World Coins

What we still don't know about ancient coins

Though modern scholars have learned a great deal about ancient coinage, there are still more mysteries than there are confirmed facts. 

When one digs deep enough, it becomes apparent that many of the “facts” presented in auction catalogs and standard references are simply educated guesses that are prone to future adjustment (or outright abandonment) as new information comes to light.

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A single column doesn’t have enough space to touch upon even a small fraction of those subjects, so we’ll have to content ourselves with brief examinations of five important coin mysteries. 

When were the first coins struck?

When — and why — were the first coins struck? 

Most scholars now believe the first coins were struck in about 650 B.C. These coins were crude lumps of electrum (an alloy of gold and silver) struck in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey), very likely in the region of Ionia. 

The first pieces may well have had no design on the obverse, and two incuse punches on the reverse. Very soon, it appears, the obverse began to be impressed with some kind of markings or striations that were etched into a die.

It would it be of inestimable value to know not only when these first coins were struck, but also to know why. Were they envisioned as official issues of a government? If so, which one? Also, what was their intended function? Was it to add efficiency to the making of payments within a closed, official network, or were they meant to facilitate transactions in the larger world of commerce?

At present there is very little evidence, and one can only speculate about any of these subjects, including how quickly the “invention” of coinage spread to places beyond the world’s first mint.

Growing minting technology

With the medieval-style image of a man wearing pantaloons striking a coin by hand being so commonly used to illustrate how coins were made in the ancient world, it’s tempting to believe all ancient coins were produced entirely by the individual swings of hammers. But the astonishingly large scale of some ancient coin productions and the complexity of some dies suggest the minting process in ancient times was far more advanced than what’s represented in those quaint etchings.

Were some dies hubbed? Was machinery — or at least some kind of mechanization — used in making planchets and striking coins? Unfortunately, virtually no information on these topics survives. Yet, with hundreds of millions of ancient coins having been struck, it’s hard to believe a significant degree of mechanization was not employed at the larger mints.

On the subject of die hubbing, we may take the silver decadrachms of Syracuse as examples. Dozens of dies were used to strike these heavy, “medallic” issues, with many of the portrait dies being so similar they can only be distinguished by careful comparison under magnification. Therefore, it seems unlikely that all the dies were cut free-hand. More likely, the slightly varying details resulted from touch-up engraving applied to dies that were created by a master hub.

Athenian ‘new style’ coinage

Another mystery regards the timeline, or dating, of the Athenian “new style” coinage. 

Silver tetradrachms of Athens were among the most important and influential coinages of the second and first centuries B.C. They record a wealth of information about the officials responsible for their issuance, and many are dated to their month of issue. Though their internal chronology (the sequence of issues) has been well established, the “absolute chronology” of the series is still unclear.

Margaret Thompson published the definitive study on these coins in 1961, and therein suggested the 111 or 112 annual issues of these coins fit into the period 196 or 195 to 88 or 87 B.C. 

However, others soon proposed that the series actually began in the 160s B.C., around the time Athens acquired the trade port of Delos in 167 and 166 B.C., and that it lasted until around 42 B.C. (when Marc Antony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi).

Since the dates of so many other Greek coins of this era depend upon accurate dates for the dominant coinage of Athens, resolving this mystery with precision would be of great value not only to Athenian coinage, but to a great many others as well.

Introducing the denarius

Though the coin is incredibly important, we don’t know when the denarius was introduced. 

Rome’s most familiar silver coin, the denarius, was introduced during the Second Punic War, while the armies of the Carthaginian general Hannibal still occupied parts of Southern Italy. Unlike earlier Roman silver coinage, this denomination was durable, and remained the principal Roman silver coin for the next 450 years.

Many scholars believe that the extreme financial stress the Romans suffered from 215 to 212 B.C. would have prevented the denarius from being introduced any earlier than 212 or 211. Indeed, its appearance likely was tied to an influx of precious metals in 212 and 211, when the Romans sacked Syracuse and Capua (and later collected booty from Tarentum and Spain). Even so, some researchers prefer to date the first denarius to the period 214 to 213.

Moving the mint from Lyon to Rome

The ancient writer Strabo, who likely composed his volumes on geography between circa A.D. 17 and 23, states that Roman gold and silver coins were then being struck in Lugdunum (modern Lyon in southeastern France). 

We also know that by A.D. 69 — at the absolute latest — the main production of precious metal coins had returned to Rome, because the imperial coins of Emperor Otho (who ruled just three months in 69) could only have been struck in the capital.

Thus, sometime from the reign of Tiberius (A.D. 14 to 37) to the year 69, the minting of Roman gold and silver coinage was moved from Lugdunum to Rome. But when? 

For many years it was thought to have been in A.D. 37, under Caligula (A.D. 37 to 41). However, since the 1980s, most scholars have supported the idea that it occurred during the reign of Nero (A.D. 54 to 68). The occasion likely was the great fire in Rome in 64, which prompted a mass re-coining of Roman precious metal coins to reduced standards of weight and purity to help finance the rebuilding of the capital. 

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