Portraits of Greek Coinage - 'Larissa & Facing Heads'

Portraits of Greek Coinage - 'Larissa & Facing Heads' Jul 12 2011 Coins

By Robin Eaglen



Fig A.


Fig B.


AR drachm, c. 365-356 BC.

Obv. Head of the fountain nymph, Larissa, three-quarters facing l., with freely flowing tresses of hair bound with a fillet above her forehead, wearing earring.

Rev. Grazing horse r., with a long tail; left foreleg raised, possibly as a prelude to rolling over. ..A...... above horse and AION below line representing the ground. 6.10g ( 17/19 mm). Die axis 315.

Author's collection. Ex Spink, NCirc, February 2011, GK3024 . Lorber Phase L - II style bust, Plate 3, 311.


Among the master engravers towards the end of the fifth century BC who were allowed to sign their dies, none surpassed Kimon. His output of Syracusan tetradrachms bearing the almost facing head of Arethusa is widely recognised as the peak of his artistry.2 The goddess-nymph Arethusa is shown beneath the water, her hair in elegant suspension amidst playful dolphins. Her gaze attracts the observer, quite unlike a head shown in profile. The eyes, often a problem in sculpture, emit a palpable wistfulness. The nose is long and graceful and the full lips are refined yet sensual. The overall impression created is of a superior being, radiating an other-worldly but not disdainful detachment.

Two obverse dies are known from his hand. Both bear the name Arethusa (APE ÈOÈÈ) in a curve above her portrait and the signature KIMÈN on the ampyx or fillet binding her hair. The dies were used with two different reverses, only one of which was signed by Kimon between a double line exergue. Both obverses are illustrated, at Figures C and D. It is widely agreed that the die used to strike the coin at Figure C (Tudeer O.28) is superior to that used at Figure D (Tudeer O.29).3

The face in Figure C is a better shape and more expressive and the more prominent dolphins play an important role in balancing the posture of the neck and offset necklace. Of the two companion reverses, showing a quadriga and Nike, the one signed by Kimo (Tudeer die R.53) is altogether more accomplished and spirited than the other (R.54), raising doubts if he engraved both dies..

The facing head appears suddenly at Syracuse from about 413 BC4 where Eucleidas also engraved fine examples of Athena,5 and at Catania where Heracleidas produced a splendid representation of Apollo.6 Since the dies were a short-lived break from the tradition of profile portraiture at Syracuse, they were possibly issued to mark a special purpose or occasion. From the practical point of view, the three dimensional effect created by the depth of the engraving exposed the nose in particular to disfiguring wear if the coins circu-lated to any extent. Despite this drawback, the facing head design spread quickly to other centres, doubtless kindled by the sheer virtuosity of the tetradrachms from Syracuse. Notably Rhodes so portrayed the sun god, Helios, partnered by the rose (ÈÈÈÈÈ) as the longstanding hallmarks of its coinage.7 Fine examples also emanated from Ainos,8 where Hermes appears in his broad-brimmed hat (petasus) and from Amphipolis and Clazomenae,
with their own introspective renderings of Apollo.9 Others followed. No centre, however, was more faithful to Kimon's design than Larissa. The dolphins have vanished because the fountain nymph Larissa is depicted10 and the flans are smaller because the denominations are didrachms and the far more plentiful drachms, rather than tetradrachms. But the debt is obvious and amongst the surviving dies of widely variable quality are a number of very fine portraits. As testimony, an enlargement of the obverse illustrated at Figure A is set alongside a representation of Kimon's finer obverse (Figure C), with a matching diameter:

Kimon's tetradrachms with the signed facing busts are very rare and greatly prized. Most recently, an example in extremely fine condition of the least desirable die combination Tudeer O.29 with R.54) was sold for a hammer price of $575000.11 H.J.Berk, in his 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, published in 2008, predicted that an average example of Figure D (Tudeer O.29) might fetch $25,000, whereas the 'best example' of Figure C (Tudeer O.28) would exceed $400,000. Only extremely wealthy collectors could afford to buy such a piece. For less fortunate mortals a Larissan drachm of fine style is the poor man's Kimon, and to be had for as little as a few hundred pounds. Interestingly, Berk also included a drachm of Larissa in his hundred greatest coins, although not everyone might agree with his choice of obverse die, Larissa's hair looking as if it had been cropped and permed.

Larissa is where the hero Perseus is said to have fulfilled the prophecy of an oracle in unwittingly killing his grandfather with a discus when competing in funerary games.12 Located on the right bank of the River Peneus, Larissa was the most important town in Thessaly.13 It took its name from the eponymous nymph depicted on its coinage during the fourth century BC. Before then, Larissa had been one of the earliest centres to strike coins in that part of the world14 and its die cutters had already demonstrated their competence.15

The quality of the coins with the nymph's head on the obverse and 'grazing' horse on the reverse, led Hermann16 to place the issue earlier than recent research by Lorber, who dates the best examples between 356 and 346 BC or possibly slightly later.17 The beginning of this period appears to correspond with the time when Philip of Macedon made Larissa his main bulwark in Thessaly,18 having been invited late in 357 by the ruling Aleuad house - to which he was related19 - to rebuff the threat posed by nearby Pherae.20

The horse on the reverse may reflect Thessaly's reputation for fine cavalry men and horse breeding. The oligarchic aristocrats in each of the states were also renowned for owning fine horses.21


1 C. Lorber 'A Hoard of Facing Head Larissa Drachms', SNR 79 (2000), pp.7-15 and Plates 1-5.

2 See, for example, D. R. Sear, Greek Coins and
their Values, I-II (GCV) (London, 1978-9), p.100.

3 The coin at Figure C is in the Paolo Orsi Regional Archaeological Museum,Syracuse, from the Pennisi Collection and Figure D appears in B. V. Head, A Guide to the Principal Coins of the Greeks (London, 1932), Plate 17, 68 (=BMC 208).For Tudeer references, see L.O.Th.Tudeer, Die Tetradrachmenprägung von Syrakus in der signierenden Künstler (Berlin,1913), pp. 55,57 and Plate IV. On the relative merits of the two obverse dies, see C.Seltman, Masterpieces of Greek Coinage (Oxford,1949),p. 98 and
H.J.Berk, 100 Greatest Ancient Coins (Atlanta,2008), p. 38 .

4 Facing busts are occasionally encountered earlier,for example on a drachma of
Stratus between 450-400 BC (see GCV 2299, p.218).

5 See C. M. Kraay and Max Hirmer, Greek Coins (K+H) (New York), Plate IV, 111,112 R.

6 K+H, Plate III, 44 and Plate 15, 43 O; GCV771, p.81.

7 K+H, Plates 188, 644 and 189, 645 O, 646, 647 O, 648; GCV5029-5057, pp.456-9.

8 K+H, Plate 137, 424 O; GCV1568, p.158.

9 K+H, Plates 134-5, 414-6 O, 417, 418 O; GCV1379,p.141 (Amphipolis) and K+H Plate 181, 608 O;GCV4315, p.397 (Clazomenae).

10 B.V.Head, Historia Numorum (Oxford, 1911), p.299.

11 CNG,Triton XI sale, 8-9 January 2011,61.

12 Apollodorus ii, 4.4.

13 A Dictionary of Ancient Greek Civilisation (London, 1966), p.264.

14 GCV, p.203.

15 GCV 2106 and 2111, p.203.

16 F. Hermann,'Die Silbemünzen von Larissa in Thessalien', ZfN 35 (Berlin, 1925), pp.1-69; see Plate V, 4 -14.

17 Lorber, 'Facing Head Larissa Drachms', pp.11-12.

18 The Oxford Classical Dictionary, edited by S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth, 3rd edn revised (Oxford, 2003) , p.816.

19 N. Hammond,Philip of Macedon (London, 1994), pp.1, 29, 170.

20 N. G. L. Hammond, A History of Greece to 322 BC, 3rd edn (Oxford, 1986), p.539.

21 Hammond, Philip of Macedon, p.29.