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
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.