Obverse and reverse

Roman imperial coin, struck c. 241, with the head of Tranquillina on the obverse, or front of the coin, and her marriage to Gordian III depicted on the reverse, or back side of the coin, in smaller scale; the coin exhibits the obverse – "head", or front – and reverse – "tail", or back – convention that still dominates much coinage today.
A Roman imperial coin of Marcus Claudius Tacitus, who ruled briefly from 275 to 276, follows the convention of obverse and reverse coin traditions.

Obverse and its opposite, reverse, refer to the two flat faces of coins and some other two-sided objects, including paper money, flags, seals, medals, drawings, old master prints and other works of art, and printed fabrics. In this usage, obverse means the front face of the object and reverse means the back face. The obverse of a coin is commonly called heads, because it often depicts the head of a prominent person, and the reverse tails.

In fields of scholarship outside numismatics, the term front is more commonly used than obverse, while usage of reverse is widespread.

The equivalent terms used in codicology, manuscript studies, print studies and publishing are "recto" and "verso".

Identification

On a Tetradrachma of Athens, struck c. 490 BC, the head of Athena, (left), is regarded as the obverse because of its larger scale and because it is a portrait head; the entire owl is depicted in a smaller scale on the reverse.

Generally, 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. Following this principle, in the most famous of ancient Greek coins, 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 two centuries.

In the many republics of ancient Greece[1], 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 monarchical coinage, 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.

Obverse of the tetradrachm of Alexander the Great, intended to be seen as a deity, wearing the attributes of the hero, Heracles/Hercules. 325 BC.

In a Western monarchy, it has been customary, following the tradition of the Hellenistic monarchs and then the Roman emperors, 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, which continued to be minted long after his death. After his conquest of ancient Egypt, 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 Hellenistic rulers who were his successors followed his tradition and kept their images on the obverse of coins.

Solidus of Justinian II after 705. Christ is on the obverse (left), the emperor on the reverse.

A movement back to the earlier tradition of a deity being placed on the obverse occurred in Byzantine coinage, where a head of Christ became the obverse and a head or portrait (half or full-length) of the emperor became considered the reverse. The introduction of this style in the gold coins of Justinian II from the year 695 provoked the Islamic Caliph, Abd al-Malik, 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.

Silver rupee using Mughal conventions, but minted by the British East India Company Madras Presidency between 1817 and 1835. On rupees, the side that carries the name of the ruler is considered the obverse.

After 695 Islamic coins avoided all images of persons and usually contained script alone. The side expressing the Six Kalimas (the Islamic profession of faith) is usually defined as the obverse.

A convention exists typically to display the obverse to the left (or above) and the reverse to the right (or below) in photographs and museum displays, but this is not invariably observed.

Other Languages
العربية: الوجه والعكس
čeština: Avers a revers
Nederlands: Kruis en munt
português: Anverso e reverso