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Ancient Coins

Coins first arose in the early Iron Age to better store and transport value, as the previously used ingots became bulky and unwieldy for traveling merchants. Many of these early coins were stamped from electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver. These electrum coins were eventually displaced by pure silver and pure gold coinage as smelting techniques improved.

The type and worth of a coin was often defined by the powerful city states of the time. King Croesus of Lydia (present-day Turkey) is credited with creating the gold and silver standard. Later, Athens used their trade power to popularize their particular standard of silver coins. While all of Greece’s city states used a drachm as a measure of value, the actual weight varied from location to location.

The concept of types and legends, which holds true today, also originated in antiquity. Types are the designs present on a coin: the face of a hero or the shape of a patron animal. The legend is the inscription displayed on the coin, usually a statement of value or a motto. Many ancient Greek coins show many types but few legends, as most of the value was discerned by the size and weight of the coin, not an inscription declaring value. This allowed room on the coin for the head of a popular hero or deity on the obverse, as well as a sacred animal or plant on the reverse, sometimes accompanied by a brief legend abbreviating the city state of origin.


Quick Facts

  • The tradition of putting the heads of famous rulers on coins was not started by the Greeks but by the kings of Ptolemaic Egypt. The Greeks thought it displayed hubris
  • In 2014, a silver tetradrachm from Syracuse sold for just over $3,000,000. With crisp stamps and attractive designs, coins from Syracuse are widely held to be the finest coins ancient Greece produced
  • The Greeks also began the tradition of printing commemorative coins, especially for winning a major battle or sporting event. These coins served primarily as a political message, although they did retain commercial value

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