Sparta and its coinage: Ancients Today

Militaristic society largely found coinage unappealing
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 02/22/16
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Among the foremost cities of ancient Greece was Sparta, famed for its militaristic social structure. Though the Spartans were accomplished in many regards, they maintained a low profile when it came to coinage, a medium of exchange they found both effeminate and unappealing. 

Whereas Athens struck untold millions of coins over a nearly 800-year period, Sparta issued precious few coins in comparison. This city had few issues of any consequence, which places them in high demand among collectors of ancient Greek coins.

The Spartans were so opposed to the idea of coinage that their Lycurgan constitution forbade the possession and use of coinage within the city’s frontiers. This hostility toward coinage was not breached until the mid-third century B.C., more than 250 years after Athens had begun producing coinage on a large scale.

First coins of Sparta

Even then, the first Spartan coins, comprised of silver tetradrachms and obols, were struck in very small quantities. They were issued at the end of the reign of the Spartan King Areus I (309 to 265 B.C.), or very soon afterward. As such, they likely were produced for the Chremonidean War (267 to 261 B.C.), during which Sparta joined other Greeks in opposition to the Kingdom of Macedon.

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Whatever the circumstances that caused Sparta to issue its first coins, it occurred at a time when Sparta’s power had been greatly weakened by the rise of kingdoms throughout the Greek world.

Just two other Spartan kings issued silver tetradrachms: Cleomenes III (235 to 221 B.C.) and Nabis (207 to 192 B.C.). Both struck issues bearing their portraits, with examples of the former being very rare and the latter being known by just one example. However, Nabis also issued some very rare tetradrachms that paired the head of the goddess Athena with the seated figure of the hero Heracles.

Later in Spartan history, after the tetradrachm denomination had been abandoned, the Spartans began to issue small silver coins that typically weighed about 2.2 to 2.5 grams. They were struck in two denominations: hemidrachms (half-drachms) and triobols (three obols). The former shows the head of the god Zeus and the monogram of the Achaean League (a political confederacy in the Peloponnesus) and the latter bears the head of Heracles and an amphora (a transport container) flanked by the caps of the Dioscuri.

The earliest of these small silver issues were hemidrachms dated to circa 175 to the 140s(?) B.C. They were struck while Sparta was a reluctant member of the Achaean League and were made in small quantities using dies engraved in fine style. Somewhat larger issues of hemidrachms and triobols were produced from the 90s through the 50s B.C., but even those are scarce today.

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