These days, numismatists also collect ancient Greek coins. This makes them more valuable as collectibles than the value of the precious metal they contain.
Our attention will be directed to the cities of mainland Greece, the Aegean islands, and Asia Minor.
A Brief History Of Ancient Greek Coins
The Lydians or the Ionian Greeks first used coins in the seventh century B.C.E. Electrum (a combination of gold and silver) coins circulated widely in the Eastern Mediterranean after their introduction.
At the start of the Classical period in Greece, all major cities had distinctive coin designs.
Most silver and bronze ancient Greek coins were minted at that time.
Each city-state’s currency featured historical and mythological motifs.
These badges served as city symbols and helped people identify its coins.
It’s important to remember that the obverse and reverse of a coin are referred to by different names in ancient numismatics (the study of ancient coinage).
Ancient Greek Coins by City:
The island of Aegina is located in the western Aegean, not far from Athens.
Epidaurus founded Aegina as a colony for the Dorians. During the initial stages of the Persian invasion of Greece, Aegina surrendered to the invaders.
But it redeemed itself by fighting valiantly alongside the Athenians in the naval battle of Salamis (480 BCE).
Aegina is the rightful owner of the first ancient Greek silver coins.
The silver didrachm or stater served as the basis for the Aeginitan standard of value.
These coins were widely circulated in countries like Egypt and the Levant without silver currency.
Multiple Aegean cities adopted the Aeginitan weight standard due to the widespread use of Aeginitan coins.
The tortoise was the symbol of Aegina. A common “skew” or incuse design is used on the reverse of city coins.
Chios is an island located directly opposite the Asian mainland. During the Classical era, Chios was a Persian vassal.
The island began its struggle for independence at the turn of the fifth century. Athens’ Delian League welcomed it with open arms.
However, during the Peloponnesian War and again in the Social War (357-355 BC), Chios fought against the Athenians.
Until the third century B.C.E., the sphynx was featured prominently on the city’s coins.
Its currency often depicted a grape bunch inside an amphora on the reverse.
This demonstrated the island’s prosperity and the importance of its wine trade.
Kos and Lindos, Ialysos, Kamiros, and Knidos formed the Dorian Pentapolis.
The city’s position in the eastern Aegean, close to Asia’s coast, gave it a long history of coinage. The city adopted the crab as its symbol during the classical era.
In the fourth century, Kos struck coins with designs based on various sources, most notably the story of Heracles.
Nonetheless, we are constantly reminded of Kos’s island heritage whenever we see the crab on its coinage.
The worship of Dionysus (Bacchus) was especially prominent on the island of Thasos in the Northern Aegean.
The god Dionysus was a patron of the arts and revelry. His followers eventually made it to Thasos from neighboring Thrace.
Silver and bronze coins were minted on Thasos between the fourth and third centuries because of the island’s abundant supply of precious metals.
Several mythical characters and orgiastic celebrations associated with Dionysus appeared on coins.
Dionysus’s sidekick and god, Silvanus carrying a nymph on his shoulders, was depicted on some of the island’s most fascinating coins.
The nymph was demonstrating against her kidnapping as their bodies formed the swastika, a common symbol in ancient Greek art.
Samos is an island directly opposite the Greek cities of Asia Minor in the Ionian Sea.
This island was the first to issue its coins in the early sixth century. Early Samian coins were electrum staters like those of other Ionian cities.
During the Classical Era, the Samians minted coins depicting a lion’s head on the front and a bull’s head on the back.
The Samaina, a type of Samian galley, also frequently appeared on silver tetradrachms.
The lion and the bull represented Hera, the wife of Zeus and the patron goddess of Samos.
The Heraion, the goddess’s most well-known temple, was located there, too.
Rhodes was established as the capital of the newly independent state of Rhodes in 408/7 BCE by merging the cities of Lindos, Ialysos, and Kamyros.
This rapidly spread throughout Asia and the islands to its East.
The city of Rhodes grew richer and more famous due to these victories.
One of the few Greek cities wealthy enough to mint gold coins to the Attic standard, Rhodes was a rarity.
Rhodian coins are undeniably some of the most aesthetically pleasing examples of ancient Greek coinage.
Because of their high quality and the extensive history of Rhodos, they are also considered some of the most valuable Classical Era numismatic coins.
The sun god Helios, the spouse of the island of Rhodes, was depicted on the obverse.
The Rhodians also erected a huge statue honoring the god. The statue, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was called the Colossus of Rhodes.
A rose was shown on the back. The Greek word for rose (Rhodos) is phonetically similar to the city’s name, so this was a pun.
On the island of Melos, apples (or pomegranates) were the most common numismatic motif.
We didn’t pick that at random. The name of the island, in Greek, is pronounced very similarly to the word for apple, which is melon.
The apple of Melos was a pun on the island’s name, much like the rose of Rhodes was.
Remember that most ancient people were illiterate; this will help put things in perspective.
These punny images could quickly identify a coin’s country of origin. After a pivotal moment in the Peloponnesian War, Melian minting operations ceased.
The Melians maintained neutrality while assisting their cousins, the Spartans (both groups were Dorians).
Melos was only a minor island power then, so it was wise for them to avoid antagonizing Athens, the naval superpower.
Athens, however, presented Melos with a stark choice in 416/5: either pay tribute and join the Delian League or be annihilated.
Thucydides describes the conversation between the two cities’ representatives in fascinating detail.
The Athenians declared that without their surrender, the city faced certain destruction at the hands of the Spartans. The Melian people have decided to fight for their honor with the hope of receiving assistance from the Spartans.
The Athenian army destroyed the city of Melos during the subsequent siege. The men of the population were massacred, and the women and children were sold into servitude.
The Spartans finally overthrew Athens on the island in 405 BCE.
Since the Greek Bronze Age, Cnossus has served as an important commercial center on the island of Crete.
The history of Cnossus was clouded by legend. The obverse of Cnossian coins featured a labyrinth, an allusion to the minotaur’s labyrinth from mythology.
This is how the story unfolds. To appease the sea god Poseidon, King Minos of Crete sought a healthy white bull to sacrifice to him.
He wished, and the gods heard him. But Minos, taken with the creature’s beauty, kept it.
To appease the god, he slaughtered yet another bull for the ritual.
Because of this, Poseidon decided to punish the king. Then he charmed Pasiphae, Minos’s wife, so she fell head over heels in love with the bull her husband had hidden away.
A monstrous offspring emerged from their union. The Minotaur, composed of human and bull parts, appeared.
It was only natural that Minos would try to conceal the beast, which was embarrassing for him.
He gave the legendary architect Daedalus the task of constructing a maze-like structure.
Daedalus finished the structure, and Minos set the Minotaur in its middle. Yet another legendary Greek hero, Theseus, killed the monster at the end of the myth.
Among the most recognizable designs on ancient Greek coins is a labyrinth. The citizens of Cnossus must have placed a high value on it.
The labyrinth wasn’t just a visual allusion to the Minotaur myth. It was also symbolic of a time when gods, monsters, and kings roamed the earth in legend. Crete’s legendary past as a global ruler.
At the time, the other major Cretan city was Gortyna (also known as Gortys). Coins in Gortyna feature a different legend.
The most typical cover depicted Zeus as a bull abducting the lovely nymph Europa. Ellotia was a festival in Gortyna that was held in honor of Europa.
Interestingly, Europa is the inspiration for the name of the European continent.
Sitting in a tree, Europa graced the obverse, while Zeus’s bull emblem graced the reverse.
This means that both sides of Gortynian coins depicted the same design or inscription.
Boeotia included the city of Thebes. In contrast to Egypt’s Hundred-Gated Thebes, this one had only seven.
The city’s political and military history was rife with power struggles between the era’s major players.
When the Persians invaded, the Thebans sided with Athens and Sparta, but their nobles sided with Xerxes.
The Thebans sided with Sparta in the Peloponnesian War and came out relatively unscathed. Over the subsequent years, Thebes became a major world power.
The Thebans defeated the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C.E., under the command of generals Pelopidas and Epaminondas.
A brief period of Theban dominance had begun. Soon after the battle of Mantineia (362 BCE), Theban’s ambitions fizzled out.
The Thebans may have triumphed over the Spartans, but they paid a heavy price. The city never got back on its feet.
The coins of Thebes are among the most distinctive in all of ancient Greece.
The obverse of the most common type depicted the distinctive Boeotian shield, while the reverse featured an amphora.
After victories over the Persians at Marathon (490 BCE) and Salamis (480 BCE), Athens established itself as a major world power.
After the conflict, Athens presented itself as the savior of Greek independence and democracy.
The Spartans, until then the undisputed military leader of the Greek world, were angered by the Athenian rise to power.
Each side formed powerful alliances to safeguard their interests, ultimately resulting in the bloody Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE).
Although Sparta ultimately prevailed, the cost of the war was too high for anyone involved. The city-state never fully recovered, making way for Macedonian dominance.
The Athenians maintained the Attic standard in their coinage. Athens could control the Aegean trade due to its status as a naval superpower.
The Laurion mines, not far from the city, also contributed significantly to the city’s silver reserves.
Because of this, the city could mint high-quality coins, which rose to prominence as the industry standard during the Classical era.
The owl was featured on the obverse of Athenian coins. That’s why people referred to them as “owls”: because of their nocturnal habits.
The goddess Athena served as the city of Athens’ patron. Her holy symbol was the owl, and the Parthenon served as her temple.
The owls depicted on ancient Greek coins are the most well-known and frequently seen today.
The best and rarest of these coins are considered works of art by numismatists.
You’d find the major city of Corinth between Athens and Sparta.
Corinth held sway over naval trade for quite some time because of its advantageous position between the Peloponnese and the rest of mainland Greece.
Because of its immense wealth, Horace remarked, “Not everyone can go to Corinth.” The Hellenic League, an alliance of Greek cities (including Athens and Sparta), was formed in Corinth to fight the Persian invasion.
The Peloponnesian War began with a dispute between Corinth and its colony Corcyra. The city then decided to join forces with the Spartans.
Corinth continued to lose ground after the war as it engaged in a string of conflicts with every major city.
Pegasus, the mythical winged horse of Bellerophon, the legendary hero of Corinth, often appeared on Corinthian coins.
On the flip side, Athena’s head was shown with the traditional Corinthian helmet.
The koppa always appears throughout the period’s coinage, representing the city’s ancient name.
Ephesus, located on the coast of Asia Minor, was an Attic-Ionian colony and one of the twelve cities that made up the Ionian League. The city’s Temple of Artemis was considered one of the seven ancient wonders. Ephesus’s strategic location put it in touch with the earliest coin-issuing civilizations in the East.
Therefore, in the prehistoric period, the city struck its electrum coins.
A bee was a common motif in Ephesus’s ancient Greek coinage. The symbol’s inherent attractiveness is beyond dispute.
Artemis, the goddess of the wild and hunting, adopted the bee as one of her symbols. In the Artemis Temple, the high priest was known as King Bee, and the priestesses were called honeybees.
Fine numismatic coins featuring the graceful bees of Ephesus fetch high prices at auction.
Like Ephesus, the Ionian city of Miletus on Asia Minor’s coast was an early adopter of coinage.
In ancient Miletus, the lion’s head appeared on the obverse of electrum coins, while an incuse square appeared on the reverse.
Ephesus used its weight standard at first, but by the start of the Classical period, it had switched to the Aeginetean system.
As a result of the Persian Wars, the city switched from using electrum to silver in its currency.
It also swapped out the incuse square for a variety of floral designs.
In the fourth century, a lion with a rose or a star appeared on the reverse of Milesian coinage, while an image of Apollo appeared on the obverse.
Mytilene and Methymna fought each other for control of Lesbos. The city was on the island’s eastern side, opposite the Asian mainland.
During the classical era, Mytilene became the island’s principal city. During the Peloponnesian War, in 428 BCE, Mytilene famously fought against the Athenian empire.
Anger and frustration were felt in Athens because of the uprising in Mytilene.
The Athenian assembly initially sent ships to destroy Mytilene, killing all men and selling women and children into slavery after the more extreme voices gained the upper hand.
By morning, the entire city was in disbelief after everyone had time to have second thoughts.
A fresh council overturned the earlier vote, and a swift vessel was dispatched to halt the invasion.
Thankfully, the ship was successful, and the Athenian army received the updated orders just in time to launch their attack.
No one in Mytilene ever found out how close they came to being wiped out. Beautiful coins from Mytilene are well-known among coin collectors.
In addition, until 326 BCE, this was the only city that issued electrum coins.
The electrum coinage preferred denomination was known as a hekte.
Billon coins, a combination of silver and bronze, were also tried out by the Mytilenians.
Mytilenian coins are typically anepigraphic, meaning they lack inscriptions and don’t adhere to any particular iconography.
Not their visuals but their high standard and unique composition set them apart.
The hectares of the city feature depictions of various gods, heroes, and symbols.
Its coinage, however, is distinguished by the presence of Apollo, Artemis, Leda, and the lyre.
Collectors highly seek after Mytilenian issues because of their distinctive design, iconography, and use of electrum as a metal.
A stunning coin from Mytilene would be an asset to any ancient Greek coin collection.
Before you go…
We hope this article has given you a better understanding of ancient Greek coins! If you have any concerns or questions, please leave them in the comment section! Happy Collecting!
Check out my next article: “What is the Rarest Ancient Coin?“