Posted on

Ancient Greek Coins – The Eagles and Coinage of Akragas

By Russell A. Augustin, AU Capital Management, LLC

The Colosseo Collection ……
Akragas was a wealthy and powerful Greek state on the southern coast of Sicily, second only to Syracuse in importance. The city was famous for its lavish building projects, proudly displaying its wealth in the form of numerous massive temples, many of which still stand today.

The early designs of the coinage of Akragas remained consistent for nearly a century, depicting Zeus’ standing eagle on the obverse and a crab on the reverse. As their societies matured, the aristocratic rulers of Akragas and its surrounding cities became highly competitive, especially in horse races, but also in the artistic beauty of the coinage they produced, resulting in a flourishing numismatic arms race.

Coinage of Akragas - Temple of Concordia
Temple of Concordia

Around 415 BCE, a dramatic shift took place, reinvigorating all denominations of their coinage. The designs became much more intricate, and the new coins have been ranked as some of the most beautiful coinage ever produced, clearly the work of the finest Sicilian artists of the time.

This coin is a fractional silver piece in the denomination of an obol, among the smallest of Greek types. It is engraved in the finest style and meticulously detailed, showing a scene executed with great force and realism. It represents a triumph in coin design, made even more impressive when considering the small size of the canvas on which the artist was required to work.

It is clear that the same master engraver was involved with the production of the larger denomination coinages of Akragas as well, with this coin sharing many stylistic similarities with the famous Agrigentum dekadrachm and Skylla tetradrachm.

The scene is composed in a very lifelike manner, avoiding the temptation to idealize the animals, showing that the engravers were not only talented artists, but also carefully observant of nature.

The obverse shows two eagles preparing to feast upon the hare they have just captured. One eagle is shown with open wings, craning down to tear at its prey while the other raises its head in triumph. This scene alludes to verses from Agamemnon, written by the Greek playwright Aeschylus, the father of the genre of tragedy. The mythological protagonists Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, and Menelaus, king of Sparta, were represented as two eagles feasting on a pregnant hare, an omen foretelling the destruction of the city of Troy.

Ancient Greek Coins - Eagles of Akragas - Obol (Silver, 0.79 g), c. 410-406 BC.
Ancient Greek Coins – Eagles of Akragas – Obol (Silver, 0.79 g), c. 410-406 BC.

The reverse likely refers to Akragas’ increasing focus as a naval power. The fresh-water crab is a symbol of the Akragas river and an emblem of the city, with a giant ocean perch (Polyprium cernium) shown below.

It is likely that this obol was a special issue as all known examples come from a single pair of dies. The beauty and effort put into even this small coin shows just how proud the Sicilians were of their coinage and to what extent they would go to find the best artists to engrave them, even when the coin wasn’t intended for mass circulation. It was perhaps a commemorative piece or handout to boast about their artistic prowess and military strength.

Unfortunately, the omen depicted on this coin came back to haunt the city. The wealth of Akragas was not enough to protect it from the brutality of the Carthaginians, who sacked the city in 406 BCE, an attack from which they never fully recovered and which put an abrupt end to this beautiful period of coinage.

Obol (Silver, 0.79 g), c. 410-406 BCE. Two eagles standing right on dead hare, the one in front with closed wings and its head thrown back screaming in triumph, the one behind with wings open and head turned down, tearing at its prey with its beak. Rev. Crab with between its claws; below, grouper (polyprium cernium) swimming to right. Basel 263 = SNG Lockett 519 (same dies). Rizzo pl. III, 6 (same dies). SNG Lloyd 829 (same dies). Very rare. Beautifully toned, a superb coin of the finest style. Extremely fine.

Posted on

Ancient Coins – The Sacred Stone of Kaunos Coinage

By Russell A. Augustin, AU Capital Management, LLC
The Colosseo Collection ……
Kaunos was a prominent trading center in Asia Minor alongside Lycia and Caria. It was mentioned by ancient authors specifically because of how its customs and language differed from Caria. Until recently, it was not possible to decisively attribute any archaic or classical Kaunos coinage, which is unusual considering its importance during these periods.

kaunosThanks to the persistence of academics and archaeologists across the world, our understanding of ancient history is constantly evolving. This coin is a perfect example: until the 1980s, little was understood about the Carian language. Egyptologists were able to aid in the deciphering, using Carian inscriptions found in Egypt to cross-reference and to begin to comprehend the language, allowing us to better understand the coins of the region.

While the obverse of this coin has similar attributes to Nike, the latest research into the customs of the region indicates that it is in fact the Greek god Iris, the messenger of Hera. Unlike Nike, and as shown on this coin, Iris is generally shown holding a kerykeion (also known as a caduceus: a “herald’s staff”, a symbol of a messenger) and a wreath in either hand.

The attribution of the obverse as Iris has aided in interpreting the reverse. The series featured a reverse which evolved over time, beginning with a crude triangular punch mark, then as a central device with horn-like tags, and eventually with handles as depicted in this coin.

Stone_of_Kaunos_colosseo Kaunos coinage
CARIA, Kaunos. Circa 450-430 BC. AR Stater

While originally thought to be either an early incuse pattern or a perhaps a relief map like similar coinage from Ionia, it is now believed that the reverse depicts a sacred stone. In antiquity, it would have been referred to as a baetyl, or “beth el” in Aramaic, meaning “House of the God”. This term is used to describe conical stones which were worshipped as embodiments of the gods. These objects are found fairly regularly on Roman provincial coins but are very unusual on early, archaic coinage.

Archaeologists have long been mystified by the presence of a round building near the harbor of Kaunos. Recently, about three meters beneath the surface in the center of the building, a large conical piece of limestone measuring 12 feet high and five feet wide was discovered.

The bottom of this object stands on the bedrock and was buried as a counterbalance to the top which towered nearly eight feet in the air. While remaining accessible to worshippers in the fifth century BCE, it was eventually enclosed in walls and shrines to protect the sacred stone. With stone worship now having been confirmed in multiple aspects of life in Kaunos, there can be little doubt that the reverse of these coins depicts a sacred stone, likely the exact one uncovered inside the round building.

This particular coin appears to show handles on both sides which may have been used to carry the sacred stone during processions prior to it being enclosed in its final shrine in the fourth century BCE. With artistry evolving and improving alongside the refinement of their beliefs, the dies became more intricate with this coin showing subtle depth to the conical shape rather than just a flat triangle as seen on earlier varieties.

Many sacred stones are meteorites, believed to have been sent by the gods, and it is likely that the conical limestone encapsulated the original meteorite. As further evidence to the stone being a meteorite, the god Iris is known as the god of rainbows, noting her connection between the sky and earth, likely referring to the event of the meteorite falling. Meteorite impacts represented a confusing and important event which nearly every ancient culture has interpreted as a message or visit from the gods.

Over the span of several decades, the reverse eventually transformed into stylized birds followed by two bunches of grapes rendered in dots, potentially coinciding with a shift in religious customs and a movement away from archaic art.

CARIA, Kaunos. Circa 450-430 BCE. AR Stater (18mm, 11.49 g, 9h). Winged female figure in kneeling-running stance left, head right, holding kerykeion and wreath / Baetyl, with handles at apex; inverted Δ (K in Carian) to upper left, pelleted fields at sides; all within incuse square. Konuk 90 (O33/R31); Konuk, Coin M24; Troxell, Winged 25 (same dies); SNG Keckman 824 (same obv. die); SNG von Aulock 2347; BMC Cilicia 5 (Mallos, same dies). Good VF, toned. Ex Bowers & Ruddy FPL (Fall 1980), no. 41.

Posted on

Ancient Coin Profile – The First Facing Portrait of a King

LYCIA. Dynasts of Lycia, Perikle (c.375-360 B.C.), Silver Stater
LYCIA. Dynasts of Lycia, Perikles (c.375-360 BCE), Silver Stater

By Russell A. Augustin, AU Capital Management, LLC ……
 

Lycia was a mountainous region in Anatolia with dramatic slopes that plunge into the sea. Many of its cities left the Delian League as Athens and Sparta fought the Peloponnesian War but in 429 BCE, Athens sent an expedition to Lycia to attempt to force it into rejoining.

Lycia defeated the Athenian general, leaving them under Persian control. The Persians ruled at an arm’s length, having local governors in the province but allowing the local dynasts to continue working somewhat autonomously.

Lycia was among the first to depict their rulers on coinage. Originally portraying them statically and devoid of individual characterization, Lycia progressively improved their approach toward realism.

They reached the pinnacle of classical portraiture with the coinage of Perikles, for the first time moving the portrait of a living person to the obverse of the coin and depicting it in a challenging front-facing style, rather than the conventional profile.

These innovations were likely inspired by the contemporary coinage of Syracuse but never before had a living king been depicted front-facing. Here, Perikles is shown in a superb style, looking out from the coin with serene majesty. While the engraver stayed true to his facial features, Perikles’ hair is engraved in such a way that it appears to be blowing freely in the wind, hinting of his status as more than a mere mortal.

He is also depicted without any headdress as was included on earlier portraits from Lycia, perhaps indicating their independence from Persian rule.

These innovations in coin artistry came to an end when Mausolus of Caria conquered Lycia in 360 BCE as part of the Revolt of the Satraps.

Lycian rock cut tombs of Dalyan

Lycian rock cut tombs of Dalyan

The Prospero Collection of Ancient Greek Coins. LYCIA. Dynasts of Lycia, Perikle (c.375-360 B.C.), Silver Stater, 9.84g, . Phellus mint, c.370 B.C. Head of dynast facing, inclined slightly to left, wearing a laurel-wreath, and with drapery round neck, a small dolphin swimming downwards on right. Rev. Lycian legend (‘PERIKLE’), warrior, naked but for a crested Corinthian helmet, advancing to right, brandishing a short sword and holding a round shield, triskeles on upper right, a sea-shell (?) on lower right, all within an incuse square (SNG von Aulock 4250 (this coin); Olçay & Mørkholm, ‘The Coin Hoard from Podalia’, NC 1971, 398 (A1-P3) (this coin); Vismara, pl. XXIII, 215 (these dies); L. Mildenberg, Mithrapata and Perikles, Proceedings of the 8th International Numismatic Congress, Rome 1961 (1965), 21). Reverse die a little worn, a wonderful portrait of exceptional classical style, good very fine. This coin published in ‘The Coin Hoard from Podalia’, Olçay & Mørkholm, NC (1971), 398; and in SNG Sammlung Hans von Aulock, 4250. From the Podalia Hoard (IGCH 1262) Ex Hans von Aulock Collection, 4250 Purchased from Spink & Son Ltd., London, 31 March 1988
 

Posted on

Ancient Coins – Zeus, the King of the Gods

By Russell A. Augustin, AU Capital Management, LLC

The Colosseo Collection ……
Depending on who was in control at the time, the electrum coinage of Phokaia and Mytilene in Ionia was struck as payment to either the Persian Empire or the Delian League. Issued semi-annually, the volume of coins minted was prolific – both mints produced a wide range of designs and a significant output of electrum coinage.

Even though the Athenian owl tetradrachms were increasing in popularity, the hektes produced from Ionia remained the preferred coinage around the Aegean Sea. They were able to maintain their dominance through highly profitable trade with the other coastal cities, resulting in the hekte acting as a recognizable trade currency. Stylistically, the coins resembled intaglio gem engraving, with the reverses engraved incuse. While Mytilene utilized the reverse space with additional artistic designs, Phokaia retained the archaic tradition of the four-part incuse square.

Phokaia also consistently depicted their civic badge, a seal named Phoke, on the obverse of the coin alongside the primary image of a god or animal.

They remained in circulation across the region for over two centuries, helped in part by their relative resistance to wear through the firm alloy of silver and gold. The series was finally ended in 326 BCE when gold became preferred over electrum after Alexander the Great standardized the coinage of eastern Greece.

This coin is unknown to any reference guide and possibly unique. However, it can be accurately identified as a coin minted by Phokaia by both the seal shown on the obverse and the incuse reverse square.

The portrait shown on the obverse is that of Zeus. While a common choice for coins throughout Greece due to the significance and popularity of the “King of the Gods”, Zeus occurs relatively infrequently on electrum and is only seen facing left on one other very rare issue.

Regardless of the metal type, Zeus is always depicted majestically, paying homage to his importance. This coin is no exception, showing his portrait in a respectful, fine style and adorned with a laurel wreath, fit for the “Father of Gods and men”.

IONIA, Phokaia, Electrum Hekte, ca.450-400BCE, 9mm, 2.6g. Head of Zeus l./Quadripartite incuse square. Extremely rare, possibly unique.


Posted on

Ancient Coins – The Most Famous Coin of Antiquity – the Athenian Owl

By Russell A. Augustin, AU Capital Management, LLC
The Colosseo Collection ……

Athens was a great military power in ancient Greece and is considered the birthplace of Western civilization and democracy. After defeating the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, Athens was brought into a golden age.

During this period of prosperity, Athens expanded its political and economic influence throughout the Greek world, allowing artistic and intellectual progress to flourish at a rate which has never been matched. Their military and naval strength was aided significantly by their influx of funds from the mining of silver at Laurion, as well as the combined resources from the Delian League, which Athens now led.

The quantity of silver controlled by the Athenians allowed them to mint the authoritative coinage of ancient Greece, the thick and heavy Athenian owl tetradrachm, which remains the most recognizable ancient coin today. This coin was the largest silver coin of its time, and it popularized the use of a coin’s obverse as the “head” and the reverse as the animal’s “tail”.

Attic, Athens; 465-462 BC, Tetradrachm, 16.82g
Attic, Athens; 465-462 BC, Tetradrachm, 16.82g

They were produced for over four hundred years, and while the artistic style changed over time, the theme remained consistent, showing Athena, the goddess of wisdom and warfare, on the obverse and an owl, her patron animal, on the reverse. This consistency reinforced their international message and came to symbolize Athens’ economic power.

Mintage of the first archaic type of Athenian owls started around 512 BCE and continued through the early fifth century BCE. These early coins were very crudely designed and generally of poor quality. The style transitioned quickly over the next few decades, becoming more refined and artistic, reaching a peak around 460 BCE. In 449 BCE, during the early Classical period of Greek art, the designs were revised again and production increased exponentially to keep up with the demands from large building projects and the funding of the Peloponnesian War, which started in 431 BCE. These later coins are orders of magnitude more common than the earlier issues, and this prevalence allowed Athens to flourish.

Athenians treated their coinage not only as means for facilitating commerce and spreading their political imagery, but also as a business, making a profit on each Owl minted.

The value of a tetradrachm was too high for daily transactions, but they were used for building projects, large commercial transactions, international trade, and payment for war preparations. Through careful control, their tetradrachms became known to be of great metal quality and consistent weight, resulting in merchants from other cities using them for their portability and global acceptance.

While the Aegina “turtle” was the first coin to be widely accepted internationally, Athenian Owls were minted in far more substantial numbers and traveled farther throughout Greece, resulting in them becoming the world’s first ubiquitous trade currency.

The obverse portrait of their patron goddess Athena is depicted in an interesting combination of femininity and intimidation through the presence of the war helmet, showing both sides of Athena’s character. She was often described as “flashing-eyed”, so it is likely that the archaic depiction of her large, almond-shaped eye was intentional and had mythological origins.

The Greeks did not consider birds to be divine, but many became the symbolic animals of various gods. The species depicted on the reverse of the Owl tetradrachms has been identified as Athene noctua, the Little Owl. They are found in the Mediterranean region and stand only six to eight inches tall, weighing between 2.5 and 4.5 ounces.

The inscription “ΑΘΕ” is an abbreviation of ΑΘΕΝΑΙΟΝ, “of the Athenians”. These coins were so popular that they were often copied by other countries, they retained this inscription with the hope of having their currency associated with the positive qualities of the genuine Owl tetradrachms.

The reverse of these coins features an olive sprig, referring to olive oil, one of Athens’ primary exports, as well as ironically acting as a symbol of peace on coins that were often used to fund wars. A crescent shape, possibly a waning moon, is shown on most issues, but its meaning isn’t clear. Many speculate it represents the time during which the nocturnal owl is most active, or perhaps to denote Athens’ famous nighttime naval victory over the Persian fleet at Salamis.

Athena’s profile is depicted with a simplistic grace and an enigmatic archaic smile, with a more natural eye and feminine portrait than the other issues, topped with a naturalistic floral design on her helmet. The reverse shows an exceptionally detailed, impressively lifelike owl with three separate tail feathers, a key attribute which distinguishes the earlier issues from the massive emissions that followed.

In addition to their stylistic evolution, the fabric of Athens tetradrachms changed significantly over time, eventually flattening and broadening out into the “New Style” tetradrachms which were minted in the second century BC.

The Classical tetradrachms of the fifth century BCE were made on condensed flans, often with a worn, convex obverse and the reverse owl struck in high relief. When well-centered, the owl is shown within a deep concave frame as a result of the shape of the die. The obverse design is often too large for the coins and the crest of Athena’s helmet is usually not shown. The high relief dies also often result in edge splits when struck, due to the force and high metal temperatures involved in the minting process.

This particular coin is an early “transitional” tetradrachm, part of a group of coins minted from the late 470s through to the early 450s BC, around the same time as the famous Athenian decadrachms. These issues are considered the pinnacle of artistic style in Athenian coinage and many note them as among the most attractive of all Greek coins. President Theodore Roosevelt kept an owl tetradrachm in his pocket and was inspired to order the redesign of the U.S. coinage in the 20th century.

This coin was introduced in the “Pentecontaetia”, the “Fifty Years”, from 479-431 BC during which Athens’ force strengthened, turning it into an imperial power capable of standing against Sparta and her Peloponnesian allies. Stylistically, this coin is dated to the earlier part of this period, followed by a few subsequent changes before the large emissions. Dated 465-462 BCE, it was likely issued to pay for the Athenian campaign to conquer Thasos in 463 BCE.

Attic, Athens; 465-462 BC, Tetradrachm, 16.82g. Starr Group. V. A. 166c (same reverse die). Head of Athena right, with frontal eye and smooth loop of hair over forehead, in crested Attic helmet ornamented with three olive leaves above visor and spiral palmette on bowl, wearing round earring with central boss / ΑΘΕ, owl with three tail feathers standing three-quarters right, olive sprig and crescent moon behind, outlines of square die visible. Struck in high relief and well centered. Exceptionally beautiful detail. EF

Posted on

Ancient Electrum Coins – Strength and Unity of an Empire

By Russell A. AugustinAU Capital Management, LLC

The Colosseo Collection ……
The ancient Greek island of Lesbos was located in the northeastern Aegean Sea off the coast of modern-day Turkey. Its largest and wealthiest city, Mytilene, was originally founded in the 11th century BCE by the Penthilidae family of Thessaly, who ruled it until the revolt led by Pittacus in 580 BCE. It was initially confined to a small island just offshore but was later joined to the island of Lesbos, creating a north and south harbor.

Mytilene was famous for its substantial output of electrum coins struck during the late 6th century BCE, in part to subsidize the neighboring Persian Empire. It continued to mint coins, especially the denomination of a hekte (one-sixth of a stater), through the mid-4th century BCE to aid the Delian league.

Lesbos, Mytilene EL Hekte. Circa 521-478 BCE
Lesbos, Mytilene EL Hekte. Circa 521-478 BCE

The electrum from Mytilene in this period was comprised of around 43% gold and the alloy allowed the coins to withstand circulation better than pure gold. These coins remained in widespread circulation throughout the Ionian region for the next two centuries, resulting in many coins being found heavily worn and eventually melted down.

The artwork on the small archaic hektes demonstrates miniature engraving at its finest. The design on this coin came into use shortly after Lesbos came under Persian control, following Cyrus’ defeat of Croesus in 546 BCE. The Persian influence likely determined the selection of the detailed lion motif, as it represented a popular ancient Persian symbol of kings and stateliness. On this coin, the lion is shown roaring, symbolizing the bravery and power of the empire and a warning to those who dare challenge it.

This coin clearly draws its inspiration from the earliest coinage from Lydia a century earlier which featured a similar lion on the obverse. An innovation in die engraving and advancements in coinage technology allowed the sculptural high-relief design on the obverse to be minted alongside the incuse intaglio engraved reverse, instead of the earlier Lydian incuse punch. This made it possible for Lesbos to couple two distinct animal motifs onto a single coin, showing the sacred symbols shared by Greece and Persia, at a time when Lesbos politically balanced allegiances between the regions.

Interestingly, despite the reverse dies from Lesbos now being considerably more intricate than the simple incuse rectangle, the mint authorities still desired to retain some of these original design elements. They required that a miniature incuse rectangle be attached to the neck or head of the god or animal featured incuse on the reverse of the coin.

This coin shows an irregular oblong rectangle behind the head of a rooster wearing a collar of five pearls on the reverse, following suit and carrying over part of the preceding Lydian reverse alongside the new realistic animal depiction.

* * *

Lesbos, Mytilene EL Hekte. Circa 521-478 BCE. Lion’s head right with open jaws, the truncation with a rim of dots / Incuse cockerel’s head left, collar of five pearls, behind an irregular oblong object. Bodenstedt 7 (a/a) De Luynes 2544. 2.55g, 10mm, 1h. Good Extremely Fine.

Posted on

Ancient Coins : Lydian Gold Considered the First Coins in the World

By Russell A. Augustin, AU Capital Management, LLC
The Colosseo Collection …..

Lydian Coins are considers to be the First Coins ever produced and used.

The First Official Coin

Natural resources are often a source of great wealth for a country, especially its king. The Pactolus River in Lydia, now modern day Turkey, was one of the most significant sources of electrum in the ancient world, and it allowed the kings to amass a substantial fortune by minting coins from these deposits.

According to mythology, the electrum came from King Midas who bathed in the river to try to wash away his curse, which turned even his food into gold. In actuality, the persistent wealth of the region was due to its ability to mine and leverage its natural electrum in its prominent position as a trading center between Mesopotamia and the Greek cities.

lydia

Lydia was noted by ancient authors as a significant center of commerce, and it was the first to establish retail shops in permanent locations. Despite their prominence, much of their history is unknown or inconsistently written.

Their coinage began with the kings Sadyattes and Alyattes. This particular coin is of the earliest variety of Lydian coins, most commonly dated to 630-620 BCE during the reign of Sadyattes. It is dramatically rarer than the subsequent issues, minted during only a short period and with few dies. This coin is atypically well-preserved, in mint state with complete remaining luster, whereas nearly all known examples grade “very fine” or lower.

Although its weight indicates that its denomination is a trite, one-third of a stater, no full staters have ever been found from this period, meaning that the trite was likely their largest denomination. There is some disagreement as to the value of a Lydian trite in antiquity, but it is generally thought to represent about one month’s salary, although there is evidence to suggest it was worth more, perhaps able to purchase up to eleven sheep.

While remaining a topic of debate by some, this type is now commonly considered to be the first official coin, meeting all of the requirements laid out in the dictionary definition: it is the first coin to have certified markings that signify a specific exchange value and be issued by a governmental authority for use as money. Earlier coins like the striated and geometric types failed to clearly meet the final criteria, whereas the lion was consistently associated with Lydia.

KINGS of LYDIA. temp. Sadyattes. Circa 630-620 BCE. EL Trite – Third Stater (13mm, 4.70 g). Sardes mint. - first coins

KINGS of LYDIA. temp. Sadyattes. Circa 630-620 BCE. EL Trite – Third Stater (13mm, 4.70 g). Sardes mint.

In antiquity and today, lions have been symbols of kings, ruling their domain and personifying royal authority, strength, and protection. The archaic style of this lion is particularly captivating, shown with teeth bared and roaring, with a fierce, triangle-shaped eye.

The lion was also considered a personification of the sun itself, as it was believed that lions could look directly into the sun. The zodiac sign Leo was therefore assigned to the hottest part of the year, from July 22 to August 22. Appropriately, shown above the lion’s head is a depiction of the shining sun. Later varieties devolve stylistically, and some interpret the less obvious sun pattern as a wart on the nose of the lion.

After the death of King Alyattes, his son Croesus ascended the throne and ceased minting the Lydian lion trites in favor of introducing the world’s first bi-metallic coinage. The expression “rich as Croesus” originates from this king and is still in use today, some 2,600 years after he minted his coins.

KINGS of LYDIA. temp. Sadyattes. Circa 630-620 BCE. EL Trite – Third Stater (13mm, 4.70 g). Sardes mint. Head of roaring lion right, sun with four rays on forehead / Two incuse square punches. Weidauer Group XV, 62 (same die and punches); SNG Kayhan –; SNG von Aulock –; BMC 2. Mint State, full lustrous, and likely the finest known.

Posted on

A Guide to Ancient Coin Collecting

By Joe Jaroch –  Posted with Permission from AU Capital Management ……….
Amassing a collection of ancient coins can seem like a daunting task: the U.S. Mint has existed for little more than two hundred years, but the Classical world spans a colossal twenty-one centuries. Where would a collection begin, let alone end?

That’s where we come in.

You don’t need to own a museum or be a Rockefeller to collect ancient coins. There are indeed thousands of possible collections, but we’ll cover the ones that could be most comfortably completed, including variations based on the overall price tag: some sets have individual coins that could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but there are alternate sets and subsets which are equally exciting and historical at more affordable prices.

But even though ancient coins have been collected by such noteworthy historical figures as Thomas Jefferson, Louis XIV, and Augustus Caesar himself, the field is open to all comers. We have observed that the market on these coins is less mature than that of U.S. ones, so coins of smaller mintage and greater intrinsic value are actually far less expensive today than their American counterparts. Additionally, there is such an extensive pool of variations that you could contentedly collect for decades to come and never run out of new sets to complete.

ancient coin collectingFor example, while less well-known than the Twelve Caesars, the Five Good Emperors, who form a dynasty that follows the first 12, have coins that are truly remarkable in artistry and equally rich in history as the prior dynasties but generally at even more affordable prices today. The world of ancient coins makes available numerous denominations in which to collect, including several incredibly large offerings that would add a unique element to any collection, and the stunning detailing on these hand-struck pieces is even more obvious and easier to appreciate.

There is a vast array of collections and sub-collections to choose from, with appreciation for the rarity and quality of the coins weighing in the same as in an American collection. But we’ve done the heavy lifting for you by determining the potential nature of sets in addition to considering the current market value to keep your wallet and your conscience at ease, so all you have to do is decide which period of ancient history you want to be a part of.

Choosing Quality Examples

Before diving into the suggestions on different collections, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind as you build your collection. As with US coins, we suggest looking for the best example in a particular grade. There is no set ratio for how much more an “Extremely Fine” example costs versus a “Very Fine” coin, but in general, the prices increase significantly as the grade increases. In some cases, low-grade examples of a coin may sell for a few hundred dollars and the finest known of the same type would realize a thousand times as much at auction.

As with anything, supply and demand drive the prices of ancient coins. One of the most famous ancient coins, the Ides of March denarius, commemorating Brutus’ assassination of Julius Caesar, frequently sells for US$100,000 or more. There are less than 100 examples of this coin available and thousands of collectors who want one, so they command strong prices. However, just because a coin is 2,000 years old does not mean it must be expensive. There are many coins of stunning beauty from all areas of ancient history which can be owned in a problem-free condition with great detail for well under $1,000. We will look to describe the full range of coins, from common coins to ultra-rarities, to allow you to be aware of what is available for you to collect today or to aspire to acquire in the future.

The grade and level of preservation of an ancient coin is viewed similarly to US coins but with a few added metrics. As these coins have had to weather the sands of time for millennia, they can come with problems not often seen on US coins. Mineral deposits, low metal quality, and various forms of corrosion occur frequently on ancient coins and we suggest looking for coins that are as problem-free as possible. The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) which grades US coins has also recently begun grading ancient coins, encapsulating them in plastic slabs and assessing their detail, strike, and surface quality. While many ancient collectors want to feel their coins and avoid “slabbing” coins which have otherwise existed unharmed for thousands of years, it may be helpful to start collecting with the added level of security brought by an NGC slab. Many problems which adversely affect the grade of a coin are difficult to detect, especially when buying online through pictures. Ancient coins frequently had their edges filed or otherwise damaged and these problems, which impact the price of a coin dramatically, are almost impossible to find unless examining the coin in-hand. NGC’s experts personally examine each coin and look for problems such as edge bumps, graffiti, metal instabilities, and damage, noting them on the front of the holder. Even so, we strongly recommend working only with trusted dealers, and the mantra of “buy the coin, not the holder” applies to both US and ancient coins.

Unlike U.S. coins where style is consistent across most issues, ancient coins have a wide variety of obverse and reverse types, with some emperors having literally thousands of coins with distinct designs to collect. Coins were engraved by some of the leading artists of antiquity and their finest works command a premium over less artistic examples. Additionally, as these coins were struck by hand instead of using closely regulated machines, the accuracy and centering of the strike and the details imprinted on a coin affect the price and value. It is best to look for a well centered coin where all of the intended details are visible.

In ancient coins, rarity is a difficult attribute to ascertain. Despite being hand-struck, ancient coins were often produced in remarkable volumes and there are a sizable number that still survive today in all denominations. Hoards of coins are found from time to time which adjust the overall known populations, so rarity is generally not completely firm. That being said, there are definitely issues which are historically known to be common, and others of which there were very few examples minted. We suggest avoiding purchasing a coin only because it is labeled as rare, and rather take into account the other factors we’ve outlined which tend to affect price and long term value to a larger extent.

There is a lot to take into consideration when choosing an ancient coin and we suggest looking at as many coins as possible and working with a trusted dealer to help grow your collection and fill it with quality examples.

Eras of Antiquity

Coinage started in about 700BC when Lydian electrum, an alloy of silver and gold, was mined and minted into ingots stamped with its purity level. These early coins come in a variety of denominations, with some weighing only a fraction of one gram up to sixteen grams or more. The reverse of Lydian electrum was punched with an incuse square, pushing down fairly deeply into the coin to prove that it wasn’t just a plated, less valuable metal. The obverse identified the region from which a coin originated and so began the practice of promoting the skill and artistry of the kingdom issuing the currency.

In choosing what to collect, it may help to identify historic areas of interest. In numismatics, the ancient world is often described as ranging from around 700BC to 1453AD when Constantinople fell to the Turks.

The two primary cultures of the ancient world were Greece and Rome, with Greece’s coinage predating that of Rome’s by a few hundred years. The artistic styles of each are very different, as are the variations of collections one can start. Some collectors choose to focus on one or the other, but it can be very enjoyable to focus on a wider range across multiple areas of history.

Because of their relatively contemporary existence, Greece and Rome share several historical and mythological figures, allowing a collection to span both cultures while remaining focused on a single overarching theme. Conversely, many collectors prefer a more specific focus, narrowing down to a single emperor, dynasty, or design. We will attempt to give you as many options as possible in building your collection so that you can decide where you would like to start your journey into the ancient world.

Ancient Greece

ancient coin collecting - Greek coinsAncient Greece is generally broken up into three primary eras: Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic. There is some overlap between these periods but each has distinct attributes. The Archaic period marked the beginning of coinage itself, starting with the Lydian electrum staters and moving into distinct gold and silver coinage. The designs can sometimes appear crude and unskilled, but this is due primarily to the relative youth of the concept of coinage.

Maturing alongside Greek art in general, the Classical period brought some of the most beautiful designs of ancient coins as engravers sought to demonstrate their skill at a great scale.

The Hellenistic period started with the conquests of Alexander the Great and ended as Rome began to take over as the next superpower of the ancient world.

Ancient Rome

Greek artistry is often said to have brought the most visually compelling and beautiful works into existence. However, collecting Greek coins can often prove more difficult than that of Rome. This can likely be attributed to the language differences and shorter history from which to build a collection, exemplified by the fewer remaining ties to today’s world. Roman coins use Latin characters and therefore can be read more easily by English speakers, and the history of the Roman Empire is well documented, wide reaching, and exciting, with a large number of individual rulers and a wide variety of styles, rather than the more symbolic representations used often by the Greeks.

Rome also had three distinct eras: the Republic, the Imperators, and the Empire. The earliest Roman coinage was heavy cast bronze ingots called Aes used as means of exchange, weighed in each transaction, with no marks of purity or denomination on the metal itself. As the volume of trading increased, a new system was needed to improve the efficiency and reduce the overhead of trading. The silver denarius was introduced as a compact means of commerce. There are thousands of types of denarii and it remained one of the most important denominations of coins throughout the span of the Empire. It is during the Roman Republic where Rome had its greatest period of growth, conquering a staggering amount of land to form what would soon become the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

The Imperatorial period, while brief, marked the transition into the Roman Empire and its leaders remain some of the best known today. Julius Caesar, Brutus, Mark Antony, and Octavian were some of the key figures of this era, making great strides in establishing a new government and format which would result in the unrivaled longevity of the Empire.

The Roman Empire is generally noted as beginning when Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium and lasting until Constantine the Great moved the capital of Rome to Constantinople. In the transition to the Roman Empire, Octavian was renamed to Augustus and solidified the trend of obverse portraits which continues throughout most of the rest of Roman coinage. While the “Twelve Caesars” are arguably the most well-known, there are many dynasties and collections which can be made within the overall Empire and a vast range of designs and types to collect as each Emperor issued hundreds of individual designs during their reign. Because of the tumultuous state of imperial rule, many emperors served very short terms and therefore their coinage is scarcer than their longer tenured counterparts.

Byzantine Empire

After the movement of Rome to Constantinople, the Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire, where it lasted from 498 AD to 1453 AD. There is an extensive body of coinage to draw from in various collections within the Byzantine Empire and because the contemporary value of coins was debased over time, resulting in a more extensive mintage in precious metals, owning a piece of Byzantine gold is considerably more affordable than an earlier one from Rome.

Other Cultures

There are many other non-Classical cultures which produced exciting coinage. These include the Chinese, Islamic, Parthian, and Barbarians, among others. These are generally not as well documented or explored and could provide opportunities for enterprising numismatists interested in less familiar areas of antiquity.

The Collections

Armed with some general historic knowledge about varying cultures, we will now elaborate on each, looking to build out various options for your collecting consideration.

Type Sets

One of the classic problems when collecting coins is being able to build variety and complete a set without becoming inundated with coins you may not enjoy as much. In starting your ancient coin collection, a type set may be the ideal way to learn about what coinage you like best and to give you the flexibility to either pick a diverse range of themes or narrow down your focus to a specific emperor or dynasty. Because of the range of metal types and various times of currency debasement, the size and quality of some coins will vary depending on when they were minted. A “complete” typeset would involve a very large number of denominations, many of which are quite rare and expensive. The flexibility of being able to customize your typeset means you can choose only the major denominations which would have been used frequently, and choose designs which are meaningful to you.

Greek Typesets

Greek coins come in numerous varieties based on denomination, which changed depending upon the mint and era during which the coin was minted. Greek coinage originated based on a fixed ratio of weight. One of the first examples of this is the shekel, which weighed as much as 180 grains of barley, and because of its consistency, transactions were able to be measured completely by weight. However, because of the ever-changing values of metals, the final weight fluctuated until a universal standard was created.

One of the most popular coins from Greece was the tetradrachm, minted in silver, weighing between 16 and 17 grams, and between 28 and 31 millimeters in diameter (about the size of a US half dollar but heavier). Tetradrachms come in a very wide range of types and many are very appealing due to their size and intricate designs. Measuring other coins relative to the tetradrachm, the largest Greek coin, the pentekaidekadrachm, weighed more than four tetradrachms, and one would need 192 of the smallest, the hemitartemorion, to make one tetradrachm. Greek sizes are based largely on powers of two, and most fractional sizes are represented, although some are quite rare.

Differing from the drachm, the stater entered as another unit of measure. The largest Greek gold coin is the distater, weighing twice as much as a stater, which became one of the most common denominations of ancient gold coin. Similarly to silver coinage based on the drachm, fractional staters are available as well, down from a hemistater (one-half stater) to a twelfth-stater.

Bronze coins are also available, ranging from the tetrachalkon to the hemichalkon, with the former being eight times heavier than the latter.

In Sicily, the weight scale was based on “litra”, which started with a base weight of 0.057 grams and ranged up to 100 times as heavy in gold and electrum coinage. Similarly to stater and drachm based coins, fractional and multiple weights are available, down to 1/12th-litra in bronze.

Because of the wide variety of designs and types available, it’s possible to create an extremely diverse collection of Greek coinage by collecting based on finding appealing types based in different denominations. We suggest using some of themes presented later in this article to guide your overall direction but then narrow it down based on what type of coin you prefer.

Roman Typesets

Like the Greeks, Romans minted coins in gold, silver, electrum, bronze, and other less popular metals. Due to the need to raise funds, the weight of each type changed over time, usually becoming considerably lighter later into the empire. There are also some extremely rare denominations which were minted in small quantities, so a complete type set of every denomination ever issued would be difficult to achieve. However, the major types are represented well and can be found at most auctions.

As: The “as” is a Roman bronze coin, produced in fractions as well as multiples, from 1/24th up to five times its base size. After Augustus’ reformation of all of Rome’s coinage, the as was struck in copper instead of bronze.

Dupondius: The dupondius was created and struck in orichalcum, an alloy of bronze which was worth two asses.

Sestertius: The sestertius was originally minted as a denomination worth 2.5 asses but after the reform of Augustus, was set to four asses, or two dupondi. These coins are impressively large, often weighing around 26 grams and having a diameter of 33 millimeters.

Denarius: The denarius, minted in silver, weighed about four grams for the first several centuries of Rome but like the other types, it was debased over time. As an anti-counterfeiting measure, a serrated version of the denarius was also released where small cuts were minted into the edges of the coins, a predecessor to the reeding we see in today’s coinage. The denarius is generally considered to have been a day’s wage for an average worker.

Antoninianus: Originally issued by Caracalla and valued at two denarii, the antoninianus has a storied past which resulted in a considerable amount of inflation. At its introduction, the silver content was only worth 1.5 denarii, resulting in people hoarding denarii. Because of a shortage of silver, the intrinsic metal value of the antoninianus was debased over time by replacing more and more silver with bronze. These coins are very available today and a typeset can be constructed solely from them, showing their progression over the space of just a few decades and how it represents the inflation which Rome experienced.

Aureus: Often held as the centerpiece to a Roman coin collection, the aureus is a Roman gold coin, worth 25 denarii, minted throughout most of Rome’s history. It started between 7.6 to 8.0 grams but was debased several times throughout its history. Most aurei will be at least 7.1 grams, until 294 AD when Diocletian reduced it to about five grams. These coins are always in demand and highly desirable. Low grade examples are relatively inexpensive but higher grade examples and problem-free coins quickly have a much higher premium associated with them. The aureus was eventually transitioned into the solidus by Constantine I where it lost half of its weight, becoming wider and thinner.

Roman Emperors

The Twelve Caesars mark only the beginning of the long and storied Roman Empire. We treat the first twelve differently due to the research commissioned by Hadrian, the 15th Caesar, to create an account of the earlier emperors from primary sources. This has caused the first Twelve Caesars to be grouped together, but they can be separated into sub-groups which can make for a more manageable collection.

Julio-Claudian Dynasty: Marking the beginning of the Roman Empire, this dynasty was composed of the first six rulers: Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Julius had very few portrait coins issued and they are all very rare, but there are alternate issues which can be used to complete this collection.

Augustus, formerly Octavian during the Imperatorial period of Rome, is credited with truly beginning the Roman Empire. Tiberius, the emperor of Rome during the lifetime of Jesus, was deeply conservative and refused to be called a god. He minted a large number of gold and silver coins, the latter of which is referenced in the Bible as a “tribute penny”. Caligula, also known as Gaius, became consumed by his power and was assassinated in AD 41. Of the first six, Caligula is the most expensive and rare, ruling for only four years, but still managing to create a name of infamy for himself. Claudius, the 50-year-old uncle of Caligula, was made emperor by the Praetorian Guard, and he proceeded to conquer most of Britain and rule for thirteen successful years until he was poisoned by his fourth wife. His successor, Nero, one of the most recognizable Emperors, employed philosophers and other counselors to aid in his rule, which began at the age of 17. He was multi-talented, entering in musical and poetry contests throughout the Empire. Against common knowledge, it is now believed that Nero did not actually “fiddle as Rome burned”, but in fact, he personally led the efforts to rebuild it, using a considerable amount of his own wealth to fund the effort.

Year of the Four Emperors: Rome had many tumultuous periods but following Nero’s death in 68AD, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius managed to rule only for a few months, each dying during Rome’s civil war, to be succeeded by Vespasian who managed to rule for ten years. The coinage of these emperors is very rare and due to their short tenure, each of them had relatively little impact on history compared to their contemporaries. Otho is generally the most expensive emperor of the first twelve and can make completing a set in any metal difficult for many collectors, which is why it may make sense to focus on other dynasties that ruled for a more significant amount of time, making more of a mark on history and subsequently issuing more diverse coinage.

Flavian Dynasty: After Vespasian was declared Emperor by his armies in Egypt, some degree of normalcy returned to Rome. Vespasian is remembered as a wise Emperor and worked hard to repair the relationship with the Senate. He was followed by his son Titus, who won the Roman war in Judea and erected the Arch of Titus which still stands today. Domitian was the younger son of Vespasian and successor to Titus, but did not continue the path of reducing tensions between the areas of government and instead oppressed religious groups and forced everyone to refer to him as a god.

Nerva-Trajan Dynasty: Following the Twelve Caesars, the next emperors were known as the “Adoptive Emperors”, as instead of using their bloodline to dictate succession, they adopted the best candidate and trained them for the job of Emperor. Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian were the start of this movement, each making a positive contribution to Rome and growing its borders considerably. Nerva ruled for only two years but Trajan and Hadrian served for nineteen and twenty-one years, respectively.

Antonines: Aelius, one of Hadrian’s adopted sons, was originally expected to take the throne but he died tragically before he could do so, making his coinage quite scarce. Continuing with the new tradition of adopted emperors, Antoninus Pius, Aelius’ brother, was appointed by Hadrian with the condition that he would then appoint Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus to the throne after himself. During the twenty-three year long reign of Antoninus Pius, Rome avoided its prior history of constant battle, and existed in a period of relative peace. Antoninus Pius pioneered several key ideas that have shaped our world today, including the concepts of being innocent until proven guilty, equality of women, and rights for orphans. Alongside his co-emperor Lucius Verus, Marcus Aurelius, “the Philosopher Emperor”, ruled for nineteen years and continued Antoninus Pius’ work on morality and equality. However, instead of adopting his successor, he chose his son, Commodus, to whom many attribute the initial decline of the Roman Empire, after seeming promising during the initial years of his reign.

There are several additional periods after the Antonines, filled with a rollercoaster of backward and forward progress within the Roman Empire. Each of these can be collected separately or specific emperors can be chosen from them to build a broad, historic collection. These later emperors are generally broken into The Severan Period, The Crisis, Decline, and Recovery of the Empire, the Secessionist Emperors, the Tetrarchy, the Constantines, and the Late Empire.

Themed Sets

Classical numismatics provides a large number of themes which can be incorporated as typesets or as standalone sets. Because of similar historic mythology, there is some overlap between Greek and Roman coinage which can make for a very appealing, wide-reaching set. Here are a few suggestions:

Animals: Antelope to Wolf and almost any in-between. Particularly popular are birds, bulls, dolphins, horses, lions, and the mythical Pegasus. These coins have wide appeal and are immediately recognizable. Most animals are present in all denominations and metals and particularly in Greek coinage, the animals are present on both the obverse and reverse, so one can create a very diverse set.

Large coins: Between the Romans and the Greeks, large coins usually had extremely intricate designs, created with great artistic prowess. There are few feelings more exciting than holding a large Roman sesteterius in your palm, a coin which is often larger than a US half dollar and considerably heavier. Large bronze coins likes the sestertius are available in all price ranges depending on the level of detail. Large Greek coins like the tetradrachm, minted in silver, can be expensive depending on the artistic quality and preservation, but there are many examples which were minted in large quantities and can therefore be purchased by a wider range of collectors. The Greek dekadrachm (in silver) and the octadrachm (in gold) are some of the most expensive coins of antiquity but also offer some of the most visually stunning designs. The dekadrachm has often been referred to as the pinnacle of quality of Greek coinage and is the centerpiece of most major collections.

Military: Neither Greece nor Rome was a peaceful civilization. Therefore, the military was consistently a large facet of everyday life. Their coinage frequently celebrated warfare and the implements used in battle. Arms, armor, depictions of combat, and representations of victory appear with considerable frequency and can provide a visually diverse but consistent theme to a collection.

Muses: In 56BC, the Roman Republic minted a set of nine denarii, each of a different famous muse, from the statues brought to Rome by Fulvius Nobilior from his victories in Aetolia. These statues were placed in the temple of Hercules Musarum, which was built by the mythical ancestor of Q. Ponponius Musa. The muses depicted cover most classical studies: epic, adult, and lyric poetry, rhetoric, tragedy, comedy, dancing, history, and astronomy. With interesting reverse types, these comprise a lesser-known set which is filled with history and modern connections, showing that human creativity and artistic appreciation have remained surprisingly consistent for the last two thousand years.

Monuments: Some of the most historically relevant and interesting coinage of both Greece and Rome depict famous buildings and structures. Many of these monuments are no longer standing today but we can connect back to them through their coinage. Arguably the most famous and sought-after example of this type is of the Flavian Amphitheater, or Colosseum. With it engraved in its former, undamaged glory, we can see what it looked like intact before it was forced to withstand several earthquakes and disasters. More within the reach of the average collector, the Roman emperor Trajan was well-known for his architecture and several of his coins depict his Forum in extraordinary detail. While his Forum is no longer standing today, another of his coins, with a reverse of his Column, shows this architectural masterpiece accurately to how it looks today, which was built to mark the height of the land he and his armies levelled to create his courtyards.

Gods and Olympians: The mythology of Greece and Rome is filled with numerous tales of the great acts of their Gods, and their coinage frequently reflects these. A set of various coins of popular mythological figures can be a great way to convey history’s stories and provide a bridge of fascination to collectors and non-collectors alike. Nearly every god and goddess from Aphrodite to Zeus is paid homage through coins minted by their followers.

Family: Emperors often minted coins of their children and families. Antoninus Pius celebrated his family and had several coins with many of his children shown together on the reverse. During the dynasty of the Adoptive Emperors, coins were minted celebrating the new members of the family, which weren’t related by blood. When lineage was predetermined, coins were often issued before an emperor ascended to the throne, depicting a young emperor-to-be under his father’s name.

History: Alexander the Great conquered a vast amount of the world in the name of Greece. After claiming most of the world’s gold for his own, he began melting and producing a large number of gold coins with Athena on the obverse and Nike on the reverse. These coins, minted around 336BC and most often seen in the denomination of a Greek stater, are visually stunning and truly historic.

Historic women: Roman Emperors often minted coins depicting their wives and these can form a very desirable collection alongside that of the more conventional male portraits. In Ancient Greece, Ptolemaic coinage often depicts the wives of the rulers. Berenike and Arsinoe are pictured on octadrachms and dekadrachms, as well as the rare and heavy dodekadrachm, a coin weighing around 54 grams.

Olympics: With the Olympics being such a significant part of Greek life, it is understandable how often they picture specific Olympic events and games on coinage. Similar games are portrayed on Roman coins as well, transitioning into chariots drawn by horses and battle scenes. Greek tetradrachms, with their large diameters, gave engravers enough space to depict detailed scenes of specific games and celebrate the strength of their people.

Geography: Hadrian famously traveled throughout the empire, unlike many emperors who stayed close to Rome. He minted a series of coins chronicling his travels, ranging from Africa, to Egypt, Spain, and across the Nile. These coins reveal an interesting attribute of our world, in that despite being nearly two thousand years detached, the same places with the same names are still frequently visited by travelers.

Provenance: Many famous collections have been formed over the last several centuries, and coins can often be tracked to these collections, establishing a provenance of previous owners. This adds to the appeal of these coins by highlighting the fact that they were chosen by their previous owners as their examples of a type alongside other world-class coins. As an added benefit, legal ownership of coins is easier to establish, reducing risk of coins having been stolen or acquired from illegal archaeological dig sites. Various hordes have also been uncovered and subsequently sold to the market and coins can often realize a premium because of the added history associated with these finds. One particularly exciting example is the Boscoreale horde, unearthed in 1895 as a part of the excavation of Pompeii. The coins discovered here have very interesting toning patterns due to the fact that they had been buried under the ash and debris from the eruption of Vesuvius over 1800 years prior.

Next Steps

Now with some background on the history of coinage and a variety of options, you should be able to begin or continue your journey into ancient coin collecting. There is a lot to choose from and more written about ancient coins than could ever be read in a lifetime, but armed with a broader view on what is available, we hope that you will be able to make more informed selections and continue finding pieces which excite you for years to come.

Happy hunting!

Copyright  ©2013-16 AUCMCoins.com

Russell A. Augustin – President
AU Capital Management, LLC

Phone: (407) 352-3966
Cell: (949) 606-6235
Email: russell@aucm.com

Posted on

Ancient Gold Coins : The First Circulating Gold Coinage & The Stag of Artemis

By Russell A. Augustin, AU Capital Management, LLC ……

The Colosseo Collection

The First Circulating Coinage

Little is known about this mysterious archaic electrum coinage – the first ancient gold coin. It was minted in Ionia, somewhere in central Western Anatolia on the shores of the Aegean sea, but scholars have yet to identify the precise city-state that produced this sophisticated and attractive early type. Based on the weight of these coins, it is speculated that they could have been minted in Miletus, a city often referred to as the origin of the modern world, as it preceded Athens as the intellectual and commercial center of Greece.

Both the obverse and reverse show well-executed geometric and linear images, with the obverse resembling a star (sometimes described as a “collapsing square”). The design is deliberate, and elements of it are repeated across each denomination, but the significance is unclear.

ancient gold coin - IONIA, Uncertain. Circa 650-600 BCE. EL Hekte – Sixth Stater (9mm, 2.30 g). Lydo-Milesian standard. Geometric type.
IONIA, Uncertain. Circa 650-600 BCE. EL Hekte – Sixth Stater (9mm, 2.30 g). Lydo-Milesian standard. Geometric type.

This type likely represents the first true coins which circulated in everyday use. The striation types are known to have been struck earlier but they are not found in heavily worn, circulated condition like many examples of this geometric coinage. It is also generally attributed as being the first coin made with an obverse and reverse type, as opposed to a simple incuse reverse.

The known populations of this type are primarily composed of small 1/24th staters which represented about a day’s pay. Larger denominations are quite rare, including this hekte (one-sixth stater). Even fewer trites (one-third stater) are known and only three full-size staters have been found.

While the stater and trite have different obverse and reverse types, the hektes combine the obverse of the stater with the reverse of the trite, which could have been used to differentiate value.

IONIA, Uncertain. Circa 650-600 BC. EL Hekte – Sixth Stater (9mm, 2.30 g). Lydo-Milesian standard. Geometric type. Geometric figure resembling a star, composed of a cross centered upon a polygon of eight sides within a square with slightly rounded sides / Rectangular incuse punch divided horizontally and vertically into four compartments by two perpendicular lines; the upper two compartments divided into thirds by two parallel lines; the lower two compartments divided into halves by a single line, the upper halves contain a pellet, the lower halves are bisected by two small vertical lines. McFaddden 2; Weidauer –; Traité I 5; SNG Kayhan 698; Boston MFA –; Rosen –; Elektron –; Zhuyuetang 3 (all from same die and punch). EF, lightly toned. Well centered. From the Lexington Collection.

The Stag of Artemis

While second nature today, the original use for the earliest coinage is still unknown. The first person to put an image on a small piece of metal could not have realized that they would change the world forever, starting a substantial departure from millennia-old customs of trade.

During the excavation of the famous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (present day Turkey near the Black Sea), a group of coins was found which are thought to comprise its “foundation deposit”, a custom that supposedly prevented the building from falling into ruin.

IONIA, Ephesos. Electrum 1/24th stater. ca. 625-600 BCE, 6mm, 0.6g. Forepart of a stag with head facing left.
IONIA, Ephesos. Electrum 1/24th stater. ca. 625-600 BCE, 6mm, 0.6g. Forepart of a stag with head facing left.

The largest type in the group, a stater, had an inscription stating, “I am the badge of Phanes”. As the earliest coinage was believed to be made by private citizens outside of government control, it is speculated that Phanes was a wealthy merchant who guaranteed the coin value with his name, although his life is otherwise lost to history.

Trites of the same type also bear the name of Phanes, making this the earliest use of an inscription on a coin. Due to space constraints, the smaller denominations are without any inscription. They are instead identified stylistically by the same spotted stag, shown grazing on the stater and with a turned head on the fractional coins. The stag allows this coin to be further attributed to Ephesus as Artemis, the patron goddess of the city, chose the stag as her sacred animal.

Whether they were originally intended to be used to appease the gods, pay mercenaries, or to fund city projects, coins revolutionized commerce. As our modern world becomes increasingly digital, the concepts pioneered by the first coins still make up the backbone of trade, offering an accessible, neutral medium through which transactions can be processed quickly and fairly.

IONIA, Ephesos. Electrum 1/24th stater. ca. 625-600 BCE, 6mm, 0.6g. Forepart of a stag advancing right with head facing left. 3 ovals on chest. / Incuse punch with raised lines within. BMC Ionia -; Rosen -; Traité -; Weidauer -. Very rare unpublished variety with three ovals on the stag. Nearly extremely fine.

Posted on

Ancient Coins: The Beginning of Coinage

By Russell A. Augustin, AU Capital Management, LLC

The Colosseo Collection ………
 

The Beginning of Coinage

Shown with expressive and diverse imagery today, ancient coins started from very humble beginnings. The ancient author Herodotus wrote that the Lydians were “the first people we know of to use a gold and silver coinage”. Through hoard evidence and research, numismatists have confirmed that coinage did indeed begin in Asia Minor, likely in Lydia or Ionia.

The earliest coins were made of an alloy known as “electrum”, or “elektron” to the Greeks. Electrum is naturally occurring, found in riverbeds and in nugget form, and is composed primarily of silver and gold with trace amounts of platinum, copper, and other metals. The ancient Greeks referred to electrum simply as “gold” or “white gold” as opposed to “refined gold” which came later when dedicated bi-metallic currencies of pure gold and silver were created. However, electrum worked particularly well for coinage because it was harder and more durable than pure gold and because it was naturally occurring, it allowed coins to be minted prior to the development of the technology for separating the elements.

ancient coins - Ionia. Striated; 650s BC, EL Hekte
Ionia. Striated; 650s BC, EL Hekte, 2.41g. Weidauer-8. Obv: Striated

The intrinsic value of these coins was too high for use in everyday transactions, and therefore, they were likely primarily used for moving large sums of money in mercantile transactions, government expenses, donatives, or for payment for substantial services. It is also speculated that merchants would allow trusted customers to keep a tab, paying it with a single coin once the bill was significant enough.

The conventional definition of what constitutes a coin varies depending on its interpretation. The earliest proto-coins were without any design, essentially just a blank globular ball of electrum. These nuggets were weighed and exchanged at bullion values but were uncontrolled and arbitrary.

This progressed to include reverse punches, used to easily prove the content of the piece by cutting deeply to show that it was made of solid precious metal and to keep the metal from slipping while being struck.

This coin, of the “striation” type, is the first type of coin which introduced the innovation of an obverse image, and it is considered by many to be the transition point from proto-coinage to true coinage. While the design is simple, it is thought to have been inspired by the ripples on the surface of the water, indicating the source of the precious electrum, near creeks and in riverbeds.

Later issues sometimes retained the striations shown behind other images, demonstrating that the lines did indeed hold a special purpose. Aristotle recognized the importance of an obverse image on coins in his important work on economics, as it marked a critical phase of converting from bullion into true coinage.

Striated coins are also represented by a wide array of different denominations, the largest a stater of approximately 14 grams. All of these coins are numismatically and historically important and indicate the conscious control of weight, which helped expedite commerce.

This period in the evolution of coinage was extremely brief, quickly evolving into more detailed images, and so all of the striated coins are very rare, especially the larger denominations like this hekte.

Ionia. Striated; 650s BC, EL Hekte, 2.41g. Weidauer-8. Obv: Striated, Rx: Rough incuse. Good VF.
 

Posted on

Ancient Greek Coins – The Tumultuous History of Kamarina

Greek Sicily

By Russell A. AugustinAU Capital Management, LLC ……
 

The history of Kamarina, a port city on the southern coast of Sicily, is among the most tumultuous of Ancient Greece. It was founded in 599 BCE by settlers from Syracuse and its location allowed it to grow quickly and amass substantial wealth through trade.

However, within 40 years of its founding, Syracuse began to perceive it as a threat because of its success. The city was destroyed by Syracuse in 553 BCE and then re-founded by colonists from Gela, only to be destroyed again by Syracuse and re-founded for a third time by Gela in 461 BCE.

Even with Gela’s support, Kamarina was still weak, leading it to look for stronger allies to defend against future attacks from Syracuse. It sought out the support of Leontinoi until that city was destroyed by Syracuse in 422 BCE. It finally reached some semblance of stability through the protection of Athens, but Kamarina approached this alliance cautiously while waiting to see if Athens was indeed stronger than Syracuse.

greek coins - SICILY. Kamarina. Ca. 425-405 BC. AR tetradrachm

Kamarinian tetradrachms around 425 BC

After producing only small-denomination greek coins during much of its existence, Kamarina finally began striking tetradrachms around 425 BCE and immediately produced a masterpiece. The obverse depicts a vivid example of the Syracuse galloping quadriga motif, with the reverse illustrating a powerful and mature head of Heracles wearing the skin of the Nemean lion.

The Heracles type was a reference to Kamarina’s Dorian origins and became extremely popular among Greek coinage, eventually serving as the prototype for the design chosen by Alexander the Great on his famous tetradrachms.

This issue continued until 405 BCE when Carthage attacked Kamarina and Gela, and the populations of both of these cities fled to Syracuse for protection under the power of the Greek tyrant Dionysios.

SICILY. Kamarina. Ca. 425-405 BCE. AR tetradrachm (26mm, 17.18 gm, 12h). Athena driving racing quadriga left; the quadriga with a broad, S-curved antyx (rim); Nike flying right above holding wreath to crown driver, heron flying left in exergue / καμαριναιον, bearded head of mature Heracles left, wearing skin of Nemean lion. Westermark-Jenkins 142 (same dies). Rizzo plate V, 9 (same dies). SNG-ANS 1203. SNG-Cop 162. Pozzi 398. Gulbenkian 174. With a powerful head of the Heracles in the finest style.
 

Posted on

Ancient coins – Coinage of the Ancient Olympics

Elis, Olympia, 87th-90th Olympiad, 432-420 BC. AR Stater -  Ancient Olympics.

Ancient Olympics – Elis, Olympia, 87th-90th Olympiad, 432-420 BC. AR Stater [1]

By Russell A. AugustinAU Capital Management, LLC

The Colosseo Collection ……

One of the few ancient traditions to survive until the modern world is the Ancient Olympics. Occurring in the same four-year cycle today as in antiquity, they mark a time when differences are put aside and the world’s attention focuses on athletic competition between nations.

The name “Olympics” originates from where they were played. Olympia was a sanctuary of ancient Greece near the city of Elis, a fertile country in the northwest of the Peloponnese. It featured temples, sporting grounds, and accommodations for the athletes. The inhabitants of Elis were responsible for organizing the games every four years. The stadium at Olympia seated no less than 45 thousand, and the publicity for the winners was immense.

These games were some of the most significant events of antiquity, even causing wars to be suspended for their duration. The classical Olympics date back to at least 776 BCE and were played until 394 CE when Emperor Theodosius I abolished them, considering them to be too reminiscent of paganism. The modern games that began in Athens in 1896 featured 43 different events, steadily increasing to nearly 400 events today.

The ancient Olympics represented much more than just sporting events. They were a lucrative business and provided a political and cultural forum, offering a range of activities during the games. The athletes, their trainers, and the spectators needed to be housed, fed, and supplied with souvenirs. The games brought thousands of citizens together from all parts of the Greek world to visit the vast market and fairs, watch performances, and attend concerts.

From the 5th to the 3rd century BC, a magnificent series of special silver coins were minted from the festival center for each iteration of the Olympic Games, with new designs produced every four years.

The coinage for the games served several purposes. No foreign money was accepted in Elis during the games, and the mandatory exchange offered means of funding the games and for the upkeep of the sanctuary at Olympia. A common currency also made commerce easier as the native currencies of the various visitors were often based on different weight standards.

ancient_GreekThe most talented artists were commissioned to engrave the dies for these coins, showing off the artistry of Greece and resulting in the beautiful coins being treated as prestigious objects. While their primary use was for normal commerce during the games (paying for food, lodging, and entry to see the spectacles), they became popular souvenirs for visitors who wanted to bring a part of the games home with them.

These coins celebrated the god Zeus and his wife Hera, who presided over Olympia and the games themselves. The Olympic coinage is represented by a small range of imagery, focusing heavily on Zeus and his eagle, sometimes featuring snakes, thunderbolts, Ionic column capitals, or Nike, representing victory at the games.

Zeus’ portrait was used on some coins, modeled after the Statue of Zeus, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was also sufficient to use just an eagle or thunderbolt to refer to the god, as Zeus’ symbols were well known.

Eagles have always been a symbol for power, force, and guardianship because of their size, strong claws, and penetrating eyes. They were considered the kings of the air and certainly a fitting animal for Zeus, who presided over the sky and thunder.

The eagle on the obverse of this coin is acclaimed as the finest and most detailed representation of the head of an animal on any Greek coin. Magnificent in its composition and depicted with a great sense of naturalism, its elegance is in its simplicity, showing the strength of Zeus in the eagle’s forceful expression.

Below the eagle’s head is a leaf from the white-poplar tree brought from the northern lands to plant at Olympia. The white-poplar was sacred to the mythological hero Hercules, and he was crowned with one of its branches as a token of his victory after destroying Cacus, a fire-breathing giant.

Elis, Olympia, 408 BCE Zeus mint. Struck for the 93rd Olympaid. Silver Stater

Elis, Olympia, 408 BCE. Zeus mint. Struck for the 93rd Olympaid. Silver Stater [2]

The reverse depicts a thunderbolt, in the usual stylized Greek fashion. While unsigned, it is understood that the die was engraved by the artist “Da” who signed the preceding, nearly identical die.

The coin is worn but appealing, showing clear evidence of its circulation at the Olympics. One can only imagine the wares purchased and sights seen by the spectators who spent it while in attendance at the 93rd Olympiad, more than 2,400 years ago.

[1] Elis, Olympia, 87th-90th Olympiad, 432-420 BCE. AR Stater (23mm, 11.51g, 9h). Eagle flying right with wings above his body, grasping hare by the back with his talons and tearing at him with his beak. Rev. F Thunderbolt with wings below and palmette with volutes above. BCD Olympia 53 var. Seltman 131 (BK/?d. SNG Cop 364 (= Seltman 131b). Rare. VF

[2] Elis, Olympia, 408 BC. Zeus mint. Struck for the 93rd Olympaid. Silver Stater (11.74g). Head of eagle with piercing eye left; under its beak, a large leaf of white-poplar. Reverse: Winged thunderbolt, olive sprigs to right and left; all within olive-leaf border. Seltman 150; Traite pl. 231, 1 (these dies) . Kraay-Himer pl. 157, 500 (this obverse die) ; Gulbenkian 541 (this obverse die) ; Weber 4038. One of the masterpieces of Greek coinage and the most realistic close-up of an animal depicted on any Greek coin. Lightly toned and of good metal. Very Fine.