Exploring Ancient Greece coins

Coins from the Hellenistic period are true gems in the vast universe of international numismatics. Their value transcends the material, for these small works of art enclose the history, culture and politics of a fascinating era. So outstanding are Greek coins that the word “nummus” (from the Greek νόμισμα, derived from νόμος “law” or “custom”) gives its name to our beloved hobby: numismatics. From the Greek poleis to the Mediterranean colonies, through Philip II of Macedon, his son Alexander the Great and Ptolemaic Egypt, these coins reveal geographical secrets and historical accounts that have endured through the centuries.

Each mint, or mint, produced pieces with distinctive characteristics that allow historians to trace their origin and period. This article will explore the major Greek mints in chronological order, the types of coins they minted, their styles, and the materials used.

The Greek coins

For many they are simply the most beautiful coins in history. It can be argued that if Roman coins are epic, Greek coins are poetry. The best known of the Greek coins are:

Stater: primitive coin made of electro, silver or gold.

Obol: small silver coin equivalent to 1/6 drachma.

Hemidrachm: silver coin equivalent to 1/2 drachma or 3 obols.

Drachma: perhaps the best known of all. It was a silver monetary unit equivalent to 6 obols.

Didrachm: equivalent to 2 drachmas.


First of all, it should be noted that the first region in the world to mint coins was Lydia, located in Asia Minor (in present-day Turkey). At the end of the 7th century BC, under the reign of Giges, electro coins (an alloy of gold and silver) were introduced. These early coins were simple; the reverse was struck with a punch. The coins of Lydia usually bore the head of a lion, a symbol of royal power. This innovation did not take long to reach the Greek poleis, which adopted it with enthusiasm.

In just a century after the Lydian lion’s debut, over 100 mints were in operation in Greece, where there existed more than 1,000 self-governing city-states. While most mints were modest in scale and produced coins for specific purposes, some city-states utilized their coins more extensively.

Ancient Greece

Although the transition from one coinage style to another did not occur simultaneously in all polis, chronologically, Greek coinage can be divided into three periods:

  • Archaic, 7th c. BC. – V c. B.C.
  • Classical, 5th c. B.C. – 4th  c. B.C.
  • Hellenistic, 4th c. B.C. – I c. a.C.

Archaic period

In Archaic Greece, a period spanning the 7th to 5th centuries BC, two crucial phenomena shaped history: the rise and growth of the poleis and Greek expansion throughout the Mediterranean basin. From the Black Sea’s shores to the Iberian Peninsula’s southern shores, a mythical civilization was beginning to spread its influence.


Coins also started to appear around the same time in the Ionian cities of Asia Minor (west-central coast of Anatolia), such as Miletus and Ephesus. The initial Ionian coins were similar to Lydian coins in terms of materials and techniques. Still, they soon began to show more variety in their designs, including images of animals and local symbols.

Classical period

Classical Greece covers the 5th and 4th centuries BC. During this period, the Greek poleis reached their apogee in terms of power and cultural influence. It was a time of splendor, economic wealth, and cultural development. Democracy was born, and figures such as Plato, Socrates, and Herodotus left an indelible mark on Western thought. As for the coins, we are witnessing a leap in technical and aesthetic terms. Among the most elaborate and refined are those of the colony of Syracuse (in present-day Sicily), considered by collectors to be among the most beautiful coins in history.

Other important Greek mints of this period were Mysia (present-day Turkey), Sicily, and Thrace.


Athens, undoubtedly the most famous Greek poleis, was the third city to spread local coins throughout Greece. From the 6th century BC, the drachma bears the head of Athens, protector of the city, and its famous sacred bird, the owl. This bird has become one of the most identifiable symbols of numismatics. They bear the inscription AΘE, an abbreviation of the name of the city (ΑΘΕΝΝΑΙ = ΑΘΗΝΝΑΙ).


Sparta, known for its austerity, was reluctant to use coins. However, towards the end of the 5th century BC, it began to mint iron coins to show its self-sufficiency and its rejection of the luxury that characterized it. Although less valuable than silver or gold coins, Spartan coins have a significant historical and symbolic value.


Between the classical and Hellenistic eras, Philip II, king of Macedonia, extended the borders of his reign throughout Greece, absorbing the poleis and inaugurating the first Panhellenic kingdom. He controlled northern Greece’s gold mines, allowing him to issue gold staters that circulated throughout Greece and Asia Minor (current Turkey). These coins depict the king with the head of Apollo, the laurel wreath, and a charioteer with two horses, recalling his victory in the Olympic Games of 356 BC. Underneath is an inscription with his name.

Hellenistic period

Around 300 B.C., Alexander the Great, in his quest for expansion, created a vast empire that stretched from the West to India. The tetradrachms minted during this time are not just coins, but also powerful symbols. The head of Herakles, the mythical ancestor of the royal house of Macedon, represents the lineage and divine connection of the ruler, while Zeus seated on his throne, holding the eagle and scepter, symbolizes his authority and the divine favor he enjoyed.

No leader had previously dared to immortalize himself on coins. However, coins became symbols of political prestige and instruments of propaganda for cities and their rulers. Following his example, Alexander the Great’s successors adopted a monetary typology that featured royal portraits on the obverse and images of the patron gods of the various dynasties on the reverse.

Silver drachm, circa 123-88 BC.
Obv: diademed bust draped to left, with long beard and torque ending in seahorse.

Some outstanding mints of the time were those of Sicily, Thrace, Pisidia, Mysia, Attica and Cilicia. It is worth mentioning the mints of Ptolemaic Egypt, which would deserve their own article.

Iberian Peninsula


Emporion (present-day Empurias, Catalonia, Spain), founded by the Masalids in the 6th century BC, became the oldest mint in the Iberian Peninsula. Its characteristic coins are silver drachmas with the symbol of the Pegasus.


Located in Rosas (Gerona, Catalonia, Spain), it competed commercially with Emporion for a century. Its coins feature the bust of Arethusa-Artemis on the obverse and a rose on the reverse.

Period imitations

Coins similar to those of Rhode appeared on the peninsula, although with degenerated Greek legends and Iberian characters. Nevertheless, those imitations facilitated economic exchanges between the different communities.

In conclusion, Ancient Greek coins facilitated trade and were a means of propaganda and cultural expression. From the earliest issues in Lydia and Ionia to the iconic owls of Athens and the precious designs of Syracuse, each mint and coin tells a part of Greek history. Materials ranged from electro and silver to iron, reflecting both the availability of resources and the priorities of the various poleis. These coins stand at the podium of international numismatics and are tangible testaments to a mythical civilization.