissa is of particularly fine style.




Thessaly, Larissa.

Drachm, circa 365-356 BC.

Head of the nymph Larissa facing slightly left, with hair in ampyx /  [ΛΑΡΙ]ΣΑΙΩΝ. Horse standing right, preparing to lie down.

BCD Thessaly II 312; HGC 4, 450 var. (horse left).

5.96 g, 19 mm.

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Nice subject.

Facing portraits made me raise an eyebrow when seeing them because they are "different". First examples in my mind are the Gorgons


Thrace, Apollonia Pontica 425-375 BC. Drachm. 14 mm 3,02 g. Obv: Upright anchor; crayfish to left. Rev: Facing gorgoneion.    SNG Apollonia Pontica 106-112.


10 mm, 0,88 g
Pisidia, Selge AR Obol Circa 350-300 BC Obverse: Facing gorgoneion with protruding tongue Reverse: Head of Athena to left, wearing crested Attic helmet; behind, astragalos References: SNG France 1928. SNG von Aulock 5281 Note: Archaic style and a scarce variety with Athena portrait left. Possibly pre-dating the usual date of 350-300 BC typically assigned to this type.


Macedon. Neapolis circa 425-350 BC.
Hemidrachm AR
13 mm, 1,68 g
Facing gorgoneion with protruding tongue. Rev. N-E-O-Π Head of the nymph of Neapolis to right, her hair coiled around her head and with a bun at the back. SNG ANS 430-454.

And of course there are the Larissa coins, also already mentioned, I find these as true works of art


Thessaly. Larissa circa 356-320 BC.
Trihemiobol AR
11 mm, 0,93 g
Thessaly, Larissa AR Trihemiobol. Circa 356-320 BC. Head of the nymph Larissa facing slightly to left, wearing ampyx and necklace / Thessalian horseman charging to right; ΛΑΡΙΣΑΙΩΝ around. BCD Thessaly II 341; HGC 4, 515.

I have a small coin from Nagidos with 2 (almost) facing portraits


CILICIA, Nagidos(ca 400-380 BC) AR Obol
Head of Aphrodite facing slightly right; [N] to left
Rev: Wreathed head of young Dionysos facing slightly left; [N] to left.
Göktürk 2; SNG France –; SNG Levante 6.
0,56 g, 11 mm


Honorable mention to Rhodes coinage, where there are extremely pleasing portraits of Helios


CARIA. Rhodes AR Hemidrachm, ca 404-390 BC
Head of Helios facing slightly right.
Rev: P - O - Rose
Ashton 13-24; SNG Copenhagen 725; SNG Keckman 367; HGC 6, 1426.
1,68 g, 12 mm


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Facing heads were very challenging to engrave but are also quite challenging to photograph. Here are a few of mine:



Drachm circa 360, AR 4.05 g. Laureate head of Apollo facing three-quarters l., wearing chlamys secured by round brooch. Rev. AΠ – ΟΛΛΑ – Σ ??Swan standing l., with open wings; below, KΛ. ??Traité II, 1997 and pl CLV, 25. Boston 1861. Kunstrfreund 219 (this coin). Ex Naville I, 1921, Pozzi, 2400; Ars Classica XVI, 1933, 1390 and Leu-M&M 28 May 1974, Kunstfreund, 219 sales


MYSIA, Kyzikos. Circa 450-330 BC. EL Stater (18mm, 16.09 g). Head of Apollo, wearing laurel wreath, facing slightly right; below, tunny right / Quadripartite incuse square. Von Fritze I 132; Greenwell 17; Boston MFA 1492 = Warren 1436



THESSALY. Larissa. Ca. mid-4th century BC. AR stater or didrachm (26mm, 12.32 gm, 4h). NGC Choice AU 5/5 - 4/5, Fine Style. Head of nymph Larissa facing, turned slightly left, hair in ampyx, wearing pendant earrings and necklace / ΛΑΡΙ-Σ-ΑΙΩΝ, bridled horse prancing right on ground line. HGC 4, 409. BCD Thessaly I 306-311. BCD Thessaly II 1160.

Ex Nelson Bunker Hunt Collection (Sotheby's New York, 19 June 1990), lot 93



Drachm circa 380-350, AR 2.76 g. Pegasus flying r.; below, Λ. Rev. Head of Aphrodite facing, turned slightly r., wearing a pearl necklace; in r. field, retrograde Σ. Traité II, IV p. 78, 157 and pl. CCLXXVI, 15-16. BMC 115. BCD Akarnanien und Aetolien 211 (this coin). Ex M&M GmbH, 2007, BCD, 211 and Nomos 3, 2011, 77 sales.


DYNASTS OF LYCIA. Perikles, circa 380-360 BC. Stater (Silver, 26 mm, 9.71 g, 4 h), Phellos. Laureate and bearded head of Perikles facing three-quarters to left, with his hair in dramatic disarray; traces of a cloak around his neckline; to right, dolphin swimming downward. Rev. 𐊓𐊁𐊕𐊆𐊋𐊍𐊁 - 𐊇𐊁𐊛𐊑𐊗𐊁𐊈𐊚 ('Perikle - Wehñtezẽ' in Lycian) Perikles, nude but for Corinhtian helmet, advancing to right, wielding sword in his right hand and holding shield in his left; in field to right, triskeles; all within incuse square. Mildenberg, Mithrapata, 21 and pl. 4, 20 and 22 (this coin). Müseler VIII, 35 var. (same obverse die, but differing reverse symbol). N. Olçay & O. Mørkholm: The Coin Hoard from Podalia, in: NC 1971, 407 (this coin). SNG von Aulock 4249 (same dies).

From the Kleinkunst Collection, ex Leu 54, 28 April 1992, 155 and from the Podalia Hoard of 1957 (IGCH 1262).



Rhodes drachm (I don't have the attribution on-hand)



Pantikapaion drachm, 340/325 v. Chr. Head of a silen after half left (three -quarter view). Rev. Pan Head of a bull to the left (three -quarter view). 9h. Zograph, p. 283 and Tf. 40.17; Mac Donald p. 21.57; SNG BM IX Pt. 1, Tf. 33.880. 3.18 G.; 17.3 mm.

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Maybe not "quite" the quality of  the BMFA example but here's Athena wearing a triple-crested Attic helmet.
The naked  chap on the reverse is Leukaspis, a Sicani (Sicilian native tribe) prince supposedly killed by Herakles. He's on this  coin - some think - as Dionysios needed all the help  he could get in his endless wars, so was  nodding to "native" sentiment. Speculation of course but  thought I'd mention it.
Sicily, Syracuse AR Drachm. Time of Dionysios I, circa 405-400 BC. Head of Athena facing three-quarters to left, wearing triple-crested Attic helmet; on either side, two dolphins snout to snout; [ΣΥΡΑΚΟΣΙΟΝ around] / Naked Leukaspis advancing to right, wearing crested helmet and holding spear in right hand and oval shield in left; sword suspended by strap over right shoulder; square altar ornamented with garland in background left, and to right, forepart of slain ram on its back; ΣΥΡΑ[ΚΟΣΙΟΝ] around, [ΛΕΥΚΑΣΠΙΣ] in exergue. Jameson 810 (same dies); Boehringer, Essays Thompson pl. 38, 6 (same); SNG ANS 310 (same); Boston MFA 420; Kunstfreund 121; Rizzo pl. XLII, 1; HGC 2, 1364. 3.98g, 18mm


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One more Greek for now... A Thessaly, Skotoussa Hemidrachm. Facing Artemis, Poseidon on back. Probably late 3rd cent BCE:


How about some Roman and Byzantine?

I don't think I have any of the Republican types but they're out there.

I do have some late Imperials... These were very popular on the AV Solidus, but they're also on lots of the late bronze coins... I've seen an explanation for why they switched to these, but I'm unable to remember at the moment...




The Facing portrait remained popular for several more centuries on Byzantine Solidi, and beginning with Justinian, it was also picked up on the AE Follis (in Year 12 of his reign, 537/8 CE) and other bronze coins. (It never seemed too popular on the Tremissis and Semissis, although there were some types with facing busts.)





Was the two facing portraits at once a Byzantine invention? Or are there earlier examples? This is Constans II with Constantine IV (Heraclius & Tiberius on reverse), 641-668 CE:



From the late 10th century onward, it seems like Byzantine coins had gone entirely in the direction of facing portraits. By then, though, I think they were usually full- or half-bodied portraits, no longer "facing busts" or "facing heads" in the earlier sense: 



For a brief moment in the mid-12th century the Artuqids of Mardin favored facing busts. "Islamic Figurals" can be a fascinating type, since these are clearly drawing inspiration from some of the previous artistic traditions (though which, exactly, is always an exciting topic of debate):


Edited by Curtis JJ
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5 hours ago, AncientJoe said:

Facing heads were very challenging to engrave

First, hats off to your examples, I don't think I have ever seen a group of such beautiful coins.

I remembered I have this coin now. I am not sure if the engraver was... let's say, not the most talented from his class or the wear pattern was strange but this front facing Athena with triple crested helmet reminds me badly of Twin Peaks dwarf. Anyway not a masterpiece.



Seleukid Kingdom. Sardeis. Antiochos I Soter 281-261 BC. Bronze Æ 13 mm., 2,62 g
Houghton-Lorber 315a; Newell WSM 1369; BMC Seleucid p. 13, 58; SNG Spaer 233; SNG Cop 77; SGCV II 6883; HGC 9 167 (R2), , Sardes (Sart, Turkey) mint, bust of Athena facing, wearing triple-crested Attic helmet; reverse Nike walking left, raising wreath in right hand, long palm frond over left shoulder in left hand, BAΣIΛEΩΣ (king) downward on right, ANTIOXOY downward on right, symbol in circle outer left (control), no control right


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Some Greek facing portraits:


Caria, Rhodes, hemidrachm, ca. 205–190 BC, magistrate: Gorgos. Obv: head of Helios facing r. Rev: ΓOPΓ[OΣ]; rosebud and ethnic R-[O]; in field l. gaff hook. 10mm, 1.09g. HGC 6, 1454. Ashton: The Coinage of Rhodes (2001), no. 304 (p. 109); SNG Keckman I 585.


Thessaly, Larissa, AR obol, ca. 344–337 BC (?).  Obv: head of the nymph Larissa facing slightly l., hair in ampyx, with necklace. Rev: [ΛΑΡΙΣ]-ΑΙΩΝ; horse grazing r. 11mm, 0.79g. Ref: BCD Thessaly I (2011), no. 1163; BCD Thessaly II (2013), no. 328, 342–344; SNG Copenhagen 135.


Thrace, Apollonia Pontika, AR diobol, 4th century BC. Obv: laureate head of Apollo facing. Rev: upright anchor; A to l., crayfish to r. 11mm, 1.35g. Ref: SNG Copenhagen 459–461.


Antiochos I Soter, Seleucid Empire, AE denomination D, 280–261 BC, Smyrna or Sardes mint. Obv: head of Athena facing. Rev: BAΣIΛEΩΣ ANTI]OXOY; Nike standing l., holding wreath; monogram in field l. 13mm, 2.12g. Ref: Seleucid Coins I, 315b.


And here are two medieval coins:


Wrocław (Breslau), under Sigismund of Luxemburg (r. 1419–1437 AD), AR heller, after 1422 AD, Wrocław mint. Obv: head of John the Baptist facing slightly l.; within circle; around: M-W-M-W. Rev: crowned Silesian lion l.; star in field below. 11mm, 0.30g. Ref: Saurma 67, Friedensburger 554.


Bishopric of Halberstadt, under Gero von Schermbke/von Schochwitz, AR bracteate penny, 1169–1177 AD. Obv: + S–STEPHANVSPROTOMARTI; bust of St. Stephen facing between three stones and star. Rev: negative design. 25mm, 0.83g. Ref: Berger 1324; Slg. Bonhoff 483.

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