A Glossary of Coin Terms - Heads

Terms Collectors Should Know

New collectors of ancient coins are presented a bewildering array of new terms to learn if they are to read a catalog or price list intelligently. This page illustrates some of the most frequently encountered terms applied to Roman portrait heads. Eventually I hope to add similar listings on other sets of numismatic terms. The popularity of my Grading Page suggests that some people enjoy this 'laundry list' format. It has the advantage of being easily amended. .

Roman portraits are most frequently shown facing to the right. During some periods, however, a left facing portrait was standard. In a few periods, coins were issued with portraits facing both directions. This list makes no attempt to show each variety in both a left and right version. Also omitted are some combinations of terms that can be understood by interpolating descriptions given. While some minor varieties are shown, this list is certainly not exhaustive. Presence or absence of any particular combination or variety should not be taken as evidence of the rarity of the type.

It is important to note that many coin dealers will abbreviate these listings so a coin sold as 'Radiate bust right' may be listed below as 'Radiate draped and cuirassed bust right'. Precise listings are usually found only when the distinction is important to the value of the coin. Dealers also will add further adjectives to distinguish important features. For example, persons shown on coins over a period of years may need 'bearded' or 'youthful' to describe the coin properly.

Antoninus Pius
Bare Head Right
A portrait showing nothing below the neck is termed a 'head'. Since this one shows no headgear it is a 'Bare Head Right'.
Septimius Severus
Laureate Head Right
The most common of the portraits types shows the emperor wearing a wreath of laurel leaves tied in the back with the ends of the ribbon (?) hanging down behind. The leaves (whether laurel or another plant?) usually bore some fine detail that wears away after very little circulation. Few coins will show as this much detail.
Bare Headed Draped Bust Right
When the portrait includes anything below the neck it is termed a 'bust'. Variations of usage could result in this example being termed simply 'Draped Bust' or just 'Bare Headed Bust'. Using 'Bare Bust' is a poor practice that could lead to confusion as to what is bare.
Caracalla denarius
Laureate Bust Right,
draped and cuirassed

Some bust portraits show evidence of military armor worn under the drapery. The presence or absence of this armor is not always obvious so you will often find the same coin described slightly differently in two different listings.
Laureate Head Right,
slight drapery on far shoulder

Nothing is as simple as we like. Some purists would assert that this must be a bust since it shows clothing but since there is nothing shown below the neck I would allow either description. These are most common during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian.
Laureate Bust Right,
bare chest, aegis on far shoulder

Some coins show more detail than can be called drapery but identification of this as the aegis (cloak of Minerva) might require a sharper coin than this.
Horned Bust Right
In addition to the laurel wreath, some coins of Elagabalus show a horn on the head in connection with his position as priest of the sun god. Of course this coin is actually a 'Laureate Draped Bust with horn' but most listings will be shortened.
Republican denarius of
C. Censorius
Jugate Heads Right
Rarely two (or, very rarely, three) heads were shown facing the same direction and overlapping. This coin shows Numa Pompilius and Ancus Marcius, two of the ancient kings of Rome.
Septimius Severus Julia Domna AE35 of Stratonicea
Vis-a-vis Busts
Rarely on Imperial coins but more commonly on Greek Imperials two rulers are shown face to face. One expects the senior partner to be shown on the left.
Radiate Head Right
In the middle of the first century AD the Romans began to use a crown of spikes on the portrait on the dupondius to help distinguish it from the as. On dupondii the crown was only used on portraits of the Augusti and never by Caesars or Augustae (Imperial women).
Postumus antoninianus
Radiate Draped Bust Right
Later, the same radiant crown was used to distinguish the antoninianus (double denarius), the double aureus and the double sestertius. By the third century AD, style required most portraits to be busts rather than heads so this is the most common form found on antoniniani. Unlike the dupondii, antoniniani of Caesars show the crown.
Julia Domna denarius
Bust Right
Portraits of women were always draped busts so there is no need to specify the clothing. The laurel wreath and radiate crown was never used. Hairstyles vary greatly and require comment when useful to distinguish various issues.
Julia Domna antoninianus
Diademed Bust Right,
on Crescent

The 3rd century AD feminine equivalent of the radiate crown was a crescent under the bust. The diadem on the head was often used with the crescent but is not an indication of denomination. Some coins of single value (e.g. denarii or sestertii) also show the diadem.
Gallienus antoninianus
Radiate Military Bust Left
Fashion of the late third century AD led to many different 'fancy' bust styles. Often the emperor was shown in his role as a military leader. Some listings include details rather than lumping all in the term 'military bust'. This example might be called 'Radiate cuirassed bust left holding shield (decorated with head of Medusa) on left shoulder (or 'at right') and spear over right shoulder'.
Probus antoninianus
Radiate Helmeted Bust Left
Some military portraits include a helmet but the necessary-for-denomination radiate crown is still present. Like shields, helmets came in many styles and offer great possibilities for variations in description.
Constantius II
Diademed Bust Right
Late Roman portraits saw the laurel wreath replaced by a pearl diadem consisting of a double row of dots with a central jewel. This example also shows an interesting ring of dots surrounding the shoulder clasp.
Constantine I
Rosette Diademed Bust Right
A variation of the diadem shows a series of larger rosette jewels joined by short, double links.
Valentinian II
Diademed Helmeted Military Bust Right
Later coins sometimes show a crest on the head but no other detail to suggest a helmet. The head wears a diadem like those shown on varieties without helmets. Is that hair or helmet between diadem and crest? A small arm hold the spear; the rim of a shield is seen beyond the bust.
Probus antoninianus
Consular Bust Left
Here, unlike the military bust, we see the emperor dressed as Consul, his chief civilian duty. In addition to wearing a wide variety of fancy robes, the emperor holds an eagle tipped scepter. Coins of Probus show a particularly wide variety of portraits. Have you seen my Probus page?
Licinius II
Tiny Bust Left
Perhaps more properly described as a laureate bust with scepter, the real distinction of this example is the abnormally small portrait bust.
Constantine II Caesar
Bust Left Holding Victory
In the later period some busts were quite fancy showing both arms and various accessories.
Constantine I
Head Right Uplifted Gaze
A few coins of Constantine I show the eyes of the Emperor raised to heaven (seeking divine guidance?).
Constantine I
Veiled Head Right
A portrait of a deceased person sometimes was shown with the head veiled. Other 'Divo' issues used a bare head but the deceased never wore laurel or radiate crowns.
Facing Bust
While full frontal portraits were rarely used in the earlier Empire, they became most common during the Byzantine period. Here the emperor holds a cross on a globe and a shield.
Christ type
Nimbate Bust Facing
Some Byzantine portraits show a halo around the head. This seems most appropriate on this portrait of Christ.
Justin II
King & Queen Enthroned
Some Byzantine portraits were full length, standing or seated, and often included more than one person. Note the couple are both shown nimbate.

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(c) 1998 Doug Smith