Ancient Coin Vocabulary

Describing Ancient Coins

The Vocabulary of Classical Numismatics


This site has been dedicated to the spreading of the 'word' on ancient coins. While some attempt has been made to do this in comprehensible English, it has been necessary to use a specialized vocabulary that might not be understood fully by every person. This series of pages will attempt to correct this problem. We will present terms needed to describe coins by showing examples that illustrate those words. The order will be somewhat random as they occur on our examples. The purpose of this list is assisting the students' understanding not the simple memorization of an alphabetical vocabulary list. Words considered significant will be presented in bold type. Words defined in more detail on other pages of this site will show hyperlinks. Some explanations of the needed vocabulary are too extensive to repeat on this page so readers are encouraged to visit these additional pages. In most cases, only the first presentation of a term has been highlighted. Much of this material will seem obvious to most collectors but my mail suggests that there is a great variety of backgrounds of people newly interested in ancient coins. Perhaps this page will facilitate communications by leveling the playing field.

This site has been named "Ancient Greek & Roman Coins". Paragraphs below and on following pages will consider Greek & Roman. Ancient is used to separate time periods before the fall of Rome (traditional date 476 AD) and later which are termed medieval and modern. Unfortunately, pigeonholing history is not all that simple. Rome did not fall with a crash when the last emperor (Romulus Augustus) was deposed. By that year, the center of the Roman world had been moved East to Constantinople and would continue more or less uninterrupted until 1453 AD when the Byzantine empire fell to the Ottoman, Muhammad the Conqueror. Many collectors choose not to separate the Eastern Roman and Byzantine periods and collect both even thought they do not collect medieval coins from western Europe or the rest of the world. The simple fact is that there is no clear line separating antiquity and the middle ages and students will encounter references that consider dates in this period in quite different manners. Is it possible for a Byzantine event of 500 AD to be considered ancient while the same year in France is medieval? Perhaps it is better to understand that history does not come in the neat little packages some would prefer.

Coins are pieces of metal of pre-determined value used to facilitate commerce and represent wealth. Before coins existed, lumps of metal were weighed and used as items of value. Standardized lumps made it unnecessary to weigh the metal before each transaction. The next step was to mark the lumps with a sign that they were appropriate for commerce at the standard value. These steps took place over a period of centuries (roughly the 7th and 6th centuries BC). Exactly where along this timeline lumps of metal became 'coins' is not a matter of full agreement among students of numismatics (the study of coins). Stamped ingots of various weights and standard sized but unmarked lumps are included or excluded by persons of differing opinions. If you were seeking a precise date and place for the invention of coinage you won't find it here. Having failed to define either Ancient or Coins we will proceed to see if we fare better with Greek and Roman.

Greek

Ancient Greek coins included issues from far beyond the borders of modern Greece. Coin producing cities throughout the Mediterranean and as far East as India can be considered, to some degree, Greek. While hardly correct, there seems to be a tendency to classify all ancient coins that are not Roman as Greek. Many (not all) of these 'not-so-Greek' Greek coins bore legends in Greek to facilitate trade with the Greek speaking world. Greek colonies were founded throughout the Mediterranean. These cities were thoroughly Greek in culture. Cities in Southern Italy and Sicily produced some of the most famous 'Greek' coins. Collectors separate Greek coins into periods by date. This page will discuss Greek coins while a second covers coins that are sometimes included in books on Greek coins but that are better considered separately. Example coins will be discussed introducing terms as they become appropriate.

Aigina, AR(silver) stater, c.500 BC, 12.0g
The earliest Greek coins are termed Archaic. Generally produced before the middle of the 5th century BC, Archaic coins are characterized by thick, often lumpy, fabric frequently with a simple punch mark on the reverse of the coin. The stater is one of the common denominations of Greek coins but several different weight standards were used across the Greek world so not all coins termed 'staters' are the same weight. The design on a coin is termed the type. This coin shows the type of a sea turtle, the badge of the island city Aigina. The turtle was engraved in reverse into a metal die which was placed on an anvil. A lump of silver was placed on the die, covered with a punch and struck with a hammer. Even in the Archaic period, flans, the blanks on which coins were struck, were usually more regular (rounded) than our example. Most flans were produced by casting in molds with no design (the type being added by striking). A very few coins were cast in detailed molds rather than struck in the process described above. Some Archaic coins replaced the reverse punch with another die allowing two sided coins which became the standard by the next period.

Athens, AR Obol c.480 BC, .7g
While large silver coins are more popular with collectors, more of the day to day commerce probably utilized several fractional denominations which also varied greatly from place to place. Our obol (1/6 drachm) was joined in circulation by denominations as small as its eighth (the hemitartemorion) weighing less than 0.1g! Such small silver was need for daily commerce in the days before bronze coinage was issued for this purpose. The example shown here is the most famous type of ancient Greek coin: the Owl of Athens. The same design was used on the 17g tetradrachm worth 24 obols. The coin shows the head of Athena while the punch has been decorated with an owl and the city name AQE (the theta being very weak on our coin). Abbreviations are much more commonly found on Greek coins than fully spelled out legends (words or letters used as part of the coin design). The punch was considerably smaller than the blank on which it was struck placing the reverse design in an incuse square. Athens used this same type, with minor variations, for several centuries. The Owls served as the standard currency for much of the Greek world and tetradrachms survive in huge numbers. Fractions are somewhat more scarce since most hoards (groups of coins buried together for safekeeping by their ancient owners) were made up of the larger denominations and the tiny silver was more likely to be used up in daily commerce. Literature refers to these easily lost coins being carried in the mouths of their pocketless owners but the extent of this practice is not certain. While far from certain, the coin on the right in our illustration appears to have a tooth mark in the center.

Akragas, Sicily, AE (bronze) Tetras, 425-406 BC, 6.8g
To correct the difficulties caused by such small silver coins, many cities issued minor denominations in bronze. Collectors use the term 'bronze' to mean any alloy of copper due to uncertainty on which of many variations was used for any given coin. This distinction is made much more difficult by the fact that copper alloys take on a natural surface coating, the patina, that prevents seeing the original color of the metal. Here we see a coin of the city Akragas located in Sicily. It is coated with a green patina (the most common color) with blotches of red overlaying. Patina can add great beauty to a coin if it is smooth and even but can detract if rough, thick or unevenly colored. Red rarely covers a whole coin surface and usually detracts. Here it might be said to look like splattered blood from the scene of the (Akragas) eagle eating the (enemy) hare. :) Between the crab and shrimp, appropriate types for an island city, there are three dots that indicate the denomination. Each dot represents 1/12th of the standard litra (usually a silver coin not too different in size from the obol used in the Athenian system but sometimes a larger bronze coin). Three dots equals 3/12ths or 1/4 (tetras). Four dots would be 1/3 or a trias. A very common mistake for beginners is to confuse these two names. Remember the words are fractions of twelve not a count of the dots. Other common denominations are the onkia (one dot), hexas (two dots) and hemilitron (six dots).

Corinth, AR stater, 350-325 BC, 8.3g
From the middle of the 5th century until the time of Alexander the Great (died 323 BC), Greek coins were produced in Classical style. This was the period of finest art in Greek coinage. Many cities used types featuring the city badge, frequently a patron god or animal of local importance. Our example shows the winged horse Pegasus on the obverse (anvil side of the die) and the head of Athena on the reverse (punch side). Some collectors simplify the definition of obverse and reverse into 'heads' and 'tails' in which case this coin's sides would be given the opposite identities. This is a minor point not really worth the arguments that it has caused among collectors. In most cases, the more important type was placed on the obverse and given the anvil position (anvil dies lasted longer than punch dies). A few coins such as our example allow discussion of which was the more important type. Technically, the striking process caused the reverse field (blank area surrounding the types) to be slightly concave while the obverse tends to be more flat. Under Pegasus (in the lower obverse field) is qoppa the initial letter of the city (then spelled Qorinth). Behind the head of Athena (in the right reverse field) is a small figure of victory used as a minor type or symbol. Minor types are small elements of the design that were used to indicate series within an issue, magistrates responsible for the coin production or to define other matters of internal mint organization. They do not necessarily relate to the main type and often are found in a huge variety on different coins of the same design. There are hundreds of versions of this Corinthian coin made different by minor types on one or both sides. Similarly, there are hundreds of other cities which issued coins during the Classical period. A complete collection of Greek coins is an unattainable goal.

Alexander III, AR Tetradrachm, 336-323 BC, Salamis mint, 17.2g
Son of Philip II, king of Macedon, Alexander the Great expanded his territories to extend from the Mediterranean to India. The armies to make such conquests required huge quantities of coins and, in turn, added huge fortunes to the royal treasury. As was the case of the Athenian Owls in earlier times, the coinage of Alexander became the standard trade currency of his era and centuries to follow. Alexander, during his lifetime, issued coins from several mints. Following his death, coins of his types were issued by many authorities wishing to take advantage of the high esteem in which these coins were held by tradesmen of the day. Reliably good silver and weight, Alexander type coins were issued by the millions. Showing a head of Herakles on the obverse and a seated Zeus holding his eagle on the reverse, these varieties can be separated by specialists using the minor types and initials (here a bow). Later coins of this series are believed to model the features of Herakles after Alexander himself but the time for open portraiture on coins was still to come in the Greek world. Our example represents the most common large silver coin of the Greeks. The tetradrachm or coin of four drachms was, like the stater, also issued under several different weight standards. Single drachms (1/4 the size but otherwize similar to our example) were also issued by Alexander in great quantity. While some cities issued other multiples of the drachm, the tetradrachm is by far the most common. Many of these coins probably never circulated but were coined as a method of accounting for stocks of silver bullion. Again like the Owls, today they exist in quantities sufficient to allow at least one in every collection. A coin so popular and trusted was an obvious target for counterfeiters. Our example was tested to be certain it was pure silver to the core with a test cut (perhaps, here, made by a chisel). Collectors strongly discriminate against coins with this damage but it must have been reassuring to the man on the street who expected full value of good silver to be in each and every coin.

Ptolemy I, Egypt, 305-283 BC, AR tetradrachm, 13.7g
Following the death of Alexander the Great, the Greek world was divided up among his generals. Each formed a separate kingdom and attempted to found a dynasty in their own region. Greek history from this time until the Roman conquest is known as the Hellenistic age. During this period it became fashionable to place a portrait of the ruler on the coins. Our example shows Ptolemy I whose Dynasty ruled in Egypt until the last of his line, Cleopatra VII (the famous one), lost Egypt to Caesar Augustus (Octavian) in 31 BC. Male rulers of this line were all named Ptolemy and most females of the family were named Cleopatra. Confusion in the minds of students is virtually certain. Modern historians have applied Roman numerals to separate these people sharing a name but coins were never marked in this manner. Hellenistic portraits are often brutally realistic portraying the real faces that ruled their world. The obverse is anepigraphic (without legend) but the eagle on the reverse is flanked by Greek legend "of Ptolemy the King". The left reverse field contains two monograms (letter or group of letters formed into one design) used to indicate mint and magistrate information (in place of minor types used for the same purposes by other issues). The right fields on both sides bear countermarks or bankers marks in this case signifying that the coin had been tested and found to be good by the person applying the mark. Other countermarks were used to revalue an issue or extend its acceptability to a different region. These marks varied from simple punches to ornate designs of extreme artistic merit in their own right.

Antiochos VI Dionysos, AE21 (Bronze coin of 21mm diameter), 145-142 BC
The dynasty ruling Syria and surrounding regions during the Hellenistic period was the Seleukids (descendants of Alexander's general Seleukos). Many male rulers of this line were named Seleukos or Antiochos so, as with the Ptolemies, students need to use care to keep the names and numerals straight. Making matters better or worse, depending on one's point of view, many of these kings are also named by Epithets or descriptive nicknames. Examples are 'the Great', 'Savior', 'who loves his father' or (as here) 'Dionysos' (after the god). Our example is a 21mm diameter bronze coin of less than certain denomination. Collectors traditionally refer to Greek bronzes by the abbreviation AE followed by the measurement of the greatest diameter of the coin. This, at least, identifies the size of the coin if it fails to tell where the value was fixed in commerce. Some Seleukid bronzes were struck on blanks that had been cast in molds with what some scholars call serrated edges. This term is, to this student, inadequate to describe the projections on the edge of these coins. This student prefers to refer to these coins with the (no more accurate) term bottle caps. Rather than being grooves cut into the edge as suggested by 'serration', these are three dimensional prongs protruding around the perimeter. Casting errors, damage from the striking process and trimming of the waste from casting (removal of sprues) often leave the projections missing or uneven on part of the edge. There is probably no section of ancient Greek and Roman Coins that better shows the ignorance of this student than the Seleukid series. There is a vast amount of material from several mints. Many issues have extensive legends written in tiny, hard to read letters. The reverse of this coin has four lines reading BASILEWS / ANTIOXOU / EPIFANOUS / DIONUSOU with a monogram behind the elephant. Many Seleukid coins bear year dates in Greek numerals giving the years since the founding of the dynasty but these are lost on this specimen. The boy whose portrait was on the obverse was soon murdered leaving little of note besides a considerable number of coins including this 'elephant on a bottle cap'.

Attalos I, Pergamon, AR tetradrachm, 241-197 B.C.
Pergamon was a rich and powerful city in Asia Minor ruled by a dynasty founded by Philetairos who achieved independence from the Seleucids in 282 B.C. Several succeeding rulers issued coins in the name of Philetairos and there is not 100% consensus as to which coins belong to which ruler. I believe our example (left) belongs to Attalos I, 241-197 B.C. but it was purchased as Eumenes II, his son and successor. In the reverse field there is a monogram EYMo which would seem to refer to one of the rulers named Eumenes. Pergamon was a leader in the wars against Gallic tribes who had invaded the region and were consistantly strong supporters of Rome in their wars in the region. Our coin shows an excellent, high relief portrait of the eunuch who founded his dynasty by adopting a nephew. The reverse shows Athena enthroned with shield and bow. While considerably later than the period of finest art in Greek silver, this represents one of the last of the fine style, full weight (16.94g) tetradrachms available to collectors. Shortly after the assension of Eumenes II, standards were lowered and the portrait coins were replaced by the Cistophoric type coins which continued into the first century B.C. These show a box (Cista mystica) and snakes. Our example (right) weighs 12.5g. and has low relief for easy stacking.

The many words of this page only begin to describe these examples of Greek coins. While selected to represent each of their periods, these coins can hardly be called representative of such a varied group of coins. The Bold and Linked (do consider visiting the links) words provide a few of the basic terms needed to communicate with other students of these coins. This page is the first in a series covering even more numismatic terms. While each will present its own vocabulary, most terms can be applied to coins of all of the periods. As promised at the top of this page, we have not presented an easily memorized alphabetical list. Instead, I hope we have encouraged understanding of the basic concepts represented by these words.

Next section:

Some Not-so-Greek Coins (2)

For more of this series see:

Roman Republican Coins - Roman Imperial Coins (1) - (2) - (3) - Asian Coins


This series is dedicated to PL and her class. While I had been intending to do a series on this subject for some time, the timing of this posting was pushed ahead by their interest and kind notes.

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