Ancient Greek coinage

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English: Coins found in Herakleia, a city of Magna Graecia, on view in the Museo Nazionale della Siritide in Policoro in Italy.

English: Coins found in Herakleia, a city of Magna Graecia, on view in the Museo Nazionale della Siritide in Policoro in Italy.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The history of Ancient Greek coinage can be divided (along with most other Greek art forms), into three periods, the Archaic, the Classical and the Hellenistic. The Archaic period extends from the introduction of coinage to the Greek world in about 600 BCE until the Persian Wars in about 480 BCE. 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 BCE. The Greeks cities continued to produce their own coins for several more centuries under Roman rule, called Roman provincial coins.

Archaic period

Coins were invented in the Kingdom of Lydia, in what is now western Turkey in about 650-600 BCE (they were independently invented in China and India in about 600 BCE). An important source of the metal used in these coins was the river Pactolus close to Sardis where there were alluvial deposits of gold mixed with as much as 40% silver and some copper; such a gold-silver mix is called (electrum). The earliest coins were made of electrum with a standardized 55% gold, 45 silver and 1-2% copper Concentration and had either no design or a some apparently random surface striations on one side and a punch impression on the other. Electrum coinage spread to the independent city states of Ionia on the Aegean coast within a few decades.

The first bimetallic currency of pure gold and silver coins was introduced during the reign of King Croesus in Sardis (561-547 BCE) using a design of a lion or a lion and bull on one side; the other side remained a punch mark. By this time, coinage had spread to Greece proper and to the many Greek colonies spread from the Black Sea to Sicily and southern Italy (Magna Graecia).

In the "Archaic period" coins were fairly crude by later standards. They were mostly small disk-shaped lumps of gold, silver, or bronze, stamped with a geometric design or symbol to indicate its city of origin. As coining techniques improved, coins became more standardized as flat circular objects and the convention of putting a representation of the patron deity of the issuing city became established. Animal symbols such as the bees (sacred to Artemis) of Ephesus, turtles of Aegina, or the owl (sacred to Athena) of Athens were also widely used.

The Greek world was divided into at least a hundred self-governing cities and towns (in Greek, poleis), and most of these 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 drachm of Aegina. As such coins circulated more widely, coins of other cities came increasingly to be minted to the same weight standard (the weight standard of the Aeginetan drachma was 6.1 g) although marked with the symbols of the issuing city. This is rather like today's Euro coins, which are recognisably from a particular country, but usable all over the Euro zone.

Different weight standards co-existed; these may well have indicated different trade alliances. In about 510 BC Athens began producing a fine silver tetradrachm (four drachm) coin. As Athens and Aegina were hostile, this was minted to a different weight standard, the "Attic" standard drachm of 4.3 g. Over time, Athens' plentiful supply of silver from the mines at Laurion and its increasing dominance in trade made this the pre-eminent standard. Tetradrachms on this weight standard continued to be a widely used coin (often the most widely used) through the classical period, by Alexander, and by the Hellenistic monarchs.

The word drachm means "a handful". Drachmae could be divided into six obols (from the Greek word for a spit of iron).

Classical period

Tetradrachm of Athens, fifth century BCE. On the obverse, a portrait of Athena, patron goddess of the city. On the reverse, the owl of Athens

Tetradrachm of Athens, fifth century BCE. On the obverse, a portrait of Athena, patron goddess of the city. On the reverse, the owl of Athens

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: 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 city. The wealthy cities of Sicily produced some especially fine coins. The large silver decadrachm (ten drachm) coin from Syracuse is regarded by many collectors as the finest coin produced in the ancient world, perhaps ever.

The use of coins for propaganda purposes was a Greek invention. Coins are valuable, durable and pass through many hands. In an age without newspapers or other mass media, they were an ideal way of disseminating a political message. The first such coin was a commemorative decadrachm issued by Athens following the Greek victory in the Persian Wars. On these coins the owl of Athens was depicted facing the viewer with wings outstretched, holding a spray of olive leaves. The message was that Athens was powerful and victorious, but peace-loving. Reece

Hellenistic period

Gold 20-stater of Eucratides I, the largest gold coin ever minted in Antiquity.

Gold 20-stater of Eucratides I, the largest gold coin ever minted in Antiquity.

The Hellenistic period was characterised 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 BCE), the largest silver coin by the Indo-Greek king Amyntas (reigned c. 95–90 BCE). 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 Hellish 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 (pride). But the kings of Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria had no such scruples, and 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.


All Greek coins were hand-made, rather than milled as modern coins are. The design for the obverse was carved (in reverse) into a block of stone or iron. The design of the reverse was carved into another. The blank gold or silver disk, heated to make it soft, was then placed between these two blocks and the upper block struck hard with a hammer, "punching" the design onto both sides of the coin.

This is a fairly crude technique and produces a high failure rate, so the high technical standards achieved by the best Greek coins - perfect centering of the image on the disk, even relief all over the coin, sharpness of edges - is a remarkable testament to Greek perfectionism.

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