Although we are going to focus here on the origin of the currency and the very first steps of its evolution, it doesn’t mean that metals weren’t used commercially far
before. Silver was used as an interchange coin in Mesopotamia more than a
thousand years before the birth of currency as we know it today. Truth is that the
circulation of metal pre-coins and precious metals weren’t backed by any power
and their value wasn’t unified. That’s the reason why its circulation was quite
limited, far from the universal purpose of the following creations. But for
that it was necessary a few hundred of years more.
First history coins were founded in the kingdom of Lydia, Turkey nowadays, (Minor
Asia), between 680 and 560 BC. The exact date is not clear. This region has a
natural source of gold and silver what was a clear economical vantage. They
were made of electro (alloy of gold an silver) that was fund naturally on Mount
Tmolus. Electro nuggets were carried easily to the Lydia capital through
Pactolo River. Main difference with pre-coins was that these ones were backed
by local political powers.
At first times, these ancient coins looked like a small nugget or minted seed in the
obverse, and a mark on the reverse. Lately we can find mints of all kinds of animals, real or mythological, like a lion (representing the Mermnada dynasty), objects or flower images. Till a hundred different designs were found in the electro-archaic coins (which not means a hundred mint house at that moment).
With Lydia as a reference, Dario of Persia started to mint coin after the conquest of
Lydia, and Greece follow him. It is no coincidence that the coin invention and the
creation of poleis or Greek cities happened at the same time.
Ancient Greek Coin
Classical Greek legislators, searching for equality, were in need of compensating citizens for their time and services and giving them a salary, for example, for attending a public assembly, a trial or even for mercenary service. For all this and much more coins were minted.
Jonia poleis were the very first to do it, in close commercial relations with Lidya,
but shortly after were followed by many more. To impose their coin on its
territories, poleis had to be responsible for its production. This back was
evident in the election of figures and texts of the designs. Mint coins were
not only useful for commercial relationships but also a symbol of sovereignty.
Dracma was the coin of reference in the Greek ancient world. As we saw, a dracma is
equivalent to 6 obols (metal canes used before coins). Dracma fractions and
multiples were minted in different cities-states:
6 obols is equivalent to 1 dracma
1 didadracma is equivalent to 2 dracmas
1 teradracma is equivalent to 4 dracmas…
Minting periods in Classical Greece
a. Archaic period: from VII century BC till the beginning of Medical Wars around 480 BC.
At first, but not for long, the coins were quite big. They weren’t round but with different geometrical shapes depending on the city. Slowly creation methods were
improving and we can find rounder and thinner coins with gods and animal
designs representing each city: a turtle would represent Egina, a bee would
represent Efeso, an owl would represent Atenas or a Pegasus would represent
b. Classic period: from the end of Medical Wars (478 BC.) till Alexander the Great death (323 BC.)
Time to look to the north of the Greek peninsula, Macedonia. This region will live with Filipo II and his son Alexander its golden era. They would mint estateras and tetradracmas coins(Phlipos y Alexandros). Thanks to Alexander the Great conquests currency and numismatics (also culture and other greek methods) expanded around the Middle East and North India. When Egipt was conquered, the new city of Alexandria became one of the most important mint houses of the moment.
After the early death of Alexander, his empire was divided into four kingdoms, ruled by his main military generals. Looking into the new numismatic scenario we can see the following important facts: ptolomeos, in Egypt, leave the Greek system behind and adopted the Cyrenaica one going from 4,5 grams to 3,40. In Babylonia, Seleuco keeps Greek system even minting coins with Bucefalo, Alexander’s horse. In Sicily, Agathocles minted golden and silver coins like in Macedonia. And in the northeast India, under Persian hands, were founded coins with Alexander name.
c. Hellenistic period: from Alexander’s death till the annexation of Greece by Romans ( I century BC)
During this period, Greek culture will expand to other parts of the known world thanks to commerce. Such was its influence that kingdoms far from Greek-roman culture started to adopt its methods, including currency. On one side, we can observe here bigger coins than before and made out of gold but, on the other side, we cannot find anymore the beauty of previous periods. The exception is the region of northeast India where were found some of the best mints of the whole Classical Greece. Portraits of people alive are one of the main characteristics as before there were only minted dead people.
From now on it would start the decadence of Greek numismatics and it will start the Roman period in the I century BC. We hope you have enjoyed this article. If you feel like knowing more details you can visit this website with a very good compilation o coins from the VI century BC. till I century AC.
Do you like old coins of Classic Greek period? Do you have any pieces in your collection? We would love you to share it with us in this post comments.