A Brief History of Ancient Greek Coins (ca. 600 BC)

By: The Scribe on Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A history of Greek coinsLooking at almost any modern coin, it’s rare to find one that contains anything other than this standard decoration: an important civic symbol on one side, and a bust of a ruler on the other. Believe it or not, this traditional coin setup actually began several thousand years ago in ancient Greece.

The first coins to be minted actually came from two places, where the idea of making small metal medallions that could be traded as currency seems to have developed simultaneously. At the end of the 7th century, both China and Lydia had begun to make plain, round coins for trade. The Greek historian Herodotus, in his work the Histories, briefly mentioned that the Lydians were minting coins around 600 BC. Either way, it wasn’t for another 150 years that coins became prominent around the Greek city-states.

Before the Greeks used minted coins, they made use of small iron rods for currency, called ‘obols’. Since around six obols could fit into the hand of an adult, six obols became equivalent of one drachma coin, once the system transferred over to coinage. In ancient Greek, the word drachma actually means “the graspable” – thus making it a logical choice of name.

The island of Aegina was the first place in Greece to mint coins, made out of silver with a very basic geometric shape on either side. Around 500 BC, the Attic drachma had become widely used in the cities, but hadn’t yet spread to the outlying areas. These early Greek coins had Athena’s owl stamped on one side, the head of Athena on the other, and were made of almost pure silver.

The Athenians produced huge quantities of coins during the Classical era, around 450 BC, in order to finance their enormous building projects on the Athenian acropolis. They also needed finances to pay for the Peloponnesian War, and it wasn’t long before Athens was demanding the required tribute payments from surrounding city-states in coinage.

Although the pictures on ancient Greek coins remained the same basically until the rise of Alexander the Great – when he would mint his own coins with his image on them – this means that the artistic history of the ancient Greeks can be traced with these coins, as artists’ techniques and tools developed over several centuries.

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Tomorrow: More great ancient history!


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