Ancient Greek Coins

Posted by on October 27, 2011
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Greek Silver Tetradrachm of Amphipolis (photo by AncientArt*)

Ancient Greek “Father of History” Herodotus (484–425 BC) wrote that the Lydians were the first to use gold and silver coins and establish permanent retail shops.  Lydia was an ancient Empire in modern day Turkey.  Lydian coins made of electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver, have been found which date back as far as 700 BC.  The dates of silver coins of antiquity are of some debate.  Aristotle (384–322 BC), teacher of Alexander the Great, wrote that the first coins were struck by Demodike who married King Midas.  Yes the one with “the golden touch” of various stories.  There are various modern opinions of these dates.

Regardless, the oldest coin found in the Ancient Old World is of electrum from Lydia with an obverse depicting a lion’s head and sunburst.  Lydian King Alyattes, of the 7th and 6th Centuries BC, standardized the weight of coins, 1 Starter = 168 grains of wheat about 4.7 grams.

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Ancient Greek Coins

The other Greek States started producing silver coins around 600-550 BC in denominations call ‘drachma’  The ‘drachma’ then came into use, about 3 grams, and 'obolus' about 0.5 grams.  Because Greece and its people relied very much on ships for commerce the early silver coins quickly migrated all around Greece and then ports, cities, and nations surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.  Then the idea of minting silver for coins caught on very quickly.

Many early silver drachme of Aegina depicts a tortoise on the obverse and on the reverse is indented with a dolphin and the inscription “A” ‘of the’, then,  “IG” ‘Aeg’.   Athena graces many of these earliest of silver coins, one of the more well known are the tetradrachm coins - 4 drachme silver coins from Athens with Athena wearing a helmet on the obverse and an owl with an olive sprig and a short hand inscription AQE ‘of the Athenians’ on the reverse (440 BC).  The Syracusan coins depicted the nymph Arethusa on the obverse regularly.

There is also a considerable assortment of ancient silver coins minted by the various Persian emperors; the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian all issued their own mints. 

During Alexander the Great's expansion of his empire the religious images on coins where replaced by various rulers’ profiles stamped on the coins they minted as well as other celebrated figures. First the Hellenistic kings and then during the rise of Rome the Romans adapted this tradition.  Silver coins are considered ‘ancient’ if minted before the Byzantine Empire.  Ancient silver coins are very popular numismatic coins.

Byzantine Coins

During the Byzantine era the issue of silver coins dropped considerably due to the lack of reliable supplies of silver being mined.  However during the end of this era silver started being added to the gold coins and a millennium after the early ancient Greek coin production electrum came back as a numismatic metal.

Medieval Coins

During the Medieval era there are Royal, Feudal, Crusader, and Ecclesiastical varieties of silver coins.  These were standardized by Charlemagne during his conquests and rule with the Denier (about 800 AD), or Penny in English, Pfenning in German, and Denaro in Italian. The Denier is a silver coin about the size of the modern United States penny.  This standard was maintained until the 14th Century AD.  There is a great and rich history from other regions as well.

The striving for independence of nations has continually produced their own variation of silver coins throughout the ages and into current times.  Even well established nations have continued using coins to reflect the changes that they have gone through.  This will become more and more evident the deeper you get into silver coin collecting.

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6 comments on “Ancient Greek Coins

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