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Follow the Money Trail: A History of Coins

Coins and their inscriptions are one of the main archaeological sources by which we reconstruct the culture, society and history of the ancient world. The images and their inscriptions provide a wealth of knowledge, which allows us to trace chronologies of kings, hierarchies of gods and the ideology of ancient people.

If you look at the coins and notes in your wallet (if you still carry one), you will notice that they often depict the profile or bust of a ruler or important person on the obverse, while the reverse bears the image of an important civic symbol – this might be a building or an animal. This tradition began with the ancient Greeks.

Xenophanes, writing in the sixth century BCE, claimed that coinage was an Anatolian invention, originating in ancient Lydia. Research of archaeological finds shows Lydian coins are the earliest dateable, additionally Lydia had ready access to a natural source of electrum, a gold and silver alloy, from which coins were first minted. Despite this, the way in which coinage spread through the Greek world and how readily it was accepted made coinage a truly Greek phenomenon.

Coins are eloquent testimony to the autonomy of the city-states. Almost from their earliest appearance, Greek coins used a combination of figures, symbols, and inscriptions to emphasise the independence and individuality of the poleis, depicting their patron deities and heroes, products, even visual puns on the cities' names. For example:

  • Delphi ~ Dolphin

  • Leontini ~ Lion

  • Rhodos ~ Rose

  • Selinus ~ Parsley-rock celery

  • Tauromention ~ Bull

  • Melos ~ Apple

Given the expense of electrum and gold, even small denominations were worth a considerable amount. For coins to be practical in a commercial context, fractional coinage was introduced during the archaic period, the smallest of which was one-sixteenth of an obol weighing a tiny 0.44mg. How coins as small as this were handled in everyday life is a mystery. As a result, it was not long before a token coinage made from a base metal, usually bronze, became readily available and these were significantly easier to handle. There is some suggestion that during this period, coins were first designed to be used by weight and that these tiny coins were a way of bringing the scale into balance.

At the other end of the denominational scale were the gold coins minted by Phillip II of Macedon. These coins took on a role of international currency which was promulgated under Alexander the Great. These types of coins were widely circulated and used as payments between states. Additionally, many more were hoarded by cities like Athens and Rome against potential disasters or wars.

Greek coins clearly reflect the changes in artistic styles over time. Archaic art slowly transformed into the more refined classical style and then into the later Hellenistic period. Ancient Greek coins were all handmade using metals including electrum, gold, silver and copper alloys. As early as the Archaic period, the hand of individual die engravers can be seen, but it was during the classical period city-states began to employ the most skilled engravers, providing more detail into each die, and thus into each coin.

Ancient Greek coins have made a significant contribution to art history. They not only represent the aesthetic ideals of the time but they provide miniature representations of numerous sculptural and architectural marvels, both sacred and secular. Until coins were discovered, we only had verbal descriptions. The remarkable details in portraiture hold a wealth of information about the artistic styles of the time, in addition to being tools for the expression of art and the communication of religious devotion and civic pride.

Due to their uniform value, coins were also a tool with which a social hierarchy of wealth could be definitively calculated. This was invaluable in a society that valued the moral authority of the patrician classes as a way of determining the worth of each group.

Coins were also used for political representation, albeit in a more subtle fashion. Coins were used to signify the autonomy of a particular polis or the legitimacy of a ruler. As a historical resource, coins cannot compare with literary sources in revealing the depth and intricacy of political machinations, although they often serve to support the official rhetoric. In some cases, a political alliance between cities will be promoted through the minting of shared coins with symbolism that alluded to their cause. When portraits were introduced on coins, with recognisable individual characteristics, they signified that this person was representative of the state and claimed a right to leadership.

The Hellenic Museum is proudly supported by the Bank of Sydney. We are delighted to continue our partnership with an institution that supports both the arts and the Greek community in Australia.

Written by Sarah Craig, CEO and Head of Curation


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