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The history of Ancient Greek
coinage can be divided (along with most other Greek art forms) into four
periods, the Archaic, the Classical, the Hellenistic and the Roman. The
Archaic period extends from the introduction of coinage to the Greek
world during the 7th century BC until the Persian Wars in about 480 BC.
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 BC. The Greek cities continued to produce their own coins for
several more centuries under Roman rule. The coins produced during this
period are called Roman provincial coins or Greek Imperial Coins.
Weight standards and denominations
Electrum coin from Ephesus, 620-600 BC, known as Phanes' coin.
Obverse: Stag grazing, ΦΑΝΕΩΣ (retrograde). Reverse: Two incuse punches.
The three most important standards of the Ancient Greek monetary system
were the Attic standard, based on the Athenian drachma of 4.3 grams of
silver and the Corinthian standard based on the stater of 8.6 grams of
silver, that was subdivided into three silver drachmas of 2.9 grams, and
the Aeginetan stater or didrachm of 12.2 grams, based on a drachma of
6.1 grams. The word drachm(a) means "a handful", literally "a grasp".
Drachmae were divided into six obols (from the Greek word for a spit),
and six spits made a "handful". This suggests that before coinage came
to be used in Greece, spits in prehistoric times were used as measures
in daily transactions. In archaic/pre-numismatic times iron was valued
for making durable tools and weapons, and its casting in spit form may
have actually represented a form of transportable bullion, which
eventually became bulky and inconvenient after the adoption of precious
metals. Because of this very aspect, Spartan legislation famously
forbade issuance of Spartan coin, and enforced the continued use of iron
spits so as to discourage avarice and the hoarding of wealth. In
addition to its original meaning (which also gave the euphemistic
diminutive "obelisk", "little spit"), the word obol (ὀβολός, obolós, or
ὀβελός, obelós) was retained as a Greek word for coins of small value,
still used as such in Modern Greek slang (όβολα, óvola, "monies").
The obol was further subdivided into tetartemorioi (singular
tetartemorion) which represented 1/4 of an obol, or 1/24 of a drachm.
This coin (which was known to have been struck in Athens, Colophon, and
several other cities) is mentioned by Aristotle as the smallest silver
coin.:237 Various multiples of this denomination were also struck,
including the trihemitetartemorion (literally three half-tetartemorioi)
valued at 3/8 of an obol.
The first known coins were issued in either Lydia or Ionia in Asia
Minor at some time before 600 BC, either by the non-Greek Lydians for
their own use or perhaps because Greek mercenaries wanted to be paid in
precious metal at the conclusion of their time of service, and wanted to
have their payments marked in a way that would authenticate them. These
coins were made of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver that was highly
prized and abundant in that area. By the middle of the 6th century BC,
technology had advanced, making the production of pure gold and silver
coins simpler. Accordingly, King Croesus introduced a double metal
standard that allowed for coins of pure gold and pure silver to be
struck and traded in the marketplace.
The Greek world was divided into more than two thousand
self-governing city-states (in Greek, poleis), and more than half
of them 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 stater or
didrachm of Aegina that regularly turns up in hoards in Egypt and
the Levant, places which were deficient in silver supply. As such coins
circulated more widely, other cities began to mint coins to this "Aeginetan"
weight standard of (6.1 grams to the drachm), other cities included
their own symbols on the coins.
Athenian coins, however, were struck on the "Attic" standard, with a
drachm equaling 4.3 grams of silver. Over time, Athens' plentiful supply
of silver from the mines at Laurion and its increasing dominance in
trade made this the pre-eminent standard. These coins, known as "owls"
because of their central design feature, were also minted to an
extremely tight standard of purity and weight. This contributed to their
success as the premier trade coin of their era. Tetradrachms on this
weight standard continued to be a widely used coin (often the most
widely used) through the classical period. By the time of Alexander the
Great and his Hellenistic successors, this large denomination was being
regularly used to make large payments, or was often saved for hoarding.
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: some coins from
Rhodes 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
The wealthy cities of Sicily produced some especially fine coins. The
large silver decadrachm (10-drachm) coin from Syracuse is regarded by
many collectors as the finest coin produced in the ancient world,
perhaps ever. Syracusan issues were rather standard in their imprints,
one side bearing the head of the nymph Arethusa and the other usually a
victorious quadriga. The tyrants of Syracuse were fabulously rich, and
part of their public relations policy was to fund quadrigas for the
Olympic chariot race, a very expensive undertaking. As they were often
able to finance more than one quadriga at a time, they were frequent
victors in this highly prestigious event. Syracuse was one of the
epicenters of numismatic art during the classical period. Led by the
engravers Kimon and Euainetos, Syracuse produced some of the finest coin
designs of antiquity.
Amongst the first centers to produce coins during the Greek colonization
of mainland Southern Italy (Magna Graecia) were Paestum, Crotone,
Sybaris, Caulonia, Metapontum, and Taranto. These ancient cities started
producing coins from 550BC to 510BC.
The Hellenistic period was characterized by the spread of Greek culture
across a large part of the known world. Greek-speaking kingdoms were
established in Egypt and Syria, and for a time also in Iran and as far
east as what is now Afghanistan and northwestern India. 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 171–145 BC), the
largest silver coin by the Indo-Greek king Amyntas Nikator (reigned c.
95–90 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 (arrogance). But the kings of Ptolemaic Egypt and
Seleucid Syria had no such scruples: having already awarded themselves
with "divine" status, they 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.