Heads or Tails?

A late-Roman coin unearthed in an Oxfordshire field and on show in the Ashmolean Museum leads Llewelyn Morgan to ponder the misleading messages on the faces of coins.

Euro is worth a Euro, or $1.35, £0.69, or whatever the currency markets have decided, no matter where a transaction takes place within the Eurozone. Yet, the European single currency adopts a bewildering variety of forms. The reverse side of each coin is reserved for nation-specific images, and the Euro in your pocket may thus carry a portrait of one of Europe’s surviving monarchs (Juan Carlos of Spain, for example) or a design representing one of the republics – a harp for Ireland, Mozart for Austria, a heraldic eagle for Germany. Some are more inspired than others. In a marvellous piece of national self-promotion, the Greek design features a stylized owl, a motif borrowed from the Athenian four-drachma piece of the fifth century BC. The meaning is obvious enough: we have the Greek genius to thank for the common currency, just as we do for drama and democracy.

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