For several centuries prior to the invention of coined money the Greeks, then emerging from the dark ages following the destruction of Mycenaean civilization, had been engaged in colonization. The pressures created by an expanding population, together with the desire to foster trade led to the establishment of settlements far from the mother cities. Southern Italy and Sicily, and the northern coastline of the Aegean were areas particularly popular with the settlers, but colonies were also established in Spain, southern Gaul, north Africa and along the Black Sea coastline.
Prior to the advent of coinage, then, the Greeks were already widely scattered throughout much of the Mediterranean world, so it is hardly surprising that the new invention, once established, spread so rapidly over a large area. It is doubtful if we shall ever know the precise origin of the first coins but we can feel reasonably sure that this remarkable development occurred in the latter part of the 7th Century B.C., in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Whether it was the Ionian Greeks or their eastern neighbors, the Lydians, who made the first crude attempts at coinage it is impossible to say. But examples of these primitive pieces— globules of electrum without obverse or reverse design—have been found at the Ionian city of Ephesos; whilst the metal of which they are composed occurs as a natural alloy in the silt of the river which passes through the Lydian capital of Sardis.
Electrum sixth-stater of Ionia, late 7th Silver stater of Aigina, circa 530 B.C. Cent. B.C. / Silver stater of Aigina, circa 530 BC
In 560 B.C. Kroisos (Croesus) came to the Lydian throne. His reign was significant for the development of coinage, as he was responsible for the introduction of the first bimetallic currency—coins struck in both gold and silver, instead of the alloy electrum alone. This provided a much greater range of denominations and is evidence of the important part coinage was already playing in the economic life of the Lydian kingdom. In 546 B.C. Kroisos was defeated by Cyrus, King of the Medes and Persians. The Lydian kingdom ceased to exist and the Greek cities of Asia Minor were obliged to acknowledge Persian suzerainty. This was the beginning of the long struggle between Greeks and Persians which culminated in Alexander’s epic eastern campaign more than two centuries later.
The second half of the 6th Century witnessed the westward expansion of coinage from its origins in Asia Minor. Probably the first European city to issue coins was Aigina, situated on an island between Attica and eastern Peloponnese. Soon after followed the earliest coins of mints such as Athens, Corinth and the Euboian cities of Chalkis and Eretria. All of these mints were active from the middle of the century, or within the following decade. From these beginnings originated two of the important weight-standards to which many later Greek coinages adhered.
The Aiginetic standard, based on a silver didrachm-stater of about 12 grams, became very widespread in central Greece, Peloponnesos and the Aegean islands, including Crete. The Attic weight, with a didrachm of about 8.5 grams and, later, a tetra- drachm of 17 grams, was to become the principal standard of a later period, following Athens’ domination of the Aegean world throughout the latter part of the 5th Century. In the west the closing decades of the 6th Century also saw much activity in coin production at the colonies in southern Italy and in Sicily. A unique type of coin production was used at some of the Italian mints, in which the obverse type was ‘mirrored’ on the reverse, though incuse instead of in relief. This peculiar technique was abandoned in the early part of the 5th Century.
Silver stater of Poseidonia in Italy circa 530 BC Silver siglos of Darius I of Persia circa 500 BC
The conflict between Greeks and Persians which had been threatening in the closing decades of the 6th Century, suddenly erupted in 499 B.C. with the revolt of the Ionian cities of Asia Minor against Persian domination. Despite Athenian help the rebellion collapsed in 494 B.C., but there was only a short respite before hostilities recommenced. This time (490 B.C.) Darius of Persia sent a naval expedition against Athens, but after initial successes the Persian forces were decisively beaten at the battle of Marathon and were later obliged to return home. Darius died five years later and his son and successor, Xerxes, resolved to avenge the Persian humiliation by a full-scale invasion of Greece. This eventually took place in 480 B.C., after much preparation, when an immense Persian army crossed the Hellespont and advanced through Thrace and Macedon into Greece, supported by a large fleet.
Against all the odds the Greeks first checked the enemy at Thermopylai, then destroyed the Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis and, finally (in 479 B.C.), defeated the invading army at Plataia. This brought the conflict to an end and the Persians never again intervened directly in the affairs of mainland Greece.
These momentous events were to have far-reaching effects on the subsequent history of Greece. Athens emerged as the ‘saviour of the Greeks’ and capitalized on this to extend her influence throughout the Aegean world. The Confederacy of Delos, constituted soon after the victory over the Persians, was ostensibly an Athenian-led alliance of independent maritime states, dedicated to freeing the Ionian cities of Asia Minor from the Persian yoke. In reality, it quickly developed into an Athenian maritime empire, the annual contributions of the member-states being paid to Athens, making her the richest and most powerful state in main¬land Greece.
Silver tetradrachm of Athens, circa 485 BC Electrum stater of Kyzikos circa 430 BC
In the decades following the Persian wars Greek coinage was entering a transitional stage which was to see the stiff and unrealistic style of the early (archaic) period gradually give way to the more elegant representations of the classical era. Proper reverse types were now being employed by most mints in preference to the simple incuse squares which had typified most archaic issues. Silver was the primary metal used for coin production, right down to the tiniest denominations which were inconveniently small to use.
These were not generally replaced by token bronze coinage until the first half of the following century (after 400 B.C.). In Asia Minor, however, electrum—the metal of the earliest coins—was still extensively employed by important mints such as Kyzikos, Phokaia and Mytilene (the chief city of the island of Lesbos). As the power of Athens grew she attempted to place restrictions on the freedom of other states to issue silver coins, culminating in the enigmatic ‘Coinage Decree’ of circa 449 B.C. promulgated by Perikles, the author of Athenian imperialism. This measure brought about the severe curtailment of issues from many mints during the sixth and seventh decades of the century. But with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, in 431 B.C., Athens’ iron grip was relaxed.
Siher tetradrachm of Syracuse by the artist Kimon, circa 410 B.C.
The West (south Italy and Sicily) was relatively unaffected by these events and develop¬ments in Greece Here at about the same time as the Persian defeat, another great enemy of the Greeks—the Carthaginians—suffered humiliation at the hands of Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, when they attacked the Sicilian colonies.
Thereafter Syracuse became the dominant Greek state in the West, and the artists producing the dies for her coinage were in the forefront of a remarkable advance in numismatic art. The Greek coinage of Sicily in the closing decades of the 1st Century was to reach heights of artistic brilliance which were unmatched elsewhere and which served as an inspiration to the die-engravers of later periods.
Notable amongst the beautiful creations of this period are the noble dekadrachms by the engravers Euainetos and Kimon, and also the latter’s superb rendering of the facing female head in his masterpiece— the Arethusa head—on a Syracusan tetradrachm. Many of the Greek mints in Sicily participated in this blossoming of numismatic art, but the whole movement was brought to an abrupt end by the Carthaginian invasions at the end of the century (commencing 409 B.C.).
Silver tetradrachm of Athens, circa 430 BC
Athenian domination of the Aegean world was not destined to last beyond the closing years of this century. The Athenian mint, with its plentiful supplies of silver from the mines of Laurion, had produced prodigious quantities of tetradrachms from circa 449 B.C. Much of this wealth was used to finance grandiose building schemes in the city, such as the Parthenon, but after 431 B.C. ever-increasing sums were required to defray the costs of war.
The great Peloponnesian War was sparked-off by an incident at the Boeotian city of Plataia. It dragged on, intermittently, for the next twenty-seven years and was, m essence, a struggle for supremacy between the old arch-enemies, Athens and Sparta. Finally, in 404 B.C., Athens capitulated. She was financially and politically ruined, and although she made a remarkable recovery from this disaster in the first half of the following century, she never again achieved the pre-eminence which she had enjoyed during the age of Perikles.
Her mantle now passed to the Spartans who soon showed themselves to be too insular to establish and maintain a position of leadership amongst the Greek states. The first half of the 4th Century was a period of seemingly interminable strife, but despite the political confusion, these years saw the production of some of the most beautiful coins in the Greek series. Classical art had now reached a peak from which it was gradually to decline.
Silver tetradrachm of the Chalkidian League, circa 385 B.C.
These were also troubled years in the West. The Carthaginians had invaded Sicily and attacked many of the Greek cities at the end of the 5th Century. Dionysios, the powerful ruler of Syracuse, conducted a long and inconclusive war against the invaders which resulted in a division of the island between Greeks and Carthaginians. Dionysios also adopted an aggressive policy in southern Italy in order to extend the influence of Syracuse. But two great powers were beginning to arise on the fringes of the Greek world.
In the north, the Kingdom of Macedon was emerging from a period of confusion, led by its brilliant young ruler Philip II (359-336 B.C.). Philip’s ambitions knew no bounds, and he and his son, Alexander the Great, transformed the political face of the ancient world in less than three decades. In the west, however, another power was stirring; one which was destined, ultimately, to engulf the whole of the Mediterranean basin and reduce all the Greek lands to provincial status. That power was Rome.
Gold stater of Philip II of Macedon 359-336 BC Silver tetradrachm of Amphipolis circa 380 BC
In 357 B.C. Philip captured Amphipolis, an Athenian colony near the rich silver-mining area of Mt. Pangaion in eastern Macedon. Nine years later he destroyed Olynthos, the capital city of the Greek colonies forming the Chalkidian League. In 338 B.C., at the battle of Chaeronea, the combined forces of Athens and Thebes were defeated by Philip, who was now acknowledged as the master of Greece. At a congress of Greek states, held at Corinth, Philip was chosen to lead an attack on th; Persian Empire, in order to liberate the Greek cities of Asia Minor.
Preparations for this expedition were already far advanced when, in 336 B.C., Philip was assassinated and was succeeded on the Macedonian throne by his son, Alexander, known to posterity as ‘the Great.’ The remarkable series of military campaigns, by which Alexander destroyed the Persian power and established a Greek empire in its place, need not be described in detail here. Suffice it to say that his thirteen-year reign was a turning-point in Greek history.
The age of the city-states was over; its place being taken by an era marked by the dominance of great Kingdoms, such as the Ptolemaic in Egypt and the Seleukid in Syria and the east. With the eventual weakening and disintegration of these kingdoms came the spread of Roman power in the eastern Mediterranean.
Silver stater of Olympia, circa 360 B.C.
These great political changes were reflected in the coinage. As already mentioned, the first half of the 4th Century B.C., during which many of the city-states enjoyed their final period of autonomy, produced some of the artistic masterpieces of the Greek coinage. Noteworthy are the magnificent tetradrachms of Amphipolis with facing head of Apollo; those of Olynthos, in the name of the Chalkidians, with reverse type lyre; some of the staters issued at Olympia by the Eleans, with noble heads of Zeus and his consort Hera; and the fine staters of the Arkadians depicting, on the reverse, Pan seated upon a rock.
Some of the earlier issues of Philip II of Macedon are also of a high artistic standard; but as the territorial extent of Philip’s realm was extended and the coinage was produced in ever-increasing quantities, so the quality of the workmanship declined.
This is particularly noticeable in the coins issued after his death, though still in the name of Philip. Alexander’s money was an imperial coinage in every sense, unlike anything which the Greek world had seen before, with the possible exception of the Athenian tetradrachms of the Periklean age. But it set the pattern for centuries to come— mass produced regal issues largely replacing autonomous coins of individual cities. Inevitably this brought about a decline in artistic standards.
When many of the cities regained a degree of independence, in the 2nd Century B.C., the process had gone too far to be reversed. Some individual pieces amongst the autonomous coins of the late Hellenistic age might be called attractive rather than beautiful.
Silver tetradrachm of Alexander the Great 336-323 B.C. Gold stater of Philip III Arrhida 323-317 B.C
On the death of Alexander at Babylon (June, 323 B.C.) his vast realm, stretching from Macedon to India, became the object of endless disputes between his generals. These ‘wars of the Diadochi’ ultimately led to the formation of a number of independent kingdoms, though in the early years the appearance of unity was maintained. Officially, Alexander was succeeded by his infant son, Alexander IV, and by an idiot-brother or the great king, called Arrhidaeus, now named Philip (III).
During the minority of the boy-kings the responsibility for administering the huge empire rested with men such as Perdikkas, Antipater, Antigonos the One-eyed, Ptolemy, Seleukos and Lysimachos. These were the true successors of Alexander and some of them went on to found dynasties which endured for many generations. The unfortunate Alexander IV and Philip III met violent ends; both were dead within twelve years of Alexander the Great’s decease.
Silver tetradrachm of Ptolemy I of Egypt, circa 310-305 B.C.
Other than the original Kingdom of Macedon, the two great realms to emerge from these struggles were the Kingdom of Egypt, founded by Ptolemy, and the dominions of Seleukos, commonly known as the Seleukid Empire, comprising the greater part of Alexander’s conquests. About the middle of the 3rd Century B.C. the Seleukid Empire was further divided when the eastern provinces of Baktria and Parthia each achieved independence; the latter destined to survive for nearly five centuries and to become the troublesome eastern neighbor of the Roman Empire.
Meanwhile, in the west, the power of Rome was rapidly growing. Following her victory over Carthage in the First Punic War (241 B.C.) Rome acquired her first province— Sicily—and to this was added Spain in the closing years of the century. At about the same time came the first conflict with the Macedonian Kingdom, now ruled by the energetic Philip V
Silver tetradrachm of Philip V of Macedon 221-179 B.C.
221-179 B.C.). In 197 B.C., at the battle of Kynoskephalai, the Romans inflicted a heavy defeat on Philip. The following year the Roman general Flamininus made his celebrated proclamation of the ‘Freedom of Greece’ at the Isthmian Games. But in reality, Greece had merely become subject to a new and more powerful master.
The once proud Macedonian Kingdom lingered on for three decades more, under Philip V and his son Perseus, but was finally destroyed by the Romans in 168 B.C. Macedonia was divided into four republics and in 146 B.C. was reduced to provincial status.
Silver tetradrachm of Antiochos the Great (223-187 B.C.)
Roman conflict with another of the great Hellenistic monarchies, the Seleukid, came soon after the Macedonian defeat at Kynoskephalai. Antiochos III, the Great (223-187 B.C.), a bitter opponent of Rome, invaded Greece in 192 B.C. at the invitation of the Aitolians. Defeated at Thermopylai, Antiochos fled back to Asia Minor. The Romans relentlessly followed him there and in 190 B.C., at the battle of Magnesia (Caria), the power of the Seleukids was broken.
Most of their possessions in Asia Minor were given to King Eumenes of Pergamon, Rome’s ally during the campaign. The Seleukid Kingdom, now restricted to Syria and the surrounding area, maintained a precarious existence for more than a century. It finally succumbed to Pompey the Great in 64 B.C. The other great Hellenistic Kingdom, that of Egypt, was the furthest removed, geographically, from Rome’s eastward advance.
But Roman supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean from the early part of the 2nd Century necessitated the main-tenance of friendly relations on the part of the Greek rulers of Egypt.
Hellenistic states. Rome did not intervene directly in Egyptian affairs until 48 B.C., when Caesar, in pursuit of Pompey, came to Alexandria and found himself involved in a dynastic squabble between Queen Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy.
The story of Cleopatra, Caesar and Mark Antony is well known, and need not be recounted here. The upshot of the
whole affair was the termination of the three hundred year-old Greek dynasty in Egypt. Henceforth the country became part of the Roman Empire and was administered as a private estate of the emperor.