As an introduction to the types of ancient coins, HACAC is pleased to reproduce this article from "Collecting Ancient Coins," a supplement which appeared in some leading Numismatic publications.
Religion figures heavily in Greek numismatics
Robert W. Hoge
ANA Money Museum
818 N. Cascade Ave.
Colorado Springs, CO 80903
Among the Greeks, coined money originally held a social and religious status far different from that which it enjoys in the modern world. It constituted a sort of miniature embodiment of the values and beliefs of its issuers, the citizens of the polis, or city state in and for which the coins were minted. Often struck within the sacred temple precincts, coins held quasi-religious significance for their users and their quality was a matter of civic pride. This is reflected in the high degree of purity that was long maintained, the subject matter of the coin types (normally related to the foremost deities and cults of each polis) and the effort to achieve excellence demonstrated by the frequently splendid artistic renditions created by the die engravers. For example:
From the earliest period of coinage (ca. 650 B.C.), through the domination of the Romans to the supremacy of Christianity in the fourth century A.D., images drawn from the context of Hellenic polytheism constituted a primary component of coin typology.
The most familiar of the images from the Greek pantheon ("all the gods"), at least in terms of name-recognition in our time, are the so-called "Olympic" gods and goddesses. These are immortal beings (sometimes asserted to be 12 in number) who were considered to be generally the most important in classical mythology. To them were due sacrificial offerings, typically the bones, guts and a bit of meat from ritually slain animals. This propitiation of the gods was accomplished by burning these remains on an altar in a large, hemispherical bowl (lebes) often mounted on a tripod. Sacred, eternal fires were maintained in the main temples of every city.
The principal divine beings were the following: Zeus, Hera, Demeter, Hestia, Hermes, Ares, Athena, Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, Poseidon and Dionysus. All of them held numismatic significance. Many different descriptive titles were given to them, but this list describes them under their most commonly encountered names (with their equivalent and some times more familiar Roman names in brackets).
Ancient Greek religiosity was both civic and personal. Coins passed from the authority of the state to the hands of the individual, like the emanation of spirituality in which the citizens would have all the had to participate. The various public duties upheld by the citizenry, the liturgy, would have been paid for in coin returning to the state coffers. A study of the symbols, attributes, manifestations and representations of the divine in Greek numismatics is an enormous field, and one at which in many cases we can only guess. The images hold mystery, and this is part of their charm.
The above article has been excerpted and arranged for web publication, but the author's original text has not been altered and is being used with the permission of Krause Publications, publisher of Numismatic News, World Coin News and Bank Note Reporter, where the article first appeared, and by the American Numismatic Association (ANA).