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Metals and money
Precious metals had been exchanged by weight from the very earliest times. They became 'money' when small bars of fixed weight and metal content were impressed with the seal of a recognized authority, making it possible to exchange them by number rather than weight and eliminating the need for scales. According to Herodotus, the credit for this innovation went to the Lydians, the first to mint gold and silver coins.
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The Kingdoms of Asia Minor
The first appearance of gold and silver coins
Croesus, the last king of Lydia, is credited with creating a bimetallic monetary system of gold and silver coins called croeseids related by fixed value ratios. These coins, featuring the heads of a lion and a bull facing one another on the front side, continued to be issued even after his death (see photo no. II.1).
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The treasure of Artemis at Ephesus
During the excavations of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, numerous electrum coins (drops of metal without any mark, striated or struck coins, those with figures and inscriptions) were found, buried during the time of Croesus while work was being done to level the foundation for a new temple. They are of great historical interest since they document the initial stages of the circulation of coined money in Asia Minor.
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The Greeks transformed electrum, a gold and silver alloy found naturally in the region, into coins although the ambiguous nature of the alloy soon forced the authorities to attest to its value, marking each piece. Towards the end of the Archaic period, Phocaea, Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, Cyzicus and Miletus were among the most important centres for minting electrum coins (see photo no. II.2).
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Metal coins were struck based on the system of weights in use where they were produced. In both Asia and in Greece the highest unit of weight was the talent, which was divisible into minas. The mina, which was further divisible, although the exact equivalence varied by country, served as the basis for the various coinage systems adopted by the Greeks: from the Euboic-Attic drachma, the most common, to the Aeginetic and Corinthian drachmas, the latter also used in Magna Graecia and Sicily.
Greek weights and coins
1 talent = 30 heavy minas = 60 light minas
1 mina = 100 drachmas
Attic drachma = 4.36 gr.
Aeginetic drachma = 6.25 g.
Corinthian drachma = 2.90 gr.
1 drachma = 6 obols = 12 hemiobols = 24 tetratemorions
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Silver was the metal most commonly used to mint coins in Greece. The improvement in production techniques also led all Greek mints to use discs bearing images in relief on both sides, marking the abandonment of the crude method of impressing images on the reverse sides of coins (i.e. incuse squares.
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Minting techniques using a pair of dies
In ancient times coin making was an entirely manual process. Metal blanks, or discs, were made by first pouring the molten metal into moulds. Once cooled, their weight and alloy composition were checked. The blanks were then placed between a pair of dies containing inverse images, which were struck with a hammer. Silver coins were then polished to improve their appearance. Since the various stages of coin minting were done by hand, ancient coins were often irregularly shaped.
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Classical age coin issues
Classical age coins provide us with an extraordinary tool, not just for the study of the economic, political and religious history of ancient Greece, but also for understanding the different art trends of that time. Radiating outwards from the major production centres, these trends influenced events in even the most remote areas touched by Greek culture, well beyond the borders marked by the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.
Tied to celebration of the divine, Greek art, as shown on coins, expresses itself using simple, but suggestive, subject matter, with an apparent preference for faces, sacred animals and 'talking' symbols. In Thebes, the Boeotian shield on its coins recalled the golden shield kept in the fortress of Chaeronea. The front side of coins from Rhodes featured images celebrating the god, Helios, the island's protector, while on the back was a splendid rose, the origin of its name (see photo no. II.8, no. II.9 e no. II.10).
The fame of the splendid Arethusa signed by Kimon lived on even may decades after its creation, spreading to the faraway Cilicia, where it inspired the engravers at the Tarsus mint to choose a portrait style very similar to that used on the Syracuse coin to depict the satrap Pharnabazus on the front of its stater.
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Art and coins in Magna Graecia and Sicily
Spread along the coasts of southern Italy and Sicily, the cities founded by the Greek colonies began in the 5th cent. B.C. to produce minted coins, which they continued to do in some cases even after being conquered by Rome. Taranto, on the mainland, stood out for the richness of the series it issued and for the skill of its engravers, while Syracuse in Sicily produced some of the most beautiful series of coins in antiquity. But alongside them there was an abundance of issues that document the vibrancy and creativity of Magna Graecia and Siceliot culture in ancient times.
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Between the end of the 6th cent. B.C. and the start of the 5th, many Greek colonies in southern Italy began to mint coins using the 'reverse incuse' technique which, while apparently derived from the repoussé method used in silver working, represents an isolated example in the field of coin minting. These coins were made using a die for the observe, or front, side and the corresponding punch for the reverse side (see photo no. II.13).
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The Metapontum ear of wheat, the Thurium bull, the Taranto Taras saved by the dolphin, and the Naples bull with a human head soon became recognizable symbols by which the prestige of the issuing cities guaranteed certain success for the currency even well beyond national borders (see photo no. II.15 e no. II.16).
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The Greeks in Sicily
In the second half of the 5th cent. B.C., coins issued in Syracuse appeared bearing the signatures of some exceptionally talented engravers: Sossion, Eumene, Eukleidas, Euainetos, Frigillos and Kimon. It was Kimon who was the creator of the extraordinary head of Arethusa shown in full-frontal view; on the reverse is a quadriga engaged in a furious race (see photo no. II.17 e no. II.18).
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The Greeks in Sicily
The leaves of wild celery of Selinunte, the lion's head of Leontini, the crab of Agrigento (Akragas) are all part of that complex game of symbols by which the image immediately evokes the name of the issuing city. But the artistic maturity of the Siceliots is also apparent in the splendid image of the hero Selinus, a faithful reproduction of the cult statue and the sacred area surrounding it, appearing on its coins (see photo no. II.19 e no. II.20).
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Carthage's need to pay its mercenaries prompted it to issue coins in the lands in which it waged war, such as Sicily. The influence of Syracusian art in its Sicilian series is evident, especially on the observe side where the head of Persephone-Tanit appears to be based directly on Euainetos and Kimon's models. The horse's head on the reverse side, instead, recalls the myth of the founding of Carthage (see photo no. II.21).
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Roman presence in the East
The style of the observe side of the golden stater, featuring a procession of three togated Romans, is similar to that found on the denarius of L. Brutus (dating to 54 B.C.). The writer Appian tells us that Brutus issued coins in the East struck from the treasure of the precious metal consigned to him by Polemocratia, the widow of the Thracian prince.
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The coins of kings
Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Kingdoms
Alexander's conquests profoundly transformed the geography of the Greek world, which had previously consisted of the city-states and their colonies, creating a vast empire that, while based in Macedonia and Greece, extended from Egypt to India and encompassed all the territories belonging to the Achaemenid Empire. After Alexander's death in 323 A.C. the far-reaching empire disintegrated into a number of kingdoms, the most powerful of which were Macedonia, the Seleucid Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt.
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The coins of kings
Under Philip Il of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great, the gold and silver mines of Mt. Pangaion served as the source for that kingdom's rich production of coinage. It appears that the youth on horseback on the reverse of the silver tetradrachma was chosen by the king to commemorate his victory at the 356 B.C. Olympic Games.
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Alexander the Great
Alexander, to ensure a supply of coinage in each country he conquered, opened new mints in Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt and Babylonia. These coins were made of gold, silver and bronze of equal weights and types. His decision to adopt the Attic drachma as the silver coin, which continued to be produced long after Alexander's death, helped to spread his coins widely throughout the ancient world.
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Portrait of Alexander the Great
Although the portrait on the coins issued in his name is not explicitly stated to be that of Alexander the Great, the characteristic features of his face, with his distinctive flowing hair and upward gaze, are clearly discernible on the silver tetradrachma, with a lion skin-clad Herakles on the reverse side (see photo no. II.23).
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The Hellenistic Kingdoms
Portrait of the diadochi
Following Alexander's death his generals, spread throughout the conquered lands, began to mint coins bearing their own likenesses. Portrait styles varied from region to region, following the dominant artistic trends in the countries of origin: from the classical composure of the profiles of Seleucus to the dramatic colourism of the Pergamon portraiture, to the lifelike images of the Ptolemy of Egypt, to the typically oriental features on the issues of Pontus, in a suggestive game of one-upmanship of images that the coins helped to make familiar even to the inhabitants of the farthest corners of the known world.
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The Hellenistic Kingdoms
Over time the portraits became increasingly stylized, almost a reflection of a world that was rapidly changing. Meanwhile, the armies of Rome were closing in from the West.
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Roman coins in the Republican Era
Once upon a time, writes Pliny the Elder, the Roman people had not only never minted gold coins, but had not even had their own silver coins. The only weight used was the bronze as weighing one Roman pound (libra). Ancient tradition had it that the first seals were impressed on bronze ingots during the reign of Servius Tullius.
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The first silver coins
3rd cent. B.C.
The need to control coin production in the most recently conquered Greek-settled areas of the peninsula prompted Rome, as early as the first half of the 3rd cent. B.C., to issue several series of coins marked with its name. Based on the Greek drachma, the coins were produced by Greek craftsmen in mints located in central and southern Italy.
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Asses and denarii
The first series of coins struck based on the Roman weight standard were the bronze as, initially cast coins, and the silver denarius, marked with the value X (ten) to indicate its rate of exchange with the as.
Roman units of weight
1 libra = 12 Roman ounces (uncia) = 288 scruples
Denarius/as exchange rate
POST 269 B.C. 1 denarius = 10 asses
POST 217 B.C. 1 denarius = 16 asses
Gold coins (aureus)
In the Republican age, gold was never systematically used to make coins.
The only gold coin issues known in the 3rd cent. B.C. (coins featuring an oath-taking scene, coins issued to finance the Second Punic War against Hannibal and those bearing the head of the god Mars) were minted in connection with military campaigns to ensure that supplies could be procured in foreign markets.The aureii featuring the helmeted head of Mars were the only ones minted based on the Roman weight system.
Cast bronze coins
The oldest bronze coins issued by Rome were cast coins. They initially weighed one Roman pound (libra), or about 327 g, which made them impossible to mint using the striking method. After the early stage when the coins featured a large variety of figures, Rome began to issue a series of asses with the image of a ship's prow on the reverse side.
In the 3rd cent. B.C. Rome began to mint the denarius, the first silver coin issue based on the libral standard and marked with images evoking the city's name and the history (the helmeted head of the goddess Roma on the front with the Dioscuri on horseback on the reverse) (see photo no. II.29).
Coins and political propaganda. The origin myth
The Roman ruling class quickly discovered that coins, especially silver ones, spreading out to every corner of the Republic, could serve as a powerful propaganda tool. They featured a variety of subjects, including those connected with celebrating the city's founding (Aeneas, the first kings, the abduction of the Sabine women, the she-wolf) - all however presented through the prism of contemporary political events.
Coins and political propaganda. Political parties
Starting from the 2nd cent. B.C. the denarius, overseen by the tresviri monetales, reflected the platforms of the political parties and the different factions competing for power.
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The Imperial Period
Augustan monetary system
The first major reform of the Roman monetary system was undertaken by degrees by Augustus.
The system was reorganized into a series of denominations in gold, silver, orichalcum and copper exchangeable at fixed rates. The Emperor, whose likeness began to appear on all issues, had exclusive power to choose the images featured on the coins.
1 aureus = 25 denarii = 100 sestertii = 400 asses
1 quinarius = 12.5 denarii= 50 sestertii = 200 asses
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Augustus used his highly expressive portrait to convey the image of a man, first among equals, who the gods had destined to save the Empire, bringing peace and prosperity to all peoples (see photo no. II.31).
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The successors of Augustus had a difficult task: from the conservative Tiberius, skilled at appeasing the powerful Senate, to the young Gaius, who paid with his life for the dream of ruling Rome like an Oriental potentate.
'A man is worth what he owns' Juvenal would write. During the reign of Claudius a wave of nouveau riche of humble origins built their fortunes. On his coins, the Emperor honoured his father, Nero Drusus, and announced the adoption of Nero, his designated heir.
Roman coinage, which remained basically unchanged following Augustus, was reformed in 64 A.D. by Nero. The weights of the denarius and the aureus were reduced and other metals were added to the silver coin. The rates of exchange between the coins were changed in a way that benefitted the holders of silver, which formed the cornerstone of the Emperor's new policy.
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During the Flavian period, the capital city finally had, to the great joy of its populace, its first amphitheatre built of stone. Domitian marked the achievement by declaring, for the first time since Augustus, the celebration of the ludi saeculares.
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According to Kriton, Trajan's physician, the booty from the Emperor's conquest of Dacia was enormous: 'five million pounds (libra) weight of gold, and the double of silver, besides a prodigious quantity of vessels and cups the number of which defies any evaluation' in addition to 'over 500,000 very bellicose prisoners with their arms and armouries' . His coinage carried to every corner of the Empire the image of the column erected in the Roman Forum to celebrate this victory.
Under Hadrian the art of portraiture on coins reached its zenith with a return to expressive forms in the Classical Greek tradition, while the variety of images on the backs of the coins helped to spread the idea of unity through Empire (see photo no. II.40).
But Rome's coinage, beautiful and with a persistently stable intrinsic value, began to show the first signs of collapse, fuelling speculation in the currency, so much so that Hadrian was forced to send a letter to the money lenders of Pergamum chastising them for their illicit gains made through currency trading.
The silver content of the denarius was considerably reduced (debased) in the second half of the 2nd century A.D., starting in the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, which led a rise in prices of staple goods. In an attempt to halt the climb in the price of silver, Marcus Aurelius substantially increased the volume of bronze coin (see photo no. II.42) issues of various denominations.
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Portrait of women in the Imperial Period
The first portraits of living women appeared on Roman coinage towards the end of the Republic. Mark Antony issued a series of coins featuring his wife, Octavia, and later, after his falling out with Octavian, he placed Cleopatra, titled Queen of Kings, on his currency. With the arrival of Augustus it became commonplace for all the members of the Imperial family, including its women, to appear on coins.
Symbol of the Empire's stability through dynastic continuity, the women of the Imperial family were featured heavily on Roman coins, leaving us with an extraordinary gallery of portraits, often of great artistic value. They have also enabled us to identify the subjects of many marble busts that otherwise would have remained unknown.
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Inflation in the 3rd century A.D.
The process of reducing the weight and fineness of the denarius, which began under the Julio-Claudian dynasty, became irreversible over the long term, prompting Caracalla to intervene by creating, between 214 and 215, a multiple of the denarius, the antoninianus, which was 50% silver and initially weighted about 5 g.
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Silver coins in the 4th century A.D.
Diocletian attempted to stem runaway inflation by instituting a series of reforms that led in 294 A.D. to the creation of a heavier nummus argenteus (silver coin). He retariffed existing coinage and, in the autumn of 301 A.D., he issued an Edict setting maximum prices on goods and services throughout the Empire.
- Day labourer 25/50 denarii
- Stonemason 50 denarii
- Marble worker 60 denarii
- Figure painter 150 denarii
- Goldwork embroiderer 1000/ denarii/uncia (Roman ounce)
- Teacher 250 denarii
- Pork 12 denarii/libra (Roman pound)
- Grain about 100 denarii/military ration
- Common wine 8 denarii/sextarius
- Falernian wine 30 denarii/sextarius
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Gold and coinage in the Imperial Period
Constantine (307-337 A.D.) abandoned the silver-based monetary system, making the pure gold solidus aureus the standard for the Empire's reformed currency. Each of these coins weighed 4 scruples (about 4.55 g) and 72 coins equalled one libra (Roman pound) of gold (see photo no. II.52 e no. II 53).
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The Emperor's seal backs copper coinage
Starting in 538 A.D. all bronze coin issues, except for the pentanoummion, were marked with the year of the Emperor's reign, a clear sign that these coins were treated like any other State document, which a law published on 31 August 537 required be stamped with the date of issue.