Presented by Edward J. Waddell, Ltd.
History of Coins and Collecting
A Brief History of Ancient Coins
The Greek World
Beginning with the invention of coinage in Asia Minor during the seventh century B.C., coins have afforded man an important means of artistic expression as well as a convenient medium of exchange. The earliest coins were struck in Lydia and Ionia(modern western Turkey) from electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver. Each coin blank was cast to a predetermined weight. It was then heated to produce a malleable metal and struck with a hammer between two engraved dies. These archaic coins usually depict a symbol of the city or ruler on the obverse and a crude punch mark on the reverse. They were the world's first true coins because they were composed of a scarce metal, of a consistent weight, and guaranteed by a government. Soon after coinage was initiated, the legendary King Croesus(561-546 B.C.) of Lydia introduced coins of pure silver and gold. Coinage quickly spread to the island and city states of Western Greece.
At the apogee of Greek classical art in the fifth century B.C., the Greek city states employed the finest engravers available to create coins of great artistic merit. Occasionally, some dies were even signed by a master engraver. The deities of the Greek pantheon were depicted as ideally proportioned humans. This concept of idealism was of paramount importance to Greek classical art.
Alexander the Great(336-323 B.C.) spread the concept of coinage throughout the lands he conquered. His generals and successors founded the great Hellenistic empires. These successors introduced realistic portraits as a regular feature of their coinage. The true visages of world rulers were recorded for posterity. Many of these rulers are unknown to history except through their coin portraits.
The Roman World
The Roman Empire continued the Hellenistic tradition of realistic portraiture and, in some cases, depicted the progression of an emperor from boyhood through maturity. The imperial family were also frequently depicted on the coinage. This Roman portrait gallery is unsurpassed in its quality and completeness in the field of art. Lacking the daily news circulation of the modern world, Roman coins served as an important means of political propaganda. The designs on the reverses of the coins frequently extolled the virtues of the emperor or commemorated his victories. Many public works and architectural achievements such as the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus were depicted.
Important political events, such as the assassination of Julius Caesar or an alliance between cities, were recorded on the coinage. Many usurpers to the throne, otherwise unrecorded in history, are known through their coins. In fact, the first task of a usurper was to strike coins with his name and image to legitimate his rule and to pay the army which proclaimed him emperor.
The Byzantine World
The rise of the Byzantine Empire in the East with the age of Constantine the Great(307-337 A.D.) heralded the beginning of the Medieval age. The Christian Church became a major political force in the Empire. In Byzantine art, God rather than man stood at the center of the universe. Portraiture became stylized with the end of the pagan world of Rome and the images depicted began to relate to Christianity. Representations of Christ, the Virgin, and various saints abound in the coinage of the era. Despite the Christian heritage, political intrigue was as prevalent as in the Roman empire.
The standard Byzantine gold coin, the solidus, was issued for nearly 1000 years maintaining a remarkably consistent weight and fineness of gold. Superb quality Byzantine gold coins can be acquired today, beginning at about $350, representing an inexpensive introduction to this fascinating period of history.
The Biblical World
The Judeo-Christian religions are well represented by coins. Ancient Judean coinage commenced during the Persian period(c.400-333 B.C.) and was continued by the Hashmoneans. Coinage was struck extensively during the Roman period including important silver coins during the two Jewish revolts against Rome. The Romans also struck coins to commemorate the subjugation of Judea. Many other cities and kings mentioned in the Bible appear on coins.
Many coins refer to events in the New Testament including the famous tribute penny or silver denarius of Tiberius(14-37 A.D.) and the 30 pieces of silver or silver tetradrachm of Tyre. The cities visited by St. Paul in his travels throughout the ancient world to preach the gospel of Christ are also represented by coins. It is possible to own coins which circulated at the time of Christ and the Apostles for a surprisingly small amount of money.