Greek Bronzes

An Overview for Beginning Collectors

A recurring theme of this site is that it is possible to enjoy the hobby of collecting ancient coins without spending thousands of dollars to purchase each piece. This page will examine, certainly in a cursory manner, the underappreciated area of Greek bronze coins. Produced by the same mints as the more popular silver, these coins provided small change for day to day transactions and are often quite attractive in their own way. Production deadlines, long periods of circulation and increased susceptibility of bronze to corrosion often make bronze coins available in low grade at low prices. Conversely, really excellent condition bronzes are rare and sell for high premiums. Each of us can decide on the appropriate level along this condition/price range to fit the coins to the collector.

We will examine a number of examples but can never cover this subject in a comprehensive manner. There are thousands of varieties of bronzes produced over a thousand years. The term 'Greek' as used here includes not only coins of the region now known as Greece but the whole Mediterranean where Greek civilization of antiquity brought the concept of coinage. Some of the far flung issues were the products of Greek colonists and very similar to coins of mainland Greece. Others are hardly Greek at all but are so classified more as a matter of convenience to collectors than as absolute truth.

Far from Greece on a map but very 'Greek' in spirit are the coins of Greek colonies on the island of Sicily. Foremost among the Sicilian cities was Syracuse. Sicilian bronze coins reflect the history of their time. Our first example, an AE27 of 227-215 BC, bears no legend of the city but is inscribed with the name of the king then in power, Hieron II. Late as it is, the style from this period still retains the beauty we expect from 'Greek' coins. Not long after the time of this coin, the power of Rome ended the period of independent cities in the Mediterranean. Bearing the portrait of the king, this late issue parallels the coins of the Hellenistic kingdoms then ruling the East.

Over a century earlier, this bronze litra of Syracuse dates to the time of Timoleon. The weak strike on this 27mm, 36 gram (thick!) coin never erases the signs of flan casting leaving an unusual, rounded fabric coin. The coin is struck, not cast but surface flaws of the casting process remain. The sprues along which metal entered the mold remain (1 o'clock on the obverse; 11 and 3 o'clock on the reverse). How the ball shaped blank fell between the dies determined the appearance of each individual coin. As common on earlier coins, the types honor the city and the gods rather than the ruler. Here we see Athena and a pair of dolphins that recall the importance of the sea to this island city. More strongly struck examples of this coin will show SURA on the obverse naming the city.

From the north coast of Africa comes this bronze of Carthage. Best known as the enemy of Rome in the Punic wars, Carthage issued a long series of coins showing the city patron goddess Tanit and a horse. Dating the many varieties is not easy. Coins were issued from the city and, probably, from other mints to support wars in Sicily. This AE16 was probably issued around 300 BC. The coins were issued in a number of denominations in all metals but few have much in the way of legends beyond an occasional Punic letter (here at obverse right?). Coins of this city founded by Phoenician colonists are prime examples of a stretch of the term 'Greek' but are an interesting part of the numismatic picture of the Mediterranean region.

From the opposite side of the Greek world is this small (AE13) bronze from the Macedonian (Northern Greek) King Demetrios Poliorketes. Among the more interesting personalities of the successors of Alexander the Great, Demetrios issued large, beautiful and expensive silver coins and a few of these nice, affordable little bronzes showing Nike on a prow and Poseidon. Given the choice, I would certainly prefer the tetradrachm of these exact same types and I recommend these beautiful silvers to those of you who can afford a $2000 coin. For the rest of us, this bronze is also beautiful.

Kolophon was a city of Ionia in what is now Turkey. The region was home to hundreds of coin producing cities that issued thousands of varieties of small bronze coins. Our example from c.300 BC shows the head of Apollo and the forepart of a horse. The reverse legend abbreviates the name of the city and (at left) names the magistrate (QRASU) responsible for the issue. These magistrate names and a great deal of study could allow the series to be dated with some accuracy. Considering the number of cities and the number of different coins, this study is unlikely to ever be completed. Coin of this region vary greatly in quality of art and workmanship. I consider this little bronze quite attractive but, in truth, there are many coins that are, to be polite, boring. As a result, demand and prices are low. The field is wide open for an interested collector.

Many collectors of Greek bronzes make no effort to accumulate a series of cities but organize their collecting on something other than geography. A common theme is animals on coins. The example her could have been discussed earlier on this page since it was issued by King Phintias of Akragas, Sicily, but instead we show it as an example of 'Pigs on Coins'. Thematic collecting is a great field for someone just wanting a little order in the collection. Some themes are easily found: gods and horses come to mind. A collection limited to insects or plants will take longer to assemble but will contain a surprising number of examples. I would like to collect 'meteorites on coins' and have seen a couple types but have yet actually to acquire one. What themes interest you?

If a variety of coins is most appealing to you, an interesting specialty would be coin of the Seleukid kings. Descendants of Alexander's general Seleuckos, this dynasty ruled Syria and much of the Eastern Mediterranean until the region fell to Rome in the first century BC. To represent the thousands of Seleukid bronzes we show a 21mm bronze 'bottlecap' of Antiochos VI. The strange edge treatment was used on several Seleukid issues and marks the start of what later developed into the reeding on the edges of our modern coins. Regular visitors to this page know I prefer coin photos on a black background. I failed in every attempt to photograph this coin doing justice to the edge and still use my favorite background. Therefore, for this one time, you see gray.

Another of the Hellenistic dynasties that split up the empire of Alexander were the Ptolemies of Egypt. They issued many interesting bronze coins, some of which I showed on my Ptolemaic page. Our example is not one of them. Instead we see a Seleukid issue of Antiochos IV (175-164 BC) that copies a common type used by the Ptolemies. The head of Isis shows the features of Antiochos. His full titles appear on the reverse with an eagle facing right. Ptolemaic examples of this coin show the eagle facing left. The coin was issued following a victory of the Seleukids over the Ptolemies. The issue of the Egyptian type with the eagle turning his back on Egypt and the goddess looking like Antiochos was a direct slap in the face to the Ptolemies. Numismatics is a study filled with little stories. Some are pretty, some not; some are more interesting.

Pergamum, Mysia - 2nd-1st century BC - AE18
Head of Asklepios / snake on omphalos - owl countermark

Some coins can be made to fit into a collection in several ways. This AE18 of Pergamon is an example. Some collectors would find the coin interesting since it shows the head of Asklepios, the god of healing (Aesculapius and Asclepius are other common spellings). This theme might be of interest to medical professionals. Reptile collectors might be interested in the snake which is usually shown with the god. Pergamum was the site of a great temple to Asklepios. This coin is made more interesting by the legend naming the god as 'savior'. Legends naming the reverse figures were common on Roman coins but this use on a Greek issue is unusual. Originally this snake was shown wrapped around the omphalos, the navel of the world but a countermark of an owl erased that part of the design. Countermarks are often found on Greek bronzes and can indicate a reevaluation or other certification of validity. The purpose of this mark is not known to me. Some collectors specialize in coins with countermarks but more would be interested in this as an example of 'owls on coins'. Note the flat spot on the face of Asklepios caused by the strike of the reverse countermark. Many Greek bronzes, even those less than perfect in condition, are quite interesting and collectable.

One last coin will serve to remind us that Greek Bronzes were not finished with the Roman conquest. Thousands of cities were allowed to issue bronze coins for local use until the coinage reform of Diocletian (c.294 AD) imposed a common coinage everywhere. Usually the obverse was a portrait of a Roman ruler while the reverse showed some subject of local interest. The example is a 'Greek Imperial' or 'Roman Colonial' of Julia Domna (wife of Septimius Severus) from Antioch in Pisidia (to be distinguished from a dozen other cities named for the Seleukid kings called Antiochus). The reverse shows the local god Men with his pet chicken (try collecting chickens on coins!). This coin is unusual in that it bears a Latin legend. Most Greek Imperials used Greek legends. Note that the diecutter was not sufficiently comfortable with the language that he was able to cut the 'D' of Domna facing the right way. Many Greek Imperials are a bit crude or, more kindly, show local style. Many are seen only in very worn condition. Our example is quite high grade and attractive, if a bit 'local' in workmanship. Persons interested in more on this subject should visit my page on Greek Imperial coins.

We have looked a only a few, not even representative, examples of Greek Bronze coins. Other than being made of a copper alloy, did you notice what all of these 'Greek' coins had in common? Not one was produced in what is today known as Greece. What we know as Ancient Greece covered almost all of the lands bordering the Mediterranean. With a little stretch of the term, 'Greek' civilizations and coinage spread from Spain to India and Africa to the Black Sea. Of course we could have shown interesting and beautiful bronze coins struck at Athens, Corinth and many other Greek mainland cities but that will have to wait for another update and another day.

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(c) 1998 Doug Smith