A Brief History of the Coins of Antiquity
Two Half Crowns of King Charles I/II of England
Courtesy of VCD Auctions and CNG
Ancient coins are typically categorized into three distinct historical periods, encompassing Greece, Rome, and the Byzantine/Christian era. Each of these epochs is further characterized by various subcategories that pertain to specific regions. In the case of Greece, there is a connection between ancient Persia and Asia Minor, often referred to as sub-Greco coinage. The classification of a coin within a particular time frame is primarily determined by its stylistic attributes. For instance, ancient Sassanid coins from the 7th century AD exhibit a Greek influence in their design and denomination, despite being centuries apart from the zenith of Greek civilization.
Understanding this categorization allows us to delve into the process of coin production during ancient times. In the earliest phase, known as the Archaic period, rudimentary cast nuggets composed of impure elements were subjected to forceful strikes from a heavy die. This process resulted in either a punched design or an incuse mark, leaving an impression on both sides of the coin. The first coins, introduced by the Lydians around 650 B.C.E., were primitive in nature. Nevertheless, the concept of currency and exchange can be traced back to as early as 1000 B.C.E., with references found in historical texts, including the Jewish Bible. Denominations like the Sheckel, Gerah, and Daric predated circulating coinage, indicating the existence of a precious-metal-based system used to facilitate trade and establish item values.
As coinage evolved, reaching its pinnacle during the Golden Age of Coins (415-336 B.C.E), a multitude of bronze, silver, and gold denominations circulated extensively across the known world. During this period, coins were crafted using a heavy die for the obverse and reverse sides, likely cast and subsequently reheated to enhance malleability. Empires, including that of Alexander the Great, introduced their unique weight standards, isolating their monetary systems from foreign nations. Following the Second Punic War, the Roman Republic began issuing its own coins, initially unpopular but eventually widely adopted, with denominations based on the silver Denarius rather than the Drachm.
Following the unification of Europe under the Roman Empire, numerous mints were established, producing vast quantities of Roman coins associated with each emperor. This excessive coin production led to economic instability. Emperors attempted to combat inflation by reducing coin weight and purity. Unfortunately, this gradual devaluation of Roman coins contributed to the economic collapse of Rome in the 5th century AD. Concurrently, Gothic tribes in the North and East reclaimed lost territories, further exacerbating Rome's woes. The loss of silver mines and gold sources compelled Rome to rely on dwindling African precious metal trade. Consequently, Rome's coinage transitioned primarily to bronze, resulting in a nearly cashless society with a looming collapse.
As the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, the Byzantine Empire, centered in Constantinople in the East, emerged as its weaker successor. The Dark Ages resulted in a loss of knowledge spanning nearly a millennium. Byzantine coins, characterized by irregular shapes and simplistic, often unrealistic designs, marked a stark departure from the realism and sophistication of earlier coinage. Portraits became artistic representations in low relief, and the quality of coin striking diminished.
The Byzantine empire's decline was accompanied by the rise of European nations and the Holy Roman Empire, all of whom sought to revitalize the art of coinage. In the Baltic states, coinage became a significant cultural expression through the Medieval Denar. The Crusades and Viking age ushered in a new era of silver coinage featuring depictions of important figures, cities, and mythological entities, echoing the practice of ancient Roman coinage.
Understanding the History of Coinage
A Byzantine Coin Compared to an Archaic Stater of Lucania. Nearly a 1000 year time gap demonstrating the decline of Greek art in coinage.
As we backtrack to the Greek era, lasting from around 650 BC until 300 AD, we discover how art has drastically changed based on the culture of the society at the time. All Greek regions are not treated equally, as are all regions. During this era, a significant cultural transformation was evident in the daily lives of the Greek populace. The Greek mainland empires faced mounting pressures from the advancing Roman Republic in the northwest and the burgeoning Parthian and Armenian empires in the Anatolian East. After 200 B.C.E., Greek society had shifted away from expansion and the arts, focusing instead on warfare and self-preservation. This decline is notably reflected in their coinage, characterized by low-relief surfaces and a departure from realistic designs toward a more stylized representation.
Regrettably, as Greek civilization neared its decline, there was a hastening of artistic and creative endeavors. Emperor Augustus asserted control over Greece during his campaigns following his ascent to the imperial throne. Despite the pervasive influence of Rome in the region, Augustus permitted the continued production of coinage, albeit in the form of rudimentary bronze or billon denominations featuring his portrait on the obverse.
Ancient Greek coins are often categorized based on the regions in which they were minted. In the early stages of Greek coinage, these regions included Attica, Persia, and Lydia, among others. However, as the coinage production thrived, particularly in the 4th century B.C.E., a more sophisticated system of attribution emerged to account for the numerous city-states and empires engaged in extensive coin minting for trade. The ancient Greek world was a bustling hub of commerce, with countless merchants constantly engaged in trade, resulting in a high demand for coinage. Virtually every major region in Greece had its own period of coin production.
Coinage from the Greek mainland stands out for its artistic refinement, with particular emphasis on coins minted in places such as Sicily, Athens, Lycia, and Thrace. Typically, coins from the heart of the Greek mainland exhibited the highest level of artistic craftsmanship, gradually diminishing in artistic quality as one ventured into Italy and Asia Minor. In this diverse landscape, ancient Greek city-states and regions held varying political ideologies, with some favoring democracy, others monarchy, and still others preferring complete independence. Leagues or alliances among these city-states served primarily as coalitions, uniting similar entities that shared common ideas and beliefs. These alliances were especially valuable during times of war, exemplified by the Greco-Persian wars. For instance, the Delian League, led by Athens, engaged in a series of conflicts against the Persians and ultimately emerged victorious. Member states of the Delian League contributed troops and essential resources crucial to securing victory. While the Peloponnesian League also played a role in this conflict, it underscores the practicality and significance of these alliances in preserving the civilizations within them.
These leagues played a crucial role in the evolution of coinage. Powerful and expansive leagues would issue their own coinage, representing a unified state, and circulate this coinage across various regions. This innovative approach to coinage contributed to the development of imperial coinage during Alexander the Great's reign. Different mints produced identical coinage, with these coins being categorized into various weight standards tailored for local trade and broader international commerce. This concept of standardized coinage production played a pivotal role in shaping the ancient monetary systems.
The transition from Greek to Roman coins did not happen overnight. The Romans are notorious for borrowing their culture from other regions and coinage is no exception. The Roman Republic witnessed the widespread circulation of the silver Denarii, a coinage that endured for nearly two centuries. Each Denarius adhered to a specific, mandated weight, typically ranging between 3.2 and 3.7 grams, contingent on the precision of the planchet. Additionally, substantial bronze cast coins were issued, also adhering to specific weight standards, albeit with some weight fluctuations. For example, at certain periods, the AES GRAVE As weighed as much as 255 grams, but towards the twilight of the Republic, its weight dwindled to a mere 30 grams. Copper emerged as the most abundant metal within the empire, constituting approximately 80% of all precious metal trade. This abundance precipitated soaring inflation rates as the Republic expanded in duration.
In its infancy, Roman coinage primarily served the government's needs, facilitating trade and tax collection. Greek coins, often used in commerce, were the most prevalent type and frequently exchanged among the Roman populace. Everyday transactions did not necessitate high-denomination bronze or costly silver coins. Gold coins were reserved for emergencies, such as wartime efforts or substantial transactions, and paled in practicality compared to the ample supply of circulating Greek gold. Early in the Republic's history, efforts were made to establish monetary isolation through various denominations, although this objective was only fully realized when Caesar Augustus introduced smaller coins accessible to the common people. This move virtually eliminated inflation, lowered the cost of goods, and made taxes a manageable part of daily life.
Roman Republic coins were produced by appointed moneyers, responsible for designing coins, confirming weights, and striking them. Inadequate execution of these responsibilities by moneyers could have catastrophic economic repercussions. The silver Denarius, in particular, often bore the names of these moneyers or government officials and influential figures who sought recognition on the coins.
The Actium War of 32-30 B.C.E., the second Roman civil war, marked the formal transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. Octavian, who later assumed the title Augustus, emerged victorious, restoring order to the empire and compelling Marc Antony and Cleopatra to take their own lives in the wake of their defeat in Egypt. To commemorate his conquest of Egypt, a series of coins featuring a Nile crocodile and the inscription "AEGYPTO CAPTA" were issued, celebrating the subjugation and dissolution of Ptolemaic rule.
Under the reign of Octavian, now Augustus, more coins were minted to commemorate his campaigns in Germania, Armenia, and Asia. He undertook a comprehensive reevaluation of Roman coinage, transforming the seldom-used high-value currency into a dominant monetary system that influenced nearly all nations. Augustus devised a clever strategy by issuing coins adhering to a strict standard valued in multiples of fractions of the Libra (or pound). Simultaneously, he introduced small bronze coins intended for use as change denominations. This innovation made Roman coinage convenient for both trade and local commerce, a feat previously achieved by only a few ancient Greek states but now adopted on a broader scale.
A Denarius of Caesar Augustus (2 BC-12 AD)
Courtesy of VCD Auctions
Imperialism and conquest held significant prominence in the themes depicted on coins during ancient times. The conquest of various territories and regions, such as Augustus's capture of Egypt and the sieges in Armenia, were pivotal moments that bolstered an emperor's authority and reputation. Coins served as a powerful medium to showcase these triumphs, often featuring inscriptions like "CAPTA" (indicating captured) or "RECEPTA" (signifying received) to highlight the conquests.
Coins commemorating imperial conquest typically incorporated symbolic imagery. They often portrayed a dominant figure standing triumphantly over a subdued captive, signifying the complete subjugation of the conquered territory. Alternatively, these coins might showcase prominent animals associated with the region in question, serving as symbols of the successful capture and domination of the territory. This practice not only celebrated the military achievements of the emperor but also reinforced the idea of imperial power and control over vast expanses of land.
The Byzantine era shares several similarities with the Roman period, although there are notable distinctions in coin denominations and language. From the time of Justinian I onward, most Byzantine coins featured inscriptions in Greek rather than Latin.
Justinian I is primarily renowned for his military campaigns, which temporarily expanded and reunited the Roman Empire. This brief but significant period of restored Roman glory earned him immense popularity and wealth within his empire. Notably, Justinian's legacy includes the construction of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), a marvel of Byzantine architecture.
Moreover, Justinian oversaw an impressive coinage effort, overseeing the minting of a substantial quantity of gold and commemorative silver coins. This achievement was particularly remarkable because the Romans had lost access to their silver mines during the decline of the empire. Justinian's coinage initiatives played a role in maintaining the economic stability and prestige of the Byzantine Empire during his rule.
Moving beyond the ancient world, medieval coinage took on new forms and complexities. The Middle Ages witnessed the emergence of various European kingdoms and their distinct coinage systems, each reflecting the political and economic landscape of its era. The Medieval Denar, characterized by its regional variations and artistic expressions, became a symbol of cultural identity.
The Renaissance era marked another significant chapter in the history of money. As Europe experienced a resurgence of art, culture, and trade, coins evolved to showcase the achievements and values of the time. The coins of the Renaissance were not only utilitarian but also works of art in themselves, with finely detailed portraits and intricate designs.
A silver Denier of the Crusade era
Courtesy of CNG
The evolution of coinage across these ancient civilizations not only reflects their economic systems but also mirrors the broader historical context of their times. From the rudimentary punch-marked nuggets of the Archaic period to the sophisticated coinage of the Golden Age and the subsequent rise and fall of mighty empires, coins serve as tangible records of human history and societal changes. The journey through the world of ancient and medieval coinage reveals the intricate tapestry of human civilization.
Article By. Colby J. Abele