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Crowd Pleasing Ancients

In response to several requests, today's post provides an entry point to other notes on this site. There are many coins that a collector might appreciate for technical features and the detail of the history that it documents or even reveals:

The list could go on. However, there are many coins that consistently attract general interest (and auction bids). Today I will explore some popular themes and illustrate with coins from my collection.


Some characters on ancient coins are much better known than others: Ptolemy XII Auletes is certainly not top of the list for "famous". This coin showing Ptolemy I and an Isis headdress on the reverse is an example of a coin which thanks to a 1906 insight by Regling recognized and corrected the attribution. This changed the attribution from Ptolemy XII to Cleopatra VII (the one of Mark Antony and Cleopatra). More on this story and Regling's 1906 correction to Svoronos' attribution at

Ptolemaic Kings of Egypt, Cleopatra VII Thea Neotera, 51-30 BC, AR Tetradrachm (25.5mm, 13.32 g, 12h), Alexandria mint, dated RY 11 (42/1 BC)

Obv: Diademed bust of Ptolemy I right, wearing aegis

Rev: Eagle standing left on thunderbolt; L IA (date) above headdress of Isis to left, ΠA to right

Ref: Svoronos 1825; SNG Copenhagen 405

While technical details can be interesting - these don't draw crowds. However, thanks to innumerable plays, books, movies, and poems, the coins of Cleopatra and other well known characters are always popular!

This next coin is also associated with a well known figure of history: Brutus of the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March. He issued this coin a decade before the assassination. In 54 BC his coin signals: "I am a protector of libertas (goddess of liberty), descended from great tyrant killers on my mother's side and my father's side of the family - caveat tyrannis", or perhaps more simply "sic semper tyrannis" (paraphrasing loosely: "this is the expected end of tyrants").

Roman Republican, M. Junius Brutus, 54 BC, AR denarius, Rome, struck 54 BC

Obv: Bearded and bare-headed head right of L. Junius Brutus; BRVTVS.

Rev: Bearded and bare-headed head right of Caius Servilius Ahala; AHALA

Size: 3.96g, 17-19mm

Ref: Crawford 433/2; Junia 30


Famous characters are just one of the features that draw a crowd to ancient coins. This next coin draws a crowd for its metal. In an age when our money is less and less physical there is an appeal of coins that have intrinsic value in the metal. Gold coins are never really out of favor.

Mytilene, Lesbos, c. 377-326 BC, Electrum Hekte Obv: Head of Apollo wearing laurel wreath right Rev: Head of Artemis right, her hair in sphendone; snake symbol in left field


A gorgoneion, Medusa, a snake drawn chariot, these coins are always popular. This coin with its snake hair, ragged teeth, and wacky smile can't help but draw in even someone skeptical about ancient coins.

Thrace, Apollonia Pontika, Drachm (Circa 480/78-450 BC).

Rev: Facing gorgoneion.

Obv: Upright anchor; crayfish to left, A to right.


Lions, panthers, jaguars, are just as fascinating today as they were to ancient peoples. Perhaps a morbid fascination as we consider what the Romans did with these animals. The scene on this coin is particularly weird with a panther sticking a large gumby plant (thrysus?) down the throat of a mask of Silenos on top of a well? Not sure what Varus was thinking when he designed this one.

Imperatorial Rome, C. Vibius Varus, 42 BC, AR Denarius, Rome mint Obv: Head of young Bacchus, wearing wreath of ivy and grapes, hair collected into a knot behind, one lock and fillet of wreath falling down his neck Rev: Panther springing left toward garlanded altar surmounted by bacchic mask and thyrsus; C • VIBIVS in exergue, VARVS upward to right Ref: Crawford 494/36

📜Note: 12 Olympians

Even a little coin will attract attention with a "facing lion".

Bruttium, Rhegion, circa 450-425 BC, Æ, 12.5mm, 1.12g Obv: Lion head Rev: R-E; sprig of leaves between, all in a circle of dots

This coin adds Hercules to the mix, and connects to the popular story of the first of his 12 labors: slaying the Nemean lion.

Gaius Poblicius Q.f. AR denarius, 79 BC Obv: Draped bust of Roma right, ROMA behind, wearing Phrygian helmet ornamented with plumes on sides; above, F. Rev: C POBLICI Q F, Hercules standing left, strangling the Nemean lion; between his feet, a club; in left field (F), (bow and) quiver Ref: Poblicia 9


Large coins always get more attention than small ones. This photo shows several large coins:

  • a 34mm, 32 gram "AE As" from 211 BC with dark brown patina and a two faced head of Janus

  • a 33mm, thick, 71gram "Biunx", "coin" in green bronze from Northern Apulia, Luceria, c. 220 BC on the right side

  • a 54mm, 108 gram, yellow green, raw lump of bronze, or "Aes Rude" from a time when lumps of metal were currency (800-300 BC)

  • Roman republic, Anonymous, After 211 BC. Æ As (34mm, 35.00g, 6h). Uncertain mint. Obv: Laureate head of bearded Janus; I (mark of value) above Rev: Prow of galley right; I (mark of value) above. Ref: Crawford 56/2; Sydenham 143; RBW 200. Brown surfaces, flan flaws

  • Northern Apulia, Luceria, c. 220 BC. Cast Æ Biunx (33mm, 70.66g). Obv: Scallop shell. Rev: Astragalos; L to r., two pellets to l. Vecchi, ICC, 341; HNItaly 673. Green patina, near VF

  • Italy, Anonymous, 8th-3rd centuries BC. Æ Aes Rude (54mm, 108.68g). Irregular cast lump. ICC 1. Green patina

Here is another from the 3rd Century BC: a large 43mm, 72g Ptolemaeic bronze shown with a little 5th century BC, Sicilian, 1/2 gram, ~1cm Litra to illustrate scale.

Ptolemaic Kingdom, Ptolemy IV Philopator, 221-205 BC, AE 43 (Drachm), 72.0g, Alexandria, Egypt

Obv: Head of Zeus Ammon facing right, wearing a diadem with floral ornament above the forehead, dotted border

Rev: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΠΤΟΛΕΜΑΙΟΥ, eagle with closed wings standing to left on thunderbolt. Between legs, ΔΙ. In left field, cornucopia adorned by fillets

This Tetradrachm from Egyptian King Ptolemy II a nice example of a large silver coin:

Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphos (285-246 BC), AR Tetradrachm, Ptolemais-Ake mint, struck circa 275-262/1 BC

Obv: Diademed head to right, [wearing aegis]

Rev: ΠΤΟΛEΜΑΙOΥ BAΣΙΛEΩΣ, eagle with closed wings standing to left on thunderbolt; ΠT over two monograms to left, Galatian shield to right

Ref: CPE 441; Svoronos 544; SNG Copenhagen 521 (Uncertain Phoenician mint)


Like the big cats, and elephant is always going to attract attention.

The Pompeians, Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio, 47 BC - Spring 46 BC, Cr. 459/1 AR denarius, African mint

Obv: Q•METEL PIVS, laureate head of Jupiter right

Rev: African elephant walking right, SCIPIO above, IMP below

Ref: Crawford 459/1

Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius, 81 BC, Cr. 374/1, AR Denarius, North Italian mint

Obv: Diademed head of Pietas

Rev: Elephant walking

Ref: Crawford 374/1

Morbid fascination kicks in again with this elephant skin headdress on a representation of Africa.

The Pompeians, Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio, AR Denarius, military mint travelling with Scipio in Africa, 47-46 BC. Eppius, legate

Obv: Head of Africa right, wearing elephant skin headdress; grain ear before, plough below, Q•METELL downwards to right, SCIPIO•IMP upwards to left

Rev: Hercules standing facing, right hand on hip, leaning on club draped with lion skin and set on rock; LEG•F•C upwards to left, EPPIVS downwards to right

Ref: Crawford 461/1


Perhaps most popular of all, are coins that are just beautiful examples of the artwork of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Here are a few of my favorite examples.

Phokis, federal coinage, circa 357-354 BC, AR Triobol/Hemidrachm, Philomelos, strategos

Obv: facing head of bull

Rev: Head of Artemis right; branch to left

Ref: Williams 304 (O220/R190); BCD Lokris 463.1; HGC 4, 1046

📜Note: Greeks & Cattle

Faustina II, AR denarius (3.59g, 18mm), Augusta, AD 147-175, Rome, under Antoninus Pius, circa AD December 147 and March 149

Obv: FAVSTINAE AVG PII AVG FIL, draped bust of Faustina II right, hair tied in bun at back of head, single circlet of pearls around

Rev: V-E-NVS, Venus standing facing, head left, holding apple and rudder with dolphin entwined

Ref: RIC 515a; Strack 520; BMC 1067; RSC 261

Euboia, Chalkis, circa 338-308 BC, AR Drachm (3.68g)

Obv: Head of the nymph Chalkis left

Rev: Eagle flying left, carrying serpent in talons; torch above

Ref: Picard Em. 1; BCD 118; SNG Copenhagen -

The list could go on as there are many more themes that attract general interest in the coins of Ancient Greece and Rome: big silver coins (tetradrachms), crocodiles on coins.... Often the stories behind the coins can have relevance to our everyday world and how people interact today at individual, national and international levels. The relevance can be startling considering the period that I am usually researching is more than 2000 years ago.

I cannot explain one of the most popular articles on this site, with any of the more common themes. It is a story of a relatively obscure ruler Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, and a coin that is equally obscure - a silver miliaresion. 📜Note: Constantine VII, Born in the Purple.

You can find related posts linked to additional information and references for most of these coins (Follow the links for "📜Note"). My notes have benefited from the magic of internet collaboration. If there is a theme, note or research topic that sparks your interest: comments on these posts and e-mail are always welcome. Contact info is on the About Page.


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