Method and Theory in Classics
Making money in Greece and Rome 2
For further information on ‘how coins were made’ (pages 200-201) it is
worth looking at T. Rihll ‘Making money in classical Athens’ in D. Mattingly
and J. Salmon eds. Economies Beyond Agriculture in the Classical World
(London 2001), especially for issues of technology and logistics. (see the
end of this handout)
‘A coin is a piece of metal which conforms to a standard and
bears a design’. (Howgego 1995, 1)
• Not all money is coins: obvious in the modern world, where we
have not only paper money but cheques, credit cards, bearer bonds
and electronic methods of currency transfer, but easier to forget for
the ancient world (and ancient coins were often very high value
monetary instruments, in stark contrast with their modern
counterparts). The near east managed to operate sophisticated
monetized economic systems for centuries before the invention of
coinage (and continued perfectly happily in many areas afterwards),
using weighed bullion (usually silver). On the other hand, not
everything that looks like a coin is money: medals and tokens,
• The ‘standard’ in question is a weight standard (see previous
• Coinage is not a Greek invention but is most enthusiastically
adopted by the Greeks after its invention in western Asia Minor; it is
by the Greeks that coins are developed which influence all later
‘Western’ coinage (including Indian and Islamic coinages) right up to
the present day. The other major tradition is the quite different one
developed by the Chinese (which in turn heavily influences Korean,
Japanese and Vietnamese coinages).
• The earliest coinages are struck in electrum (a naturally occurring
alloy of silver and gold), but Greek coinage is overwhelmingly
made of silver. Copper alloy is sometimes used for smaller
denominations, but in many places in the classical period ‘small
change’ is made of tiny silver fractions (Athens is one of the last
places to adopt a fractional copper alloy coinage for small scale
transactions, in the mid-fourth century). Gold coinage (apart from
Persian ‘Darics’) is not common until the reign of Philip II of
Macedon, whose new gold coinage had a profound impact on later
coinages way beyond his own kingdom – and not just because of the eastward expansion of Hellenic culture that came with Alexander’s
conquests (although the latter did play a role in the expansion of the
use of coinage in the near east).
• Coin designs can have three elements: type (the main images);
inscription/legend; accessory symbols (e.g. mint marks, issue
marks). Not all are present on all coins (although they are all
present in modern Canadian coinage).
• Note that successful coinages are very often extremely
conservative – in Greek coinage this is most apparent in Athenian
tetradrachms (four drachma coins), which change relatively little
over the course of the classical period but similar trends can be
observed in more recent coinages (again, illustrated to some extent
by modern Canadian coinage...).
• Greek coins are mostly more-or-less round, and are relatively thick
(compared to most modern coinages).
• The designs are hammered (or ‘struck’), not cast.
• The first stage in coin manufacture is to acquire the metal; before
the Roman empire most mints maintained very high levels of
fineness (97-99%), indicating high quality refining processes. It must
then be made into blanks (or ‘flans’) before they are struck. This can
be done in a number of ways: by casting or moulding, by stamping
them out of a sheet (though it is unclear whether this was done in
antiquity) or perhaps cut off rods. (Greek blanks are mainly cast).
• To turn the blank into a coin it is struck with dies, made from iron or
toughened bronze and hand-engraved in negative. One die is set
into an anvil, the (sometimes heated) blank is placed on top, and
then forced into that die with a short bar or punch which is struck
from above by a hammer.
• The lower die produces the obverse of the coin; the other side is
• The first coinages have designs only on one side, almost always on
the obverse side. The blank coin (flan) was forced into the die with a
punch or group of (usually four) punches closely bound together.
The punches leave a distinctive mark on the reverse of the coin,
called an incuse. (This also served the purpose of revealing that the
coin was precious metal all the way to the middle). La