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Greek and Roman Coins

Greek Coinage

Ancient Greek coinage can be divided into three periods that generally conform to the traditional periods of Greek art. The earliest period, the Archaic, covers the time from the introduction of coinage in Asia Minor sometime in the seventh century BC to the end of the Greco-Persian Wars in 479 BC. During this period the Greeks moved from a currency struck in electrum (an alloy of gold and silver) to a bi-metallic one of silver and gold. The Lydians may have been the first to produce coins by exploiting the naturally-occurring electrum found in the local Paktolos River. About the same time, cities in Ionia also began to strike electrum coins. While these early coins were little more than ingots, they typically included one or more punchmarks, applied to indicate either the purity or issuing authority. Soon a type was introduced on the other side of the coin by placing the blank on an engraved surface when the punch was applied. Under Kroisos (561-547 BC) coins in both gold and silver were struck for the first time. Featuring a lion and bull on the obverse and two punchmarks on the reverse, these Kroiseids, as they were later called, had several denominations. The gold stater and silver siglos and their fractions became the first international currency prior to the introduction of the Persian gold daric and silver siglos at the end of the sixth century BC.

At the same time, to the West, from the Aegean islands to Magna Graecia and Sicily, the Greek city-states began to mint coins. Early coins featured geometric designs, but these were soon replaced by iconography representative of each city. Often these symbols provided a pun on the town’s name, such as the parsley-leaf (selinos) design on the coins of Selinos. Other designs reflected each city’s local deity, such as the bee used by Ephesos (an insect sacred to Artemis), or the head of Athena along with her sacred bird, the owl, at Athens. Still others used particular local flora and fauna, such as the turtles and tortoises of Aegina.

During the Classical period (479-336 BC), the Athenian tetradrachm predominated as the international currency. Over the course of the preceding Archaic period, a number of regional weight standards developed, which became problematic as international trade flourished into the early Classical period. The prevalence and popularity of the Athenian coinage, however, resulted in the Attic standard becoming the pre-eminent weight standard by the end of the fifth century BC.

Greek coinage reached extraordinary heights of technical and artistic merit during the Classical Period. Almost everywhere, the typeless punch was replaced by an engraved die, resulting in coins with obverse and reverse designs. As engravers became more skillful and adept at using such small canvasses, the cities' coins became a matter of civic pride. Larger city-states produced a wide range of fine and innovative types, both in silver and gold. Bronze coins, often with equally fine style, were introduced around the middle of the fifth century BC. As some city-states began to copy their neighbors’ types, each city’s ethnic was incorporated into the design. The wealthy cities of Sicily produced some especially fine coins, many of whose dies were signed by their engravers. One such artistic masterpiece is the dekadrachm of Syracuse, regarded by many collectors and numismatists as the finest example of Classical Greek numismatic art.

The establishment of the hegemony of the Macedonian kingdom in Greece, followed by the conquest of the Persian Empire by the Macedonian king Alexander III, heralded the Hellenistic period (336-31 BC). Greek culture spread into the Middle East and Central Asia, precipitating the development of a new synthecized culture based on the combination of Greek and non-Greek elements. Many local coinages ceased and were replaced by the Attic standard Alexander tetradrachm and its fractions. Featuring the head of the Greek hero Herakles on the obverse, and the figure of Zeus Nikephoros (Zeus, who brings Victory) on the reverse, this new coinage was minted at a great many cities throughout Greece and Asia for the next two centuries. Following Alexander’s death, his conquests were divided up between his generals, known as the Diadochs, or successors. To fund their various military and economic enterprises, these kings now began to strike their own coinage. An innovation in these series soon developed that affected all regal series thereafter. While retaining a mythical or historical type on the reverse, the obverse usually featured the monarch's own portrait. In addition to the successor-states of Alexander, various kingdoms in Iran, Afghanistan, and northwestern India, prompted by the lucrative trade routes with the West, also struck their own Attic-standard coinage. Some of the finest numismatic art of the Hellenistic period is found in these series, such as that of the Greco-Baktrian kings and the early kings of Persis. The Hellenistic age was brought to a close by the expansion of Rome, which absorbed the great Hellenistic kingdoms one after another.

Roman Coinage

The earliest Roman coinage was aes rude, large irregular lumps of bronze. These were eventually replaced in the fourth century BC with aes signatum, large cast ingots decorated with either a branch (ramo secco), or several other designs. By the middle of the third century BC, aes grave became the standard regional currency. These new coins were cast in several denominations (as, semis, triens, quadrans, and uncia), each with its own particular design and denoted with respective marks of value. Although the weight standard for these coins would be reduced periodically over the next two centuries, these denominations, with the addition of the dupondius, remained in the standard Roman bronze currency until the end of the third century AD.

In 241 BC, the last year of the First Punic War, the first regular Roman silver coinage began to be issued. These didrachms, called quadrigati after the quadriga on the reverse, were struck for the next sixteen years and, along with a variety of fractional denominations, became the standard Roman silver currency until the introduction of the denarius in 211 BC during the Second Punic War. The denarius, so-called because it was initially equal to ten asses, was soon revalued to equal 16 reduced-weight asses, a ratio which remained in effect until the demise of both denominations in the third century AD. The denarius remained the primary silver coin of the Romans until Caracalla introduced a double denarius, or antoninianus, in AD 215. Over the course of the third century AD, however, the silver content of the antoninianus decreased until it became largely a bronze coin.

Initially, the denarius featured the head of Roma on the obverse, and the Dioscuri, the twin sons of Jupiter, on the reverse. Later, individual moneyers struck issues commemorating great family deeds and created visual puns on their own names. In 45 BC Julius Caesar became the first living Roman to place his portrait on a Roman coin, establishing a tradition that would continue through the Roman Empire. At the same time, the reverse became a medium through which the issuer conveyed political propaganda. Unlike the earlier issues that reflected past events, the propaganda alluded to here was of current events. This became standard practice under the empire, and many of the significant events in Roman history were enshrined on the reverses of the coins. The propaganda reflected a variety of subjects from wars and other political victories to the founding of new colonies, the dedication of new monuments, tax reforms, and any number of sacred events. Perhaps the most common depictions are the personification of the virtues of the emperor and his dynasty.

The sestertius was initially a silver coin, introduced along with the denarius as a fraction in 211 BC and struck sporadically throughout the remainder of the Republic. In 23 BC Augustus reintroduced the denomination as a large bronze coin equal to four asses. Its large size allowed die cutters ample space to develop a highly elaborate or detailed scene. As a result, the sestertius designs are among the most artistic of the Roman denominations, and the most popular with collectors. In AD 249 the emperor Trajan Decius introduced a short-lived double sestertius.

Although not the only gold coin struck by the Romans, the aureus (more properly, aureus denarius) was the standard gold denomination valued at 25 denarii. As with the denarius, the aureus became a venerable denomination; introduced by Sulla during the Republic, it was struck until the beginning of the fourth century AD under the Empire. Like the other denominations, it too experienced periodic weight reductions. Under the later emperors of the third century AD, dramatic fluctuations occurred in the weight of aurei, and a few novel gold denominations were attempted, including a binio, roughly equal to one and a half aurei.

The monetary reforms undertaken by Diocletian (AD 284-305) completely transformed the Roman currency system. The nummus, or follis, apparently tarrifed at 25 denarii, and its radiate fraction, replaced the old sestertius, dupondius, and as as the bronze denominations. Featuring the Genius of the Roman People on the reverse of the nummus, and Jupiter with the emperor on the radiate fraction, these new coins were struck in various imperial mints during the first of decades of the fourth century AD. Eventually, however, the weight of the follis was reduced, so that by the middle of the century, several unnamed bronze denominations began to circulate. While most are known today only by their diameter in millimeters, some numismatists have called the larger of these new denominations a centenionalis or maiorina. Diocletian also introduced a new silver denomination, the argenteus, was also introduced. Its extremely high silver content, something unseen for almost a century, led to pervasive hoarding, resulting in its subsequent abandonment. In AD 309, Constantine introduced the solidus, which replaced the aureus as the standard gold coin of the Roman Empire. This was soon accompanied by fractions, the semissis (half-solidus) and tremissis (third-solidus). Sometime during his reign, Constantine also reintroduced a high-content silver denomination. Known as the siliqua, this silver denomination was far more successful; it was struck along with its fractional half siliqua well into the Byzantine period. A larger silver denomination, the miliarensis, also appeared in smaller numbers.

Diocletian's reforms also affected coin designs. While the obverse still contained the bust of the emperor, the reverse types became highly standardized within a particular reign and across all of the mints. It was not uncommon for the depiction of a significant idea to be standardized and used at all of the mints for five or more years at a time. Nonetheless, mintmarking became far more complex, and changes to a particular mint's markings occurred frequently. This innovation allows us to more easily trace the development of the coinage throughout the empire over a period of time, and precise dating permits us to tie changes more closely to specific events.

Byzantine Coinage

Unlike the Roman Empire in the West, the Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, did not collapse. What we call Byzantine coinage was simply a continuation of the currency and denominations of the Later Roman Empire. The Byzantines regularly struck gold solidi, the denomination introduced by Constantine I in AD 309, as well as fractional semisses and tremisses. Under Nicephorus II Phocas (963-969), two new gold denominations appeared, the histamenon nomisma and tetarteron nomisma, which replaced the solidus. Lasting little more than a century, the histamenon was permanently replaced by the hyperpyron and quarter hyperpyron. Although these denominations continued to be struck until the fourteenth century, they were reduced both in weight and fineness. Eventually, the final hyperpyra the Byzantines struck were silver. In addition, a scyphate, or cup-shaped denomination, the trachy, was issued in both electrum (debased gold) and billon (debased silver). The reason for the introduction of cup-shaped coins is not known, although it is usually theorized that they were shaped for easier stacking. The designs of these coins reflect the Christian nature of the Byzantine Empire. In addition to portraits of the Byzantine emperors, the Victory on the reverse of the earlier Late Roman solidi was transformed during the reign of Justin I into an angel. During the second reign of Justinian II (705-711), the portrait of Christ appears for the first time on Byzantine coinage. Later on, the image of the Theotokos also becomes a regular feature of the coinage.

Bronze coinage, however, had become so reduced in weight, that its small size and low value made it difficult to use in large transactions. Beginning with the monetary reform of Anastasius I in 498, the follis was reintroduced as the main bronze denomination. Unlike its Roman predecessor, the Byzantine follis was valued at 40 nummi, signified by the large M (Greek for “forty”) on the reverse, Like its predecessor, the new follis included mint and officina marks. Now, however, the follis was also dated: either annually by the regnal year, or by the periodic indictional (tax) year. Along with the follis, other bronze fractions were struck. The most common was the half follis, or 20 nummi, signified by the large K on the reverse; others included the decanummium (I), and the pentanummium (E). Beginning in the seventh century, the follis was significantly reduced in weight and became the only bronze denomination regularly issued. Although the so-called "anonymous issue" folles, featuring the bust of Christ and struck during tenth century made a brief appearance, the follis was reduced to such a state that it was replaced by the trachea and tetarteron in the early twelfth century.

The Byzantines infrequently struck silver denominations. Early on, they briefly continued to mint the older Roman denominations, the miliarense, siliqua, and half siliqua. The emperor Heraclius (610-641) introduced the hexagram. A large piece equivalent to a double miliarense, it was struck in large quantities during his reign, but by the end of the seventh century the hexagram disappeared from circulation. Leo III (717-741) introduced the miliaresion, a revived version of the earlier miliarense, which was regularly issued into the ninth century. Thereafter, its use greatly decreased, though fractions of the miliaresion were issued in the eleventh century. Another short-lived silver denomination, the basilikon, briefly appeared in the fourteenth century. It was quickly replaced by the stavraton, which was introduced later that same century. The stavraton has the distinction of being the final coinage struck by the Byzantine Empire, issued even as the city fell in 1453.