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Ancient Coins

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Before coins were invented, trade was conducted by means of barter and it would have been up to the individuals concerned in the transaction to value one object in relation to another. Thus, three sheep were perhaps worth one bronze axe or one axe plus a supply of arrow heads. Obviously this system was unwieldy and the next stage of the development was for each area to decide on an object in common use in that area and relate all other objects to it. Since the communities living in those areas would have had different means of livelihood, some in northern Greece depending on cattle whilst others in Egypt and Mesopotamia were primarily traders using gold and silver, a variety of highly individual units of commerce were developed. The intermingling of traders from different areas again made a change necessary in the medium of exchange. It was, therefore, a considerable step forward when the third stage was evolved, that of stamping lumps of metal with a mark, thus guaranteeing them to be of a certain weight.

It is reasonably certain that the first coins were struck in Lydia in Asia Minor circa 700 b.c. by refugees from the city of Mycenae which had been overrun by their enemies. The earliest of these pieces were cast bean-shaped lumps of gold bearing a crude form of punch mark on one side whilst the other was blank. Unfortunately it is impossible to determine by whom the earliest coins were issued but it is more than probable that they were produced by merchants who crudely stamped the reverse guaranteeing its weight and thus obviating the necessity of weighing each piece again Not long afterwards the ruling authorities realized that it would be to their advantage to restrict the right to issue coins to. themselves, guaranteeing both the fineness of the gold and the weight of the pieces.

In order to identify the issuing authority it was necessary to place a mark on the coins that would make them instantly recognizable and in this way the great variety of badges that appear on Greek coins was born. Many of the early coins were struck in electrum, a natural amalgam of gold and silver which was comparatively plentiful in Asia Minor, where it was washed down from the mountains by the rivers. This coining medium was, however, soon relinquished as the ratio of fineness between the two metals was not constant. A bi-metallic currency of gold and silver was therefore undertaken and due to the fact that both the Lydians and the Ionic Greeks were mercantile peoples who had enjoyed each other's friendship for some considerable time, it was not long before the Ionians began to issue their own coins based on the Lydian weight standard.

The island of Aegina, situated south of the port of Piraeus, was an important trading station and by the middle of the seventh century b.c. was issuing coins with its own badge, a sea turtle, on the obverse.

We have seen that each of the different areas had adopted their own units prior to the striking of coins and when they adopted the use of coins their types and weights remained individual. In the ancient world there were six principal weight standards on which the coinage was based; Attic, Aeginetic, Phoenician, Rhodian, Babylonic and Persic. It is interesting to note that these standards, as far as we can tell, seem to have derived originally from the Babylonian standard of the `Manah', evidence of this being found when Sir Henry Layard conducted excavations at the site of Nineveh on behalf of the British Museum. During these excavations, Layard found a series of stone and bronze weights, the former in the shape of a duck and the latter in that of a lion. From inscriptions on these, mostly in cuneiform or cuneiform and Aramaic scripts, it is possible by various calculations to work out roughly the approximate weight of the various standards. Thus we find that the shekel was one sixtieth of a manah which in turn was equal to one sixtieth of a talent.

The drachm, a denomination common to all six standards, weighs 67-5 grains on the Attic; 97 gr. Aeginetic; 56 gr. Phoenician; 60 gr. Rhodian; 84 gr. Babylonic; 88 gr. Persic. The denominations in use at this time are listed below together with their relative values: some denominations do not occur in all standards, the fractions of the obol in particular only occurring at Athens.

From Lydia the use of coinage soon spread to other areas. Aegina, as we have already noted, was one of the first to produce coins and soon after, the district of Euboea followed suit, striking coins at Chalcis. The states of Athens and Corinth were also among the first to strike coins, the coinage of the former closely rivalling that of Aegina in popularity among the traders.

Early in the sixth century b.c. the design of the Athenian coinage was regularized and assumed for its type the head of Pallas Athena on the obverse and an owl on the reverse. Pallas Athena (known to the Romans as Minerva) was the goddess of wisdom and patroness of agriculture, industry and the arts; she was also thought to safeguard men in war. The owl was a bird sacred to her and was adopted as the badge of the city state of Athens. The coinage consisted very largely of silver tetradrachms which were commonly known as `owls' for obvious reasons and since the coins were of such fine quality, they were readily acceptable to traders in all parts of the Greek world, remaining the principal currency until they were superseded by the coinage of Philip of Macedon circa 338 b.c.

It is interesting to note the style of these coins through the centuries for it gives us the opportunity to see some of the difficulties that the artist had to contend with when he cut the dies. On the early coins, both the owl and the head of Athena are crude. The profile of Athena is shown with the eye as viewed from the front and it was not until the early fourth century B.C. that it was discovered how to depict the eye correctly in profile. The helmet of Athena is plain until 490 B.C. when, to commemorate the Athenian victory of Marathon, decoration in the form of olive leaves was added to it.

The coinage of Corinth is equally interesting and from an artistic point of view the early staters of the sixth century B.C. are of better style than either the Athenian or the Aeginetan of the same period. The obverse depicts the winged horse Pegasus walking to the left and the reverse a swastika pattern. On later coins, the Pegasus type is retained for the obverse and is combined with a variety of reverse designs such as a Gorgon head or the head of Aphrodite-the goddess of love and beauty.

Cyrenaica adopted the use of coins at an early date and by the latter part of the sixth century B.C. they were being used in Macedon in Thrace. Persia adopted coinage about this period also, the earliest coins being of Darius I (521-485 b.c.). The coin is a silver siglos, the obverse of which depicts the king-probably Darius III (337-330 b.c.) in a kneeling running attitude holding a bow and spear. The reverse simply bears a rectangular indentation.

Some of the most beautiful coins in the whole of the Greek series emanate from the city of Syracuse. Large silver dekadrachms designed by Euainetos were struck between 406 and 400 B.C. and were intended as prizes at the victory games celebrating the defeat of the Athenian invasion of Sicily. The obverse bears the head of Persephone wearing a wreath of corn and drop earrings with four dolphins around her. The reverse depicts a quadriga or four-horse chariot galloping to the left with Nike the goddess of victory flying above crowning the charioteer. Below the chariot appear a helmet, breastplate and greaves representing the Athenian armour which was used as prizes in the games. The coin is a tetradrachm of a somewhat similar type by the same artist but without the armour or the artist's signature as is usual on the dekadrachms.

Many coins bear types that are connected with mythology; one such is the coin from Cnossus in Crete which depicts on the obverse the head of Zeus who was considered to be the father of both gods and men, whi-lst the reverse depicts a labyrinth. The story of the Minotaur that inhabited the labyrinth constructed by Daedalus and how it was slain by Theseus is too well known to be repeated here. The excavation at Cnossus by Sir Arthur Evans in the early part of this century produced much evidence of bull worship and the legend of the Minotaur may have arisen from the fact that captives were trained to clasp the bull by thehorns andvault over its back-afeat which the Minoans themselves loved to watch and to practise.

An unusual type that is worthy of mention are those coins that were struck at Metapontum and a number of other cities where the design was in relief on one side and incuse on the other. The coins of Metapontum produced by this method invariably have only a single design, but the cities of Croton and Sybaris produced a curious joint coinage, which depicts a tripod in relief on one side and a bull with its head looking back, incuse, on the other. Probably, since the names of both cities are inscribed on these coins, they were intended for trade between the two cities.

The rise of Macedon as the premier power in the Greek world has already been mentioned and the capture of the town of Crenides on the mainland by Philip II gave him possession of some of the richest goldmines in Europe. The town of Crenides was renamed Philippi and from the gold mined there Philip struck large quantities of staters--commonly known as Philippeioi -which circulated over the whole of the then known world subsequently becoming the prototype for many of the coins of the Gaulish and British tribes.

If Macedon was a power to be reckoned with under Philip II, she was even greater under his son Alexander the Great, whose genius as a military commander enabled him to conquer the Persians, free Egypt from their yoke and invade India, where he proceeded to establish Greek colonies. Throughout his vast empire, Alexander established a large number of mints, particularly in Babylon where the head of Herakles depicted on the coins frequently bears a marked similarity to Alexander himself.

On the death of Alexander in 323 b.c. the empire, which he had held together by his dynamic personality, was broken up and divided amongst his generals. A considerable portion of the eastern part of the empire passed into the hands of his general Antigonus whilst Seleucus, a cavalry officer in Alexander's army, obtained Babylon. Gradually, continued dissension broke up the empire still further and Macedon herself in 148 B.C. finally capitulated to the Romans who by this time had attained considerable importance. From this date on, Macedon was no more than a province of the Roman Empire.


Until roughly the third century B.C. the Romans, in common with other Italian peoples, had used as an improvement on the system of barter, large pieces of bronze known as Aes rude and Aes grave. The latter were divided into several denominations, the largest-the as-bearing the head of Janus on the obverse and the prow of a ship on the reverse. By the third century B.c., however, increased trade with Greece made it necessary for the Romans to develop a coinage of their own based on the Greek weight system and to this end a series of silver coins was issued. One of the earliest of these depicts the bearded head of Mars wearing a Corinthian helmet on the obverse whilst the reverse has a design bearing a striking resemblance to that of a tetradrachm of Carthage struck some hundred years earlier.

Although it may be said that these early coins were influenced by Greek art the piece described above is an unusual coin and the new silver coins were definitely Roman in style. Many of them bear either the head of Mars or Janus on the obverse combined with a variety of reverse designs. A more uniform type for the coinage was introduced circa 187 B.C. when the obverse design becomes almost invariably the head of Roma the goddess who personified the city. The reverse design was also subject to less variation; the usual type depicted Castor and Pollux-the heavenly twins who were commonly known as the Dioscuri and were stated by Homer to be the sons of Zeus-riding into battle with couched lances. The word RoMA is usually placed below the horses' hooves on the reverse. On the obverse is a Roman numeral indicating the value, either X or V standing for 10 or 5 `asses'. The as, formerly a copper coin of the aes grave series weighing one pound was reduced to weigh only an ounce with the silver coinage valued in relation to it. Thus, the denarius, as the new silver coin was called, weighed some sixty-five grains and was equal in value to ten ounces of copper; the quinarius equalled five ounces.

The denarius and its half, the quinarius, were not the only denominations to be struck during the Republican period; gold coins as well as copper were also struck in varying quantities.

During the second century B.C. the power of Rome greatly increased and this factor, together with a rapidly expanding economy, necessitated the issue of many more coins. It was reasonable, therefore, that the authorities should wish to distinguish between one issue and another and for this reason a variety of marks such as a crescent, club, or an ear of corn were placed on the coins. A natural development from this was that the mintmasters, who were drawn from the aristocracy, should place their names upon the coins. They also varied the designs in order to extol the achievements of their ancestors and to remind the populace of certain events with which members of their family had been connected. Some of the commonest of these coins are those of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi (generally abbreviated to Calpurnia) which commemorate the games of Ludi Apollinares which were established in 212 a.c. by an ancestor of the mintmaster. Another coin, almost as common as those of Calpurnia, is of Lucius Cassius Longinus which makes reference to a method of voting (the Lex Cassia Tabellaria) which had been proposed by his ancestor Lucius Cassius Ravilla in 137 a.c.

Throughout the period of the Roman Republic several hundred different types were used commemorating past people and events so that it is impossible to quote more than the two above examples. However, it is possible to generalize inasmuch as the obverse usually portrays a head-often that of Roma, Mars, Bacchus or one of the many gods and goddesses-whilst the reverse bears that design that makes reference to the event to be remembered.

Rome, at this time, was governed by a republican method in which the power was divided between the Senate, whose three hundred members were elected from comparatively few of the aristocratic families, and the Assembly comprising the more educated members of the public. The Senate also provided candidates for the two annually elected posts of Consul.

Pompey (Cnaeus Pompeius), on his return from his African campaigns whereat he had earned the title of `Magnus', formed with Julius Caesar and Crassus, an aristocrat of extreme wealth, what is known as the First Triumvirate. That same year (59 b.c.) Caesar was elected Consul. Five years later Pompey was the only one of the three to be elected Consul and from this date the government was virtually in his hands alone, although theoretically the republic still remained in existence and the Senate wielded some measure of authority.

Coins in gold, silver and copper were struck by Pompey, but only in three denominations-the aureus, denarius and as. These coins struck during his lifetime depict, on the obverse of the aureus, the head of Africa with NtAGNUS behind it whilst the as bears the head of Janus and reads MAGN. The denarius has some twenty-one varieties of obverse type and legend, but those that bear his portrait were struck by his sons after his murder in 48 B.C.

Caesar, who succeeded Pompey, struck denarii with a large variety of types, but it was not until 44 b.c., the year of his murder, that he received permission from the Senate to place his portrait on the coinage. The aureus, denarius and sestertius were also struck by Caesar together with the copper `as', the latter bearing the bust of Victory.

The subsequent period of civil war between Antony, who attempted to succeed Caesar, and the Senate as represented by Brutus and Cassius, is well known. Coins exist both of Brutus and Cassius as well as Octavian, the nephew and heir of Caesar who allied himself with Antony against the Senate. The defeat of the Republican forces at Philippi in 42 b.c., followed by the suicides of Brutus and Cassius, put an end to any vestiges of the Republic that had remained after the death of Caesar. In the months that followed, Antony, Octavian and Lepidus, who had succeeded Caesar as Pontifex Maximus (Chief Priest), formed the Second Triumvirate and executed some two thousand of their opponents together with three hundred senators.

Rivalry between Antony, who held the east, and Octavian, who held most of the western empire, led to rather strained relations between them, their quarrels being temporarily patched up at the Treaty of Brundisium in 40 B.C. In 36 B.C. Octavian took control of the legions under the command of Lepidus, who then retired into private life. Relations between Octavian and Antony continued to deteriorate until finally in 32 b.c. Octavian prevailed upon the Senate to deprive Antony of his authority as one of the Triumvirate. This was immediately followed by a declaration of war on the pretext of Antony's associations with Cleopatra who, it was asserted, was causingAntony to neglect the interests of Rome. Following their defeat in the naval battle of Actium in 31 b.c., Antony and Cleopatra retired to Egypt where, by their suicide, they gave Octavian undisputed mastery of the Roman world.

Octavian received the title of Emperor in 29 B.C. and that of Augustus, by which he is more generally known, two years later. With the reign of Augustus there begins the long series of Imperial coins with the more regularized types. Some denominations which previously had only been struck occasionally were now issued regularly; gold coins became an accepted part of the coinage which was reorganized by Augustus.

In addition to the above, one might also include the antoninianus, a base silver piece, which superseded the denarius, which had itself become very base, towards the middle of the third century A.D. In weight, the antoninianus was one and a half times that of the denarius but in fact it circulated at the equivalent of two denarii.

The antoninianus became more and more debased until, during the great crisis which followed the capture of the emperor Valerian in A.D. 260 it was reduced to a mere bronze piece with a thin coating of silver. The coinage was now in a chaotic state, with the worthless antoninianus being the only coin issued in any quantity. There was no silver currency at all and gold was only struck to pay the troops. The normal brass and copper denominations ceased to be issued. Aurelian (A.D. 270-75) tried to ease the situation but it was left to Diocletian (A.D. 284-304) to institute a complete reform.

Thus in A.D. 296 as part of his empire-wide reforms, Diocletian re-established a pure coinage of reliable denominations in both gold and silver. A new bronze piece with a silver wash, the follis, was introduced and the relationships between the new coins were: 1 gold aureus = 20 silver argentei = 40 folles.

The follis soon declined both in weight and size and in A.D. 312 Constantine the Great reorganized the coinage once more, the new system being based on the gold solidus of which seventy-two were coined from a pound of gold and the silver siliqua, rated at twenty-four to the solidus. Other denominations struck during later reigns include the silver miliarense (14 to the solidus) and the fractions in gold of the solidus, the semissis (half) and the tremissis (third). The bronze coins continued to decline in weight and size, and as nothing is known of their equivalent values or denominations, they are known today only by their respective sizes, i.e., El, AE2, AE3, or E4; the largest being ,El. Several attempts were made to halt the decline in the bronze coinage, notably by Constantius II and Constans who introduced the centenionalis in A.D. 346 and by Magnetius, who struck his large /El (pecunia maiorina) in A.d. 352-3. Julian II (A.D. 360-3) struck a similar piece, but he was the last emperor to issue large bronzes in any quantity.

The bust of the emperor (or empress) on the obverse is a feature common to practically all the coins of the empire. The bust is surrounded by his titles, for example on some of the denarii issued by Vespasian (A.D. 69-79) the obverse legend reads imp. CAESAR.VESPAS.AVG.COS.III.TR.P.PP. a literal translation of which reads `Imperator, Caesar, Vespasian Augustus, Consul three times, Tribunica Potestate, Pater Patriae'. The title Imperator is that of Commander-in-Chief of the forces whilst Caesar is now taken as a title as is also Augustus. The practice of indicating the number of times that the emperor had been elected Consul together with the number of times that he had held the title of Tribunica Potestate-being invested with Tribunican power-is a means of dating the coin to a particular year. Pater Patriae signifies the title of Father oftheFatherland. Some of the legends include the letters P.M., an abbreviation for Pontifex Maximus. It was also the practice to include in these titles some reference to military victories, thus occasionally we find legends including the following titles found on coins of Trajan (A.D. 98-118) GER (GERMANICVS), DAC (DACICVS), and PAR (PARTHICVS). The victories over the Dacians were particularly profitable, the spoils amounting to five million pounds weight of gold and ten million pounds of silver.

During the third and fourth centuries the emperor's titles were abbreviated somewhat. His titles Imperator and Caesar still occur, but instead of the lengthy titles following his name we find such titles as r (Pius-dutiful); F (Felix-favoured by fortune) and D.N. (Dominus Noster-our master).

The Emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14-37) is worthy of individual mention since it is to his coins that the following well-known passage in the Bible refers:

`Show me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, whose is this image and superscription ? They say unto him Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's.' Matt. xxii, 19-21.

This is a reference to the tribute or tax that was imposed upon Juda;a when it became a province of the Roman empire in A.D. 6. The tax was levied upon all males between the ages of fourteen and sixty-five and all females between twelve and sixty-five, the tax being payable in Roman coin. For this reason the denarius, to which the word penny is applied in the biblical translation, is known as the Tribute penny and although they are common enough coins, they are somewhat difficult to obtain, due mainly to the reluctance of collectors to part with them.

Following the banishment of Herod Archelaus in A.D. 6 the Palestinian provinces of Judxa, Samaria and Idumxa were administered for Rome by procurators or governors. They were given the privilege of striking small copper coins bearing the emperor's name and not the least memorable of the procurators was Pontius Pilate, whose coins are eagerly sought by collectors.

The shekel, a well-known biblical coin, is now a rarity, those struck during the second revolt of the Jews under Simon Barcochba being perhaps slightly commoner than those of the first revolt. Shekels of the first revolt (A.D. 60-70) bear a chalice on the obverse with the denomination in Hebrew and on the reverse a branch with three buds and `Jerusalem the Holy'; half-shekels were also struck. The second revolt shekel depicts the Screen of the Tabernacle with the Ark of the Covenant and the Hebrew inscription `Simeon'; the reverse bears the inscription `Deliverance of Jerusalem' together with a bundle of twigs and a citron. A typical copper coin of the second revolt depicts a vine leaf with `Second year of the Deliverance of Israel' and on the reverse a palm-tree with `Simeon'.

Unfortunately, space does not permit more than a brief glance at this fascinating series, but from the foregoing it will be seen that a collection of coins connected with Christianity is of very real interest.

The Roman empire during the third century A.D. was the victim of civil wars and an ever-increasing number of invasions by barbarians. These attacks finally forced Constantine the Great to transfer the capital from Rome to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople. It was also Constantine who adopted Christianity as the state religion, he himself being baptized on his death bed.

The Byzantine empire, which was to last for over a thousand years, provides us with many interesting coins. To do them justice would take more space than is available; suffice it to say that this series should not be neglected because of its complexity; the coins are well worth a detailed study, if only for the wealth of interesting portraiture, the principal figures being those of Christ and the emperor.