Ancient Greek Coins

Ancient Greek arts are outstanding and among the most ancient of all developments. The Greek art, as well as, the Greek coins are both idealized and naturalistic, aside from successfully depicting the human body, with large nude male figures depicted the focus of innovation.

The Greek art was fully described on the various Greek coins made during the ancient times and they have a unique rate of stylistic development spanning 750 BC and 300 BC. Present day technology and knowledge even consider ancient Greek art in general and ancient Greek coins in particular as being remarkable by ancient standards.

Many of the depictions of ancient Greek art and ancient Greek coins are found in sculptured works in recent times.

Ancient Greek coins have quite a history behind them. A look at many of them, including the most ancient ones, will indicate the technological advancement of those ages.

Many, if not all, of the coins produced in ancient Greek, were handcrafted; they still stand out to be counted.

In this write-up, we will focus on the ancient Greek coins and open your eyes to many of the various categories and periods of development of these coins. We will also mention the materials used in making the coins and how important they are in recent days.

Their histories are classified into four different periods as highlighted below:

  • Archaic
  • Classical
  • Hellenistic
  • Roman

The archaic period started during the 7th century BC and ended in 480 BC, which is around the time the Persian War ended. This is about the first generation of coins ever spent in Greece.

This was followed by the Classical period, which started around 480 BC and ended in 330 BC around the time of the conquests of Alexander the Great. Its end oversaw the beginning of the Hellenistic period, which ended in the first century BC around the time the Romans absorbed the Greek world.

While still under the rules of the Romans, Greek cities were still producing their coins; this continued for many centuries right under Roman rule. The name given to the coins produces during this period was Roman provincial coins; it was also called Greek Imperial Coins by some.

The Archaic period

As hinted earlier, the archaic period is the earliest period for Greek coin production. The earliest known coins during this period are called East Greek and Lydian coins and they were found at Ephesus under the Temple of Artemis. These two coins are dated around 625 BC to 600 BC.

They were used to pay Greek mercenaries for the services they offer at the end of the time of service. The Greek mercenaries would also want the coins to be marked to provide authentication.

The coins were equally used by every other Greek as a means of exchange. Electrum was the material used in making the coins; electrum is an alloy of silver and gold and highly priced.

The electrum coins were, however, replaced by King Croesus in the 6th century BC. In its place, he introduced coins made of pure silver and pure gold, which are called Croseids. Herodotus was credited with the invention of purer silver and pure gold coins.

There were up to two thousand self-governing starts or cities in the Greek world in ancient time. More than 50% of these city-states were involved in issuing their own coins. Some of the locally issued coins were spent beyond the boundaries of the city-states and were used for inter-city trades.

The didrachm of Aegina or the silver stater is a very good example of coins used for inter-city trade. Over the years, this inter-city coin has been evacuated from several ancient Levant and Egyptian ruins or ancient buildings, which are places naturally lacking in silver supply, indicating that the coins must have spread that far.

Following the wide circulation of the coins,   other cities began to mint their own coins to 6.1 grams of “Aeginetan” weight standard. The various cities also include their symbols on the coins they mint.

The archaic Greek coin also spread further than the Greek nation and was widely used in the Achaemenid Empire. These coins were found in bulk in several hoards, like the Apadana hoard and the Ghazzat hoard throughout the Achaemenid Empire.

They were equally found in the Kabul hoard in ancient India after the Achaemenid conquest of the Indus Valley. Much of the Achaemenid coin hoards discovered in the eastern part of the Achaemenid Empire were Greek coins, especially the Archaic coins; the Classical coins were also found in this empire in a great quantity. The above is an indication that the archaic Greek coin was used extensively as a means of exchange far beyond the Greek domain.

Classical Period

As indicated earlier, the classical period extended from 480 BC to 323 BC. This was the period during which the Greek coin attained a high level of aesthetic and technical quality. The coins were produced by larger Greek cities in various ranges of fine gold and silver coins.

Most of them bore the portraits of various patron gods and goddesses. At times, the coins could bear the images of legendary heroes or that of the city.

There are also classical period coins that showcased visual puns, like a rose on the coin from Rhodes. The Greek also started putting inscriptions on their coins during this period. In most instances, only the names of the cities were inscribed in the coins.

Sicily was a wealthy city in those days and produced some of the most beautiful coins during this period. The finest coin ever produced during this period was the decadrachm from Syracuse. It is a large silver coin.

decadrachm of syracuse

The imprints on the Syracuse were standard; it bore the head of Arethusa, the nymph, on one side and the victorious quadriga on the other side. Syracuse was at the epicenter of the numismatic art in this period of Greek coinage.

The coin design was led by Euaintos and Kimon and they did a really beautiful job of it and could produce the finest design on coins in those days.

The first set of cities to produce coins during Greek colonization by Rome was Taranto, Metapontum, Caulonia, Sybaris, Crotone, and Paestum. The cities began coin production in 550BC and persisted until 510 BC.

The Hellenistic period

This period of Greek coinage started in 323 BC and persisted until 31 BC. The period was known for the expansion and spread of the culture of the Greek to all the parts of the world that were known then.

This expansion led to the establishment of Greek-speaking kingdoms in various parts of the known world. Like Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and even Egypt. India was also not left out.

The Greek coins produced during this period were spread to these parts of the world by Greek traders. It was just a matter of time before the Greek kingdoms founded in these other countries started producing their own set of Greek coins.

This was especially because many of these foreign Greek kingdoms were larger and richer than the mother Greek city-states. The foreign Greek coins were equally produced in a larger quantity than what was produced in motherland Greece by any of the cities there. They were equally larger in size and were mostly made of gold. However, the aesthetic delicacy found on Greek coins produced in the earlier period was lacking in many of the coins produced during this period.

Perfect examples of the Greek coins produced during this period were the Greco-Bactrian cousins and the Indo-Greeks coins, which started off in India.

indo greek coins

The two set of coins are considered to be the finest available examples of Greek numismatic art having a great blend of idealization and realism.

The largest gold coin ever minted during this period was made by Eucratides, who reigned between the 171 BC and 145 BC.

largest ancient coin

On the other hand, the largest silver coin ever minted during this period was done by Amyntas Nikator, the Indo-Greek king, who reigned between 95 BC and 90 BC.

coin of amyntas nicator

The portraits describe a degree of individuality that has never been matched by many of the bland depictions of their contemporaries in the far west.

Virtually all the Greek coins minted during this period featured the portraits of people who were alive; that is, the kings themselves.

The practice started in Sicily but other Greeks disapproved it, saying it is a sign of arrogance. However, it was upheld by the kings of Seleucid Syria and Ptolemaic Egypt because they already gave themselves the “divine” status. They minted great look gold coins bearing their own pictures or portraits on one side and the symbols of their states on the other side. The kings also inscribed their names on the coins.

This pattern prevailed among so many Greek kingdoms for several years. The portrait of the king would assume a heroic pose in the profile with his name inscribed beside his portrait. The symbol or the coat of arm of the state would be printed on the other side of the coin.

This period of Greek coinage ended in 31 BC with the Battle of Actium. Be that as it may, some rulers in the Hellenistic period continued ruling far the reign of King Strato III, the Indo-Greek king, which started in 25 BC and ended in 10 AD. He is known for issuing the last of the Hellenistic coinage and signified the end of coinage in this period.

However, some of the Greek communities in the eastern part of the Roman Empire continued the production of what they call the Greek Imperials or Roman provincial coinages; this persisted until the third century AD.

The minting of Greek coins  

All the Greek coins ever made during the various periods were handmade and differs in finesse compared to the machine-made coins of the modern world. The designs on the coins were carved into a block of bronze or iron and were called a die. A similar punch was used in carving the design on the opposite side of the coin.

A blank disk of electrum, silver or gold was cast in a mold and placed in between the two punches after which it was struck hard using a hammer, which then raised the design found on the two sides of the coin.

Symbols of city-state

The Greek coins were more or less used as the symbols of the city-state in ancient times. They depict unique features or symbols. They also featured emblems called badge in numismatics. The emblems represented the city and also promoted the prestige of each of the states. The Corinthians stater showed Pegasus, which is the mythological winged stallion that was tamed by Bellerophon, the Corinthians hero.

The bees were shown on the coins of the Ephesus; the bee is a sacred animal to Artemis. The owl of Athena was depicted on Drachmas of Athens, while the chelone was depicted on the Drachmas of Aegina. The selinon was depicted on the coins of Selinunte.

The Heracles was depicted on the Coins of Heraclea, while a man-headed bull was depicted on the coins of Gela.

coins of heraklea

The man-headed bull personalized the river Gela. The Rhodon was depicted on the Coins of Rhodes. The labyrinth was depicted on the coins of Knossos; the labyrinth is a Minotaur mythical creature, which is a symbol of the Minoan Crete. The melon was depicted on the coins of Melos and the Boeotian shield was depicted on the coins of Thebes.

Present day state of Greek coins

You can check museums across the world for Greek coins of different periods. Some of the best places to check are the Danish National Museum, the American Numismatic Society and the British Museum.

The American Numismatic Society has collected up to 100,000 ancient Greek coins from several mints and regions, including Afghanistan, North African and Spain. You can get hold of the coins for research and academics purposes if you so desire.

You can equally visit any of the active Greek coin collector markets to get any Greek coin of your liking. Many auction houses in the United States and Europe specialize in ancient items, including ancient Greek coins. You can equally buy them off online markets if you so desire.

Furthermore, archeologists are still discovering hoards of Greek coins in places like North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Many of these coins end up being sold in one market. The coins are within the reach of archeologist sand ordinary collectors because they were solidly made and buried in large quantity to save them for the future.