With the exception of so-called pseudo-autonomous coins, the obverses depict portraits of members of the imperial family, most frequently the emperor himself, as in the example shown. The emperor might be depicted with a bare head, or, as shown, wearing a laurel wreath or a radiate crown. Following the example of the imperial mint in Rome, provincial obverses from the middle of the first century onwards increasingly displayed a bust rather than just a head. From Nero onwards this bust could be dressed with an aegis, the scaly divine attribute of Zeus and Athena, which was fringed with snakes and adorned with a gorgoneion and worn around the neck. From the reigns of Titus and Domitian onwards the imperial bust might appear in military guise, dressed in a cuirass and paludamentum (as shown). While the aegis remained rare, the cuirass and paludamentum became increasingly popular on provincial obverses, so that by the time of the Antonines they accounted for more than half of all imperial obverse representations. The imperial portrait might be invested with divine attributes: a spectacular example from the end of the reign of Commodus shows the emperor as the Roman Hercules.
Empresses were normally depicted with draped busts. They often had elaborate hairstyles, which might change frequently. Caesars, the heirs to the purple, were normally shown bare-headed as a sign of their lower rank.
For the most part members of the imperial family occur on coin obverses on their own. Alternatively both the emperor and his empress or Caesar might be paired on the obverse, or the imperial portrait might be placed on the obverse and that of the member of his family on the reverse.
In Rome, an emperor often had his predecessors or other members of the imperial family deified. The imperial mint in Rome issued consecration coins on such occasions, but equivalent provincial coins are quite rare.
‘Pseudo-autonomous’ coinage is a somewhat misleading term used to describe coins which depict neither the emperor nor a member of his family on the obverse. The coins do not form a separate category in any other sense, being part of the normal run of civic coinage. The heads on the obverse fall into three categories:
- Gods and goddesses, the most common being Zeus, Apollo, Dionysus, Heracles, Athena, Artemis, and Sarapis.
- Personifications of the Roman Senate and Roma.
- Personifications of the city, either in the form of the city-goddess or a founding hero, and personifications of civic institutions such as the Boule (city council), the Demos (the people), and the Gerousia (the council of the Elders).
‘Pseudo-autonomous’ coins were most popular among the cities in the Roman province of Asia, where the great majority of cities issued them — Ephesus being a notable exception. They normally occupy the lower end of the denominational scale. The relative importance of ‘pseudo-autonomous’ coins seems to have increased over the first two centuries AD. By the Antonine period, ‘pseudo-autonomous’ coins accounted for more than 30% of all coin types in that province. Outside Asia, they were significantly rarer, making up around 7% of all Antonine coin types.
You can search the database for ‘pseudo-autonomous’ coins by either:
- using the “Identification search” and selecting the appropriate entries from the “List” for the “Obverse design” search field; or
- using the “Advanced search” and changing, under the section “Design & inscriptions”, the setting for “Pseudo-autonomous?” from “Any” to “Yes”.
Further Reading: Johnston 1985
Reverses were mostly dedicated to topics of local relevance, resulting in an enormous iconographic variety. The majority of reverse designs were drawn from the religious sphere: depictions of important civic deities, sometimes in the form of their cult statues, were particularly popular. Objects or animals sacred to a particular god were also common.
The Flavian trend towards greater iconographic diversity continued during the second century. It manifested itself in the depiction of a greater variety of deities in each city, as well as in the introduction of entirely new themes, the most important of which were buildings (especially temples), games (especially prize crowns), and mythological themes (especially founders and foundation stories; as in coin type 3263, shown). Early examples of these new topics go back to the first century, but it was not before the latter half of the second century that they had a serious impact on reverse imagery as a whole.
A number of cities also portrayed their own historical or mythological citizens on their coinage, especially ancient poets such as Homer and philosophers.
References to the emperor on civic reverses were not very common, but the relative frequency of such coins grew. Such references mostly relate to military victories or to the victorious nature of the emperor in general, most frequently through the depiction of Nikai (figures of Victory), trophies, and captives (see coin type 228, shown). A few issues celebrate actual visits by the emperor. In AD 161–169 the unusual situation of having two emperors of equal standing provoked widespread copying of the Roman design which emphasized the concord of Marcus and Verus by depicting them clasping hands.
The second and third centuries saw the introduction of a new dynamic style of representation with a focus on action. Although the numbers of coins involved were quite small, it is possible to point to cases from all fields of reverse imagery.
Religion was overwhelmingly the most common way in which identity was expressed on coins. In the same vein temples were the predominant form of monument to be depicted, although a range of other representations occur. Some civic coin designs provide panoramic views of entire sanctuaries or temples in their surroundings. Full panoramic views of entire cities or their harbours also exist. Other buildings include triumphal arches, lighthouses, and monumental city gates. The depictions of monuments on coins were not always literal — for example the number of columns of a temple might be varied and the gap between the central columns might be widened to leave room for showing the cult statue inside, as in the example of the temple of Artemis pictured here. However, the buildings had to be recognizable for what they were.
You can search the database for buildings on coins by using the “Iconographic search” and choosing from “Design Group” the item “Architecture”.
Further Reading: Price and Trell 1977
Countermarks are additional stamps applied to coins after they were struck. It is often not possible to be specific about why they were applied, but they provide important evidence about how long and how widely coins circulated, who used them, and what values were attributed to them.
Further Reading: Howgego 1985