NGC Ancients: Ancients Reborn

Posted on 7/11/2023

Designs on ancient coins have inspired a variety of artworks in the modern world.

The past can make us reflect on the achievements of those who have come before. In some ways, we’ve stretched further than they ever dreamed. In other ways, we marvel at what they accomplished and do our best to imitate it to the best of our abilities. The coins of the ancient world often fall into the latter category.

Using basic tools, ancient artists created coins of such beauty and detail that only gifted artists can mimic them today. Many of these great numismatic artworks have been recreated on coins, medals, stamps and banknotes.

In this column we’ll review a few of these modern items and their ancient counterparts or inspiration.

The silver medal above was made in 1789 to celebrate France’s conquest of Egypt. The obverse shows Nilus, the personification of the Nile River, reclining on a sphinx and holding a cornucopia. The obverse was possibly derived from a famous statue of Nilus now in the Vatican, though it is reminiscent of a design that appears on Roman coins. The reverse shows the great pyramids of Giza.

This beautiful bronze drachm made during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (A.D 117 to 138) also shows Nilus reclining. However, this time he reclines on a crocodile while holding a cornucopia in his right hand. Nilus was an important figure in Roman Egypt, hence why he was featured on so many coins.

The above brass token was an advertising piece made for a coin dealer in London sometime in the late 1800s. The obverse shows the mythical founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, being suckled by a she-wolf. The reverse marks the token as being worth one shilling inside the store.

This billon nummus of the rebel emperor Maxentius (A.D 307 to 312) is one of several Roman coin types that show the canonical scene of the she-wolf suckling the twins. It was struck early in A.D. 310 at the city of Ostia in Italy.

Made for the University of France, this silver medal was given to a higher education committee. It features on its obverse the goddess Athena, wearing a helmet decorated with a Scylla.

A quick comparison between the medal above and this silver distater of Thurium, in southern Italy, shows how similar they are, leaving little doubt that the design of the medal was inspired by a coin of Thurium. Made c.400 to 350 B.C., the reverse shows a bull butting with a fish below.

The silver stater above was made at the city of Elis in Olympia for use at the 107th Olympiad, held in 352 B.C. The obverse shows the intricate portrait of the god Zeus. The reverse shows an eagle standing on the capital of an ionic column.

Pictured on the stamp above is an example of this historical coin type. It’s one of ten stamps depicting ancient Greek coins that were issued by the nation of Greece in 1963.

Fast forwarding to 2004, the nation of Greece used stamps to commemorate the Olympics Games held in Athens that year. Though four different coins were depicted, the one above shows a gold stater issued in the name of the Macedonian King Philip II (359 to 336 B.C.).

A variant of this stater is shown above. The obverse features the laureate head of the god Apollo, the reverse shows a charioteer racing in a biga, a two-horse chariot.

The above stamp was issued in 1928 by the government of Cyprus, a Greek island then under British control. It features the reverse design of an ancient silver stater issued on the island of Cyprus at the city of Amathus.

Shown here is an authentic example of the coin type depicted on the Cypriot stamp. Issued c.385 to 380 B.C., it shows an eagle flying above a recumbent lion opposite the forepart of a lion.

The mythological flying horse Pegasus was a popular subject on ancient Greek coins, and even appeared on a few issued by the Romans. The aluminum 10 Lire, shown above, was made in Italy in 1946. It features a leaping Pegasus on the obverse and an olive branch on the reverse.

While not precisely the same style as the image shown on the 10 Lire, above, the Pegasus on the obverse of this silver stater of c.350 to 320 B.C. is a good approximation. The use of a ‘Greek’ coin on this Italian issue is hardly surprising since for centuries Southern Italy was occupied by settlers who had emigrated from Greece.

The above 10 Lepta was made under the Greek king, George I (1863 to 1913). The obverse mimics the design of the ancient tetradrachm of Athens shown below.

This tetradrachm was made c.137/6 B.C. in the city of Athens. The obverse shows the goddess Athena wearing an elaborate helmet. The reverse depicts an owl standing on an overturned amphora — a design faithfully copied above, minus the extraneous elements, including the inscriptions, subsidiary symbol and enclosing wreath.

This large penny was made in 1929 under the British king, George V (1910 to 1936). The obverse bears his portrait and the reverse shows Britannia, the personification of the nation.

The idea of modern ‘Britannia’ is derived from the ancient Roman personification of Britain, which at one time was one of its provinces. The brass sestertius shown above was made under the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138 to 161). Just like the British penny, it bears on its obverse a portrait of the ruler, and on its reverse a personification of Britannia, seated upon rocks and, in this case, holding a military standard, a spear and resting her arm upon a shield.

The coins of ancient Greece even found their way onto modern paper currency, such as the 50 Drachmai note shown above. Made in 1964, this note features the bust of the water-nymph Arethusa, as seen on the silver tetradrachm shown below.

It’s interesting that this tetradrachm was made at the ancient city of Syracuse, which was founded by Greeks, but is now part of modern Italy. This coin was struck c.420 to 415 B.C. and shows on its obverse Nike crowning a charioteer, and on its reverse the head of Arethusa surrounded by dolphins.

The above banknote was made during World War II when Greece was occupied by the Axis powers. It has the extremely high denomination of 100,000 Drachmai and features an Athens tetradrachm.

Athen's tetradrachms, such as the one above, are one of the most popular ancient coins. This example was made c.465 to 455 B.C. and shows the helmeted goddess Athena on the obverse. The reverse shows the goddesses animal familiar, an owl, with an olive sprig and a crescent moon.

The above banknote was made in Italy between 1966 and 1975 and was worth 500 Lire. Interestingly, the front shows two ancient coin designs! To the left is an eagle clutching a snake, a design most likely derived from a coin issued at the Sicilian city of Acragas. To the right is the head of Arethusa, copied from a decadrachm of Syracuse, another Greek city in Sicily.

This large bronze hemilitron was made in Acragas c. 425 to 406 B.C. and shows on its obverse an eagle with raised wings clutching a snake — a design quite similar to the one on the banknote above. The reverse shows a crab above a prawn, surrounded by pellets marking the coin’s denomination.

Also appearing on the banknote is the portrait from a silver decadrachm of Syracuse, made with dies engraved by the artist Euainetos. This coin was made c.405 to 367 B.C. and shows a racing quadriga opposite the nymph Arethusa surrounded by dolphins.

A perfect way to end this survey is with a most peculiar item: a 35 mm bronze medal struck in 1880 using metal recycled from melted ancient coins!

It was created to mark the 10th anniversary of the Osterreichische Numismatische Gesellschaft in Austria. The obverse shows the bust and signature of the renowned numismatist Joseph Eckhel. The reverse bears a Latin inscription that marks the anniversary and notes that the source of the metal used for its production was “melted ancient coins”.

Surely not the first thing someone thinks of when reflecting on modern commemoratives of ancient coins, but interesting nonetheless!

All images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Heritage Auctions, Harlan J. Berk Ltd., Stephen Album Rare Coins, Scott_Philatelics, Orocondor, Macgregor530, and Boutique_Zone.

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

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