Ancient Greek Coinage

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?

That Just Takes the Cake!

You’ve heard the phrase before – often as an expression of incredulity. “That just takes the cake!”

But what does cake have to do with winning the prize, so to speak?

You may think it comes down to the game that revolves all around cakes, the cake walk – but the first “take the cake” reference occurred circa 420 B.C. Aristophanes’ fourth play The Knights, a tale of Athens during the Peloponnesian War, contained a line that literally translates to, “If you surpass him in impudence the cake is ours.” Of course, this doesn’t refer to a literal cake (though that would be pretty cool too). It uses “cake” as a metaphor for victory.

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“The true cake walk at the new circus.”

While this is a logical origin of the phrase, the use came and went in just the one line – disappearing until the 19th century. This is when William Trotter Porter’s A Quarter Race in Kentucky used this line: “They got up a horse and fifty dollars in money a side…each one to start and ride his own horse…the winning horse take [sic] the cakes.” Once again, cake refers to victory.

This is where the cake walk comes in. In black southern communities of the U.S., couples dressed their best and paraded through a course with cakes with their best walk. The best-dressed, most charismatic couple won the walk, often winning some of the cakes they had walked through.

See this 1874 reference to a cake walk: “The cake-walk, in which ten couples participated, came off on Friday night, and the judges awarded the cake, which was a very beautiful and costly one, to Mrs. Sarah and John Jackson.”

It’s still a mystery as to why Aristophanes’ first real “take the cake” disappeared for centuries, and why it only reappeared in the 19th century.

 

Sources:

Phrases.org

Historical Origins

Traveling with Art: The Erechtheion Temple in Athens, Greece

It’s no longer in one piece, but just by looking at it you can tell the Erechtheion was once a grand, majestic Greek temple. Ancient Greeks went there to worship Athena and Poseidon.

Built somewhere between 421 and 406 BC, this temple’s ruins still stand for visitors to admire.

The whole of the structure has had an elaborate attention to detail paid to it, especially on the doorways, windows and columns. The marble that makes it up comes entirely from Mount Pentelikon, a mountain famous for its marble. Decor details once included highlights of gilt bronze and multicolored glass beads.

Another view of the Erechtheion Temple in Athens, Greece.

Another view of the Erechtheion Temple.

The temple had different areas of dedication for different Greek gods and goddesses; Athena in the eastern part and Poseidon in the western part, along with altars to Hephaestus and Voutos (brother of a hero and the temple’s namesake, Erichthonius).

A postcard of the Erechtheion Temple in Athens, GreeceA Caryatid is a sculpted female figure standing in place of a column as architectural support.

One of the most prominent features on this ancient architecture is the Porch of the Caryatids, or “Porch of the Maidens”. This porch hides the 15 foot beam supporting the southwest corner standing over the metropolis.

In 1801 Lord Elgin, perhaps a little overeager about Greek statues, moved one of the Caryatids to his Scottish Mansion. According to Athenian legend, if you listen closely at night you can hear the remaining five Caryatids crying for their lost sister.

Lord Elgin later attempted to remove another of the statues; when it wouldn’t budge, he put a saw to it, trying to break it into pieces, but this smashed the statue and it was left in pieces at the site.

Today, the Caryatids stand in the New Acropolis Museum, replicas replacing the originals at the site of the temple. The originals had been damaged over time and are currently being cleaned and restored with lasers at the museum, a process that’s visible to visitors through a camera.

Check out some of our other travel posts:

Mount Vesuvius and Naples in Italy

New York City Architecture

Bray, Berkshire, England