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The history of Ancient Greek coinage can be divided (along with most other Greek art forms), into three periods, the Archaic, the Classical and the Hellenistic. The Archaic period extends from the introduction of coinage to the Greek world in about 600 BCE until the Persian Wars in about 480 BCE. The Classical period then began, and lasted until the conquests of Alexander the Great in about 330 BC, which began the Hellenistic period, extending until the Roman absorption of the Greek world in the 1st century BCE. The Greeks cities continued to produce their own coins for several more centuries under Roman rule, called Roman provincial coins.

Archaic period

Electrum coin from Lydia (VI century)
The Greek world was divided into at least a hundred self-governing cities and towns (in Greek, poleis), and most of these issued their own coins. Some coins circulated widely beyond their polis, indicating that they were being used in inter-city trade; the first example appears to have been the silver drachma of Aegina. As such coins circulated more widely, coins of other cities came increasingly to be minted to the same weight standard (the weight standard of the Aeginetan drachma was 6.1 g) although marked with the symbols of the issuing city. This is not dissimilar to present day Euro coins, which are recognisably from a particular country, but usable all over the Euro zone.

Different weight standards co-existed; these may well have indicated different trade alliances. In about 510 BC Athens began producing a fine silver tetradrachm (four drachm) coin. As Athens and Aegina were hostile, this was minted to a different weight standard, the "Attic" standard drachm of 4.3 g. Over time, Athens' plentiful supply of silver from the mines at Laurionmarker and its increasing dominance in trade made this the pre-eminent standard. Tetradrachms on this weight standard continued to be a widely used coin (often the most widely used) through the classical period, by Alexander, and by the Hellenistic monarchs.

The word drachm means "a handful". Drachmae could be divided into six obols (from the Greek word for a spit of iron).

Classical period

The "Classical period" saw Greek coinage reach a high level of technical and aesthetic quality. Larger cities now produced a range of fine silver and gold coins, most bearing a portrait of their patron god or goddess, or a legendary hero, on one side, and a symbol of the city on the other. Some coins employed a visual pun: coins from Rhodesmarker featured a rose, since the Greek word for rose is rhodon. The use of inscriptions on coins also began, usually the name of the issuing city. The wealthy cities of Sicily produced some especially fine coins. The large silver decadrachm (ten drachm) coin from Syracusemarker is regarded by many collectors as the finest coin produced in the ancient world, perhaps ever.

The use of coins for propaganda purposes was a Greek invention. Coins are valuable, durable and pass through many hands. In an age without newspapers or other mass media, they were an ideal way of disseminating a political message. The first such coin was a commemorative decadrachm issued by Athens following the Greek victory in the Persian Wars. On these coins the owl of Athens was depicted facing the viewer with wings outstretched, holding a spray of olive leaves. The message was that Athens was powerful and victorious, but peace-loving.

Hellenistic period

The Hellenistic period was characterised by the spread of Greek culture across a large part of the known world. Greek-speaking kingdoms were established in Egyptmarker and Syriamarker, and for a time also in Iranmarker and as far east as what is now Afghanistanmarker and northwestern Indiamarker. Greek traders spread Greek coins across this vast area, and the new kingdoms soon began to produce their own coins. Because these kingdoms were much larger and wealthier than the Greek city states of the classical period, their coins tended to be more mass-produced, as well as larger, and more frequently in gold. They often lacked the aesthetic delicacy of coins of the earlier period.

Still, some of the Greco-Bactrian coins, and those of their successors in India, the Indo-Greeks, are considered the finest examples of Greek numismatic art with "a nice blend of realism and idealization", including the largest coins to be minted in the Hellenistic world: the largest gold coin was minted by Eucratides (reigned 171145 BC), the largest silver coin by the Indo-Greek king Amyntas (reigned c. 9590 BC). The portraits "show a degree of individuality never matched by the often bland depictions of their royal contemporaries further West" (Roger Ling, "Greece and the Hellenistic World").

The most striking new feature of Hellenistic coins was the use of portraits of living people, namely of the kings themselves. This practice had begun in Sicily, but was disapproved of by other Greeks as showing hubris (pride). But the kings of Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria had no such scruples, and issued magnificent gold coins adorned with their own portraits, with the symbols of their state on the reverse. The names of the kings were frequently inscribed on the coin as well. This established a pattern for coins which has persisted ever since: a portrait of the king, usually in profile and striking a heroic pose, on the obverse, with his name beside him, and a coat of arms or other symbol of state on the reverse.


All Greek coins were hand-made, rather than milled as modern coins are. The design for the obverse was carved (in incuso) into a block of iron, named die. The design of the reverse was carved into a similar punch. The blank gold, silver or bronze planchet, heated to make it soft, was then placed between these two and the punch struck hard with a hammer, "punching" the design onto both sides of the coin.

This is a fairly crude technique and produces a high failure rate, so the high technical standards achieved by the best Greek coins - perfect centering of the image on the disk, even relief all over the coin, sharpness of edges - is a remarkable testament to Greek perfectionism.

Ancient Greek coins today

The best Greek coins are rare and expensive, and many can only be seen in museums, of which the National Numismatic Museum in Athens, the British Museummarker and the American Numismatic Society are among the finest. An active market in both high quality and common ancient Greek coins exists, dominated by on-line auction houses in the United States and Europe. Moreover, hoards of Greek coins are still being found in Europe and the Middle East, and many of the coins in these hoards find their way onto the market, often via the Internet. Coins are the only art form from the Ancient world which are common enough and durable enough to be within the reach of ordinary collectors.

See also


  1. Grierson: Numismatics

Further reading

  • Head, Barclay V. (1911), Historia Numorum; A Manual of Greek Numismatics, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Philip Grierson (1975), Numismatics, Oxford, Oxford University Press ISBN 0198850980
  • Jenkins, H.K. (1990), Ancient Greek Coins, Seaby, ISBN 1-85264-014-6
  • Kayhan, Muharram & Konuk, Koray (2003), From Kroisos to Karia; Early Anatolian Coins from the Muharrem Kayhan Collection, ISBN 975-8070-61-4
  • Kraay, Colin M. (1976), Archaic and Classical Greek Coins, New York: Sanford J. Durst, ISBN 0-915262-75-4.
  • Melville Jones, John R., 'A Dictionary of Ancient Greek Coins', London, Seaby 1986, reprinted Spink 2004.
  • Melville Jones, John R., Testimonia Numaria. Greek and Latin texts concerning Ancient Greek Coinage, 2 vols (1993 and 2007), London, Spink, 0-907-05-40-0 and 978-1-902040-81-3.
  • Ramage, Andrew and Craddock, Paul (2000), King Croesus' Gold; Excavations at Sardis and the History of Gold Refining, Trustees of the British Museum, ISBN 0-7141-0888-X.
  • Rutter N. K, Burnett A. M., Crawford M. H., Johnston A. E.M., Jessop Price M (2001), Historia Numorum Italy, London: The British Museum Press, ISBN 0-7141-1801-X.
  • Sayles, Wayne G., "Ancient Coin Collecting III: Numismatic Art of the Greek World"
  • Sear, David, "Greek Coins and Their Values: Volume 1", London: Spink.
  • Sear, David, "Greek Coins and Their Values: Volume 2" London: Spink.
  • Seltman, Charles (1933), Greek Coins, London: Methuen & Co., Ltd.
  • Seltman, Charles, Masterpieces of Greek Coinage, Bruno Cassirer - Oxford, 1949.
  • Thompson M., Mørkholm O., Kraay C. M. (eds): An Inventory of Greek Coin Hoards, (IGCH). New York, 1973 ISBN 9780897220682
  • Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum:
    • American Numismatic Society: The Collection of the American Numismatic Society, New York

External links

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