It is not an exaggeration that ancient art reached a high point in Classical Greece. The Greek Classical period lasted from the Ionian revolt (500 BCE) to the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE). At that point in history, the Greek world was divided into roughly 2.000 city-states; most with their unique coin production and imagery.
Today ancient Greek coins are also numismatic coins. This means that they are worth more than the value of their precious metal and are therefore valuable collectibles. Their added value is mainly a result of their ancient history and rarity.
In this article, we will explore 15 distinctive ancient Greek coins of the Classical period. We will focus specifically on cities from mainland Greece, the Aegean islands, and Asia Minor.
All about Ancient Greek Coins
The Lydians or the Ionian Greeks introduced coinage sometime in the 7th century BCE. The first coins were made of electrum (a mix of gold and silver) and quickly spread throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. By the beginning of the Classical period in Greece, every major city had its own elaborate coin types. Ancient Greek coins of that point were mainly issued in silver and bronze.
Ancient coins sold in auctions today are numismatic coins. Their value depends on a series of factors like quality, rarity, historical value, material, and others. However, in antiquity, two factors mainly determined a coin’s value; material and weight. To facilitate trade, ancient Greek cities began following certain weight standards. The most popular were:
- The Attic (Athenian), based on the Attic drachma (4.3 g. of silver)
- The Corinthian, based on the Corinthian stater (8.6 g. of silver)
- The Aeginitan, based on the Aeginetan stater (12.2 g. of silver)
The coinage of each city-state employed symbols drawn from history and myth. These symbols (badges) were representations of the city and made its coins easily recognizable. Worth noting is that in ancient numismatics (the study of ancient coinage) a coin’s front-side is called obverse and its back-side reverse.
Aegina is an island near Athens in the western Aegean. The city of Aegina was a Dorian colony of the city of Epidaurus. During the Persian invasion of Greece, Aegina initially submitted to the Persians. However, it restored its image by fighting valiantly in the Naval battle of Salamis (480 BCE) alongside the Athenians.
The first silver ancient Greek coins belong to the city of Aegina. The Aeginitan standard was based on a silver didrachm or stater. These coins were used widely in areas without silver coinage such as Egypt and the Levant. The widespread circulation of Aeginitan coins led multiple Aegean cities to adopt the Aeginitan weight standard.
Aegina’s badge was the tortoise. The standard reverse type of the city’s coinage was an incuse design also called “skew”.
Chios is an island right across the Asiatic coast. Chios during the archaic period was a subject of Persia. The beginning of the fifth century found the island fighting for its independence. Finally, it joined the Delian League of Athens. Nevertheless, Chios fought against the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War and again in the Social War (357–355 BC).
The sphynx remained the numismatic badge of the city until the third century BCE. The reverse side of its coinage commonly featured an amphora with a bunch of grapes. This served as an indication of the island’s wealth and trading activity which relied on the local wine.
Kos was part of the Dorian Pentapolis alongside the cities of Lindos, Ialysos, Kamiros, and Knidos. Located in the eastern Aegean near the coast of Asia, the city presented a rich numismatic tradition. In the classical period, the crab became the city’s badge. During the fourth century, Kos produced coins with various themes mainly drawn from the legend of the hero Heracles. However, the crab is consistently encountered on Kos’s coinage, reminding us of its island culture.
The island of Thasos in the Northern Aegean was known for its cult of Dionysus (Bacchus). Dionysus was the god of wine and music. His cult had spread from the east and had reached Thasos from the neighboring region of Thrace.
Thanks to its rare mineral wealth, Thasos issued coins in both silver and bronze during the fourth and third centuries. Many coins depicted orgiastic scenes and mythical beings related to Dionysus. Among the most interesting coins of the island portrayed Dionysus’s companion-god Silvanus running while carrying a nymph. The nymph was protesting her abduction while the bodies of the two formed the shape of a swastika; a common symbol in ancient Greek art.
Samos is an island located right across the Greek Ionian cities of Asia Minor. It was the first island to use coins during the early sixth century. Just like the other Ionian cities, Samian early coins were electrum staters. During the Classical period, the Samians issued coins with a lion’s head on the obverse and a bull on the reverse side. Another type with the prow of a Samian galley (the Samaina) became also common on silver tetradrachms.
In 408/7 BCE the cities of Lindos, Ialysos, and Kamyros founded the city of Rhodes to be the capital of their newfound state. This quickly expanded to include areas in Asia and the surrounding islands. These conquests brought wealth and fame to the Rhodian capital which kept growing.
Rhodes was one of the few Greek cities with enough wealth to produce gold coinage in the Attic standard. Without a doubt, Rhodian coins are among the most beautiful ancient Greek coins. Their high quality combined with the rich Rhodian history also means that they are among the finest numismatic coins of the Classical Period. Their obverse side featured the sun-god Helios, the husband of the island of Rhodes. The Rhodians had also devoted a massive statue to the God. Known as the Colossus of Rhodes, the statue was one of the seven miracles of the ancient world. The reverse side depicted a rose. This was meant as a pun, as the Greek word for rose (rhodos) sounded just like the name of the city.
The dominant numismatic type of the island of Melos was an apple (or pomegranate). This was not a random choice. In Greek, the island’s name sounds exactly like the word for apple (melon). Just like the rose of Rhodes, the apple of Melos was a punning representation of the island’s name. Moreover, it is helpful to remember that most people in antiquity were illiterate. These punning representations could help someone instantly recognize the origin of a coin.
Coin production in Melos stopped for a brief time after a famous episode in the Peloponnesian War. The Melians tried to help the Spartans, with whom they were related (both were Dorians) while maintaining their neutrality. Melos, a minor island power, did not want to provoke Athens, the naval superpower of the time. However, in 416/5 Athens offered Melos an ultimatum: pay tribute and join the Delian League or be destroyed.
Thucydides describes a fascinating dialogue between the representatives of the two cities. The Athenians explained that no help would come from Sparta and that the city was doomed unless it surrendered. The Melians finally chose to fight holding honor above everything and hoping that the Spartans will help them. In the ensuing siege, the Athenian army destroyed the city of Melos. All male citizens were slaughtered, and all women and children sold to slavery. It was not until 405 BCE that Spartans ended the reign of Athens on the island.
Cnossus was a city in Crete and an important commercial center since the Greek Bronze Age. Cnossus’s history was rooted in myth.
The labyrinth in the obverse side of Cnossian coinage was a reference to the myth of the minotaur. The story goes as follows. King Minos of Crete prayed for a strong white bull to sacrifice to sea-god Poseidon. The god granted his wish. However, Minos saw the beauty of the animal and decided to keep it. To that purpose, he sacrificed another bull to the god. Poseidon did not like this and decided to punish the king. He then enchanted Minos’s wife Pasiphae who fell madly in love with the bull that Minos had kept for himself. From their union, a terrible beast was born. This was the Minotaur, half man and half bull.
Naturally, Minos wanted to hide the beast which was a great shame for him. To that end, he ordered Daedalus, the legendary inventor, to build a great labyrinth. Daedalus completed the work and Minos placed the Minotaur in its center. Theseus another legendary Greek hero finally slew the monster in another episode of the myth.
The labyrinth remains one of the most easily recognizable symbols on ancient Greek coins. Its importance must have been great for the people of Cnossus. The labyrinth was not simply a visual reference to the myth of the Minotaur. It was also a reminder of a legendary past where kings, heroes, monsters, and gods walked the earth. A legendary past where the Cretans dominated the world.
The city of Gortyna, or Gortys was the other most important Cretan city of the period. Gortyna chose another myth for its coins. The most common issues portrayed the abduction of the beautiful nymph Europa by Zeus transformed into a bull. In honor of Europa, Gortyna celebrated the festival of Ellotia. Interestingly the continent of Europe is named after Europa.
On the obverse side, Europa appeared sitting in a tree while the reverse side depicted a bull as a symbol of Zeus. This means that Gortynian coins told the same story in both of their sides.
Thebes was a city in the region of Boeotia. It was also called the Seven-Gated Thebes in contrast to the Hundred-Gated Thebes of Egypt. The city had a rich political and military history balancing between the great forces of the time. During the Persian invasion, the Thebans joined Athens and Sparta while their aristocrats supported the Persian king Xerxes. In the Peloponnesian War, the Thebans took Sparta’s side and exited the war in good condition.
In the following years, Thebes gradually developed into a formidable power. Thanks to the military leadership of Pelopidas and Epaminondas, Thebes triumphed over the Spartans in Leuctra (371 BCE). This was the beginning of a short-lived Theban hegemony. The aspirations of Thebes came to an end soon after the battle of Mantineia (362 BCE). While the Thebans won against the Spartans, they lost their greatest leaders and a good part of their army. The city never fully recovered.
Thebes’s coinage is one of the most distinct in the Greek world. The most common type featured the characteristic Boeotian shield on the obverse and an amphora on the reverse side.
Athens proved itself a formidable power after successfully defeating the Persians in Marathon (490 BCE) and Salamis (480 BCE). By the end of the War, Athens posed as the defender of Greek autonomy and the protector of democracy.
The Athenian rise to power provoked the Spartans who were until then the uncontested military leader of the Greek world. To protect their interests, both sides created strong alliances which eventually clashed violently in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). Sparta emerged victoriously, but the cost of the conflict was too great for everyone. The city-state would never recover its strength facilitating the transition to the reign of Macedon.
Athenian coinage followed the Attic standard. The position of Athens as a leading naval power allowed it to dominate trade in the Aegean. Besides, the Laurion mines, located near the city, provided a great supply of silver. This meant that the city could mint high-quality coins which eventually became the standard for trade in the Classical period.
Athenian coins depicted an owl on the obverse side. For this reason, they were called “owls”. Athens’s protector deity was the goddess Athena. The Parthenon was her temple and the owl her sacred symbol.
Today the owls are the most popular and easily recognizable ancient Greek coins. This means that the finest and rarest amongst them are prized numismatic coins.
Corinth was a major city located between Athens and Sparta. For a long time, Corinth dominated naval trade by controlling a key geostrategic area between the Peloponnese and the rest of mainland Greece. The city accumulated so much wealth from trade that Horace said: “Not everyone is able to go to Corinth.”
Furthermore, in Corinth took place the Conference that developed into the Hellenic League; an alliance of Greek cities (including Athens and Sparta) against the Persian invasion. Later, Corinth’s dispute with its colony Corcyra led to a major conflict that sparked the Peloponnesian War. At that point, the city allied itself with the Spartans. After the war, Corinth fought against every great city in a series of conflicts that further weakened its position.
Corinthian coins commonly featured Pegasus – the mythical winged horse of Bellerophon, Corinth’s legendary hero. The other side of the coin depicted the head of Athena wearing the so-called Corinthian helmet. The symbol koppa (ϙ) is always present in the coinage of the period as a symbol of the city’s archaic name (Ϙόρινθος).
Ephesus was an Attic-Ionian colony on the coast of Asia Minor and part of the twelve cities of the Ionian League. The city was known for its temple of Artemis; one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Due to its position, Ephesus was in contact with the eastern civilizations that first issued coins. As such, the city produced its own early coins made of electrum in the archaic period.
The ancient Greek coins of Ephesus consistently depicted a bee. The beauty of the symbol is undoubtedly self-evident. The bee was one of the symbols of Artemis, a goddess associated with nature and hunting. Worth noting is that the high priest of the Artemis Temple was called the King-Bee while the priestesses honeybees. The elegant bees of Ephesus make for fine numismatic coins that enjoy privileged positions in auctions today.
The Ionian city of Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor was among the pioneers of coinage just like Ephesus. Archaic Miletus used electrum coins with a lion’s head on the obverse and an incuse square on the reverse. Initially, Ephesus had its own weight standard but adopted the Aeginetean by the beginning of the Classical period. Following the Persian Wars, the city abandoned electrum and embraced silver for its coinage. It also replaced the incuse square with variations of floral ornamentation.
During the 4th century, the obverse type of Milesian coinage featured an image of Apollo and the reverse a lion with a rose or a star.
1. Mytilene’s Beautiful Numismatic Coins
Mytilene competed with the city of Methymna for dominion over the island of Lesbos. The city lied in the eastern side of the island across the Asiatic mainland. During the classical period, Mytilene became the center of the island.
Mytilene is famous for standing against the Athenian empire in 428 BCE amidst the Peloponnesian War. The Mytilenian uprising provoked anger and frustration in Athens. Initially, the extreme voices prevailed, and the Athenian assembly sent ships to destroy Mytilene, kill all men, and sell women and children into slavery.
Overnight, everyone started having second thoughts and, by dawn, the city was shocked. A new assembly canceled the previous decision and a fast ship was sent to stop the invasion in its tracks. Fortunately, the ship succeeded, and the Athenian army learned of the new orders moments before launching an attack. The people of Mytilene never learned that they had barely escaped destruction.
Coin collectors are probably familiar with the beauty of coins from Mytilene. Besides, this was the only city that kept issuing electrum coins until 326 BCE. The denomination favored for electrum coinage was called hekte. The Mytilenians also experimented with billon coins (a mixture of silver and bronze).
The coins of Mytilene did not follow a certain iconography and are usually anepigraphic (without inscriptions). They are distinct not because of their imagery but their quality and rare material. Various gods, heroes, and symbols appear on the hektes of the city. However, Apollo, Artemis, Leda, and the lyre have a unique place on its coin production.
Due to their uniqueness in terms of material (electrum), iconography, and quality, Mytilenian issues are numismatic coins of high value. A beautiful coin from Mytilene is surely a prized item for every collection of ancient Greek coins.
Bonus: Where are the Ancient Greek Coins from Sparta?
In this article, we saw ancient Greek coins from 15 Greek city-states. We saw coins from every major Greek power of the time except for one, Sparta.
Sparta or Lacedaemon was famous for its disciplined society. Truly, the city invested heavily in the education and military training of its citizens. The result was a powerful army that no other Greek city could match. This is exactly why the Spartans boasted that the walls of Sparta were its citizens.
Spartan discipline and conservatism shaped a law that forbade the circulation of Spartan coinage. Instead, the Spartans traded using the pelanoi – large iron ingots. Why? Because the pelanoi had no value in the rest of Greece and were difficult to save. This way the city encouraged its citizens to avoid the material pleasures that come with a wealthy life. Such pleasures were seen as a sloppy path towards an Athenian-like “softness” of mind and body.
Sparta finally started producing coins around 300 BCE when it no longer played an important political role. The city-state had already given its place to the large empires of Alexander’s successors.