Ancients: Classic Greek Coins: Part 1

Posted on 10/13/2009

David Vagi discusses the design varieties of select ancient Greek coins in this first of a multi-part series.

The variety of designs found on ancient Greek coins seems limitless, and trying to pick the ten most famous coin types is like trying to choose the ten best movies of all times – it cannot be done to the satisfaction of all. So, I’ve chosen fifty representative coins spread among five major categories.

The selections will be limited to coins that a collector can expect to encounter – no tantalizing rarities to whet your appetite only to be absent from the menu. Also, as a matter of convenience the coins will all be types in silver.

In this first installment we'll start with the issues of Greece proper and continue every other month with the remaining four.

1. Thrace, Island of Thasos. Silver Stater, c.525-450 B.C. This popular design originated in Thrace, in the northern part of Greece – a region that a purist would argue was not Greek at all. These staters show on their obverse a satyr abducting a nymph, and on their reverse a punch with no design. A later version, seemingly produced between about 435 and 400 B.C., has a similar design, though this time the satyr seduces the nymph, whom he cradles in his arms.

2. Thrace, Maroneia. Silver Tetradrachm, 2nd-1st Centuries B.C. Wine aficionados appreciate this Greek coin, as it celebrates the renown this city earned for its fine wine, which was exported throughout the Mediterranean world. The obverse shows a youthful portrait of the god Dionysus, famed for his patronage of the vine. That same deity is shown on the reverse as a standing figure, holding a cluster of grapes and two narthex stalks (stems of fennel). They are struck on a thin, broad planchet as is typical of coins from the late Hellenistic period.

3. Thessaly, Larissa. Silver Drachm, 4th Century B.C. Located in the fertile pastures of central Greece, many miles northwest of Athens, the city of Larissa struck a series of coins with the facing head of a local water nymph on the obverse and a horse on the reverse. The horse is shown in various positions (in this case it is about to roll) and is sometimes accompanied by a person or a foal. These coins are quite artistic and always are popular with collectors.

4. Boeotia, Thebes. Silver Stater, c.395-338 B.C. The design of a shield and amphora came to symbolize the coinage of Thebes, an important city in central Greece. The shield is of a particular type (not surprisingly) known as Boeotian, and the amphora, a vessel, is of a familiar shape. The name of a magistrate usually appears in the field on the reverse, accounting for the main element of the diversity within the series. However, some varieties show decorations on or above the amphora, and earlier types replace the amphora with various deities from the Greek pantheon.

5. Attica, Athens. Silver Tetradrachm, c.440-404 B.C. This is the most recognized coin of ancient Greece, for it was produced by the most important city of Greece and was struck in great quantities, mainly from the 460s to the 290s B.C. The obverse shows the helmeted head of Athena, the patron deity of the city. The reverse shows the goddesses owl, flanked by the city name, an olive sprig and a crescent moon. These were extensively used in trade, and many suffer from deep chisel cuts or banker’s marks. The issue was also extensively copied in Asia Minor, Egypt and Arabia, where both the originals and the look-alikes were standard currency.

6. Attica, Athens. Silver Tetradrachm, 2nd-1st Centuries B.C. The eventual follow-up to the main issue of Athens tetradrachms of earlier times was the “new style” tetradrachm. This coin was often described in ancient times as a stephanophorus, or “wreath-bearer”, because of the laurel wreath that encloses the reverse design of an owl upon an overturned amphora. The city goddess Athena still graces the obverse, this time wearing an ornate helmet with three crests. The reverse fields are filled with names of magistrates and interesting symbols. The precise dating of these coins is still a hot topic of numismatic research.

7. Island of Aegina. Silver Stater, c.525-480 B.C. Another powerful city-state occupied the island of Aegina, not far from Athens. Her famous ‘turtle’ coins circulated widely in the Mediterranean and through the course of trade were often heavily worn or disfigured with chisel cuts or banker’s marks. Two distinct types were struck: the earlier pieces have a turtle on the obverse with a smooth shell often decorated with pellets; the later pieces show a tortoise with a broad shell divided into segments. The reverses of both types have incuse punches, with the earlier being deep and simplistic and the later ones being shallow, with their squares and triangles often containing letters or designs.

8. Corinthia, Corinth. Silver Stater, 4th Century B.C. One of Athens’ rivals was Corinth, a city recognized for all of the colonies it founded in Greece and South Italy (which tended to strike coins of the same design as their mother city). Corinthian-style coins were also a favorite form of payment for Greek mercenaries abroad. The obverses of these coins show Pegasus, the mythological winged horse, and the reverses show the head of a female wearing a Corinthian helmet high upon her head. Traditionally described as the goddess Athena, she might actually be a local city goddess. Many different symbols appear behind the deity’s head, which can be a separate collecting theme.

9. Sicyonia, Sicyon. Silver Stater, c.380-330 B.C. This coin type is especially interesting since it shows on its reverse a dove, today recognized as a symbol of peace, and on its obverse a Chimaera, a fearsome creature in the form of a lion with the attached forepart of a goat and a snake for its tail. The main issue of these coins was struck during a relatively brief period, and they are scarcer than any of the coins yet described. This city was located close to Corinth, near the point where the mainland of Greece joins the lower land mass, known as the Peloponnesus.

10. Elis, Olympia. Silver Stater, c.mid-4th Century B.C. The silver staters of Olympia were struck every four years to support commerce at the Olympic Games and to serve as souvenirs for visitors. The types on the earliest coins vary considerably, but the issues of the late Classical and early Hellenistic period usually bear on their obverse the head of the god Zeus or his sister-wife, Hera. An eagle is usually shown on the reverse. They were not commercial ‘trade’ coins issued on a regular basis, but were struck for a special occasion that still resonates in the modern day.

Photos courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group

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