World Coins

Coins help support exhibits at Canada’s largest museum

Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum is among Canada’s largest and most comprehensive museums. Among its varied collections, which include art, cultural objects and natural history specimens, is a surprisingly vibrant inclusion of numismatics.

Throughout the galleries, coins help provide the viewer with information on economic patterns and  artistic movements, and explain how they can help date archaeological discoveries.

A recent acquisition is a highlight of the galleries devoted to Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods of Greek culture, from 700 to 31 BC. The introductory label shares, “To a greater degree, perhaps, than any of the other ancient societies, the Greeks — in particular those from the leading city-state of Athens — depicted themselves in their artifacts.” The coins in particular are used to show the history of the Greek city-states and their colonies.

Purchased in 2015, a decadrachm of Syracuse, signed by Kimon, is displayed alongside another signed by Euainetos, surrounded by larger Greek sculptures. Kimon’s silver coin features a bold image of Arethusa in high relief, with the artist’s signature on the dolphin’s body below the water nymph’s neck (one of four dolphins around Arethusa).

Roman history and coins

Another impressive display of ancient coins is the long display case titled “Coins as History: A Chronology of Imperial Roman Rulers and Their Families” that shows coins depicting portraits of Augustus and his successors. It includes examples of the varied denominations struck including the gold aureus, the silver denarius and quinarius, and the bronze sestertius, dupondius and semis. In terms of value, the gold aureus was worth 25 silver denarii; to illustrate the denomination, the museum displays an aureus of Claudius, from A.D. 41 to 54. Later cases continue a chronology of Roman numismatics continuing through the introduction of the silver antoninianus, valued around two denarii. These gradually became debased with copper until it was a base metal with a silver wash, until the Constantine the Great introduced a new system of currency led by the gold solidus in 312.

Elsewhere, a hoard of 197 debased silver tetrachrams in a small amphora found in Egypt was likely buried after A.D. 70, as the coins included were struck during the reigns of Claudius and his successors Nero and Vespasian. The label explains, “Many such hoards have been unearthed through farming activities, archaeological excavations, or metal-detecting searches…hidden in the ground for safe-keeping, but their owners never managed to retrieve them.” 

Byzantine empire

Byzantium’s capital Constantinople was dedicated by Constantine the Great in A.D. 330 and its location between Europe and Asia made it a cultural metropolis as merchants and travelers arrived from far across the world. Goods like silk, spices and luxury goods came from China, Persia, India and Africa. With that trade came an accompanying bureaucracy that regulated the economy, including the production of coins for wages and to facilitate tax collection. “The State and the Church formed one unit with overlapping responsibilities, but there were both civil and ecclesiastical courts,” while taxes supported Byzantium’s intricate administration, gallery text explains.

Several cases display the gold, silver and copper coins issued throughout the Byzantine empire, though “the denominations, their values, and their appearance changed through progressive reforms of the system.”

Elsewhere, Byzantine coins are shown for artistic reference as evidence of the inclusion of images of Christ, Mary and saints in everyday life. Byzantium was a Christian empire and Orthodox Christianity was the official state religion, influencing nearly all aspects of life in the period, including coins.

Around A.D. 692, Justinian II introduced the image of Christ, and following a prohibition against such religious images from 726 to 843, Christ or the Virgin would appear on the obverse and the emperor, either alone or with saints, would appear on the reverse.

An example of this, enlarged to better show the visitor the details, is a gold histamenon issued by Romanos III depicting the bust of Christ on the obverse with the revers showing the Virgin crowning Romanos III. After a period of occupation by western forces during the Fourth Crusade from 1204 to 1261, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.

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