NGC Ancients: Large Silver Coins of the Ancient Greeks

Posted on 4/12/2022

When it comes to ancient coins, the adage “bigger is better” certainly applies.

The rule is straightforward: With all other aspects being equal, a larger ancient coin will always sell for more than its smaller counterpart.

All across ancient Greece, cities and nations made large coins. But this was a relatively unusual occurrence, as most often coins of lower intrinsic value were produced. It’s sometimes difficult to understand the purpose of these larger coins, though we might presume most were struck to support commerce or even to make specific payments. On rare occasions, perhaps, they were struck to celebrate events.

Below we’ll discuss a few of the large silver coin types produced in the ancient Greek world.

Made c.500 to 480 B.C. in the Thracian region, the silver dodecadrachm (12 drachms) above was issued by the Derrones. Outside of coinage, relatively little is known about this tribe. This coin features two yoked bulls wearing fillets beneath a Greek inscription that identifies the issuer. The reverse is a simple quadripartite incuse with no artistic design.

Also attributed to the Derrones, but from a slightly later period, c.480-465 B.C., this dodecadrachm is of an especially interesting type. The obverse shows a bearded man driving an ox cart, above which is a Corinthian helmet with a horse-hair crest. The reverse shows a triskeles made of three legs running in perpetual motion.

Large coins such as these of the Derrones are believed to have been made as a convenient way to export the abundance of silver mined in the area.

The coins from the city of Athens are among the most famous of the ancient world. The Athenian decadrachm (10 drachms) — shown above — stands out as the pinnacle of this city’s coinage. Made c.469 to 460 B.C., these impressive coins portray the goddess Athena on the obverse. On the reverse is her animal familiar, the owl, which on this coinage is shown facing with its wings open, beneath an olive sprig.

The decadrachms from the Sicilian city of Syracuse were some of the most influential coins of the ancient world. The one above was made c.405 to 400 B.C. with dies designed by the artist Kimon. The obverse shows a charioteer guiding a racing quadriga (four-horse chariot); above, Nike crowns the driver with a wreath of victory. In the exergue is a display of arms and armor. The reverse shows the water-nymph Arethusa in astounding detail. She is surrounded by four dolphins and has her hair contained in an open-weave sakkos — a popular accoutrement of the time.

Made c.405 to 370 B.C., a far longer period than the previous Syracuse decadrachm, this one is struck with dies originally designed by the artist Euainetos. More common than the previous type, the obverse shares the same design of a racing quadriga. The reverse also portrays Arethusa, but in a more universally appealing style. She wears a grain wreath and is also surrounded by four dolphins. The city's name, engraved in Greek letters, can be seen clearly above her head.

The above silver decadrachm was minted at the city of Babylon during the reign of Alexander III ‘the Great’, the greatest conqueror of the ancient Greek world. He reigned as king of Macedon from 336 to 323 B.C. It shares the same designs as his regular silver coinage: a bust of the Greek hero Heracles wearing a lion skin headdress and the supreme Greek god Zeus seated on a throne, holding an eagle and scepter.

Another decadrachm of Alexander III ‘the Great’ is the coin above, which is of immense rarity. It is believed to mark Alexander’s victory over the Indian King Porus at the battle of Hydaspes (326 B.C.), which occurred in the region of modern-day Pakistan. The obverse shows Alexander riding his trusty horse, Bucephalus, while using his spear to attack the riders on a retreating battle elephant. It is believed that these two figures are king Porus and an attendant. The reverse shows Alexander standing in full military attire, holding a thunderbolt and spear.

One kingdom carved from the vast territories conquered by Alexander III was Egypt — a region ruled by one of his most gifted generals, Ptolemy I (323-282 B.C.). Many gold and silver coins of unusually high value were issued there, including the piece above, a pentakaidecadrachm (15 drachms) that weighs in at over 56 grams. This piece was made during the reign of Ptolemy III (246-221 B.C.), one of the direct descendants of Ptolemy I.

The obverse shows the king's wife, Bernice II. The reverse has an ornate design with a cornucopia overflowing with fruits and grains, tied with a fillet, and flanked by two pileoi (the caps of Castor and Pollux — the Dioscuri).

For our last piece we’ll travel to the Western part of the Mediterranean, where the Punic city of Carthage stood as a bitter rival to Greeks, Romans and local populations. At 38mm in diameter, the 5-shekel above was made by the Carthaginians between c.264 and 260 B.C. to pay their mercenaries in Sicily during the early years of the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.) against Rome. Its obverse hosts the goddess Tanit wearing a wreath of grain ears. The reverse has a magnificent Pegasus in flight over a Punic inscription.

All photos courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here.

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