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Doug Smith's Ancient Coins
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Tribute Penny Debate Continued (2015)
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What I Like About Ancient Coins
Also see: Doug Smith's Style.
Style is the unique artistic attributes of a coin‟s design. The art of engraving is remarkably consistent for a particular age and becomes a mint's signature as its various students learn to mimic one another‟s renderings. While each mint's output becomes consistent with itself it is often dissimilar to other mints‟ coins. The farther apart any two mints are the more likely that the artistic style will be different even when the overall design of the artwork and epigraphy is the same. Style also evolves over time within a mint and this, too, becomes a familiar signature. In conjunction with the study of fabric as mentioned above an understanding of style is essential in distinguishing authentic from fake.
It has been often and truly said that Greek coins are the grammar of Greek art, for it is only by means of coins that we can trace the whole course of art from its very beginning to its latest decline. Neither statues, bronzes, vases, nor gems can, as a rule, be quite satisfactorily and exactly dated. Coins, on the other hand, admit of a far more precise classification, for in every period there are numerous coins of which the dates can be positively determined; and around these fixed points a little experience enables the numismatist to group, within certain limits, all the rest.
The main chronological divisions or periods into which the coins of the ancients fall according to their style are the following :—
The Period of Archaic Art, which extends from the invention of coining down to the time of the Persian wars. Within these two centuries there is a gradual development from extreme rudeness of work to more clearly defined forms, which, however, are always characterized by stiffness and angularity of style, the distinguishing mark of archaic Greek art. As a rule the coin-types in this period consist of animal forms or heads of animals. The human face is of rare occurrence, and, even when in profile, is drawn with both corners of the eye visible, as if seen from the front. The hair is generally represented by minute dots, and the mouth wears a fixed and formal smile, but withal there is in the best archaic coin-work, especially about the close of the period, a strength and a delicacy of touch which are often wanting in the fully developed art of a later age. The reverse sides of the coins in the archaic period do not at first bear any type, but merely the impress, usually in the form of an incuse square (often divided into four quarters or into eight or more triangular compartments, some deeply indented), of the punch used for driving the metal down into the slightly concave die in which the type was engraved, and for holding it fast while the punch was being struck by the hammer. In Magna Graecia, Sicily, and in some parts of European Greece the coinsure from the very first provided with a type on both sides.
The Period of Transitional Art from the Persian wars to the siege of Syracuse by the Athenians. In this period of about 65 years an enormous advance is noticeable in the technical skill with which the dies of the coins are prepared. The rude incuse square is generally superseded by a more regularly formed incuse square, often containing a device or a kind of ornamental quartering, together with, in many cases, the name of the city or of the magistrate (in an abbreviated form) under whose jurisdiction the coin was issued. In Asia Minor the incuse square is for the most part retained down to a much later period than in European Greece. The device son the coinage of this period are characterized by an increased delicacy in the rendering of details, and by a truer understanding of the anatomical structure of the human body and, towards the close of the fifth century, by greater freedom of movement. Some of the most delicately wrought and powerfully conceived Sicilian coin-types belong to the close of this transitional period; cf. the two eagles devouring a hare on the well-known coins of Agrigentum.
The Period of Finest Art, from the siege of Syracuse to the accession of Alexander. During this period the art of engraving coins reached the highest point of excellence which it has ever attained, either in ancient or in modern times. The types are characterized by intensity of action, perfect symmetry of proportion, elegance of composition, finish of execution, and richness of ornamentation. The head of the divinity on the obverses frequently represented almost facing and in high relief; cf. the beautiful heads of Apollo at Clazomenae, Rhodes and Amphipolis, of Hermes at Aenus, of the Nymph Larissa, of Hera Lakinia at Pandosia, of Arethusa and Athena at Syracuse, and of Zeus Ammon at Cyrene. Among the more remarkable reverse-types are the seated figures of Pan on a coin of Arcadia, of the nymph at Terina, of Nike at Elis, and of Herakles at Croton.
It is to this period also that nearly all the coins belong which bear artists ’signatures, a proof that the men employed at this time to engrave the coin-dies were no mere mechanics, but artists of high repute; among them the two names of Euainetos and Kimon of Syracuse, the engravers of the splendid silver medallions (dekadrachms) of that city, can never be forgotten as long as their works remain, notwithstanding the fact that no ancient writer has recorded them.
The Period of later Fine Art, from the accession of Alexander to the death of Lysimachus. The heads on the coins of this age are remarkable for expression of feeling. The eye is generally deeply set and the brows more defined. The human figure on the reverses gradually becomes more élancé, and the muscles of the body are more strongly indicated. On both obverse and reverse the influence of the school of Lysippus becomes apparent. The most frequent reverse-type is now a seated figure, the general aspect and pose of which is borrowed from the seated figure of the eagle-bearing Zeus on the money of Alexander.
The Period of the Decline of Art, from the death of Lysimachus to the Roman conquest of Greece. As the chief silver coinages of this period are regal, there is little or no difficulty in dating them. They present us with a series of portraits of the kings of Egypt, Syria, Bactria, Pontus, Bithynia, Pergamum, Macedon, Sicily, etc. The defeat of Antiochus by the Romans at the battle of Magnesia, B.C. 190, was for Western Asia Minor no less important than the defeat of Philip V at Cynoscephalae in B.C. 197 had been for European Greece. The freedom of many Greek cities in Asia was forthwith proclaimed by the Romans, in consequence of which they again obtained the right of coining money. This privilege they immediately took advantage of by issuing coins either in their own names or on the pattern of the money of Alexander the Great, and in his name, but with the addition of their respective badges and sometimes with the names of their local magistrates in the field; a proof that the mass of the currency still consisted of the money of the great conqueror, for in no other circumstances could we explain the adoption by so many towns of Alexander's types more than a century after his death. All these coins are easily distinguished from the real coinage of Alexander by their large dimensions and spread fabric.
In European Greece, the money of the kings of Macedon comes to an end in B.C. 168 on the defeat of Perseus by the Romans, but soon afterwards silver was again issued in Macedon on its division into four regions under Roman protection. Athens, after an interval of about a century, during which she was not permitted by the kings of Macedon to strike money, recovered the right of coinage about B.C. 220, and from that time her tetradrachms of the ‘new style’ began to be issued in great abundance. In Italy the commencement of the Roman silver coinage in B.C. 268 put an end to almost all the other autonomous silver coinages in that country. In Africa the money of Carthage, down to its destruction in B.C. 146, is remarkable for a rapid degradation in the style of its execution, and in the quality of the metal employed. Artistically, the coins of Asia are throughout this entire period incomparably superior to those of European Greece, although it cannot be affirmed that they in any degree reflect the best contemporary art of the flourishing Schools of Pergamum, Rhodes, and Tralles.
The Period of continued Decline in Art, from the Roman conquest of Greece to the rise of the Roman Empire.
In Northern Greece, when Macedonia, west of the river Nestus, was finally constituted a Roman Province (B.C. 146), and when the coinage of silver in that country consequently ceased, Maroneia in Thrace and the island of Thasos endeavored for a time to supply its place by the issue of large flat tetradrachms of base style. Athens, almost the only silver-coining state in Greece proper, continued also to send forth vast quantities of tetradrachms down almost to Imperial times, when she too was deprived of the right of coinage. In Asia Minor the chief silver coinage consisted of the famous Cistophori, a special currency which was long permitted by the Romans, even after the constitution of the Province of Asia in B.C. 133. Farther East, the regal series of Syria and Egypt remain unbroken down to the Roman conquest of those countries. The Bactrian money rapidly loses its Hellenic character and becomes at last purely Indian.
Almost the only coins in this period which can lay claim to any high artistic merit are those which bear the idealized portrait of the great Mithradates.
Imperial Period. Augustus to Gallienus. Under the Roman Emperors the right of coining their own bronze money was from time to time accorded to a vast number of cities in the eastern half of the Empire. In the western provinces this privilege was much more rarely granted. These coinages, which now go by the name of ‘Greek Imperial', are in reality rather municipal than Imperial. The head of the Emperor is merely placed on the obverse out of compliment to the reigning monarch, and is frequently exchanged in the Province of Asia for that of the Roman Senate (CΥΝΚΛΗΤΟC or ΙЄΡΑ CΥΝΚΛΗΤΟC) or that of the local council, senate, or people (ΒΟΥΛΗ, ΓЄΡΟΥCΙΑ, ΔΗΜΟC). At many towns the privilege of coining money appears to have been assumed only on certain occasions, e. g. during the celebration of games and festivals or under certain emperors, and to have been again asserted only after an interval of perhaps many years. The dimensions of the present work will not permit me to give in detail the periods during which the local mints were active or dormant. I must content myself with indicating the highest and lowest limits within which coins occur at each town. It will be seen that the Greek Imperial series only extends beyond the reign of Gallienus at a very few towns, chiefly in Southern Asia Minor, where it continued down to that of Aurelian, A.D. 270-275, and at Alexandreia, where it does not finally come to an end until the reign of Diocletian, A.D. 284-313; but at the last place the coinage was not on the same footing as at other Greek Imperial mints.