The Stamp and Coin Place Blog: connecting the past and present of stamp and coin collecting, and looking to the future.

Ancient Greek Coinage

Alexandria drachma – CC-by-SA 3.0

What were the first coins of Ancient Greece?

The first coins actually came from Lydia sometime before 600 BC. The Lydians’ coin system inspired the Greeks to start making their own coins. They didn’t create the same coins for the whole country, however. Instead, each Greek city-state (of which there were more than two thousand) issued its own coins.

Lydia electrum coin.

Lydia electrum coin

Of course, the coins sometimes wandered far past the boundaries of their city-state in inter-city trade. These coins were usable anywhere in Greece, however; as a result, coins with plenty of different designs and styles circulated their way around Greece.

The Greeks made many of their coins out of silver. They struck small lumps of silver with a hammer that had a mold on it, flattening the silver into a coin while imprinting the design on it at the same time.

So how were denominations judged if different city-state coins circulated all over Greece? They were minted to an “Aeginetan” weight standard by which everyone could judge the value of the coin. But Athens struck a different standard and slowly developed a dominance in trade, making Athenian coins another weight standard through the Classical period.

An Athenian coin.

An Athenian coin.

Greek coins from the archaic period had a cruder, less polished look to them, but the design and production of the coins evolved over time into a more elegant look. Often, larger cities designed their coins with their patron god or goddess or a famous hero. For instance, Athenian coins featured the owl of Athens and a portrait of Athena.

When Greek culture expanded geographically in the Hellenistic period, the coins themselves also found their way into other countries in the Western world. Some of these newer coins had portraits of living people; kings wanted to celebrate their divinity by putting their own portraits on coins. This is where the tradition of showing royalty on currency began.

What’s your favorite ancient Greek coin?

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