CULTURE | ATHENS
Coins: A Brief History
FROM ANTIQUITY & BEYOND
"...BUT MONEY (ΝΟΜΙΣΜΑ)...EXISTS NOT BY NATURE, BUT BY LAW (ΝΟΜΟΣ), AND IT IS IN OUR POWER TO CHANGE IT AND MAKE IT USELESS."
Coins constitute some of the world’s most well-preserved ancient artifacts, offering modern society a true glimpse into the past: a look into international trade, cultural traditions, and prominent figures of the time. And while digital money and cryptocurrencies are trending, the archaic invention of coinage and its adoption as an official means of trade is a phenomenon that shaped the course of history as we know it.
Dating back to prehistoric times, the earliest form of trade was that of barter. That is, the exchange of goods and services for other goods and services. The barter of nomadic life proved inconvenient, however, and trade in the form of pieces of metal became a preferred method.
Metal, which could withstand the test of time, could be forged into shapes, and was easier to carry around. Early forms of metal currency include the talanto, an animal hide-shaped bronze plate. With roots in the Fertile Crescent, the use of metal currency for commerce provided the means for trade to blossom.
In Greece, thin long metal rods called ovolos or obelos (singular), preceded the coin. Six oboloi equaled an ancient drachma, which derives its name from the ancient Greek word for grasp or handful: drattomai. This form of legal tender took on a more convenient rounded shape during in the Archaic Age, preceding democracy (508-507 BC). Thus was born coinage.
According to Aristotle, the first coins were minted by Hermodike II, daughter of King Agamemnon of Aeolian Kyme, while historian Herodotus credits the Lydians, a western Anatolian people. Though it remains unclear as to who first invented this method of payment, as credited with a legion of ingenious inventions, the ancient Greeks are considered the early adopters of minted coins.
Numismatists note the Greek island of Aegina to be the historic birthplace of minted coinage. (Coincidentally enough, many centuries later in 1830 just shortly after the independence of Greece, the first Greek State-organized coin collecting efforts were launched on the very island where it all began.) The innovation of coinage spread from port cities to mainland city-states and was eventually adopted by the Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans.
The very first coins were made of electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of silver and gold. Greek coins were handmade one by one. A blank metal disk was placed between an anvil with an obverse die and a punch with a reverse die. It was then struck with a hammer to create a coin.
Ancient coins bore symbols of local flora, fauna, revered deities and trade assets like that of grape vines, grain and ships. Of particular interest is the first-known Greek minted coin, which depicts a sea turtle, tribute to the island of Aegina’s robust maritime economy. The Corinthians followed with a pegasus-clad coin alluding to a local myth, while Athenian coins bore Athena’s sacred owl.
Most notably, the Athenian tetradrachm, known throughout the ancient world as glaux (γλαύξ) “little owl,” was a silver equivalent of four drachmas in wide circulation from 510 BC to 38 BC. Athens owned the silver mines procuring bullion for this popular coin bearing the face of Athena on one side, and the owl of Athena on the reverse.
Adopted as an official currency by Greek city-states, this coin’s reach extended to Asia Minor and Greek colonies throughout the Mediterranean, spreading to present day Iran and India through the armies of Alexander the Great. The abundance of this coin is known to have financed several major Athenian accomplishments, including the erection of the Parthenon (447 BC - 432 BC).
Another monetary masterpiece is the silver Athenian dekadrachm. Weighing a heavy 43 grams, this coin depicts a front-facing open-winged owl on one side, and the goddess Athena on the other. The city of Athens minted this coin only once during the 5th century, following three large-scale military victories including the defeat of the Persians in the Battle of Eurymedon, making it one of the ancient world’s rarest coins. Silver used to mold the dekadrachm and other coins, was sourced from the mines of Laureion.
Following the Hellenistic Period, the rise of the Roman Empire as a significant force of influence from the early 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD, brought about monetary reforms aimed at maintaining stability. Produced in the late 4th century BC, Roman coins were minted for another eight centuries.
With a gradual transition from Roman influence, the Byzantine Empire’s economy and international trade relations were built on the stability of the golden coin leading up to the 11th century AD. Depicted on the era’s gold, silver and copper coins are patriarchs and reining royal figures.
A discipline dedicated to the collection and study of coins, as well as their historical, economic and cultural significance, numismatics as a science began during the European Renaissance. In the scheme of things, of profound interest is the etymology of the word itself.
The term is derived from the Greek nomisma (νόμισμα), meaning “coin,” in turn from the word (νομίζω), which translates to “to hold as custom,” in modern Greek to “I think so,” derived from (νόμος), meaning “custom, law” and ultimately, from (νέμω), “I assign, hold.”
Then, as now, a system of currency can only function so long as the people have faith and confidence in its assigned value. Even in ancient times, great thinkers analyzed the tradition of coinage as an accepted means to procure and sell goods and services. Aristotle emphasized that nomisma has a merely customary and perceived value, one that can potentially be interpreted to be of no value at all.
"...money has become by convention a sort of representative of demand; and this is why it has the term money (νόμισμα), because it exists not by nature, but by law (νόμος) and it is in our power to change it and make it useless."
- Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics
a. Turtle (Aegina) - Heinrich Schliemann Collection
b. Athena (Corinth) - Heinrich Schliemann Collection
c. Golden Alexandrians
e. New style wreath-bearing tetradrachms
f. Stater (Aetolian League)
g. Tetradrachm (Athens)
h. Tetradrachm (Athens)
i. Hare (Aegina)
j. Parion - Heinrich Schliemann Collection
k. (Athens) - Heinrich Schliemann Collection
l. Tetradrachms - Coinage of Alexander the Great
WORDS + PHOTOS: Portes Magazine
FEATURING: Numismatic Museum Athens Collection