World Coins

Reference celebrates ancient Greek coinage

When Cato the Elder was asked for advice on public speaking he replied, “Grasp the subject, the words will follow.” 

When In Celebration of Greek Coinage was sent for review, I did a double take, as I know its author, Robin J. Eaglen, president of the British Numismatic Society from 2008 to 2011 and author of two learned volumes on the Abbey and Mint of Bury St. Edmunds. I had not realized his current collecting passion is the coinage of the ancient Greeks.

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Cato the Elder’s advice could apply to writing equally as well as public speaking. I have found some past books on ancient Greek coins challenging, but this volume is a breath of fresh air, serving as an excellent taster for anyone interested in Greek coinage but too daunted to step in. Eaglen knows his subject and writes with crystal clarity, interweaving interesting facts to enhance the narrative. Greek coin enthusiasts will find it a pleasure, too.

First, some background

The opening chapter, “Amor Numorum,” is a précis of his numismatic adventures from schoolboy to the present. I saw parallels with my own experience — initially English and Roman buys, but mainly English acquisitions.

He sold his collection at university, while I sold just before I became an undergraduate. While my collecting interests diverted to other areas in later life, he returned to numismatics in his late 30s when he became legal director for the British pharmaceutical Beecham Group plc’s European HQ in Brussels (now part of GlaxoSmithKline).

Eaglen has been a numismatic polymath, embracing English hammered, Indian Moghul and Roman coinages. In 2000 his interest spread to ancient Greek coins. Although encouraged to specialize, he decided that he would buy individual coins in the series and study and enjoy each one, regardless of any connection with other coins from the Greek world. When he wrote articles on selected coins for Spink’s Numismatic Circular, the series was very popular and he was urged to produce it in book form: In Celebration of Greek Coinage.

The book includes an excellent chapter on “Greek Coins as Art.” I liked John Ruskin’s suggestion (in Aratra Penelici, 1890) that coins were the most convenient and accessible vehicle for appreciating Greek sculpture. Eaglen makes an interesting point regarding the Greek use of three-quarter facing heads as well as those in profile. The former allow greater scope to convey expression, so it is surprising that profile heads are favored in later coinages, down to the present.

Essays on many topics

The main body of the work comprises 50 essays inspired by the Greek coins in Eaglen’s collection. These seek to identify the formative geographical, historical, ethnic, political, religious, cultural, artistic, social, economic and commercial influences behind the coins.

The essays are presented mainly in chronological sequence from the birth of Greek coinage to its demise. They begin with the coins of Lydia and Ionia, initially struck from a natural occurring alloy of gold and silver, and eventually evolving to distinct issues in each metal. 

With a design on one side only, the reverses have deeply incised punches, to give stability to the flan during striking and to reveal that the core of each coin was of the same metal as the surface. Eaglen refers to these as “most unpromising buds,” which nevertheless later blossomed into spectacular creations.

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I smiled at his description of the running hare found on the reverse of the coinage issued by the city of Messana in the north-eastern corner of Sicily. According to Aristotle, the chariot drawn by two mules on its obverse was an allusion to the city’s victory in the mule races at the Olympic Games in the 480s B.C. I thought the hare indicated fast mules until I found mules were not known for speed. Aristotle said it was there because Anaxilas, the city’s ruler, introduced hares to Sicily. Eaglen doubts this, but adds, “The hare’s face is often executed with expressive joviality, that would doubtless have impressed Walt Disney.”

Possibly the most reproduced coin type of the series is the Owl tetradrachm introduced by Athens in the fifth century B.C. Ornithologists know the species portrayed as the “Little Owl.” When Florence Nightingale visited the Acropolis, she found a live owl and kept it as a pet, and the 7th Duke of Devonshire gave her a silver version, which remains at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire.

Interesting snippets like this woven into the text set this volume apart from a run-of-the-mill book on ancient Greek coins. It is a treasure.

Buying the book

In Celebration of Greek Coinage by Robin J. Eaglen is published by Spink. The hardback book contains 229 pages, with color illustrations throughout, and retails for £40.

To order, visit the website for Spink’s book department,

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