Beginner's Guide to the Collection of Ancient Coins:
Original Article By Lucas Harsh
Athens, Attica, silver tetradrachm, 449 - 413 B.C. weight 16.422 g, maximum diameter 24.2 mm, die axis 315o, Athens mint, obverse head of Athena right, almond shaped eye, crested helmet with olive leaves and floral scroll, wire necklace, round earring, hair in parallel curves; reverse ΑΘΕ right, owl standing right, head facing, erect in posture, olive sprig and crescent left, all within incuse square. Previously sold at Forum Ancient Coins.
Purpose: To Help the New Collector
Ancient coins are often neglected by coin collectors because they believe they must be very rare, too expensive to collect, and too difficult to understand. While some ancient coins are rare, many are very common. The most famous cities and rulers of the ancient world struck coins in great quantities. Coins of Athens, Corinth, and Rome and of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, and Hadrian, for example, are common. Many are less expensive than collectible modern coins. Some late Roman bronze coins can be purchased for as little as a few dollars each. Anyone can appreciate ancient coins and quickly learn the basics of collecting them. Ancient coins are historically interesting, artistic and obtainable at reasonable prices.
If you've made it here, you probably have some interest in the collection of ancient coins, and this is provided as a general guide to getting started. The collection of ancient coins, like many areas, involves its own terminology which is very specialized. It may take the new collector some time to become familiar with the language of ancient coins. Fortunately for you, here at Forum Ancient Coins, many terms are defined in NumisWiki, Forum Ancient Coins' online numismatic and historical reference. Any term that you see in blue has a link to a definition or explanation, so please take advantage of this built in ancient coin dictionary while you read this beginner's guide to collecting ancient coins. Some blue terms link to related pages outside NumisWiki on the Forum Ancient Coins website and some link to informative related information on other websites. With that preliminary explanation out of the way, let's get started with the wonderful world of ancient coin collecting.
Many people may not realize, authentic ancient coins can be collected on a modest budget. In fact, many nice ancient coins are cheaper than common collectible modern coins. For the collector of ancient coins, there is nothing more amazing that holding a piece of ancient history in your hand. I have always loved history, and collected American coins from an early age. It all started with my parents' penny jar when I was little. I dumped it out, and I was amazed to find not only pennies with Lincoln on the front, and the Lincoln Memorial on the back, but there were pennies with wheat on the back. More fascinating than that, there were pennies with an Indian on the front. At that young age, it had never occurred to me that coins had changed over time. I pulled out the wheat pennies and Indian head pennies, my parents got me a couple of Whitman folders, and Ifve been collecting coins ever since. As an adult, I expanded my collection, and got a little more sophisticated than Whitman folders, but I always kept collecting coins. Over time, I grew a little bored with the hobby, as I found there were not many new and exciting discoveries to be made within my price range in American coins. Like many, it never occurred to me that ancient coins were available to anyone but museums or wealthy collectors, and my local coin store did not carry any ancient coins.
Only recently, as I was researching a historical topic online, and stumbled across ancient coins. I was skeptical at first, but I kept looking. Before long, I determined not only there was there a thriving ancient coin market, but ancient coins could be collected on a modest budget. I looked and read, and then, ordered my first coin from here at Forum Ancient Coins. It arrived, I opened it, and when I held it in hand, I was holding a piece of ancient history. It was beautiful, it was ancient, it was cheaper than a silver eagle at my local coin store. I was hooked.
My First Ancient Coin
Silver obol, Gaza? mint, weight 0.591g, maximum diameter 8.7mm, die axis 1.80o, obverse helmeted head of Athena right, olive leaves on helmet, eye in profile; reverse [ΑΘΕ], owl standing right, head facing, olive sprig and crescent behind. Purchased from Forum Ancient Coins. A Persian Period imitation of Athenian types from the Holy Land. In the past these coins were all attributed to Gaza, however, recent hoard finds indicate a mint at Ashkelon probably also struck this type. It is likely that at least several small mints struck these imitative types.
The Internet was the primary way for me to do research on this new-found area of interest. There were some sites or pages devoted solely to the new collector, but much, if not most, of the information I found assumed a level of knowledge I did not possess. As I learned more, I decided to put together my own page dedicated to the new collector of ancient coins to answer many of the questions I had, and to provide information I didn't even know I needed to know. I hope this information helps some new collector have a general overview of collecting ancient coins and avoid mistakes others have made. I am not an expert. I am not a historian. The information presented in this page is my own opinion. This is a general outline, and for any rule, there may be a number of exceptions. Like many things, ask three ancient coin collectors a question, and you may get 5 different answers. This is presented as a general beginner's guide, and you should learn, read, and ask for yourself to get your own information and develop your own opinions. But what I hope is to give a general overview of the collection of ancient coins to the beginning collector.
Introduction to Ancient Coins
The World's First Coin
A Brief History of Coinage
Precious metals have long been valued, treasured, and used as a medium of exchange. Not until the 7th Century, B.C. did coins begin to make their appearance. There is some scholarly debate, but it appears the first coins appeared in Lydia in Asia Minor. The first pieces were ingots of precious metal stamped by merchants indicating a certain purity and or weight. Rulers in Lydia adopted this practice, and by the end of the 7th Century, B.C., coins were being produced for trade. These first coins, pictured above, were electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of silver and gold that could be found in placer deposits in the area. Later, processes were developed to separate the gold from the silver, and coins were issued as bimetallic currency (silver and gold). The practice started in Lydia quickly spread among the cities of coastal Asia Minor and the islands in the area. During the 6th Century, B.C., the practice spread throughout the Mediterranean with cities developing their own, unique, devices on their coins as a badge of civic pride. The devices on these coins quickly came to identify their source cities or kingdoms. Thus the coins served not only as a medium of exchange, but also as a means of promotion or propaganda, a purpose that coins continue to serve today.
How Ancient Coins Were Made
Today, the United States Mint can produce between 14 to 28 million coins a day in a high speed, highly efficient, process producing millions of identical coins for any given type. This is strikingly different from the manufacture of coins in ancient times. Each ancient coin was produced by hand. Metal, be it bronze, silver, or gold, was poured into molds to produce a flan, or blank piece for the coin. Once the flans cooled, they were reheated below the melting point and placed on one die. The die was metal, and had the image to be placed on the coin engraved in it. A second die was hammered on top of the flan producing the image we see today on each side. The dies were carved by hand by celators, those who carved ancient coin dies, of varying skill, and any number of dies may have been produced for a given issue of coins. Thus, the same type of coin may have stylistic differences from another coin of the exact same type because a different engraver engraved a different die. Although process varied in different cultures at different times, generally this is the process by which ancient coins were made.
The Source of Ancient Coins
When I began, I imagined an archaeological site with academics brushing sand off ancient coins with small brushes. Certainly, many ancient coins are found in controlled archaeological sites, but many, if not most of these end up in museum collections. Most ancient coins on the market today were found in groups, called hoards, of coins that were buried in antiquity and were found by amateurs with metal detectors far from archaeological sites. In ancient times, there were no banks at which to store your wealth. If you needed a safe place to store some of your wealth, or an invader's army was coming your way, the logical thing to do would be to bury your coins and dig them up later when you needed them or the danger had passed. Unfortunately for the owners, (but fortunately for modern collectors) not everyone was around to dig their hoard of coins back up, and today, they are found and distributed into the ancient coin market. Some countries prohibit metal detecting and digging for ancient coins. Other countries, have laws which allow the finders of such hoards to keep or sell some or all of what they find, and this is the source of the ancient coins on the market today.
Ancient coins have been collected for centuries and last longer than the collectors that own them. Many ancient coins on the market are older finds sold by collectors with changing interests or by their heirs who are less interested. Coins with provenance, a history of who owned them before, may be worth more if they came from a famous collector or collection.
Buying Ancient Coins
Online Fixed Price Shops and Listings
In my opinion, and based on my experience, the best way for the beginner to buy coins is through a fixed price listing as presented here at Forum Ancient Coins. Browse the listings, find what interests you within your price range, put it in your cart, check out, and soon you will have your ancient coin in hand to start your collection. Through a fixed price catalog, you will find a coin for every budget, and a diversity of coins for any interest. At any reputable dealer, you can also count on the coin being attributed correctly, and authentic. All reputable dealers guarantee authenticity without time limit. These are some of the reasons I recommend a fixed price purchase for the beginner.
Auctions are another popular way to buy coins. In addition to their shop on this website, Forum Ancient Coins lists items for auction and at fixed price on eBay. You can get good buys at auctions if you know what you are doing, but lack of experience complicates this for the beginner. Before you have a certain level of experience, you do not have a good idea of what is a good buy, what is a really desirable ancient coin, and what is worth how much. Additionally, coins offered at auctions by dealers that do not have an established reputation can be fraught with danger as described below. That is the reason I recommend starting with only with fixed price coins from reputable dealers, and bidding on coins at auction sites only after you have developed some basic knowledge.
The Dangers of eBay
For the beginner, bidding on items at a large auction site, like eBay, is very dangerous unless it's from a known seller with a guarantee of authenticity, like Forum Ancient Coins. Unfortunately, there are sellers on eBay who do not know what they have, mislabel coins, over grade coins, and outright defraud unwitting buyers. I'll discuss this more below in my section on Fake coins, but know that there are outright Fake coins on eBay (and other places for that matter). In addition to outright fakes, there are coins that have been modified or altered in one way or another to make them more appealing than they really are, and there are sellers who through ignorance or outright greed over grade coins. The way in which coins are photographed can also be used to hide or diminish defects and create a false impression of the overall look of a coin. Until you are experienced enough to spot fake coins, spot modified coins, and know what the general market value of any given coin is, you probably want to avoid public auction sites like eBay to purchase ancient coins. Even experienced collectors can be fooled by fake coins on popular auction sites if not offered by established and reputable sites like Forum Ancient Coins.
There are some warning signs to watch out for on eBay listings. These warning signs do not mean that what is being sold is fake, or that the seller is a fraud. Rather, these signs should give you an indication to use caution. Watch out for new sellers. A seller without a track record does not have a number of feedback listings where buyers can comment on the coins being sold. Everyone starts sometime, so just because a seller does not have a track record does not mean he or she is a fraud. Conversely, just because a seller has extensive positive feedback does not necessarily mean they are a trustworthy seller. Some sellers sell a large number of legitimate items, and occasionally place in a fake coin or two. The buyer of these may not realize they purchased a fake, or they may be too embarrassed to admit it. Watch for sales where the bidders' identities are private or protected. Many repeat sellers of fake coins hid the bidders' identities on their auctions, and this is a strong indicator the item being sold is a fake. Watch out for a rare or valuable coin with a price that is too low. As with anything, if it's too good to be true, it probably is. Again, these are just indicators, and just because these signs are present it does not mean the seller is fraudulent. Also, if these signs are not present, that does not mean the coin may not be a fake.
For authentic items on eBay, there are additional things a buyer should be aware of in addition to possibly over-graded coins or tricky photography. Many sellers may over hype their coins leading the unwitting buyer to believe the coin is scarcer than it really is. Don't fall into this trap, but independently research any coin before bidding on it, and because it takes time to learn what is scarce, and what it a good deal, that is another reason for the beginner should stay away from eBay.
Buying on eBay or similar auction sites is not for the beginner, and even experienced collectors can be fooled at times. When you are starting out, stick with legitimate sellers who offer a guarantee on their coins. After you gain experience in the field of ancient coins, and experience with spotting fake, altered, or tooled coins, go back at take a look at a public auction site like eBay, as there are deals to be had for the buyer who has some experience.
Before buying on eBay check the seller to see if they are on Forum's Notorious Fake Sellers List (NFSL). The NFSL is on the Classical Numismatic Discussion Board.
Local Coin Shops
If you live in a large city (New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, for example) you might have the option of visiting a large coin dealer with ancient coin expertise. Most coin shops and most dealers are not ancient coin specialists and know only a little about ancient coins. Your local shop may have a few ancient coins. You could get lucky and find one with an old low price. More likely, however, the selection will be sparse and may be priced high.
There are a number of annual coin shows that primarily or exclusively feature ancient coins. You can check the schedule for coin shows at the Ancient Coin Club and Shows discussion thread. At the this article is being written, I have not had the pleasure of attending a coin show which features ancient coins, and if that were the only way to buy ancient coins, I would probably stick with my American coins. Work, family, and other obligations conspire to prevent me from being able to travel to a distant coin show, and there are not any shows which feature ancients in my immediate area. From reading other accounts, I would highly recommend attending a show if you are able to go, and I fully intend to go at some time in the future. However, thanks to the vast resources available online, I, like many others, am able to learn about and collect ancient coins without going further than the mailbox.
Buyer Beware - Fakes, Forgeries, and Frauds
A Fake Athens Tetradrachm
Pictured above is a fake coin that looks like the classic Athenian tetradrachm pictured at the beginning of this article. As a new collector, would you know this coin was fake? It was recently listed for sale on eBay as an authentic coin, but identified as a fake by a member of Forum Ancient Coins' Classical Numismatic Discussion Board.
This section is not designed to turn off the new collector from the collection of ancient coins. The vast majority of ancient coins on the market today are authentic, and the vast majority of dealers are legitimate. As with most things, you do have to be careful not to be taken advantage of, and this is more likely to happen when you are newer and less experienced. As such, I add this section not to discourage anyone, but only to alert the new collector to dangers to avoid.
Fake or fraudulent coins fall into several categories:
- Modern fakes made to look like ancient coins
- Tourist fakes sold as authentic originals
- Tooled coins which are authentic but "improved" by tooling
- Painted coins to improve patina or add or enhance details
- Fantasy coins, or modern coins made to look ancient, but of a type never made
- Misattributed coins. This is not a fake coin, but rather a misidentification.
- Over grading. Again, this is not a fake, but rather describing it as nicer than it is.
An unfortunate part of the ancient coin market is the prevalence of fake coins. First, we need to learn a little terminology to discuss this topic. Generally, when referring to fake coins, I am talking about a modern forgery made to fool the buyer. There are also "tourist fakes" which are sold to tourists in and around historically important areas. These reproductions are sometimes resold as authentic to the unwitting buyer. There are also ancient counterfeits. These coins are ancient coins made by someone trying to mimic an actual ancient coin style. These are collectible in their own right, so long as they are labeled as such, and an ancient counterfeit can bring a higher price than the piece it was imitating in some circumstances.
Other coins are modified in one way or another to improve their value, but when not properly labeled are a fraud and should be avoided. Modifications may include the application of a false patina, after over cleaning, painting to add or highlight details that are not on the original coin, or tooling to make the details more sharp than they actually are. Some sellers can also use tricky photography to hide unwanted features or make a coin look nicer than it really is. Many of these are seen on popular auction sites like eBay, and that is why I recommended newcomers avoid sites like that, except for known and reputable dealers.
Buyers must beware of these fake and modified coins. The best way to avoid any of these coins is to buy from a reputable dealer, like Forum Ancient Coins, that offers a guarantee on their coins. Reputable dealers are unlikely to buy fake coins for resale given their experience. Additionally, on the off chance a reputable dealer does get a fake or altered coin in hand, their experience allows them to identify it, and avoid offering it for resale. Finally, if all else fails, a reputable dealer should stand behind his or her coins, and offer a full refund for any altered coin that is mistakenly sold to a customer. Here, at Forum Ancient Coins, all coins are "guaranteed for eternity."
As you become more experienced over time, you can learn to spot potentially fake or altered coins by your own experience. One of the best ways to learn, is to peruse Forum Ancient Coins' Fake Coin Reports, and read Fake Coin Reports on the Discussion Board. Over time, you can have the knowledge to avoid fakes on your own, but until then, only buy coins from a reputable dealer who offers a guarantee on their coins, like Forum Ancient Coins.
Attribution - Identifying Ancient Coins
If you shop through Forum Ancient Coins' catalog, you will find most individual coins fully attributed. Attribution is merely describing what coin you have. If you purchase coins from Forum Ancient Coins , you will find that each coin comes with a tag giving the description you found with the coin's catalog listing and possibly some interesting historical information as well.
If you get to the point of purchasing a lot of mixed coins, or uncleaned coins, you will find that you have to attribute coins yourself. To identify coins, you will need to have some familiarity with the language on the coin which may include Latin, Greek, and other languages. Because Latin is more closely related to English, many of those with English as a native language find Roman coins with Latin inscriptions an easier place to start, but with some perseverance, any of the ancient languages can be mastered to a level to identify inscriptions on coins. There are many excellent resources for attributing coins, and here is a list of a few to get you started:
- Roman Coin Attribution 101
- Roman Mints
- List of Internet Links to Assist with Attribution
These resources should be enough to help the beginner get started attributing coins. If you run up against a wall however, there is an active group here at the Classical Numismatic Discussion Board who are willing to help you identify and attribute a coin after you have taken all the steps you can to do so yourself on the Identification Help page. Make sure you read and follow the guidelines before asking for help.
For ancient coins, it is NOT all about the grade. Modern coins come from the mint looking, more or less, identical and the primary difference between one and another of the same exact type is grade. This is not true for ancient coins. Each ancient coin left the mint unique from the start. Grade describes only the wear the coin suffered after it left the mint. The artistry of the hand engraved dies, the boldness of the strike, centering, die wear, die breaks, other die damage, flan shape, flan size, flan defects and many other characteristics of hand struck unique ancient coins are not included in the grade. The one factor that matters matters much more than grade for ancient coins is eye appeal. An ancient coin with no wear can be unattractive if poorly struck. A somewhat worn ancient coin can be stunningly beautiful if struck with fine dies engraved by a master. For ancient coins, it IS all about the eye appeal.
The beginner should also know that grading standards for ancient coins are very different than you may be used to for modern coins. The grading of ancient coins is not as precise as the grading of modern coins due to the age of ancient coins and the number of factors that affect the appearance of coins. Also, ancient coins may be one grade on one side, and a different grade on another. At the basic level, ancient coins are graded into the following general categories:
- Fleur de Coin (FDC). Mint State (with the exception of attractive patina or toning) plus all characteristics are superb - well centered, exceptional strike, and so forth. This grade is very rarely used by Forum.
- Extremely Fine (EF). Very little wear except at the highest points of the coin.
- Fair. Probably no inscription left, and objects on the coin barely recognizable. Ancient coins that fit the description above for Very Good or Good will be graded Fair by Forum and many European dealers.
- Poor. A smooth coin with almost no detail. Also called "slugs."
As mentioned above, in addition to the grade which describes the general wear on a coin, there are any number of other adjectives one may see in describing ancient coins.
- Patina. Bronze coins may have an attractive colorful patina. Green is the most common color but the red, brown, blue, and black are not unusual. An attractive patina adds value. A coin that has been stripped of its patina leaving a rough surface is considered damaged and value is decreased.
- Toning. Silver coins tone. Toning is usually considered more attractive than a freshly cleaned bright white silver. Iridescent rainbow toning can be very attractive and increase value. Very dark, jet black toning, is not as popular as light toning but can be very attractive on some coins. Again, it is really all about eye appeal.
- Centering. Most ancient coins are not perfectly centered. Better centering increases value.
- Weak strike, uneven strike, flat areas. On many ancient coins not all the details that were engraved in the dies are fully struck on the coin. The better the strike, usually the better the eye appeal will be.
- Die breaks. Ancient coin dies were valuable and sometimes were used even after they were damaged or broken. Minor die breaks may not impact the value of a coin very much. Major defects that diminish eye appeal will have a larger impact on value.
There are many other conditions from the manufacturing of a coin or conditions from the way in which the coin was preserved that the enthusiast will encounter, but for the beginner, these are probably the basics. If you come across a term you do not know it may be defined in NumisWiki. An honest ancient coin dealer will disclose obvious defects in the coin's description before selling it. Wear and other conditions of manufacture and preservation that affect ancient coins combine to produce some level of overall eye appeal or lack thereof for each individual coin.
Cleaning Ancient Coins
A Lot Uncleaned Ancient Roman Coins
For many collectors, there is nothing more exciting that getting a large batch of uncleaned coins and going to work to see what's underneath the crust and dirt in the batch. To be done correctly, cleaning ancient coins takes time, patients, and dedication. Many ancient coins have been ruined by hasty cleaning by someone eager to discovery the coin under the crust. The methods to clean ancient coins are beyond the scope of this beginner's guide, and Forum Ancient Coins has a good article on Uncleaned Ancient Coins 101.
When I was getting started, I purchased several lots of uncleaned and partially cleaned coins, and went to work to see what I had. This was a good experience for me, as it taught me that cleaning ancient coins was not for me. After the work of cleaning the coins, I ruined a few, and was not very excited by the others I had left. Other people have the exact opposite experience, and love cleaning ancient coins.
Uncleaned lots can be an affordable way to build your collection so long as you have the patients to do it right. It can also be an excellent way to learn to identify and attribute ancient coins. However, donft get the idea you are going to strike it rich cleaning uncleaned lots, but rather do it for the fun and education. There are stories of people finding amazing gems hidden in batches of uncleaned coins, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Most uncleaned lots have been picked over for silver coins, and any valuable bronze types. What are left are usually common late Roman bronze coins.
If this sounds like excitement for you, you can check out Forum Ancient Coins' uncleaned coin lots, or bulk lots. You may also need cleaning supplies as described in Uncleaned Ancient Coins 101. When you are done, you may have a few slugs, a few damaged coins, some low grade, common, late Roman bronze coins, and who knows, maybe a gem or two as well!
Storing Ancient Coins
Like many areas of ancient coin collection, ask three collectors how to store your coins, and you will likely get four answers. Ancient coins are stored in everything from custom build wooden trays to 2x2 cardboard holders. The key issue is to not store your coins in anything that will damage them physically or chemically. Some coins are sold in plastic flips with one pocket for the coin, and a second pocket for the coin. So far, this is how I am storing my own collection. I keep the coin in one pocket, a label in the second pocket identifying the coin, and I put the flip in a page with 12 slots for flips which then goes in a three ring binder. I'd love to have a custom built wooden tray storage system, but space and budget constraints keep me in the binder. The binder is easily portable, and fits well in a safe deposit box at the bank.
You must make absolutely sure that the flips are designed for the long term storage of coins, and many contain chemicals that can damage coins over time. If you decide to store your coins in flips, you must get archival safe flips which are designed for long term storage of coins. Forum Ancient Coins sells all of its coins in archival safe flips, and you can purchase additional archival safe flips from the Coin Supply section of Forum Ancient Coins' catalog.
If you want to stir up a controversy among coin collectors, just mention slabs in connection with ancient coins. If you have collected modern coins, you are probably familiar with slabs- protective slabs in which coins are encased after they are graded. When I started collecting American coins some time ago, I donft recall seeing any slabs, but maybe I just wasn't shopping in that section when I was a kid. Now, the majority of valuable American coins seem to be encased in slabs.
Ancient coins are not the same, and I rarely see slabbed ancient coins. Due to their age and condition, there is not the same need to slab ancient coins as there is in the modern coin market. For me, part of the fun in collecting ancient coins is the ability to get them out and actually handle them which is frowned upon by modern coin collectors. You certainly want to protect your ancient coins and not cause them any damage, but there is absolutely no reason to slab them like modern coins. Were I to acquire an ancient coin in a slab, I'm reasonably certain I would crack it open and free the coin! This is just my opinion on slabs however, and others may, and do, disagree.
Choosing a Specialty or Collecting Theme
There really is no type set of ancient coins or Whitman coin folder for ancient coins like modern coin collectors may be familiar with. Collection areas are as diverse as are the collectors in the ancient coin community. Some people only collect Greek coins, while others only collect Roman coins. Some collectors have a very narrow interest, such as only one Roman emperor, while others collect a few coins from a number of categories. Always keep in mind that it is virtually impossible to have a complete collection of ancient coins of any type given the number of civilizations, number of mints, and numbers of individual dies used to mint ancient coins. Even extensive museum collections are not compete, and new coin types are being found as more coin hoards are uncovered over the years.
Ultimately, what you collect is up to you depending on your interest. You may like the Greek artistry over that of Romans. You may have a historic interest in one period of Roman history over another. You may be primarily interested in Biblical coin types, and pursue that area. Some people collect certain mythological figures - Pegasus or Medusa to name two, while others prefer collecting outstanding portraits of historic figures. Some people prefer to collect coins in areas that are well documented and cataloged, while others prefer new, developing, or areas that have been neglected by mainstream scholarship. If you donft have a particular area in mind, search through other collections to determine what you like, and what you donft. You can search member collection in the Gallery here at Forum Ancient Coins to see what other people have. The Gallery also includes a number of topical areas which you can browse for ideas. Buy a few affordable coins in a number of areas, read as much as you can, and you may develop an interest and area to focus your collection on. You should take your time deciding what interests you.
Some of the broad categories used to classify ancient coins are discussed below.
Greek coins are generally divided into three periods: Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic. There are not clear boundaries between the Archaic and Classical periods, while the Hellenistic period begins after the conquests of Alexander the Great which spread Greek practices and culture far and wide in the ancient world. While the Archaic period saw the introduction and spread of the use of coins, the Classical period saw the height of Greek artistry in coins. During the Hellenistic period, Hellenistic kingdoms left in the wake of Alexander's conquests and untimely death, issued a number of diverse coins, but all influenced by Greek culture. At the same time, a new power was rising in the western Mediterranean, and soon Rome was to become the dominate culture of the ancient world. Forum Ancient Coins carries a wide variety of Greek coins from all of these periods and from many geographic locations.
Early Archaic Coin with Obverse Design Only (Punch Reverse)
An Archaic Greek Coin with a Reverse Design in an Incuse Punch
Classical Fine Art - Signed by the Artist!
Hellenistic - Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great. 336-323 B.C. AR drachm, Price 1769, Fair, 3.755g, 17.6mm, 0o, Ionia, Colophon mint, posthumous, c. 323 - c. 319 B.C.; obverse Herakles' head right, clad in Nemean lion scalp headdress tied at neck; reverse ΑΛΕΞΑΝ∆ΡΟΥ, Zeus on throne, right leg drawn back, holding eagle and scepter, lyre left, A under throne. Author's collection, from Forum Ancient Coins. Alexander III, better known as Alexander the Great, is one of the most famous rulers in the ancient world. Under his leadership, the Macedonia Army not only conquered Greece, but much of the known world. As outlined above, his rule generally marks the beginning of the Hellenistic Age where Greek culture and language was spread far and wide. Coins issued under Alexander the Great typically depict Heracles on one side, and Zeus on the other. These coins were issued at many mints throughout his empire, and continued to be minted for centuries in places after his death.
While Greek coins are fascinating, earlier than Roman coins, and arguably artistically superior, many new collectors gravitate to Roman coins for several reasons. Probably most influential is the language. Roman coins primarily use Latin inscriptions. As the letters used in Latin are familiar to many Western collectors, it is less intimidating, and perhaps easier to learn, than Greek or other languages. Additionally, the sheer scale of the Roman empire, in duration and geographic scope, means there are many more coins, and the coins can be more affordable, than other cultures. Finally, many are enthralled by the well known culture and history of Rome.
Roman coinage can be broadly divided into three primary periods: Roman Republic, Imperators (time of the civil wars before the first Emperor), and the Roman Empire.
Prior to the use of coins, Romans traded with cast bronze ingots called Aes. After experimenting with heavy cast coins, the need for portable trade currency led to the introduction of struck coinage in Rome. During the Republic period of Rome, the silver denarius was introduced along with bronze coinage, and the denarius was to remain the standard Roman silver denomination for centuries. Roman Republic coinage was struck by independent moneyers, and remained that way until the end of the civil war following Caesar's assassination and Augustus assumed power as the first Roman Emperor. Coins of the Roman Republic often depict interesting mythological or historical events.
Bronze Aes Rude - The First Roman "Money"
An Early Silver Denarius of the Roman Republic
Voting in the Time of the Roman Repulic
The Imperatorial Period was a transition from the Roman Republic to the Empire. Strong leaders, Imperators, took control of the government. Some of the most famous men in history issued coins in this period, including Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, Brutus (Caesar's most famous assassin), Mark Antony, and Octavian (Augustus). If you share your collection with your non-collector friends, don't be surprised if they start yawning, that is unless you are showing them coins with names they know. Portrait coins of imperators can be very expensive but non-portrait types are more affordable.
The Coin that Killed Caesar
Julius Caesar. Silver denarius, weight 3.865 g, maximum diameter 17.8 mm, die axis 315o, Rome mint, Feb - March 44 B.C.; obverse DICT PERPETVO CAESAR, wreathed and veiled head of Caesar right; reverse P SEPVLLIVS MACER, Venus standing left holding Victory and scepter, shield at feet to right; superb portrait, toned, excellent centering and strike for the type. Previously sold at Forum Ancient Coins. Denarii (the plural form of denarius), were the currency of the realm for the Roman Republic and much of the early Roman Empire. Previously, denarii depicted gods, goddesses, and even honored ancestors but not portraits of living people. Julius Caesar was the first Roman to put his portrait on a coin engendering the anger of the Senate. Thus, this type became known as "the coin that killed Caesar." Coins with portraits of Caesar are relatively rare. Previously sold at Forum Ancient Coins.
Mark Antony and Octavian
Roman Empire (Roman Imperial)
Octavian's assumption of the title "Augustus" is typically considered to begin the period of the Roman Empire. During this period most coins had the emperor's bust on the obverse. The Roman Empire was to last many centuries. Some numismatists end the period when Constantine the Great transferred the capital of Rome to Constantinople. Most numismatist identify coins as "Roman" until the monetary reforms of Anastasius. The Roman Empire may be subdivided into a number of periods, often by ruling dynasty. The coinage changed a number of times over this long period, discussion of which is beyond the scope of this introduction to Roman coinage.
Sestertius - Big Brass Nero
A Single Nice Gold Coin can be a Beautiful Centerpiece for a More Modest Collection
When Sharing With Non-Collecting Friends, Be Sure to Tell a Good Story for a Few Coins
Late Roman Coins are Mostly Bronze and Affordable
Roman Provincial (Greek Imperial)
Many Roman coins were minted at the capital of the empire, Rome. Because the empire was so large, many Roman coins were also minted in the conquered provinces. These coins, minted by Roman authorities, but outside of Rome, make up a large collecting area generally described as Roman provincial coins. There were hundreds of mints that struck coins at various times in the provinces controlled by Rome. To confuse the new collector, Roman provincial coins are also described in some catalogs as Greek Imperial coins. As you run across them, keep in mind that the terms "Roman provincial" and "Greek Imperial" are generally the same thing. In my opinion, Roman provincial is a more accurate phrase as these were coins authorized by the Roman authorities in Roman controlled areas, but the term Greek Imperial persists. Fortunately for those interested in these coins, here at Forum Ancient Coins, the coins are cross-referenced, and you can search by emperor in the Roman section or by geographic region in the Greek Imperial section.
Provincial Coin with Greek Inscriptions
This is an example of a Roman provincial coin from the early empire. This coin was a drachm, which was a Greek silver denomination approximating the size and weight of the Roman denarius minted, not in Rome, but rather in Syria were Greek coins were used for day to day transactions. As opposed to Latin, the inscription on this coin, like many Roman provincial coins, is in Greek.Tiberius, 14-37 A.D., Commagene, Syria. AR Drachm, Sydenham Caesarea 42; RPC I 3620, VF, toned, 3.611g, 19.8mm, 0o, Caesarea-Eusebia mint, obverse TIBERIOS KAISAR SEBASTOS, laureate head right; reverse QEOU SEBASTOU UIOS, Mount Argaeus surmounted by a statue of Helios holding orb in right and long scepter vertical in left. Author's collection, purchased at Forum Ancient Coins.
Beautiful Greek Style
Some Roman Provincial Coins are Huge
Whatever you call these coins, this is a fascinating area for the collector. If you are interested in a particular Roman emperor, not only were there coins minted in Rome, but any number of varieties minted in the provinces, and collecting Roman provincial coins is an exciting and rewarding area of its own.
Byzantine coins are another huge collection area. After the transfer of the capital of Rome to Constantinople, the empire continued to flourish in the east for around a millennium. Generally dated from 498 A.D. to 1453 A.D., the Byzantine Empire is an extensive collecting area in its own right with distinctive styles from the western Roman coins. Additionally, with the spread of Christianity, and the adoption of Christianity as the Empire's religion, Byzantine coins see the first use of Christ and Christian devices on coins, an area of particular interest for coin collectors and biblical enthusiasts alike.
Christ and a Cross on a Byzantine Gold Solidus
Judaean and Biblical Coins
Judaean and Biblical coins are of special interest to believers but are also popular with most ancient coin collectors.
The first coins were minted in the holy land while under Persian control. According to the Bible and other historical evidence, the Persians defeated the Babylonia Empire, thus freeing the Jews from their Babylonian captivity.
Minted in the Holyland Under Persian Rule
Persian Empire, Samaria, c. 375 - 333 B.C.Silver obol, Meshorer & Qedar 87, VF, weight 0.815 g, maximum diameter 8.9 mm, die axis 225o, obverse helmeted head of Athena right; reverse ShN, facing owl with spread wings. Possibly the most intriguing of the Samaria types, the design on this obol is ultimately derived from the famous Athenian dekadrachm (Kraay & Hirmer 357). Previously sold at Forum Ancient Coins.
The Persians ended the Babylonian captivity for the Jews, and many returned to their homeland. While Solomon's Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians, the Jews rebuilt their Temple. This Temple became known as the Second Temple, and the Second Temple would be the Temple at which Jesus taught during his ministry. Jews were required to pay an annual Temple tax, and coins with a high silver content were required to pay that tax. Shekels and half shekels minted at Tyre became the preferred way to pay the Temple tax, and are thus known as the "Temple Tax Coins" in the ancient coin trade. Forum Ancient Coins frequently has Temple Tax coins for the biblical collector, so check here to find the one right for you.
After the conquest of Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.), Greek style coins were minted there. After Alexander's death in 323 B.C., the holy land sat at the hotly contested border between the Seleucid kingdom based in Syria, and the Ptolemaic kingdom based in Egypt. The land changed hands a number of times and ultimately ended up under Seleucid control.
Macedonian Kingdom, Alexander III the Great, 336 - 323 B.C., Gold stater, Price 3261 - 3264, VF, weight 8.498 g, maximum diameter 17.8 mm, die axis 0o, Galilee, Ake mint, c. 322 - 320 B.C.; obverse head of Athena right wearing earring, necklace, and crested Corinthian helmet decorated with griffin, hair in ringlets; reverse ΑΛΕΞΑΝ∆ΡΟΥ, Nike standing left, wreath in right, stylus in left, Phoenician numeral lower right (off-flan). Previously sold at Forum Ancient Coins.
Ptolemaic Kingdom, Ptolemy II Philadelphos, 285 - 246 B.C., Silver tetradrachm, SNG Cop 461, Svoronos 799-800, VF, weight 14.02 g, maximum diameter 25.9 mm, die axis 0o, Judaea, Joppa mint, obverse diademed head of Ptolemy I right, wearing aegis; reverse ΠΤΟΛΕΜΑΙΟΥ ΣΩΤΗΡΟΣ, eagle standing left on thunderbolt, IOP monogram left, LA monogram and Q right, A between eagle's legs; artistic, high-relief portrait, partially uncleaned. Between 320 and 318 B.C., Ptolemy I, then Satrap of Egypt, took advantage of the dissent among his rivals and secured the area of Palestine. Previously sold at Forum Ancient Coins.
Struck by Antiochus IV, The Evil Greek King of the Hanukkah Story
Hasmoneans (Revolt of the Maccabees)
As described in I and II Maccabees, Judah gained a degree of independence and gave rise to the first independent Jewish coins which form a popular area of collection. Under the ruling Jewish dynasty, the Hasmoneans, many types of coins, including the popular "widow's mites" were minted in large numbers in Jerusalem, and these are an affordable way to own a piece of biblical history. Forum Ancient Coins carries a large selection of the coins of the Hasmonean kings, and you can see them here.
Prutah of the Yehonatan the High Priest
Alexander Jannaeus, 103-76 B.C. Bronze prutah, Hendin 1144, Choice VF, Jerusalem mint, weight 2.157g, maximum diameter 15.1mm, die axis 180o, obverse Hebrew inscription, Yehonatan the High Priest and the Council of the Jews, surrounded by wreath; reverse double cornucopia adorned with ribbons, pomegranate between horns.
Herod the Great and the Herodian Dynasty
With ever increasing Roman involvement, the biblical villain, Herod the Great, responsible for the so called "massacre of the innocents" (Matthew 2:13) took control of Judaea. Herod and his descendants issued their own series of coins which are also extremely popular with ancient coin collectors and biblical enthusiasts alike.
Two Prutot of Herod the Great, Responsible for the Massacre of the Innocents
Popular Coin Types From the Life of Christ and New Testment
A number of ancient coin types are discussed in the new testament, among them are widow's mites, the tribute penny and the 30 pieces of silver.
Widow's Mites of Mark 12:41
Alexander Jannaeus, 103-76 B.C. Bronze lepton, Hendin 1152 or 1153, Jerusalem mint, 95 - 76 B.C.; obverse star of eight rays surrounded by diadem, crude barbaric style, sometimes surrounded by a barbaric blundered Aramaic inscription, King Alexander Year 25; reverse BASILEWS ALEXANDROU (barbaric and blundered), anchor upside-down in circle, sometimes with L KE (year 25) near anchor points. While watching at the Temple, Jesus saw a poor widow put in two small coins and said "I tell you the truth, this poor widow put more into the treasury out of poverty than all the others. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." (Mark 12:41). Most scholars agree that the smallest coins circulating in Judaea during Jesus' ministry were the small bronze coins of Alexander Jannaeus, one of the Hasmonean kings. Widow's mites are extremely affordable because they were minted in such large numbers, and an excellent way to collect an ancient coin with a direct biblical connection. Forum Ancient Coins typically carries a large selection of widow's mites individually, or in lots.
The Tribute Penny of Mathew 22:20-21
Silver denarius, RIC I 26, Lyon 144, BMCRE I 34, RSC II 16, SRCV I 1763, EF, weight 3.824 g, maximum diameter 19.9 mm, die axis 300o, Lugdunum (Lyon) mint, fine early style, c. 15 - 18 A.D.; obverse TI CAESAR DIVI F AVGVSTVS, laureate head right; reverse PONTIF MAXIM, Pax (or Livia as Pax) seated right, long scepter vertical in right, branch in left, legs on chair plain. Previously sold at Forum Ancient Coins. While teaching at the temple, Jesus asked for a "penny." When the coin was brought, Jesus asked "Whose is the image and superscription?" When told it was Caesar, Jesus directed "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:20-21). This coin, referred to as the "Tribute Penny" is another popular coin for many biblically oriented collectors. As Tiberius was Caesar during Jesus' ministry, most scholars attribute the denarius of Tiberius as the coin to which Jesus referred.
Judas' 30 Pieces of Silver of Matthew 26:14-15
Missionary Journeys of Paul
Another popular collecting area for the biblical enthusiast is to trace the missionary journeys of Paul. Paul traveled from approximately 35 A.D. until around 67 A.D., and covered a number of cities in Syria and Asia Minor working to spread the budding Christian religion. Many, if not most, cities visited by Paul on his missionary journeys issued coins. Additionally, many of the historical figures encountered by Paul, and described in Acts issues coins including Aretas IV, king of Nabataea, Roman Emperor Nero, Antonius Felix, Porcius Festus, Agrippa I, and Agrippa II. The travels of Paul form a broad collecting area. Forum Ancient Coins' selection of coins along the route of Paul's travels can be found in the Judean and Biblical coin section.
Jewish Revolts and Judaea Capta
In 66 A.D., the Jews revolted against their Roman overlords, and again struck truly Jewish coins during the revolt. The Roman General Vespasian, along with his son, Titus, put down the revolt and crushed all Jewish resistance by 70 A.D. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and the so called Second Temple period came to an end as the result of the unsuccessful First Jewish Revolt. Some scholars postulate that the upheaval during this time is what prompted the early Christians to commit the oral traditions surrounding Jesus to written documents resulting in today's New Testament. For years after the victory, Vespasian, and later his son Titus who became emperor after him, issued coins commemorating their triumph over the Jews during this revolt. In 133 A.D., there was a second Jewish revolt, called the Bar Kochbah Rebellion after Simon Bar Kockba, its leader. The Jews were defeated by Rome again, this time under Emperor Hadrian, and the Jews were dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. Coins of the First Jewish Revolt, the Bar Kochbah uprising, and Roman Judaea Capta coins are all very popular with collectors.
First Jewish Revolt Bronze Prutah
Judaea Capta Denarius of Vespasian
Silver Zuz of the Bar Kochbah Uprising Overstruck on a Roman Denarius
There are any number of other ancient kingdoms and areas of collection for the enthusiast that do not fit neatly into the Roman and Greek categories. Any of these areas are excellent areas to explore, and because some of these areas may not be as heavily trafficked, there are good deals to be found.
Here is a partial list of some non-classical cultures. This list is far from complete, and is merely to give a few examples.
- Barbarian cultures and Celtic coins. Many "barbaric" cultures (to the Romans, anyone who was not a Roman qualified as a "barbarian") issued coins imitating the Greek and Roman coins of the classic cultures. These ancient imitations form a diverse and interesting collection area all by itself.
- Chinese. Chinese, and other far eastern cultures have their own fascinating coinage, but those cultures are beyond my experience, and beyond the scope of this article which focuses on traditional classic cultures.
- Nabataean Kingdom
This is a partial list, and there are many more non-classical civilizations, and as you browse through the catalog and other information on ancient coins, you may find one that interests you.
Aretas IV, 9 B.C.- 40 A.D. AR drachm. 4.155g, 13.7mm, 0o, Petra mint, c. 20 - 40 A.D.; obverse Aramaic legend, "Aretas, king of Nabataea, lover of his people", laureate and draped bust of Aretas right; reverse Aramaic legend, "Shuqailat, queen of Nabataea, year ?" (date off flan), jugate busts of Aretas and Shuqailat right. Author's collection from Forum Ancient Coins.
Resources and Learning More
Hopefully this article has you off to a good start, but it is only a brief introduction. There is more information about ancient coins on the Internet than anyone could read in a lifetime and more books on ancient coins than anyone could afford. The study of ancient coins can be a lifelong hobby, an academic specialty, or even a profession. You are here, so you have already found the best website for learning about ancient coins. Forum's website is a great place to start, especially because it it is free.
Resources on the Forum Ancient Coins Website
Classical Numismatic Discussion Board
One of the best resources I found to learn about all aspects of collecting ancient coins is the Forum's Classical Numismatic Discussion Board. This is a discussion board of active collectors to discuss many aspects of ancient coin collecting. From the history behind the coins to identifying individual coins, the discussion board offers a broad range of topics which are of interest to the beginning and experienced collector alike.
As a beginner, you may want to read a number of the older discussion threads. Many of the threads contained information that may have been common knowledge to the experienced collector, but I did not have a clue about. By reading the older threads, I was able to come up to speed on a number of topics concerning ancient coins from the general, to very narrow academic topics. Many important topics from the past are stuck to the top of each category with a red thumbtack icon. These are important or popular topics, and the new collector may learn a great deal from reading these "sticky" topics.
For the beginner, I also recommend doing a lot of reading, and only a little commenting until you become more experienced. The exception here is the board set up For the New Ancient Coin Collector. This page is an excellent place to ask any question you may have about any subject, and you will get feedback and responses from any number of experienced collectors. Many of the other pages involve debates and topics which are certainly of interest to the new collector, but topics to which the new collector may not have much to add before learning more. This is why I tried to do a lot of reading, but only a little bit of posting until I got the feel of the discussions and had something meaningful to say.
The Classical Numismatic Discussion Board is an excellent resource for the new collector, and while there are other discussion groups, I have not found anything comparable at any other site. If you want to learn about ancient coins, coin collecting, and the history and culture associated with ancient coins, this is the place to do it. Make sure you read all of the guidelines before posting anything, and I recommend reading and following a few discussion threads before adding your own input.
What is NumisWiki? That's what I wanted to know when I first got here, but I quickly learned that NumisWiki is a collaborative collection of articles, references, definitions, and information about all aspects of ancient coin collecting. If you donft know what a term means, you can look it up a NumisWiki. Better than that, as you see words in this article, or anywhere in Forum Ancient Coins's catalog that appear in blue, if you click on the word, it will refer you to the appropriate NumisWiki entry for that term.
NumisWiki is collaborative in that any member can add, update, or create a NumisWiki entry. I am very interested in biblically related coins, and I noticed there was no entry for Hasmonean (the Jewish dynasty of Kings between the end of Greek control until Herod the Great became king with Roman assistance). So I did some research, and wrote an entry for "Hasmonean" in NumisWiki, and now it's there for others to read, update, and add to. This is an excellent resource for the new collector of ancient coins, and because of NumisWiki, I did not include an extensive definition section for this article because you can just click on any term in blue.
Fake Coin Reports
The Forum's Fake Coin Reports offers a database of photos and descriptions of fake coins. The reports include study images to help you learn how to identify fakes. Before purchasing an ancient coin from eBay or any an uncertain source, check coins to ensure there isn't a match.
Classical Numismatic Gallery
A gallery of coins in members' collections, and galleries of special interest such as best of the type, superb portraits, and more. Browse the galleries for ideas for your own collections and to see what other peoples' collections look like.
If you read through some information on ancient coins, you may come across the saying, "buy the book before the coin." The thought is to research and know what you are buying before you make your first purchase. There is certainly something to be said for that, but at the same time, with the number of online resources available today, you can lean a lot of information about many areas without buying a book. Others will disagree, buy my recommendation for the new collector of ancient coins is to buy a number of coins before buying any books. This approach will help you to decide what you like, what you donft, and ultimately if you are going to continue collecting ancient coins before investing in books. If you proceed with your collecting, you can then buy books that cover the area or areas that are of interest to you. I've seen a recommendation at more than one site to dedicate about 10 percent of your ancient coin budget for books. I have not followed this recommendation myself, but I have gotten to the point where I am acquiring some books to further my understanding of various aspects of my collecting.
Books fall into a few categories. Some books are general information books about ancient coins. Other books are detailed catalogs that help with identifying or attributing ancient coins. There are also books about general history that donft have anything directly to do with coins, but give a historical context for your coins. If you collect ancient coins, and you love history, you will probably end up buying one or more books in all of these categories, but figure out what you like before spending a lot of money on books. For the price of one book giving a comprehensive listing of coins, you could get a number of coins of different types, and I recommend staring with that approach.
For the beginner, the a good series is Wayne Sayles' books. These books are not catalogs, but a good general overview of ancient coin collecting. If you have more interest that the internet can provide, and you want to learn more about ancient coin collecting in general, I highly recommend Sayles' series of book. They are relatively inexpensive, a good read, and a good continuing resource. These books can help you move from a beginner to an intermediate collector quickly. You can browse Wayne Sayles' books and others at the Beginner and General book section.
As you learn about the collection of ancient coins, and more importantly, what areas you are interested in, you can move on to more specialized books in your given are. These may include catalog type books that have detailed listings of coin types, and other books to aid with attribution. Forum Ancient Coins carries a number of new, used, and out of print books when you decide what it is you need, and you can browse Forum Ancient Coins' books here.
Other Internet Resources
There are a broad range of internet resources for the ancient coin collector. By far, the best resource I have found is Forum Ancient Coins which includes the catalog of coins for sale, information, definitions, articles, and the discussion board to name a few. Other than the Forum, there are other sites including informational sites, dealer sites, and informational sites sponsored by dealers, you can learn a lot by spending time browsing the internet. Unfortunately, there are only limited resources for the new collector, and that was one of the motivations for me to develop this page. Below, I'm going to list a few of the resources that I have found most beneficial.
This page is an excellent site for the beginner, and a site I have read and reread a number of times. It has good explanations for the beginner, and if you move past the beginner phase, it also has good information for more advanced collectors. I especially like the pages with links to other sites, and Mr. Esty's book reviews. Make sure you read the Ancient Roman and Greek Coins, FAQ at this site.
This is another good site for the beginner that I found from Mr. Esty's page. Mr. Smith covers a broad range of topics for the beginner, and this is another site I have read and reread a number of times. Mr. Smith's pages contain a good guide to grading and has a lot of information about photographing coins for when you get to the point you want to show off your collection.
This site, by Reid Goldsborough, is another site full of information and links to yet other sites with more information.
There are many more resources online, but these are just a few that I found helpful when I was just starting out. There are a number of links to other sites in these pages, and there are any number of links to sites of interest within the discussion pages here at Forum Ancient Coins.
- 101Uncleaned Ancient Coins 101
Roman Coin Attribution 101
Greek Coin Collecting 101
Die Alignment 101
Bust Types 10
Ancient Coin Prices 101