NGC Ancients: “Greek” Coinage of the Ancient World — Part 1

Posted by Josh Illingworth, NGC Ancients on 2/18/2014

In the first article of this two-part series, NGC Ancients examines the Greek influence on coinage of ancient Eastern civilizations.

A survey of ancient “Greek” coinage makes one thing very clear - the field is actually much larger than its name would imply. This becomes apparent when one considers that coinage was probably not a Greek invention, but rather an existing concept that they adopted and then perfected.

Though Greece was located in the eastern Mediterranean, Greek sailors constantly sought new territory. By the time the use of coinage became widespread in the mid-5th Century B.C., the Greeks had established cities throughout the Mediterranean world. Striking out as far west as Spain, as far south as Cyrene in North Africa, and as far north as the Straits of Kerch on the northern coast of the Black Sea, it was only natural that Greek culture would take root in these colonized regions. Indeed, the use of coinage by Celts, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Indo-Greeks, Arabians and other peoples can be ascribed largely to their interaction with the Greeks.

When conducting a brief survey of these “other Greeks” who struck coins, it would be natural to start with the inhabitants of Ionia and Lydia (in the western part of modern-day Turkey), who introduced coinage to Western civilization. This hecte or sixth-stater is thought to have been struck in Ionia at an uncertain mint c.600-550 B.C. It was made of electrum (a metallic combination of gold and silver), and was among the earliest figural type coins produced (i.e., it depicts an animal or person rather than abstract design elements). Coinage such as this was adopted by local rulers and later by the kings of the Persian Empire.

The Persian kings struck coins until the 330s B.C., when their empire was conquered by the Greek king Alexander III “the Great.” Even after this defeat, the Greeks who came to rule the former Persian territories continued to strike Persian-style coins, including gold darics such as this rare piece, down to c.300 B.C. It is also worth noting that though the Persians may take credit for introducing coinage to Egypt, it nonetheless was Greek-inspired, as Persian coins of Egypt were simply imitations of the famous “owl” tetradrachms of Athens. This imitative owl was struck in Egypt c.343/2-338/7 B.C. under Artaxerxes III Okhos as Pharaoh of Egypt.

Meanwhile, in the course of conquering most of the known Western world, Alexander the Great established the longest-lasting system of royal Greek coinage. His imperial coinages, such as this tetradrachm, are among the most recognized and widely minted coin types of the ancient world. Moreover, Egypt’s first king after Alexander III, Ptolemy I, founded a dynasty that issued coins down to 31 B.C., when Queen Cleopatra VII lost her kingdom to Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. This coin is an early example of a Ptolemy I tetradrachm, and clearly displays Alexander’s influence.

In Asia Minor there were several non-Greek kingdoms that produced coinage. Along the southern shore of the Black Sea the kings of regions of Cappadocia, Bithynia and Pontus struck coins that were Greek in fabric and content, but which featured their own Asiatic style. The Eastern influence is most apparent in the royal portraiture, where engravers seem to have made a particular effort to make their rulers appear non-Greek. This drachm of the Pontic King Pharnaces III (c.200-169 B.C.) is a good example of how coins from this region retained noticeable Greek elements while still displaying traits more associated with regional cultures.

Further East, in the region now principally comprising Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, coins were struck in Armenia, Parthia, Elam, Persis and Bactria. Though the Greeks were certainly known in these areas from the era of Alexander III and his successors, their influence was reduced with the passage of time.

In regards to another region, the Greeks had both strong ties and conflicts with the Phoenicians, who ventured far beyond their homeland to establish a network of trading posts throughout the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians did not adopt coinage until the late 5th Century B.C., but quickly made up for lost time by producing coins in tremendous quantities. The Phoenicians are remembered for their local coinages in Phoenicia as well as the impressive coinages struck at Carthage and at their overseas holdings in Sicily, Corsica, Spain and elsewhere. This “Siculo-Punic” tetradrachm is a good example of one of the Greek-inspired coinages of the Carthaginians. On this coin the influence of the coinages of Alexander III is noted in the portrait of Heracles. By contrast, this slightly earlier tetradrachm, struck by the Carthaginians to finance their Sicilian invasions of the late 4th century B.C., is clearly indebted to the local coinage of Sicily, while showcasing the Carthaginian design elements of a horse and a palm tree.

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Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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