A frequently overlooked matter of great importance

As the old saying goes, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." To most coin collectors, condition is everything. Our subject here is a matter that is very important to some collectors but often seems overlooked by the masses who set demand and prices. An early page on this site visited a coin showing my personal favorite portrait of the young Caracalla Caesar. What made that coin special was 'style' but the precise definition of that term is not all that easily set into words. What made that coin special was not its condition (it was only 'fine') nor its rarity but the success with which the die cutter captured the likeness of the young boy who later would become that snarling adult capable even of killing his own brother. We begin this page quoting from that early effort:

As the old saying goes, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." To most coin collectors, condition is everything. This coin has a number of shortcomings that would make it perform poorly in sales rooms but it is still a beautiful coin to me. Frequently overlooked by beginning collectors is the matter of style. The obverse die used to strike this particular coin is my personal favorite portrait of the young Caracalla Caesar.

In 196 AD, Septimius Severus decided to sever ties with Clodius Albinus who had been named Caesar (heir apparent to the throne) and replaced him with his elder son who is known today by his nickname Caracalla. The portraits of the eight year old boy on his first coins frequently show an awkward child of no particular physical beauty. On a few dies, however, the celator captured a likeness with an air of nobility appropriate for a future emperor. Of those dies, this one stands out with the large well modelled head that uses every bit of the space available.

In fact, most, if not all, ancient coins are available in a range of styles. Skill varied greatly between the master celators and the cutters who must have been employed simply to keep up with massive demand for dies to strike a large issue of coins. When auxiliary mints were used, the style was often distinctively non-Roman in flavor. Even when there was only one engraver at one mint, some dies turned out better than others. Coin collectors and dealers value their holdings for being well struck, unworn and pleasantly surfaced. For some of us there is another consideration: Style.

This updated page will look into that subject in a bit more depth.

Just what is 'style'? Style, perhaps, is most easily defined by what it is NOT. Style is not condition, not preservation, not striking, not workmanship at the mint. Style is 'art' or the way the die cutter transferred to the die the spirit of his subject or design. Style is not necessarily 'good' or 'bad' and can be used to separate coins by date or place of manufacture without judging the 'quality' of the art. This page will not enable the reader to separate these one from another but, perhaps, bringing up the subject will lead some to give thought to the matter.

People often think of 'style' as what distinguishes one period from another: Greek style from Roman style, for example. Standards of art and beauty tend to change with times and culture. A woman of great beauty in one time might be considered overweight and pale a few years later. A painting of photographic grade realism highly valued by some will be considered boring by proponents of 'modern art'. Coin style, if judged as good or bad, must be judged only on how well it reflects the spirit of the times that produced it. Judging Archaic Greek art by Roman Imperial standards would cause us to label it 'unrealistic' or 'austere'. Similar standards would label Celtic coins (and Picasso paintings) as the work of demented children. If you feel this is the correct outlook, you have my sympathy. There are coins of great style from every period, even the most simple or stylized. There are dies of no artistic merit from even the most 'high art' periods. I prefer to restrict the term 'style' to more narrow distinctions trying to avoid making comparisons that are simply impossible. The old saying goes, "You can't compare apples to oranges." Nowhere is this more true than in numismatics. Before judging 'good' and 'bad' we must define the coins to be compared and be certain that the styles do not differ for reasons of time, place or technical matters. It is hard for a small coin to have the same quality of die work found on a large one. This site has previously visited 'Tiny Treasures' or Greek fractional coins that are amazing for their size but would be considered crude if blown up to tetradrachm size. Artistic expectations at the mint of Rome did not match the preferred standards in the East even at the same date. Similarly, 20th Century works of the avant guarde in Paris differed from the best work of artists of the American West. Is one 'better' than the other or are there good and less good in both groups? The remainder of this page will address these points using examples of coins I have in sufficient quantity to make these points. (Yes, this is yet another page showing Septimius Severus and Julia Domna.) The same points could be made equally well using any specific coin series. I just happen to have photos of the Severan coins so they will serve for purposes of illustration. All may look a bit alike to you until you start looking more closely and seeing that all are quite different.

Rome mint Alexandria mint 'Emesa'
('early style')
('early style')

Our four denarii of Septimius Severus all date to 194 AD (using traditional scholarship - I doubt the inclusion of the coin on the right in this group but that is another matter). Comparing them to each other still stretches the 'apples to oranges' rule since all four come from different mints. Perhaps this is like comparing Granny Smith's to Red Delicious? None bear mintmarks and only the 'Emesa' coin is distinguishable by the obverse legend being unique to that mint. Separations of the coins is to be made by style. Most easily distinguished is the Alexandria mint product showing the typical heavy features and protruding eye characteristic of this mint. The other three offer a somewhat more realistic portrait but each shows minor differences that enable specialists to separate them by mint.

Is it appropriate to say that one of these coins is 'better style' and another 'crude' or can we call each 'good' or 'typical' for their mint? Your answer to this probably depends on whether you look at these coins as all the same or all different. Collectors seeking one portrait of Septimius Severus might prefer a later coin with the popular corkscrew portrait showing the Emperor as he looked when campaigning in Britain. These four show the less fancy, more military Septimius when he was fighting Pescennius Niger for control of the Empire. Collectors who specialize in Septimius and consider these all different will realize that there were many variations in style from each of these mints. Each of the four coins above were rather well done for their mint at their time. For each group there were many dies less pleasing and less lifelike than these. Our next example will address this matter.

Five denarii of Julia Domna were all produced at the Laodicea mint ('new style') within a couple years of 200 AD. All show the same woman at the same age produced by the same mint but what a variety we see! Two show upturned noses; three have noses that are rather straight or even with a slight prominence at the bridge. Eyes vary from well executed looking forward to a dot floating in an empty hole. One shows the eyes and nose large out of proportion to the mouth and the portrait with the largest head shows the skinniest neck. All show the upper lip overhanging the lower and a somewhat pointed chin. Another sampling of coins from this group would find other variations on these points. The differences we see here can be traced to differing skills of the several cutters and the fact that even the best artist has a bad day now and then. None of these dies were cut by great artists but I consider the one on the left to be of 'nice' style. If the artist responsible for the second and third was allowed to live it would be evidence that Julia was not particularly vain!

Four more coins of Julia are from the Syrian mint of uncertain location traditionally assigned to 'Emesa'. This mint operated from late 193 until the end of military activities in the East (against Pescennius and the Parthians) circa 196. Several styles are found causing some students to consider the question of separating these into two groups as 'Early' and 'Late' or into separate mint locations. The two coins on the left are 'Earlier' style while the 'Later' period (right) shows a more rounded look. Both groups have better and lesser dies. Special mention has to be made in the case of the coin on the far right; the style is particularly harsh to my eye. Would this have been considered pleasing to the man on the street in Emesa? Is what I see here a factor of lack of skill of the die cutter or a reflection of a difference between ancient Emesan and modern American standards of beauty? Julia was a native of Emesa; the hometown girl who made good by marrying the most powerful man in the world. Everyone in town would have seen her in person and been well aware of her appearance. My personal opinion is that the coin on the far left is probably the most accurate but I consider the second from the right the most attractive. Your opinion may differ. Style preference, like beauty, is a matter of cultural background and personal opinion. Art critics often are quick to present their opinions as gospel but a generation later these same critics are remembered as the fools who failed to understand the great artists of their day. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Three bronze sestertii show more room for fine work due to their larger size. Still the three are hard to compare fairly. The Julia on the left is fully 20 years younger than that on the right. Wear has reduced the details on the left coin from what once was an excellent portrait. The die was cut in great style but this example makes it hard to appreciate. I would love to have an EF coin from this die. The right coin shows a very strange almond shaped eye very reminiscent of the archaic Greek style. Many dies of this period show the eye of Julia a bit frontally but this example is extreme. Was this a result of a then fashionable desire to be 'in style' by emulating the archaic look? The workmanship seems good but the portrait is of a harsh older woman who has witnessed one of her sons murder the other. The coin in the center is intermediate in all respects. The look is serious and unsmiling but probably accurate for the Julia of circa 200 AD. All three show a nose with prominent bridge more often seen on coins from Rome than from the East. Selecting a single portrait style to represent the 24 years Julia reigned would be very difficult.

After what has been said above, I ask the reader to examine the eight coins shown below. All are Rome mint 193-196 AD period denarii. All are middle grade so you won't be tempted to prefer one over the other because of condition. After examining each of the coins select the ones you consider to be the best, most artistically pleasing style (do NOT consider condition, strike or other factors). Which dies were the work of master cutters and which show signs of rushing, sloppy work or simple incompetence at the mint? It is sometimes possible to see two dies cut in a style that suggests both were cut by the same hand. Were any of these dies cut by the same artist (opinion! - there are no records to prove you right or wrong)? Of the dies, which is the best? The worst? I have my favorite (the second coin on the bottom row) but this is very much a matter of personal opinion.

Our final image shows six coins of Septimius Severus from the Rome mint in 193 AD. All are legionary types. The mint often employed more than one die cutter. How many different 'hands' produced these six coins? Which go together and which were produced by co-workers? Some early issues show a portrait style that resembles a previous emperor. Do any of these coins suggest that the artist had recently produced dies for another Emperor? Which? For whom? I believe the first two on the left were the work of the same hand while the middle pair match each other but were different from the first pair. The fifth coin has some features resembling Pertinax while the last coin on the right looks a bit like Didius Julianus. Again, these are matters that can not be proven from mint records and are of interest to a small minority of collectors who collect coins by 'style'.

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1999 Doug Smith