Often the easiest
thing to identify on a late Roman coin is what the figure on the obverse is
wearing, on its head and on its shoulders (if it has any). This guide is not meant to exhaust all the
possibilities, but it does describe and illustrate the features you're most
likely to encounter. Please bear in mind
that this is far from being a complete survey.
headgear. The obverse, or
"heads" side of your coin will probably show at least the neck and
head, and sometimes the shoulders, of a figure.
Usually the obverse figure on an ACE coin is a ruling emperor or one of
his sons. Although earlier portraits on
Roman coins were sometimes shown bare-headed, almost certainly your coin will
show one of several kinds of headgear. Here are the most common types.
From early Republican times, "crowns" - wreaths actually -
of greenery were awarded to, and worn by, those who had achieved certain
glories, primarily military in nature.
"Laurels" usually signified noble birth but could be awarded to any
person for significant achievement. The
Oak-leaf Crown, or Corona Civica, was
reserved for those who had saved the lives of many fellow soldiers in battle
and had held their ground throughout the battle. The Corona
Graminae, or Grass Crown, was reserved for someone who had saved the lives
of an entire legion or army. Crowns of differing
designs were also awarded to those who displayed valor in various types of battles:
the Corona Navalis for a person
showing particular valor in a naval battle, the Corona Vallaris for the first soldier across the ramparts of an
enemy camp, and so on. In the early
days, a laurel wreath was typically the most common form of headgear seen on
coins. It indicated nobility, but also a
certain modesty, since anyone might be awarded one or wear one by virtue of
On a well preserved
coin, you may be able to make out not only the individual laurel leaves, but
also the flying ties in the back, and possibly the bow. A more worn coin, however, may be harder to
read. In this example, the leaves look
like a series of dashes, although you can still see the ties in the back.
Early in the Empire, the emperor's headgear type was used to
distinguish between two varieties of coins that otherwise were confusingly
similar. On the copper As, the emperor usually wears a laurel
crown. On the brass Dupondius, he is shown wearing a spiky crown similar to the classic
type found in fairy-tale illustrations.
This "radiate" crown -- which may also have been meant to
suggest the rays of the sun -- was also later used on the Antoninianus, or
double-denarius. After the Antoninianus
was phased out in 294, some coins continued to show the emperor in a radiate
crown. These are sometimes called
Antoniniani but are more correctly known as "post-reform radiates."
On a well preserved coin, you will be able to see the
spikes, or "rays"; the narrow band of the crown itself; and the ties
in the back. Even a coin in poor
condition will often preserve the telltale traces of the rays and maybe the
ties too, as in this example.
In the later Empire, as the emperors increasingly favored an
eastern, absolutist model for rulers, the "diadem," an eastern type of headgear
that connoted absolute power, began to appear on coins. The diadem, which had begun as a simple
ribbon and evolved into a jeweled headband, was often rimmed with pearls and
decorated with single pearls on the ties in back:
Even a coin in poor condition
the remnants of dots or bumps that
represent the pearls.
In this example,
the pearls are still visible on the ties
and the part of the diadem at the back of
the emperor's head.
Another type of diadem is decorated with rosettes,
though it also has pearls on the ties:
the ruler on a Roman coin
is shown wearing a helmet, suggesting
his military skill and power.
On a well-worn coin,
the curve of the crest on top or the sharp edges of the visor may have survived
when other parts of the helmet have lost detail:
Sometimes the helmet
is worn with a diadem or radiate crown over it:
Another type of helmet found on late imperial
coins is worn by the
women who personify
Rome and (as here) Constantinople:
Some coins show the
ruler "draped" in a cloak fastened with a large pin on the shoulder.
On other coins, the ruler is wearing
breastplate, or cuirass,
and is said to be
Still other coins (described as
the ruler with a
cloak on top of
It's often hard to distinguish the
cuirass under the
with a well-preserved
folds of drapery,
even when little
else is. Here, there are still a few
creases left where
the folds of
the cloak are draped
Photos with model and images of well-worn coins, Kate
Gilbert; other coin images courtesy of Doug Smith, CNG Coins, and Beast Coins.