Faces On Banknotes And Coins Through The Ages

Posted by Allison on 6 April 2009, 15:20

In today's modern world, most banknotes feature the faces of well known figures in that particular country.  More often than not they belong to figures of importance, such as presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens, for example. 

Of course no one lasts forever on a banknote or coin – different people 'rule' for different periods of time on various forms of currency, and indeed if you look at any particular currency for any specific country you can often trace back its history of rulers according to who was depicted on each note at each time.

One example of a currency marking the end of an association that a prominent figure had with a country was seen some five years ago in 2003.  This was when Iraq began distributing their new currency, which no longer featured former ruler Saddam Hussein as part of its design.  Although his death did not occur until the end of 2006, it seems the country was anxious to be rid of him a good while before that.  While the design was markedly different, the actual value of the notes remained exactly the same.

But if you think that this 'out with the old, in with the new' style is a modern trend, you would be wrong. 

Roman coins are one of the most famous examples of how well made ancient currencies could be, given their relative lack of expertise in actually producing them when compared to today's standards.  One example of a Roman coin produced during the rule of a Roman emperor was the denarius coin produced with the face of the ruler Maximinus, who began his rule in the year 305.  Considering the age of the coin, his face is remarkably detailed and extremely well represented, and holds up well to the standards we have today.

Faces On Banknotes And Coins Through The Ages

But we cannot mention Roman coinage without mentioning the infamous Julius Caesar, whose apparent vanity provided us with the first instance of a famous figure appearing on a coin while they were still alive.

Another famous name in Roman times which is still recognised today is that of Marc Antony (otherwise known as Marcus Antonius) whose face can be seen on a coin issued way back in the year 32 BC. 

You might be forgiven for thinking that it was mainly the men who were honoured to have their faces and names splashed across the currency of their country, but women took their rightful places too when the situation demanded it.  Cleopatra is one of the most well known examples in ancient times, and her head appeared on one of the drachms used as currency in ancient Egypt. 

Moving into more recent times, there is a rather nice portrait of Queen Elizabeth I on a shilling coin struck in the late sixteenth century.  As is the case on several coins the inscription is in Latin.

Staying with British monarchs for a moment, it's obvious that the longer someone remains in power the more coins and notes they are likely to have which bear their features.  It occasionally happens that a new issue is brought out simply because the monarch or ruler in question has aged and the current issue no longer represents what they look like.

This was the case when Queen Victoria took the throne for a full sixty four years, starting in 1837.  Her portrait on a Gold Sovereign issued in 1869 showed a young woman with swept back hair and strong features.  Those strong features are still there on the more familiar face of Queen Victoria which is present on the Gold Sovereign which was issued just three years prior to her death in 1901, but the face is very different – it is older, and bears the stern and unsmiling features she is perhaps most remembered for.  The portrait also bears the familiar headdress which she was seen wearing for much of the time in her later years.

This is a superb example of how a currency can depict the passing of time for a single person, as well as for a constitution, government, country or indeed a way of life.  A look through the coins and banknotes of any country can reveal far more (even to the untrained eye) than simply facts about what money the country used at any one time.

Banknotes of course offer the advantage that there is more room to depict a famous person, although as is the case with many British banknotes over the years, we are rarely able to see more than just the head and shoulders of the person in question.  With that said, when paper money first appeared in China some of the notes depicted complete scenes with more than one person involved.

But no look at famous faces on coins would be complete without mentioning the United States of America, who have taken this idea to extremes to drum up some much needed enthusiasm for their one dollar coin, which is supposedly not very well liked by Americans in general.

The idea is to release four new versions of the dollar coin every year, and each one will have a different American President on it.   George Washington was the first one to be recognised, back in 2007 when the process started.  With just four presidents being honoured each year, the American dollar coin looks set to stay in the headlines for many years to come.

So we can see that the presence of certain faces on coins and banknotes isn't just a case of representing who happens to be in power at that precise moment in time.  It can also be a case of honouring people who have been famous for some reason in the past.  It may also give us a unique insight into how the world – and long serving rulers in particular – changes over the years, and it can also mark the progress of a particular currency as it changes through time.