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Part I: Greek Coins

The Archaic Greek Period [c. 650 - 480 bc]

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"I am the badge of Phanes"

Greek coins (including coins of all Mediterranean city-states) are classified into three stylistic periods: Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic. During the Archaic period coins were invented, their use became widespread and their types, or designs, were developed.

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Lion-head stater of Lydia

During the 7th century bc, in western Asia Minor (now Turkey), the practice of impressing designs on small ingots of precious metal began. The first efforts were crude; some have no design at all, only striations on the obverse and irregular punch-marks on the reverse, while others bear recognizable designs on the obverse, probably badges of prominent merchants or officials (one coin is inscribed "I am the badge of Phanes").

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Stater of Kroisos

The first Greek coins issued in quantity were the "lion heads" of Lydia [before 600 to 561 bc], in denominations from a stater (14 g) down to 1/96 stater of electrum (a naturally occurring gold-silver alloy). When Kroisos became ruler of Lydia [560 bc] he adopted the type of a lion facing a bull and began to issue a bimetallic currency in which coins of gold and silver replaced electrum.

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Stater of Aigina

Many independent cities along the coast and coastal islands of Asia Minor began to issue similar coins, to the same weight standard, at first in electrum and later in gold and silver. Among these, Kyzikos, Mytilene and Phokaia continued to strike electrum coins for nearly three hundred years, down to the reign of Alexander the Great.

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Tetradrachm of Athens
(Archaic Period)

By 520 bc use of coins had spread throughout the Mediterranean; they were struck in southern Italy, Sicily, Macedon, in Greece, in the islands between Greece and Asia Minor, and in North Africa. The most common denominations were silver staters (8 or 12 g) and tetradrachms (17 g). Each city at first used an individual badge of sovereignty on the obverse and a punch impression on the reverse, without legends. About 500 bc engravers began to add small devices, or letters, to the reverse punch. Athens was among the first to adopt a true reverse-type [510] when it began to issue its famous tetradrachms with the head of Athena on the obverse and her familiar, the owl, on the reverse.

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Stater of Sybaris in Italy

Meanwhile the Greek cities of Italy experimented with an interesting but complex approach: large thin coins whose obverse design was mirrored on the reverse. By 480 bc the classical design for Greek coins had evolved: types on the obverse and reverse characterizing the city, with an inscription identifying the issuing city.

The engraving style on archaic Greek coins is quite distinct, and reflects the sculpture and ceramic art of the period. Though images of animals and plants are sometimes realistic, generally figures are stylized and poses stiff, without any suggestion of movement; eyes are depicted in the frontal or Egyptian fashion and fine detail in areas such as hair and beards is lacking.

The Classical Greek Period [c. 480 - 300 bc]

The Classical period lacks a true boundary on either end and may be said to begin and end at different times in different places. Nor was the evolution of styles distinct; there was a noticeable transition period between high Archaic designs and the true Classical designs. During this period Greek numismatic art reached its peak, the use of coins became universal and bronze coins were invented.

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Tetradrachm of Athens
(Classical Period)

At the beginning of the period [480 bc] occurred two simultaneous events of great importance: the failure of the Persian invasion of Greece and of the Carthaginian invasion of Sicily. Though the Carthaginians were not expelled from the island, their drive to control it was thwarted, while the Persians abandoned their attempt to conquer Greece. The defeat of these great military threats had a profound influence on trade, political and cultural relations among the Greek city-states.

Athens now became a dominant military and economic power as the head of a League formed to maintain naval superiority over the Persians. As such it began to strike coins in great numbers, for use in other cities of the league as well, and Athenian "owls" replaced the native types of many allied cities. Interestingly, the Athenians continued to use the archaic portraits of Athena and her owl throughout this period, although they did evolve slightly. These imperial ambitions ended when Athens lost the Pelopponesian War [404 bc].

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The Demareteion
(Dekadrachm of Syracuse)

Meanwhile the Greek cities of Sicily and Italy struggled continuously for political supremacy. To the eternal delight of collectors, one form of this competition was in the designs of their coins, which were treated as medals advertising the glories and culture of the issuing city. The result was a serious numismatic art competition, by no means confined to this area but finding its most intense expression there.

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Tetradrachm of Naxos

At the very outset of the period [c. 465 bc] three great masterpieces of late Archaic numismatic art were issued: the famous "Demareteion" dekadrachm of Syracuse, and superb tetradrachms of Leontini and Naxos.

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Tetradrachm of Syracuse by Kimon

This tremendous opening was succeeded by a rapid development of style over a fifty-year period, and by the end of the 5th century many tetradrachms of really exquisite artistic style were being issued, designed by master artists who often signed their dies. The artistic competition culminated in the splendid dekadrachm issues of Syracuse [405-380 bc].

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Dekadrachm of Syracuse by Kimon

By 350bc Classical numismatic art had passed its peak and a certain decline began, although many very fine examples of numismatic art were still to come and the overall standard remained high. Artistic style began to evolve from the idealism of the high Classical period toward a more realistic style, and technical execution of dies declined.

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Philip II of Macedon

In Sicily the Carthagians had again become a threat, in Italy the Greek cities lost much of their military dominance over the native Italians, and in both the Greeks exhausted themselves fighting one another. Meanwhile, to the east, Philip II of Macedon was demonstrating a new political order as he became master of all Greece [337]. His son Alexander III, the Great, then led the incomparable Macedonian army and its Greek allies in a rapid conquest of the entire Persian Empire. His premature death began a period of confusion as the new Macedonian Empire disintegrated into rival Greek kingdoms.

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Alexander III (the Great)

During this period Greeks began to find fractional silver coins, valued at 1 obol (0.7 g) and less, inconveniently small. They developed bronze coins to replace them, but as an obol equalled 40 g of bronze, the first bronze issues were inconveniently large. The practical Greeks soon replaced them with coins valued at much more than the weight of the bronze they contained. This invention of fiduciary currency had consequences they did not foresee, that still affect us today.

The Hellenistic Greek Period [c. 300 - 31 bc]

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Portrait of the deified Alexander
Lysimachus of Thrace, Tetradrachm

The Hellenistic period really begins with Philip II, however it was not until the emergence of the major kingdoms after the death of Alexander [323 bc] that a new order in numismatics evolved. Between the Classical and Hellenistic periods lies a very distinct numismatic boundary: the imperial coinage of Alexander, which continued for many years after his death. Within the area of his Empire there were few civic issues of independent types for nearly two centuries, as individual civic coin types were replaced by this mass-produced coinage and later by the royal coinage of the successor kingdoms.

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Demetrios Poliorketes (Macedon)

In the West the Greek cities of Italy lost ascendancy over the Italians and a new power, Rome, began to dominate the Italian peninsula. In Sicily the Carthaginians continued their conquests, until the island was divided between their dominion and that of Syracuse which, under a succession of able tyrants, became the center of western Greek power.

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Electrum Triple Shekel

In 280 bc Tarentum clashed with Rome and Pyrrhus king of Epirus, an outstanding military commander, came to aid the Tarentines. Despite initial successes he was unable to defeat the Romans, and his later adventures in Sicily against the Carthaginians fared no better. After the withdrawal of Pyrrhus, Rome and Carthage came into collision, and the result was three great Punic Wars ending in the total defeat and destruction of Carthage. During this century-long death grapple, all of the western city-states became subject to Rome.

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Perseus, last king of Macedon

In the East the Hellenistic kingdoms were in an almost constant state of war - against each other, and internally as the ruling families fought over succession. The period began with a great Celtic invasion penetrating into the heart of Asia Minor, forming the Celtic district of Galatia. The immense Seleukid realm began to disintegrate as first Bactria, then Parthia broke away, and the Parthians eventually absorbed most of the Seleukid dominion, effectively reconstituting the old Persian Empire. Meanwhile the Macedonian kingdom allied itself with Carthage during the second Punic War, and came into conflict with the rising power of Rome. After defeats in 197 and 168 bc, Macedon and its territories in Greece were subjugated, after which Rome incorporated all the Hellenistic kingdoms into its Empire. The last was Egypt, which passed to Rome in 30 bc after the battle of Actium.

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Greek Imperial Bronze Coin

Stylistically this period is one of innovation and evolution, combined with continuing decline in artistic style. Living rulers replaced deities on the obverse of coins as Alexander's successors took the step from satrap to King. The art of numismatic portraiture progressed rapidly, becoming the motif of the period. Hellenistic Greek coins were struck on broader flans to provide more scope for the portrait, often becoming medallic in character. During the first century bc, as the remaining Greek kingdoms were being absorbed by Rome and Parthia, artistic style and metal quality declined as their finances deteriorated. Civic issues by Greek cities, mostly in Asia Minor, continued under the Roman Empire and this series is known as the Greek Imperial or Roman Provincial coins.

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