The Legacy of the Ancients:

Influence of the Ancient Celators on Modern Coinage

The evolution of coinage is interesting in that it is provides insight into the technology, art, and psychology of the issuing civilization. The Origin of struck coinage is traditionally attributed to the Lydians of Asia Minor during the 7th century BCE; however, there is some evidence to suggest the Chinese were minting at an earlier date. Chinese coin styles remained relatively consistent over the millennia and, while interesting, lack the drama of western coinage. Thus, I will focus on coinage of the western tradition in this essay.

I will leave the full story of the evolution of coinage to others who have far greater knowledge than I. A synopsis of this evolution might be characterized in the following manner: Following the development of reverse die images by the Greeks, coins took on a style mirroring their other developments in classical arts. In a relatively short time, the Greeks were striking what many consider the most beautiful coins seen before or since; probably reaching their peak in the works of the Syracusan masters. The trend of high realistic relief continued through the time of Alexander. The coins of Alexander's successors continued this tradition, although coins from the eastern end of the empire tended to fall off in quality [albeit there are some beautiful Bactrian coins]. This decline in quality was also seen in the near east following the fall of the Seleukid Empire to the Parthians. As the successors to the Greeks, the Romans produced early coins that were crude in comparison. I should note here that art is very subjective and when I refer to crude or stylistic in the negative, I am really judging the skill of the die engraver to produce a realistic and dramatic image. Many people treasure the stylistic representations on Celtic coins and one can almost visualize connections between these coins and early cave art. My preference just happens to be realism.. While there are some lovely examples of Roman Republic and Imperial era coinage, I do not feel Roman coin production reached the level of the best of the Greeks except on some ASes and Sestertii of the time of Trajan and Hadrian. Toward the end of the empire, the art seen on coins seems to degrade, although the coin reforms of Diocletian and Aurelian seemed to add some spark back into the work of the engravers. With the end of the Roman Empire, came an end to the realistic style of coins. Romaion [Byzantine] coins become increasingly stylistic and even child-like in their presentation. This simplistic style was also seen in Venetian and other European coinage. It wasn't until the Renaissance that there was a rededication to classical design on coins and medals [of special interest are the medals of Paudan master Cavino. Ancient coins were available in collections and when the technology became available to imitate them, this was done. Themes, language, and symbols from ancient coins begin to appear and remain on coins until this day.

Probably the best know example of incorporating ancient design into modern coinage is the so called "Mercury" dime of the US, pictured at the top of this page. [It is actually winged Victory.] The helmet of the Republican Roma is replaced by the cap of Liberty, but the design is essentially the same. Interestingly, the Fasces [an axe within a bundle of rods, bound by a strap used since Roman times to symbolize civil authority] used on the reverse of US dimes appear only rarely on Roman coins. Other US engravers adopted or adapted designs reminiscent of ancient coins.

William Barber's design for the US Trade dollars of the mid 19th century bears a striking resemblance to denarii of Imperial Rome. In the picture presented here, Liberty [libertas] is presented seated, holding a branch in the outstretched right hand. The cirule chair of the denarius is replaced with a seat more befitting American Liberty, but other design elements remain the same including the draping of the robes. Other US coins such as the Seated and Standing Liberty quarters and half dollars have direct referents in Roman coinage. The late colonial period in America was characterized by Neoclassical art and architecture. The pre-federal colonial minters followed suit and borrowed from the Romans. The coin illustrated on the right from New York was minted in 1787 and depicts a laureate and curiassed bust right with a reverse image that has a striking resemblance to the Elgabalus dupondius. Even the technique for draping the robes vertically over the chair is similar. The advent of the human bust on US coins, beginning with the Lincoln cent [Native American depictions on coins might be considered closer to personifications as they represented the origins and uniqueness of the country rather than a particular individual.] could be considered analogous to the transition between Republican and Imperial coinage in Rome. Although personifications and wreath reverses fade from more modern US coins, we still see bust right and left, Latin mottos, and "temple" reverses on US coins of today.

European coins also depict ancient themes, none more obvious than the representation of Britannia on English pennies and half pennies. Roman coins often depict Britannia pacified or in submission. There is a touching coin on Wildwinds that has Britannia with her forehead lowered onto her hand. The British version, of course, portrays Britannia looking out over the waves holding the trident of Neptune: the personification becomes the god. Other countries also depict their personifications on coins including Italia, who is little changed from her Roman progenitor, and Helvetia who adorns the coins of Switzerland with shield and spear. Another aspect of British coins that is analogous to Roman coins is the realistic portrayal of long-lived rulers. One can see Nero becoming increasingly corpulent on his coins and Trajan also can be seen leaving his youth behind. Similar progressions can be seen on coins of Queen Victoria and King George III.

Coins in ancient times were often used as propaganda to communicate themes of patriotism and achievement to the populace, especially among the Romans. This remains unchanged in modern times. The gold coins and medals of Napoleon were used to reinforce his ties to Imperial Rome and substantiate his claim to emperor status. Many other European rulers followed this practice.

While some countries have linked to ancient roots by imitating coin styles of antiquity, countries with direct ties to these cultures have celebrated their history by replicating the coins of their ancestors. Some examples of these are pictured below. The 10 Agorot coin of Israel replaces the Greek of Agrippa II with Hebrew, but the design remains unchanged. The new bimetal Euro coin of Greece links past and present by embedding a copy of the Athenian old-style Tetradrachm in a modern border. The irregularity of the Tetradrachm is even maintained. Italy traces its Greek settlement roots with a copy of a Metapontum Stater. The beautiful reverse of the Barley Ear is faithfully reproduced in this 1927 5 centesmi piece.

The links to the classical ages of Greece and Rome can be seen in many facets of Western and Middle Eastern cultures, and to some extent they permeate the world. It is in the coins that we have a direct time line connecting past and present. Historians can trace how civilizations conquered and affected different regions. We can document the subsequent spread of religions and cultures and can even peer into the psyche of the rulers by observing their tolerance for what those who were subjected were allowed to portray on coins. One of my first purchases was an uncleaned coin lot that contained two small bronze coins with the dragging captive reverse. One had the emperor holding the Chi Rho symbol, the other did not. Being able to reflect on the transition from pagan to Christian Rome and to see that while some things change, other things stay the same had an enormous impact on me. Being able to hold that small piece of history in my hand for $1.50 a coin was probably the best investment I had ever made.

One last coin before closing. I tried to find the oldest coin with modern parallels for this article. Some of the earliest Lydian coins depicted a roaring lion and this motif has certainly been repeated. There may be older examples that more knowledgeable collectors could cite, but I had an Isle of Man half penny with the Triskeles reverse. The Triskeles [3 legs running from a central point] design is far more ancient than the earliest coin so I have chosen it for this final picture.

I have added a second page of modern - ancient parallels in coins. I have had some contributions illustrating different themes and have continued to research this myself. If you have coins with modern counterparts, Please email me with the pics and I will post them with due credit.

Go to 2nd page.

Corrections, questions, comments appreciated. E-mail me.
Return to Home Page