Features of the Human Face on Coins: Innovations born in the Persian-Greek Contact zone in Asia Minor, before 336 BC


Head or tail – this question is answered by tossing a coin. The head, the portrait has become a synonym for the coin’s obverse. But since when? And who was the first to use his portrait on coins?


Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Asia Minor. We are in the years before 336 BC.


The Greeks would never have thought of portraying a ruler on his coins like this coin does.

They decorated their coins with god… or animals… and sometimes perhaps with one of the heroes.


But even the greatest tyrants did not dare portray themselves on their coins.


This idea could only have emerged in a different culture, for instance in the Persian Empire. There, the king played a very special role as we know from the Bisutun Inscription. So let us listen to the words of the King of Kings Darius the Great:


„I am Darius, the great King, King of Kings, King of Persia, King of the lands. Ahura Mazda gave me this empire. Ahura Mazda helped me to win this empire. It is by the grace of Ahura Mazda that I own this empire.“


Of course, those who God himself had bestowed with his power stood out from the masses. No wonder it was quite natural for Persian kings to put their own image prominently in the centre of attention. On coins – and on buildings.


But the king as individual is invisible here. No matter if you look at coins or reliefs, the images depict only the function, never the king as a person. Only his attire identifies Darius as who he is, ruler of an empire.


The idea of individuals was born elsewhere.


And it was in the region where the Greek and the Persian cultures came together that artists were inspired to try something new: the portrait.


On the west coast of Turkey, in the region which historians call Asia Minor, Greek and Persian cultures clashed. In 546, Cyrus II of Persia defeated Croesus, the king of Lydia, and took over his empire. It included many important Greek cities such as Miletus or Ephesus. Here, Greeks lived under Persian rule. They worked for the Satrap, the Persian king’s governor. And it was here that the idea emerged to create a portrait of the Satrap which truly resembled him.


This coin is tiny. The diameter is not even a centimetre. And still you get the impression that the artist has represented the portrait subject so faithfully that you would recognise him if you were to see him in the street, with his prominent nose, intent gaze and impressive moustache. He wears a Bashlyk, a kind of hood, whose top falls down to the side in the style of Phyrgian caps.


The inscription on the reverse tells us who the man on the obverse is. Sigma – Pi – Iota, Spi, short form of Satrap Spithridates, who governed Ionia and Lydia when Alexander the Great invaded Asia Minor. And by the way, our Spithridates is by far not the only Satrap to have his portray engraved on coins.


He had gotten the idea from men like the Lydian Satrap Gamerses and the powerful Tissaphernes, who ruled over all of Asia Minor around 400 BC. By the time Alexander defeated the Persians at the Granicus in 336, portraying rulers on coins had already been a custom for more than two generations. But Alexander remained a traditionalist – at least in this respect.


On his coins, Alexander did not depict himself but the great Greek hero Heracles.


Thank you for listening. And you can find more podcasts about coins and money on the Sunflower Foundation Web page.

Signet Sunflower Foundation