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|---------- Interesting Things About Ancient Coins ----------|
|Hairstyles of the Rich and Famous - 2,000 Years Ago|
|You can click on any coin image to see the full coin.|
Ancient coins show many interesting features, among them being what hairstyles were current when the coins were struck. Sometimes these are formal styles deemed appropriate for the upper classes. Such styles demonstrate an adherence to tradition, a steady approach without any wild and dangerous modern ideas. This is useful propaganda for an emperor. On the other hand, some of the younger women are shown with very fashionable styles. Some examples seem designed to indicate a modest demeanour rather than represent reality. But these are far outweighed by hugely formal or outrageously fashionable concoctions.
Coins which show mythical figures or personifications show a different approach. Here, the styles might be hundreds of years old, or be types allied to a particular deity.
Here is a quick tour of hairstyles across 600 years of history. There are many more to see for those who are interested – just try looking up some of these women on one of the sites on my interesting links page.
The statues in the inset photographs on this page are all in the British Museum.
... Starting with three older Greek coins. First, one which is almost an anti-hairdo, on the near right. This is (probably) Aphrodite, with her hair in a bag. This bag, called a saccos, could then be bound with cord in various ways. The nearest you see to this these days is the big knitted cap worn by some Rastafarians.
In the centre is a Mainad with bunches of grapes in her hair, indicating her association with wild drunken frenzies, though she looks pretty calm considering all that. Her hair is wild on top, but rolled around the edges, which must help to hold in the fruits. This is clearly not intended to be a practical style; it is more a set of mythological symbols.
On the far right is Tanith from Carthage, a grain goddess whose hair is also rolled around the brow and earline, and who has some stalks of wheat tucked into it. You can clearly see the ears at the front, and one leaf is curved up and back. This is quite achievable as a style, though you might want to leave out the corn.
The silver drachm of Corinth is from the late 4th century BCE; The bronze coin from Carthage in Zeugitania is from 100 years later; and the centre coin from Amphipolis is from the early part of the 2nd century BCE.
These styles are on Roman Republican coins. Victory and Diana the huntress have their hair pulled back and tied in a knot at the back of the head, a "Psyche knot." It's a Greek style which was two or three hundred years old when these coins were made, and would have been regarded as "classical" even then. This simple version of the knot must have been a very utilitarian style, easy to manage, not likely to get in the way of vigorous activity. These days, women use a scrunchy to achieve this effect.
Victory (winged) dates from 108-107 BCE, and Diana (with bow and quiver) was made in 74 BCE.
This toned silver Roman Republican coin dating from 49 BCE shows Salus, a personification of health and welfare. Like the last two coins, and many others from the Roman republic, this one imitated Hellenic art and Hellenic coin design, and you can see that the way the hair is rolled around the sides of the head is like Tanit at the top of the page. This design makes it easy to support decorations like Salus' wreath.
On the far right is an representation of an actual person, Antonia, the daughter of Mark Antony, mother of Claudius. She died before Claudius came to power, but when he did, he issued some coins in her honour. This modest style, with hair lightly waved and tightly controlled in a looped tail, belongs to the early years of the first millennium CE. (Sorry about the worn coin – I'll get a better example eventually.)
Sabina, wife of the emperor Hadrian, had two distinct hairstyles on her coins. The simpler one had hair flowing down her neck ending in a loose knot. A diadem encircled her head and supported a ridge of hair behind it. In the more ornate style, the hair was plaited and coiled around her head. Plaits also ran up and down her head inside the coils. The headbands and diadems are probably a combination of stiffened hair and hairpieces, as on this statue (which is not of Sabina herself.)
The statue is dated about 100 CE, and the coins are from the 120s CE.
When Antoninus Pius' beloved wife Faustina died, he issued millions of coins in her honour. They all had this ornate hairstyle, with the hair plaited and brought back up the head, coiled and knotted, and it looks as though there were pearls strung through it. Her daughter, Faustina Junior, wore a simpler style with the hair waved and drawn into a bun at the back, sometimes with a pearl diadem that you can see on this coin. The bun was sometimes plain, sometimes decorated, small or large, but always there. In fact, worn coins of both Faustinas can easily be recognised by their hairstyles.
Coins of the two Faustinas belong to the 150s, 160s and 170s CE.
Lucilla (on the left) was the daughter of Faustina Junior. Like the other young women of this era, her coins had a variety of hairstyles. The one shown is quite extreme, looking almost like a cap on her head. Crispina, on the right, was Commodus' wife. Her style, with the hair plaited and woven on the head, then brought into a bun, was also worn by Faustina Junior later in her life, contemporary with this coin.
Lucilla's coins were struck in the 160s CE, and Crispina's in the 170s.
Plautilla was the wife of Caracalla, son of Septimius Severus and inheritor of the Empire. Her downfall was caused by her father's involvement in a plot against Caracalla. He never much liked her anyway .. but while she was in power, her coins showed quite a range of hairstyles. Here are two of them.
Plautilla's coins were struck between 202 and 205 CE.
Julia Domna was the Syrian wife of the emperor Septimius Severus. Her early hairstyle was an elongated bun at the back, with two waved wings of hair drawn down on either side of her head. Her later styles were heavier, and probably were wigs. Her older sister Julia Maesa's hair was similar, but much more gently waved than Domna's severe corrugations. Coming from Syria to Rome, Domna and Maesa would have set new fashions rather than following Roman trends.
Julia Domna's coins were struck between 194 and 218 CE, and Julia Maesa's from 219 to 222 CE.
Julia Paula was married to Elagabalus, the weirdest of the Severan dynasty. Here, she has a soft wave, and the bun is reduced and held by a decorative clip at the nape. Julia Mamaea, Maesa's daughter, had the strongly emphasised waves favoured by her aunt Domna, but kept the reduced bun and the clip at the nape. She is wearing a diadem to signify her rank as Augusta.
Julia Paula's coins were struck in 219 and 220 CE, and Julia Mamaea's during the 220s and 230s.
Aquilia Severa, a vestal virgin and another of Elagabalus' wives, has a tight bun, and you can see that it is made up of a coiled plait. This style is very like that of Julia Paula. Herennia Etruscilla, on Aquilia's right, was the wife of Trajan Decius. Several styles were shown on her coins, mostly with the heavy waves we have already seen. On this coin, the style is less heavy-handed. Her hair is plaited, and the plait is drawn right up to the diadem and then folded over and brought back down again. This was an old trick, from the time of Sabina.
Aquilia Severa's coin is from 220 or 221 CE. Her tenure was a short one. Herennia Etruscilla's coins were struck in 249 to 251 CE.
Here the folded plaits are being worn with the strongly emphasised waves. Otacilia Severa, wife of Philip I, and Salonina, wife of Gallienus, both had this style on their coins. You can see that the portraits became stylised in this period, but the plaiting of the hair is nevertheless quite clear on both coins.
Otacilia Severa's coins were struck in the 240s CE, and Salonina's in the 250s and 260s.
Severina was married to one of the strongest military emperors, Aurelian. You can see that here, the idea of bringing the hair up the back of the head was kept, even though it wasn't in a plait. It reached right to her forehead before coiling back. But on some of her coins she is wearing the familiar plait.
Helena, the first wife of Constantius Chlorus, had a much more simple style that would not look out of place today. Notice the angle of that diadem, though – if she really wore it like that, it must have been pinned in place very firmly.
Severina's coins were struck in the 270s CE. Helena's were about 20-30 years later.
Theodora, second wife of Constantius Chlorus, had the loop of hair at her nape, but wore a diadem round her head instead of bringing the plait further up. Fausta, wife of Constantine the Great, looks different. She is wearing the traditional strongly waved hair, but here the hair is lifted off the nape into a larger and much more ornate clasp than the Julias wore 100 years earlier.
Theodora's coins were posthumous, and showed her as she was in the 290s. Fausta's coins date from the first three decades of the 300s CE.
There is a gap after Fausta. Aelia Flaccilla (wife of Theodosius), in the 380s, has a more bubbly style, but with that heavy braid and that big chunky necklace and earrings, it all looks a bit overdone to me. She reminds me of Elizabeth Taylor later in her career.
Finally, here is Eudoxia, wife of Arcadius, around 400 CE. Her hair is not that far from Aelia Flaccilla and Theodora, with heavy plaits over the crown and gathered at the nape. She does have one new thing, though, that modern hairstyles have to go without – the hand of God dropping a halo onto her head. And a smug grin.
After this date, coins of the Roman and Byzantine empires are not very informative about hairstyles. They are mostly crude, heavily stylised and hard to find in any sort of decent condition.
Formal styles almost always require a good deal of work, to show that the wearer can afford the best stylists and has plenty of spare time. Also, in most eras they lag a good many years behind current fashions. Perhaps this is in part to show that Empresses adhered to tradition, so as to give an impression of stability. These coins show that there were times of creativity and change and times of staidness and stability, in formal hairstyles as in the Empire as a whole.
The content of this page was last updated on 26 February 2008
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