Roman imperial coin with the head of
Tranquillina on the obverse, struck c.
241 A.D. when her marriage to Gordian III is depicted on the
reverse in smaller scale; the coin exhibits the obverse "head" or
front and reverse "tail" or back convention that still dominates
much coinage today
obverse, and its opposite,
reverse, describe the two sides of units of
currency and many other kinds of two-sided
objects - most often in reference to coins, but
also to paper currency, flags (see Flag terminology), medals, drawings, old master prints and other works of art,
and printed fabrics.
Roman imperial coin of Marcus Claudius
Tacitus, who ruled briefly from 275-276 A.D., follows the
convention of obverse and reverse coin traditions
The terms may be interchanged
respectively with the more casual, but less precise terms, such as
" and "back
" or, for
coins only, "heads" and "tails" also occurs.
In many areas other than coins, reverse
is used much more
commonly than obverse
also may be used together more frequently.
Recto and verso
are the equivalent
terms for front and back used for the pages of books
, especially illuminated manuscripts
, and also
often for prints
Which is which?
Generally, if in doubt, the side of a coin with the larger scale
image will be called the obverse (especially if the image is a
single head) and, if that does not serve to distinguish them, the
side that is more typical of a wide range of coins from that
location will be called the obverse. A tradition now exists
typically to display the obverse to the left and the reverse to the
right in photographs.
this principle, in the most famous of Ancient Greek coins (which is displayed
to the right), the tetradrachm of
Athens, the obverse is the head of Athena and the reverse is her owl.
Similar versions of these two images, both
symbols of the state, were used on the Athenian coins for more than
many republics of Ancient Greece, such as Athens or Corinth, one side of
their coins would have a symbol of the state,
usually their patron goddess or her symbol, which remained constant
through all of the coins minted by that state, which is regarded as
the obverse of those coins.
The opposite side may have
varied from time to time.
In Ancient Greek
, the situation continued
whereby a larger image of a deity
, is called
the obverse, but a smaller image of a monarch appears on the other
side which is called the reverse.
In a Western monarchy
, it has been
customary, following the tradition of the Hellenistic monarchs
and then the
, for the currency to
bear the head of the monarch on one side, which is almost always
regarded as the obverse. This change happened in the coinage of
Alexander the Great
continued to be minted long after his death. After his conquest of
he allowed himself to be
depicted on the obverse of coins as a god-king, at least partly
because he thought this would help secure the allegiance of the
Egyptians, who had regarded their previous monarchs, the pharaohs
as divine. The various Hellenisic rulers
who were his successors followed his tradition and kept their
images on the obverse of coins.
A movement back to the earlier tradition of a deity being placed on
the obverse occurred in Byzantine
, where a head of Christ became the obverse and a head
or portrait (half or full-length) of the emperor became considered
The introduction of this style in the gold coins of Justinian II
from 695 A.D. provoked the Islamic
, who previously had copied Byzantine designs,
replacing Christian symbols with Islamic equivalents, finally to
develop a distinctive Islamic style
, with just lettering
on both sides of their coins.
This script alone style then was used on nearly all Islamic coinage
until the modern period. The type of Justinian II was revived after
the end of Iconoclasm
, and with
variations remained the norm until the end of the Empire. Without
images, therefore, it is not always easy to tell which side will be
regarded as the obverse without some knowledge.
After 695 A.D. Islamic
coins avoided all
images of persons and usually, contained script alone. In general
the side with the larger script is called the obverse. In
illustrations showing both sides of a coin, the obverse usually is
on the left of, or above the reverse, but not invariably.
follows its function, which is to serve as
a readily accepted medium of
this function rests on a state
guarantor of the value: either as trustworthy
the kind and amount of metal
in a coin
, or as powerful
guarantor of the
continuing acceptance of token
Traditionally, most states have been monarchies
where the person of the monarch
and the state were equivalent for most
purposes. For this reason, the obverse
side of a modern
piece of currency is the one that evokes that reaction by invoking
the strength of the state, and that side almost always depicts a
of the state, whether it be the
monarch or otherwise.
banknotes (bills, in American and Canadian use) have
two sides, and the secondary side (the reverse) seldom is wasted;
various pieces of information directly relating to its role as
medium of exchange can occur there (if not provided for on the
obverse), and additional space typically is used to reflect the
country's culture or government, evoking some treasured aspect of
the state's territory, its philosophy of governing, or the culture
of its people.
In any case, this secondary side usually is
less focused, and probably always less central, than the obverse,
to the facilitation of the acceptance of the currency.
Coins of the European Union
The reverse sides of euro coins
Regarding the euro
, some confusion regarding
the obverse and reverse of the euro coins
exists. Officially, as agreed by the informal Economic and Finance
Ministers Council of Verona in April 1996, and despite the fact
that a number of countries have a different design for each coin,
the distinctive national side is the obverse
common European side is the reverse
A number of the designs used for obverse national sides of euro coins
were taken from the reverse of the old
pre-euro coins of some individual countries.
Coins of Japan
In Japan, from 1897 to the end of World War
, although not formally stated, the following conventions
- the Chrysanthemum Crest
appeared on all coins,
- the crest side was regarded informally as the obverse (a normal
situation, since the throne depicted represented the imperial
- the year appeared on the other (reverse) side.
The Chrysanthemum Crest no longer appeared after the war, at least
equally informally, so
- the year took over the role of defining the reverse,
- the obverse therefore has been regarded as the side opposite
Coins of the United Kingdom
ancient tradition, the obverse of coins of the United Kingdom (and predecessor kingdoms going back to the
middle ages) almost always feature the
head of the monarch.
Left-facing portrait of Edward VIII
would have broken tradition
By tradition, each British monarch faces in the opposite direction
of his or her predecessor. Hence, George VI
faced left and the
faces right. The only break in this tradition almost occurred in
1936 when Edward
, believing his left side to be superior to his right,
insisted on his image facing left, as his father's image had. No
official legislation prevented his wishes being granted, so
left-facing obverses were prepared for minting. Very few examples
were struck before he abdicated later that year, but none bearing
this portrait ever were issued officially. When George VI acceded
to the throne, his image was placed to face left, implying that,
had any coins been minted with Edward's portrait the obverses would
have depicted Edward facing right and maintained the
Coins of the United States
Some modern states specify, by law
, what appears (and sometimes what will
appear) on the obverse and reverse of their currency. (The
specifications mentioned here imply the use of all upper-case
letters, although they appear here in upper and lower case letters
for the legibility
of the article.)
The United States
long adhered to including all of the following:
- "United States of America"
- "E Pluribus Unum"
- Words (not digits) expressing the name or assigned value of the
item, e.g., "Quarter Dollar", "One Dime", "Five Cents"
The ten-year series of Statehood
, whose issue began in 1999, however, was seen as
calling for more space and more flexibility in the design of the
reverse. A law specific to this series and the corresponding time
period permits the following:
- as before:
- instead of on the reverse:
- "United States of America"
- The words expressing assigned value of the coin, "Quarter
- as before:
- instead of on the obverse:
- The four digits of the year of issue
- Commission Recommendation of 29 September 2003 on a
common practice for changes to the design of national obverse sides
of euro circulation coins (PDF), OJ L 264,
2003-10-15, pp. 38-39; EU doc. nr. C(2003) 3388.