The Importance of Numismatics – the Study of Coins – in Understanding History

By Matthew A. McIntosh / 03.25.2016:

Coin designs don’t change much in today’s world. But this hasn’t always been the case. Emperors and kings used metal currency as a means of mass communication, especially in the ancient world, the spread their messages far and wide in both image and text. Like stone, they survive almost in perpetuity and provide us with a means of understanding what otherwise may have been lost. Coins were like the “floppy disks” of the ancient world, in a manner of speaking, for the conveyance of information.

Coinage was invented around 600 BCE by the Lydians in Western Anatolia just east of Ionia, neighbors of the Greeks. Though the Greeks did not invent it, they certainly quickly adopted it as the standard form of exchange. Every polis (Greek city-states) aspired to mint its own coinage and facilitate its own trade.

Prior to this, a person’s wealth was measured by how much property was owned. But coinage began to transform society as an alternate means of wealth.


Athens Ancient Silver Tetradrachm Obv: Athena, Rev: Owl, 449-404 BCE

Coinage accelerated trade because goods being traded no longer had to be weighed to establish value. Images were initially only on one side of the coin but gradually went to both sides. Athenians put Athena, their patron goddess, on one side and an owl, Athena’s totem animal, on the other with an olive branch to symbolize their primary export (olives). Coins became advertisements for Greek city-states, telling others which god a city used as a patron and what the city’s primary industry was, among other things.


Tetradrachm of Alexander the Great, 356-323 BCE

They were tools of communication and identification. At this point, no individuals other than gods and goddesses were depicted on coins. As powerful kingdoms rose later, only gods and industry symbols were still at first placed on coins. It was with Alexander that a king replaced a god/goddess on a coin. Transformation from mortal to immortal was replicated on coins, and by the 4th century BCE living kings had their portraits on coins to identify them as not only kings but also divine. Coins were a reflection of the cities that produced them. Greeks would also carry coins in their mouths because they didn’t have trousers with pockets, and they would spit them out to use them.

Coins are absolutely vital in understanding ancient civilizations and cultures and well in the medieval era. Even early America had quite a bit to say on coinage.

A tetradrachm saved is knowledge gained!