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Friday, 31 October 2014

154) Coinage of Greece (Part I): Ancient Greek Coinage of the City-States (Poleis) : Drachma(e) and Obols:

154) Coinage of Greece (Part I):

Ancient Greek Coinage of the City-States (Poleis) : Drachma(e) and Obols:   

Drachma (or “Drachmae” Plural) was the currency of Greece since ancient times before Greece joined the European Union in 2001. 

The name Drachm or Drachma means “a handful” or “handle” or “to grasp” (“drassomai” in Greek) or “the graspable” (or a handful) in old Greek and comes from the Greek verb “dratto” (meaning “to grasp”).

The pre-numismatic Age:
Each Drachma was divided into six “Obols” or “Oboloi” or “Obelei” (meaning “metal sticks or rods” originating from the Greek word for a spit) with six spits making a handful. About 6 Obols could be grasped in one hand at a time, as such, 6 Obols became the Drachma by a rule of grammar. 
An image illustrating what constituted a handful of "six Obols later constituting a Drachma.

Before coinage was used in Greece, in pre-historic/pre-numismatic times, as iron was considered valuable for forging tools and weapons, because of its value, its casting in spit form represented a form of transportable bullion and it was used as measures of exchange in daily transactions.

To facilitate trade and business transactions, various metallic pieces diverse in weight and shape were circulated among the then known world in the pre-numismatic age. “Tripodes”, “axes”, “skewers” were generally used in payment or exchange.

Around 1100 BC, Obols were used as a form of “bullion”, in the shape of bronze, copper or iron ingots which were denominated by weights.

Later, as other precious metals were adopted by city states (there were more than 2000 self-governing Greek city-states called “poleis” in Greek), for minting coins, transporting iron spits in the form of bullion became bulky and inconvenient. This led to a Spartan legislation which prohibited issuance of coinage and the continued usage of iron spits so as to prevent hoarding of wealth.

The Numismatic Age:
Each city began to mint its own coins with recognisable symbols of the City known as “badge” in numismatics, along with suitable inscriptions, and the coins would be referred to either by the name of the city or by the images depicted on them. Thus, the Corinthian Stater (another name for Drachma coins) was called “hippos” (“horses”) and “colts”, the Aeginetic Stater was called “chelone” while the Athenian tetradrachm was called “owl” based on the images portrayed on them.

Of the 2000 city-states in Greece, some of the more well-known ones minting Drachma coins include: Abdera, Abydos, Alexandria, Aetna, Antioch, Athens, Chios, Cyzicus, Corinth, Ephesus, Eretria, Gela, Catana, Kos, Maronia, Naxos, Pella, Pergamum, Rhegion, Salamis, Smyrni, Sparta, Syracuse, Tarsus, Thasos, Tenedos, Troy etc.

After Alexander the Great’s conquests, the name Drachma was used in many Hellenistic kingdoms in the Middle East, as well as the Ptolemaic kingdom in Alexandria which minted large coins in gold, silver and bronze, the most notable Ptolemais coins being the gold Tetradrachm and Octadrachm, silver Tetradrachm, Decadrachm and Pentakaidecadrachm. The Arabic currency was known as Dirham (presently still the currency of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates as such, a hybrid term derived from the Dirham and Drachma – the Didrachm was adopted in usage.

An Athenian silver Didrachm of the Heraldic type from the time of Peisistratos (545-510 BC), showing on the Obverse a four-spoked wheel and on the Reverse showing a diagonally divided  incuse square.

Drachmae were minted on different weight standards at different Greek mints.

The Basic standards of the Ancient Greek monetary system were:

The “Attic” standard, based on the Athenian Drachma of 4.3 gms of silver,

The “Corinthian” standard, based on the Stater of 8.6 gms of silver, subdivided into three silver Drachmas of 2.9 gms.

The standard which came to be most commonly used was the Attic or Athenian standard in which a silver Drachma weighed 4.3 grams.

Coins issued to the “Attic” standard of the Athenian Drachma:
The Obol was further subdivided into Tetartemorioi (singular Tetartemorion) which represented ¼ of an Obol, or 1/24th of a Drachm.

Various multiples of these denominations were also struck:

1 Dekadrachm equivalent to 10 Drachmas (weight: 43 gms)

1 Tetradrachm equivalent to 4 Drachmas (weight: 17.2 gms)

I Didrachm equivalent to 2 Drachmas (weight: 8.6 gms)

1 Drachma equivalent to 6 Obols (weight: 4.3 gms)

1 Tetrobol equivalent to 4 Obols (weight: 2.85 gms)

1 Triobol (hemidrachm) equivalent to 3 Obols (weight: 2.15 gms)

1 Diobol equivalent to 2 Obols (weight: 1.43 gms)

1 Obol equivalent to 4 Tetartemorions (weight: 0.72 gms)

1 Tritartemorion equivalent to 3 Tetartemorions (weight: 0.54 gms)

1 Hemiobol equivalent to 2 Tetartemorions (weight: 0.36 gms)

1 Trihemitartemorion equivalent to 3/2 Tetartemorions (weight: 0.27 gms)

1 Tetartemorion equivalent to ¼ Obol (weight: 0.18 gms)

1 Hemitartemorion equivalent to ½ Tetartemorion (weight: 0.09 gms).

In addition to the above, 70 Drachmae (later 100 drachmae) equalled 1 Mina, while 60 Minae equalled 1 Athenian Talent.

Both Minae and Talents were never minted, but represented weight measures used in commodities and metals like silver and gold.

The history of the Greek Numismatic Age:

The history of Greek coinage was divided into four periods – the “Archaic”, the “Classical”, the “Hellenistic” and the “Roman”.

The Archaic period began with the introduction of coins to the Greek world during the 7th century BC until the Persian Wars around 480 BC.

The Classical period began in 480 BC and lasted till around 330 BC which lasted until the conquests of Alexander the Great.

The Hellenistic period began around 330 BC and lasted till the 1st century BC lasting until the Roman absorption of the Greek world.

The Roman period:  Greek cities continued to produce their own coins for several centuries under Roman rule. The coins produced during this period are called Roman Provincial coins or Greek Imperial coins.

The ancient Greek coins of all four periods span over ten centuries.

The Archaic Period coinage (7th century BC to around 480 BC):

In the late seventh century BC, coins were minted for the first time by Ionian Greeks and the neighbouring non-Greek Lydians. The Greeks were instrumental in spreading this early “coinage” throughout the Mediterranean, introducing it to many non-Greek nations with whom they came in contact including in China and Western Asia Minor.

Initially, Greek coins were stamped with designs or “types” only on the obverse while the reverse carried impressions of the punch used to stamp the metal into the obverse die.

From the end of the sixth century BC, the punch carried a die for the reverse too, leading to the majority of the Greek coins being made thereafter with types on both sides.

The first coins struck during this period were made of “electrum” (an alloy of gold and silver, both metals being found in abundance in the area.

Scan Electrum coin from Lydia 6th century BC. It shows a lion head on the Obverse together with an image of the sun in the upper background. On the Reverse are depicted plain square imprints.
Electrum coin from Ephesus (620-600 BC). It shows the front half of a stag on the obverse. On the Reverse is seen a square incuse punch.

By mid- 6th century BC, development of technology facilitated minting of coins of pure gold and silver.

The Numismatic system of Aegina:

The Drachma was believed to have been established on the island of Aegina during the 7th century BC, in addition to those of the Ionian Greeks.

The first silver coins were either round or elongated in shape which were minted on the island of Aegina by the benevolent tyrant of Argos, Phiedon. He was the Head of the Amphyctiony (a Confederation of seven Doric Greek city-states that included Aegina).

 Trade between Aegina and Ionia brought about prolific exchange/circulation of coins of Aegina and Ionia. The motif on the coins on Aegina was a sea turtle symbolising that the island of Aegina was a major sea-faring power. The “turtle coins” of Aegina were widely recognised and accepted.
A silver Stater or “Didrachm” of Aegina around 550 – 530 BC. On the obverse showing a sea turtle with large pellets on the back. On the Reverse there is an incuse square with eight sections.

From about 600 BC to 450 BC, coins of Aegina were circulating all over the Aegean.

Coins were being minted in several other areas as well. An interesting coin was the obverse coin design of Corinth which featured the “Pegasus” or horse design. These coins were nicknamed the silver “colts”. These and other such coins were instrumental in the development of coinage in north-western Greece and in Southern Italy and Sicily.
 The Greek world at this time was divided into more than 2000 self-governing city-states (called “poleis” in Greek) and towns, with most of them having their own coinage. Some of these coins circulated beyond the poleis suggesting that these were used in inter-city commerce, for example, the silver Drachms of Aegina.

Around 510 BC, Athens began minting silver Tetradrachm coins (equal to four Drachm). The Athenians of the pre-numismatic era used the Obol (a small iron rod) as currency.

From 510 to about 40 BC, the Tetradrachm with the owl’s head stamped on it was the first great trade coin in the world. The owl was associated with the city goddess Athena, the goddess of wisdom. This image is even found today on the national side of the Greek 1 Euro coin.

Around the mid-fifth century BC, the largest number of these coins were minted, when Greek cities in the Delian League had to send tribute payments of 5000 talents to Athens which were used for building the Pantheon and other large buildings, ruins of which have endured to the present day.

Several coins, particularly silver coins from northern Greece were minted for export to various regions in the Persian Empire during the times of Persian kings Darius I (521-486 BC) and Xerxes (486-465 BC).

As Athens and Aegina were hostile to each other, the Tetradrachm was minted to a different weight standard by Athens, the “Attic” standard Drachm of 4.3 gms (as against the “Aeginetan” weight standard of one Drachma of 6.1 gms). 

Over a period, Athens’ power grew to that of a super-power and their coinage became the predominant coins of commerce and Aegina lost its naval prowess.

  Athens’ abundant supply of silver from the mines at Laurion ( “Laura” means “narrow path or alley” in Greek and “Laurion” refers to the area of the “ancient mine tunnels”) facilitated an abundant supply of Athenian silver coins which featured the Goddess Athena’s owl (the symbol of wisdom) on one side and the bust of the Goddess herself on the other. After the end of the Peloponnesian War (404 BC), Aegina’s coinage went into a decline and with their sea-faring days coming to an end, the sea-turtle was replaced with a land tortoise.
 A silver Drachma of Aegina (404-340 BC) (minted to the Aeginetan weight standard of 6.1gms). On the Obverse is shows a land tortoise and on the Reverse is an inscription which looks something like this “AIF” (meaning “of the Aeginetans”, “Aegena” and a dolphin) and a dolphin.

As Athenian Tetradrachms and other coins circulated widely, other cities minted coins to the weight standard of the Athenian coins.

The Classical Period coinage (480 BC to around 330 BC):

During this period Greek coinage reached a high level of technical and aesthetic quality. Several fine gold and silver coins minted in various cities portrayed their patron god or goddess or a legendary hero or champion of the city on one side and a symbol of the city on the other.

During this period, Syracuse was one of the most important centres of numismatic art and had renowned engravers like Kimon and Euainetos who were responsible for some of the finest designs on Syracusan coins several of which have endured to the present day.

The large silver Decadrachm or 10 Drachms coin from Syracuse is regarded as one of the finest coins minted in the ancient world.

 Syracusan coins had developed a high standard of uniformity in their strikes/imprints – most coins featured on one side the head of the nymph Arethusa and on the other a victorious “quadriga” as the Syracusans were frequent winners in this event (a “quadriga” is a chariot drawn by four horses abreast, the Roman equivalent to the Ancient Greek “tethrippon”, which was raced in the Ancient Olympic Games and other contests).
 A Syracusan Tetradrachm coin (415-405 BC). The Obverse shows the head of the nymph Arethusa surrounded by four dolphins and a rudder, while the Reverse shows a racing quadriga, its charioteer crowned by the goddess Victory who is in flight. (In the later Roman coins, a similar image of the Goddess Victory was called Nike).

A Tetradrachm of Athens (5th century BC). The Obverse shows a helmeted bust of the patron goddess of the city Athena.

On the Reverse the Tetradrachm shows the owl symbol of Athens, an olive sprig and the inscription “AOE” (meaning “AOENAION” or “of the Athenians”).

Between 550 BC to 510 BC, among the first centres to mint coins during the Greek colonisation of mainland Southern Italy (Magna Graecia) were Paestum, Crotone, Sybaris, Caulonia, Metapontum and Taranto.

The Hellenistic Period coinage (330 BC to around First  Century BC):

By 330 BC, as Grecian civilization/influence spread outwards, Greek settlements in southern Italy were minting Drachmas which had a great influence on the Roman Empire, which adopted coins as against the bronze bars which they had been using hitherto.

During the Hellenistic period, Greek culture spread across a large part of the known world viz. Egypt, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and North-western India. Greek trade spread Greek coins across this vast territory and the new kingdoms began to produce their own coins mostly in gold and silver. These coins lacked the aesthetic quality of coins of the earlier periods of Greek numismatics.

Nevertheless, Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek coins are considered to be the finest specimens of Greek Numismatic art, including the largest gold coins minted in the Hellenistic world minted by Eucratides (Reign:171-145 BC) and the largest silver coins minted by the Indo-Greek King Amyntas Nikator (Reign: 95-90 BC).
 The gold 20 Stater coin of Eucratides I, which was the finest and largest of gold coins minted in the Ancient world.

The most striking feature of the Hellenistic period coinage was that these coins depicted portraits of living people, mainly the ruling Kings, because it was reasoned by the Kings that they ruled through a “divine status” conferred upon them (for example - Kings of Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria). The names of Kings were often inscribed on the coins together with his portrait on the obverse and the coat of arms or other state symbol on the reverse.

The Roman Period coinage:

The Drachma existed in the second century BC, even when Greece was under the rule of the Roman Empire and remained a part of the Byzantine Empire until 1453 when it fell under Turkish Rule, which lasted till 1827 (almost four centuries).

Coinage of the Roman Empire for 3 ½ centuries following the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC is termed the “Roman Imperial Coinage” or as “Roman Provincial Coinage”.

The Imperial Coinagewas minted under the Imperial authority, mostly at Rome in the Antonine period and circulated widely.

The Provincial coinage on the other hand included all coins which were not “Imperial” or listed as Roman Imperial Coinage. These coins were also referred to as “Greek Imperial coins”. These coins were sub-divided into four categories:

a)  City coinages: Coins struck in the name of cities were the most common variety. Except for a small number of silver coins, cities minted bronze coins which circulated locally and provided the majority of small change in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire.

A bronze coin struck in Nicaea between 138-180 AD. On the obverse, the coin depicts the draped bust of Faustina II, Regina (Queen) facing right, while on the reverse it depicts a turreted and veiled Tyche, the city-goddess of Nicaea seated on a rock holding a rudder and resting one arm on a rock.

Coins of the Greek city-states portrayed unique symbols and emblems which represented their city and promoted the prestige of their city-state.

The Corinthian Stater depicted “Pegasus”, the mythological winged horse tamed by their hero Bellerophon.
 Image of a Corinthian Stater with Pegasus on one face and Bellerophon on the other face.

 Coins of Ephesus depicted the bee sacred to Artemis. Drachmas of Athens depicted the owl of Athena. Drachmas of Aegina depicted a “chelone”. Coins of Heraclea showed Heracles. Coins of Gela depicted a man-headed bull, the personification of the river Gela.

Coins of Knossos depicted the labyrinth or the mythical creature minotaur, a symbol of Minoan Crete. Coins of Melos depicted a “melon” (meaning an “apple”). Coins of Thebes showed a Boeotian shield. The coins of Rhodes showed a rose.
 Image of a silver Drachma of Rhodes showing the radiate head of Helios (Sun) on the obverse and a rose on the reverse.

Alliance coinages: Cities sometimes struck coins to celebrate “alliances” with another city or cities – “homonoia” or (“OMONOIA” meaning "Alliance" in Greek) for the purpose of settling disputes or building up coalitions to enhance a city’s status. Almost a 100 cities issued “Alliance” coins of which several pieces have survived to the present day.
 A bronze coin of Cibyra, on the reverse represented by a veiled goddess holding fruits in her hands, celebrating an alliance with Hierapolis, represented by a seated Zeus holding an eagle and a sceptre in his hands and on the obverse having a draped bust of Faustina II, Regina (Queen).

b)  Coinages of Provincial leagues (Koina):

Coinages were issued in the names of a number of “Koina” or “Provincial or Regional federations of cities” in the east. In the Roman period, worship of the Emperor was the focus of the function of Koina and these coins often depict a temple of the Imperial cult. The coins of the Provincial Leagues resembled the civic coins of the Greek city-states. The Koina of Crete, Thessaly, Macedonia, Lesbos, Ionia, Galatia and Pontus issued such coins among other leagues.

A bronze coin minted in the Koinon of Macedonia between 138-161 AD. The Obverse depicts a laureate-headed portrait of Antoninus Pius wearing cuirass and paludamentum. On the reverse is depicted a thunderbolt with four wings.

c)  Provincial issues:

These coins were struck for use in a single province, probably under Roman Provincial or Imperial control. Provincial coins comprised silver coins, mostly drachms, didrachms or tetradrachms and bronze issues. Sometimes, these coins were struck in Rome and sent to the Province concerned. At other times, they were minted at local mints.
 A silver provincial coin issued in Antioch, Syria (minted between 177 -180 AD). The Obverse depicts a laureate-headed portrait of Commodus wearing paludamentum, while the Reverse depicts an eagle standing on a thunderbolt, with spread wings, a star between the legs and a ram’s head in exergue.

d)  Coinage of client kings:

During the Antonine period, the Kings of Bosporus (which was situated on the Straits between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov) struck gold and bronze coins and the Kings of Edessa in Mesopotamia struck silver and bronze coins on the patterns of the Greek city states.

 A gold coin depicting the Bosporan King Sauromates II minted between 180-192 AD. On the Obverse is a draped bust of Sauromates II wearing a diadem, on the right periphery is a club, while on the reverse is the laureate head of Commodus wearing paludamentum.

(Part II of this Post  includes some of the most popular coins of  Ancient Greece, some of which have endured to the present day), link as under).


1) Coinage of Greece (Part II): Some popular coins of Greek antiquity

2) Ancient Greek Olympic Games on Coins of Antiquity  

3) Modern coins of Greece: Drachmas & Leptas; Commemorative Coins link back to Greek antiquity

4) Modern coins of Greece: Euro & Commemorative Coins.

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