World Coins

Ancients Today: Some ancient coins remain core to series

The variety of ancient Greek coinage is simply bewildering. Not only is the prospect of collecting every known variety beyond the reach of any museum or collector, but previously unrecorded coins are routinely discovered, reminding us that we’ll never know the whole story.

At the other end of the spectrum is a core group of Greek trade coins issued by powerful city-states. In the southeastern part of central Greece the cities of Thebes, Athens, Corinth and Aegina all issued silver trade coins in such quantities that they were as familiar in their day as they are to collectors today.

These iconic coins are high on the want-lists of those new to the hobby, and are charming enough to continually interest even the most experienced collectors. Many coins were issued at these four cities over several centuries, so the discussions that follow are restricted to the principal silver trade coins.

Thebes stater

We’ll start with Thebes, the principal city of Boeotia, a region west of Attica. Its first large silver coins, staters weighing about 12.6 grams, were produced in about 480 B.C. They continued to be struck until about 338 B.C., a year when the Greek world was in flux under the imperial expansion of the Macedonian King Philip II (359 to 336 B.C.).

Even in the initial phase of Theban coinage,the obverse of the staters bore a shield with distinctive crescent-shaped wedges in its sides — the so-called Boeotian shield. The reverse showed the letter theta (for Thebes) set in an incuse punch. Within about 30 years that utilitarian punch was replaced with artistic designs.

From about 450 to 395 B.C. a variety of reverse designs appeared on Theban staters, which usually honored Dionysus and Heracles.

The portraits of these divinities are engraved in particularly fine style, and are supplemented with scenes: Dionysus is shown in the midst of dance, and Heracles rushes forth or strings his bow, or is shown as an infant wrestling snakes that Hera had sent to kill him in his crib.

The main reverse type, however, is a two-handled amphora, the most common type of jug used by the Greeks to transport olive oil, wine and other trade goods. This design was introduced in about 425 B.C. and predominated for nearly a century. Sometimes one or more symbols appear in the field near the amphora, but for the largest issues of circa 395 to 338 B.C. the main extra feature is a magistrate’s name.

Athens tetradrachm

Even more familiar are the “Owl” tetradrachms of Athens, the most important of all Greek cities.

The first silver coins attributed to Athens bear a variety of “heraldic” designs, but at some point between about 525 and 510 B.C., silver tetradrachms were introduced that showed the helmeted head of Athena and a standing owl. This iconic design was used for about five centuries and was widely imitated.

The earliest issues were crudely struck on lumpy planchets, making high quality examples nearly impossible to find. However, by the 460s B.C. the production standards had greatly improved, and they remained relatively good for the next half century.

The Athenians ceased to strike tetradrachms near the end of the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 B.C.), an epic conflict in which Athens was defeated by its rival Sparta. Production was not resumed on any scale until the period 393 to 294 B.C., with the “revived” Owl tetradrachms being crude in comparison with the earlier issues.

In the second century B.C. a new version of this coin, the so-called “new style” tetradrachm, was introduced.

Though the same weight as the earlier coins, they appear more substantial because they are struck on broad planchets. The precise dating of the series is still unknown. Athena now wears an ornately decorated helmet with three crests and the reverse shows the owl perched on an overturned amphora. The names of magistrates and a variety of symbols occur in the field, all of which are enclosed in an olive wreath.

Aegina stater

The people of Aegina, an island not far from Athens, produced one of the most important trade coinages of the Greeks. These silver staters are affectionately known as “Turtles” in the same way that Athens’ tetradrachms are often called “Owls.” They were struck in very large quantities and circulated throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

The reverses of Aegina staters were impressed with a utilitarian punch. Though the function of the punch never changed, it was increasingly modernized and even came to incorporate letters and minor designs within the depressions.

Two major types of Aegina staters were produced, and most collectors of Greek coins try to acquire one of each. The early staters, mostly struck from about 525 to 457 B.C., show on their obverse a turtle with a narrow, smooth shell that often is decorated with pellets, a heavy collar or both. The next type, which shows a tortoise with a broad shell divided into segments, was issued from about 457 to 338 B.C.

Corinth stater

The other major trade coin from the heart of ancient Greece was the silver stater of Corinth, a powerful city at the junction of mainland Greece and the Peloponnesus.

The earliest examples were struck by 550 or 525 B.C. They show on their obverse the mythological, winged horse Pegasus in flight, and on their reverse a simple incuse punch. By about 500 B.C. the head of the goddess Athena, with a Corinthian helmet resting high upon her head, became the standard reverse type, and it remained so until the last of these coins were produced in about 300 B.C.

Though the main designs remain fairly consistent, many variants of this coinage are known, principally in the form of symbols behind the head of Athena. Much less variety appears on the obverse, except that Pegasus’ wing evolves from curved to straight, and he sometimes is shown walking, prancing, springing or flying with his head lowered.

Unlike the trade coins of Thebes, Athens and Aegina, numerous cities in western Greece, Italy and Sicily adopted Corinth’s Pegasus-Athena design for their own silver coins, and these are as collectible as the Corinthian originals. ¦

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