Coins from ancient times fascinate people since hundreds of years. Greek coins are especially famous for their fine style. Coins from Roman times impress with their highly political images. The rise of christianity can be traced in a special way on Byzantine coins. All ancient coins combine the aspects of an artwork and a primary source the reconstruction of history.
The Coinage of the Roman Republic
Our first Online Exhibition presents a selection of attractive Denarii and the exclusive view they offer on the history of the Roman Republic.
Celtic coins are an underrated area of collecting. The term celts stands for many smaller and bigger tribes ranging from the Black Sea region to Spain and Ireland. The coins and images strongly vary depending on tribe and time. Because of the close neighborhood to the Romans and especially Greeks, many celtic coins copy popular and well known Greek or Roman coins. Over time their style changed. The writing was first imitated by letters, later through letter-like symbols or only dots. The images dissolve, some elements are lifted out, others disappears. This leads to some highly stylized, almost modern looking artworks. At the same time in other regions, independently of those imitations, particular Celtic coin motifs were developed. Wildlife and human looking faces play a big role in celtic coinage.
Unfortunately the celts had no writing or literature. Besides the very subjective greek and roman literature, the material evidence, especially coins, help a lot to reconstruct their cultural, economical, political and social circumstances. The use of similar denominations shows a close economical link to the Greeks and Romans. Celtic coins usually date from around 300 to the early days of the 1st century AD.
Coins are one of many important inventions of the Greeks. They realized that it is much easier for the economy to use metal pieces that have a standardized weight and metal content. These coins from ancient Greece are famous for their exceptional style. The engraving of coin-dies became better and better and the engravers often used the hight of a relief for distinguished plastic depictions. Some of the engravers became renowned traveled from city to city and signed their coin-dies, so that we know their names 2,500 years later. The Greek coinage can be divided into three epochs: Archaic, Classical, Hellenism.
In the Archaic time (7th century-480 BC) the first coins were invented. In the 7th century the first coins were minted in Lydia, Asia minor. Many of them show only an image on the obverse, the reverse was minted with a hallmark, called incusum, that was at first just rough and later decorated. These early coins show a very distinctive style. Throughout hundred years this revolution spread in the whole Mediterranean region. A huge number of cities minted their own coins. Often they used a goddess or symbol that was iconic for their city.
The Classical period (480-323 BC) began with the end of the Persian wars after which Athens became more powerful. This time was dominated by the well-known Athenian owl coin. The world experienced a change in art, architecture, painting, vase painting, poetry, philosophy and literature. The style on coins followed this shift. The compositions became more diverse and complex and the depictions more vibrant and physical.
Alexander the Great is one of the most famous persons form antiquity. He united the Greeks and conquered the Persian empire. With his dead the Hellenism (323-30 BC) started. The empire of Alexander was divided by his generals into kingdoms. Of whom the biggest three were the Antigonid, the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic empire. These kings started minting their own characteristic portraits on coins, an honor previously only granted to gods. In this time the representation of the kings became more important and many images on coins referred to the king or had a political meaning.
The Roman coinage began with two significant influences. In northern Italy casted bronze bars were used for monetary circulation, in southern Italy the Greek colonies took over the struck coins. At first the Romans used both systems. In 210 BC., during the 2nd punic war, the famous denarius that was used for over 450 years was introduced. It first showed the head of Roma on the obverse and the Dioscuri on the reverse. Over time goddesses in quadrigae and bigae appeared on the reverses.
The images on denarii changed around 140 BC, from now on they had a connection to the private or familiy background. Many coins feature details which relate to action of the ancestors of the moneyer. In the first century BC. politics in ancient Rome became more and more turbulent. Under Marius and Sulla the coins were used more and more as a political tool. This development reached its peak during the civil war between Octavian and Marcus Antonius. Many of the images on coins referred directly to the soldiers who were paid with them. Particularly Octavian understood the power of coins and used them to represent himself, his politics and ideas. Coins had the big advantage that they spread rapidly in the entire empire. No medium like this reached the majority of the population quicker. One can see just in the portraits of the emperor not only personal traits but also his political attitude.
Not every emperor recognized this potential, but it is known that notably the ones who had an affinity for ancient Greece introduced or fall back to motifs with a sophisticated message.
Simultaneously to the regular coinage themed series, special coins or medallions of fine style were produced that were probably meant for a small group of highly educated, rich and powerful persons.
Aside from motifs with military or victorious representations, which were always very common, different goddesses and personification appeared as well as the emperor himself, architectural presentations, members of the emperor’s family, animals and much more. Every detail had a particular meaning. This helps researchers researching emperors known little through literature.
Besides the Roman Imperial Coinage that was controlled by the emperor or high ranked officials, the Roman provinces produced their own bronze or copper coins for local circulation. These coins are often more intricate than the imperial ones. They present regularly complex mythical depictions and images in close connection to the city that issued it. Frequently the coins can be attributed to a specific event or to a person that financed them.
In Greek times, the city of Byzantion, after which one of the greatest empires was later named, the Byzantine Empire, was only a small city. Under Constantin I the Great it was converted into a metropolis with the representative seat of the emperor and renamed Constantinopolis. During the turmoil of the Migration Period and the fall of the Western Roman empire, Constantinopolis stayed save for several hundred years. The constant and stable political system can also be seen in the coinage. The Solidus, introduced by Constantine I the Great was the most important coin in the Byzantine Empire as well as the whole Mediterranean region until the 12th century. No other empire of this size was that constant in terms of its political, cultural and military system.
The culture and especially the coinage was massively influenced by the triumphal procession of Christianity. Especially the Byzantine iconoclasm left its marks and the coins. They usually not only show the emperor, but also Jesus, Mary and other saints or images connected to them. Through the great proximity between the Orient and the Occident, the empire benefited from both cultures. The huge number of gold coins presents the emperor in rich garments expresses their wealth.