The Greeks and Romans both used coins for money. They made coins of precious metals—usually bronze, silver, or gold. Like today’s currency, their coins came in different sizes and values. Some of these coins are very beautiful and highly prized by modern-day collectors.
Ancient coins were produced by hand in mints. Coins had designs on one or both sides. To make a coin, a mint worker placed a piece of metal of the desired size over a die* that rested on an anvil*. Using a hammer, the worker punched the metal onto the die with a bar. In this way, the metal took on the design on the die. The first coins had a design on only one side. To make a coin with a design on the other side, called the reverse, the worker used a bar that had the desired design engraved on the end that struck the metal.
* die device used for shaping, cutting, or stamping, as in coining money
* anvil iron block on which metals are hammered and shaped
Greek Coins. Lydia, a kingdom in Asia Minor, issued the first coins around 650 B.C. They were made of electrum, a mixture of silver and gold. Within a few decades, communities in Greece were issuing coins made of silver. The silver came from mines in northern Greece.
Each Greek city-state* made coins with a characteristic design. Commonly, a god or goddess closely associated with the community was depicted on one side. The other side might have a scene or animal connected with the god or goddess. The first Athenian double-sided coins, for example, showed the goddess Athena on one side and, on the other side, the owl and the olive branch, both sacred to Athena. Athenian coins have been found all over the eastern Mediterranean region, indicating their widespread use. Athens minted coins in many denominations, smaller coins being worth less than larger ones.
The most beautiful Greek coins come from the Greek cities in Italy and Sicily. They were minted from 400 to 300 B.C. An especially striking one is from Syracuse on the island of Sicily. On one side, it has the head of a water nymph encircled by dolphins. The reverse side shows a chariot drawn by four horses.
The coins issued by Alexander the Great were standardized and circulated throughout his vast empire. Mints in different parts of the empire produced coins with the same designs. During the Hellenistic* period, rulers for the first time minted coins that were stamped with their portraits.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
Roman Coins. Coins depicting generals and rulers were typical of the last years of the Roman Republic and of the Roman Empire. The first Roman “coins,” however, were quite different. This early money, issued around 280 B.C., consisted of large bronze bars that weighed about five pounds each.
A decade later, Rome issued heavy round bronze coins that weighed one pound. Around the same time, Rome began minting silver coins that depicted the famous scene of Roman history in which a she-wolf nurses Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.
In 211 B.C., Rome issued a silver coin, the denarius, and smaller denominations in bronze. The denarius remained the basic Roman coin for about five centuries. For a time, the officials who were in charge of the mint put their names on the coins together with scenes from their families’ history.
During the civil wars of the Roman Republic, powerful generals issued their own coinage, usually in gold. They did this, in part, so they could pay their soldiers. Caesar began the practice of putting portraits of himself on his coins. Brutus, one of the assassins of Caesar, issued coins with his own portrait on one side, and daggers, symbolizing the assassination, on the other.
Under Augustus, the first Roman emperor, Rome returned to an orderly issuing of coins by the government. Augustus had some of his coins marked SC, for senatus consultum, to assure people that the coins had the approval of the Roman Senate. Emperors customarily issued coins with their portrait on one side and scenes depicting their achievements or policies on the other. For example, Claudius had a coin minted that showed a triumphal arch commemorating his conquest of Britain.
The emperors frequently altered the metal content of new coins. When people realized that the new coins contained less gold or silver than older ones, they tried whenever possible to pay their taxes with the new ones. The counterfeiting of coins became a serious problem, and a new profession developed to detect forgeries. Rome stopped issuing the denarius in A.D. 270 because the coin had declined so much in value. Constantine I had a new coin minted in A.D. 310, the gold solidus, which remained the standard until the end of the Roman Empire. (See also Banking; Money and Moneylending.)