From the dawn of civilization humankind has bartered and traded with neighbors to better their status. The early mediums of trade are now artifacts and in the present day they are the focus of bartering rather than the means. The field of numismatics – the study of coinage – which focuses on these archaic forms is colloquially known as Ancients. Ancient coins provide collectors and historians with a link to the mythologies and stories of the past. The coins of Classical Athens revere the patron deity Athena, and include her animal companion and modern symbol of wisdom, the owl. This is but one of thousands of designs attributed to this specialty. While the sheer scope of ancient coinage may be daunting to the uninitiated, with some insight and organization the field becomes more manageable. To assist in this organization, ancient coins are typically divided into three categories; Greek, Roman and Byzantine.
Coinage included in the Greek category was not necessarily minted within the area we now know as Greece, nor does it fall into one particular time period. The easiest definition of Greek coinage is anything that was minted before the rise of Rome or that was minted outside of its borders during its duration. From many different kingdoms and city states, from Asia Minor and the Middle East to the British Isles and for about 1,000 years, coins were minted with images of Greek deities, heroes and creatures from their mythology. Whether the coins can be traced to the trading ports of Ionia, the artistic triumphs of the Hellenistic cities of Athens, Corinth and Magna Graecia, or to the revolutionary conqueror Alexander the Great, they all offer deep historical interest with many holding great value to collectors, scholars and museums. Some of the most renowned ancient coinage hails from the city-state of Syracuse on the island of Sicily. The standard style for the larger silver pieces of Syracuse features a charioteer driving a quadriga while the winged goddess of Victory (Nike) flies above and crowns the driver or horses. The reverse design for these usually displays the river deity Arethusa surrounded by small dolphins indicating her immersion in water. These large Decadrachms exhibit some of the most well executed classical engravings found on coins.
At the greatest extent of the Roman Empire the Mediterranean Sea was sometimes called the “Latin Lake,” as the Romans controlled the entirety of the land surrounding it. This level of influence over the world also manifested in their coinage. That influence persists to this day as the iconography, words and even titles of a great deal of modern coinage owes something to the Romans. Most Roman coinage features the bust of an important individual (the personification of Rome or later, the Emperor), while the reverse usually shows a quick bit of propaganda (the empire’s latest military victory is a frequently encountered design). Coins featuring the Emperor’s likeness and a reminder that he personally supplied Rome with grain from Egypt went a long way to securing the approval of the populace. The coinage of Rome also allowed for far-flung provinces and outposts to feel connected to the hub of the Empire, and indeed a great many citizens and subjects only glimpsed their emperor as he appeared on coinage. The people of the empire also learned about the emperor’s glory and renown by examining the coins, which occasionally showed the enemies of the empire and rebel kings kneeling in subjugation. The grandeur of Imperial Rome created a numismatic legacy that allows collectors today to connect with that storied past. The collecting of Roman coins has spanned many centuries and has inspired passionate study and research. Like the coinage of the Greeks, the coinage of the Romans offers many avenues for collecting and research, keeping the coins in constant demand.
The Christian successors to the Roman Empire are known as the Byzantines and their coinage began with reforms initiated by the emperor Anastasius around the year 500 A.D. in the city of Constantinople (present day Istanbul). The Byzantine era continued on until the fifteenth century when the empire was finally conquered by the Ottoman Turks. Byzantine coins were issued over a long period of time and offer a great opportunity, as there is a great wealth of gold Solidi coins to be collected. With biblical iconography included on nearly all coins, the Byzantine series shows the clear passage of history in Europe from the polytheistic pantheons of Greek and Roman gods to the dawning of the Judeo-Christian era.
Collectively these three fields comprise the field of ancient coinage as the numismatic world understands it. All three groups share similarities, but each possesses its own nuances. Some collectors find a broad swath to collect while others specialize, but all certainly appreciate the wealth of history these coins represent. Each coin potentially tells a story of the local people and their beliefs, a tale of conquering armies, or displays a symbol of faith. These stories continue to influence the world we live in and collecting these pieces of history can enrich your appreciation and understanding of the modern world.