Archive for the 'coin' Category

Object: Silver Drachm of Alexander the Great

Figure 1 Drachm of Alexander the Great from Classics Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Figure 1 Drachm of Alexander the Great from Classics Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

336-323 B.C.
Materials: Silver

When Alexander the Great, or Alexander III of Macedon, came to power, he entered into an already expansive empire of Greek city-states built by the expeditions and military successes of his father, Phillip II. Alexander followed his father on campaigns, received the best education from tutors, such as Aristotle, and successfully gained the throne at the age of 20 after his father’s murder. Unfortunately, at the beginning of his reign, he inherited both the land his father had conquered as well as the great amount of debt his father acquired while trying to enforce his claim as hegemon of Greece. For this reason, Alexander had to borrow money early in his new reign in order to provide the financial means to secure the borders of his empire. He pursued his father’s legacy of conquest and after much warring, more debt, and victories against the Persian realm, Asia Minor, and various other territories, he finally gained the resources he needed to continue his military efforts and pay his debts. Alexander then ruled a massive empire that reached from the Adriatic Sea up to the Indus River. He wanted to extend his rule all the way to the end of the world. So, he required great sums of money to afford his expensive troops, pay for supplies, and provide presents to significant cities and persons in order to maintain important ties. His need for coined money was great while he was trying to fund his campaign, so be began introducing his own currency, the date of which is under dispute. This currency system would unexpectedly gain validity in years to come.

The most prevalent coins of Alexander’s reign were the drachm and tetradracm. While coins struck in that time often had minor differences because of the sloppiness of technique by which they were created, the drachm was usually about 18 mm wide and made of silver. The process of striking the coins, commonly believed to have been made of smelted silver and gold gained from Alexander’s campaign, involved “an oven for heating blanks (flans), tongs for handling hot flans, a table or bench on which an anvil was mounted, and a pair of dies struck with a heavy hammer to impress the design into the flans” (Classic Coins). Dies were made of hard bonze or iron. One (the obverse die) would be mounted on the anvil while the other (reverse die) would be struck to make the impression as the punch. There has been some debate about the techniques used for both creating the flans as well as the actual striking of the coins since artisans wanted to protect the security of the coins so they could not be illegally copied. To learn more about how we believe blanks and coins were most likely created in Alexander’s time, take a look at this video:

Similar to the coins made before his time, Alexander’s drachm portrayed the head of Hercules on the obverse (front) and Zeus, father of Hercules sitting in his throne holding a scepter and eagle on the reverse (back). There are many theories as to why Alexander chose the image of Hercules for this coin. Some contend that it was a way, in keeping with previous tradition, to proudly link the possible lineage of the Argead dynasty to the profound hero. Others believe it was to show the pronounced physical likeness between Alexander and the hero Hercules. Yet others believe Alexander wanted to portray himself as a symbolic figure of heroism to the people he was exchanging and trading with (Kampmann). Hercules was a renowned hero in Greek mythology, and the lion headdress he wears on the drachm is believed to have portrayed his heroic slaying of the Nemean lion. Lions were also an important symbol for Macedonia, where this specific coin is believed to have been created.

Coins created during Alexander’s reign were believed to be sound money because those who exchanged them knew they were regulated by magistrates and thoroughly inspected by their creators. Often these magistrates marked the coins with their official symbols or monograms, and it was not uncommon to find test cuts made in coins where a person had checked to make sure they were of good quality silver. During his lifetime, there were 26 mints producing his coins. After his death at the age of 32, there were nearly 52 mints, representing the peak of coin production for the Alexandrian Empire. Alexander’s empire devolved into many city-states after his death, and they were warred over by his generals. These conflicts were called the Wars of Diadochi, and they lasted until finally they decided to crown Alexander’s brother as king until Alexander’s son could come of age. In this time after his death, there are many who argue that the head of Hercules on coins began to show characteristics of Alexander’s features. This is believed to show both the prominence and acceptance of the coins in the Greek and non-Greek worlds as well as a way of remembering the legacy of the king who created them. However, coins differed across different regions and varied based on the reasons they were used. In any case, it is evident that the coins of Alexander the Great of Macedon left a great and lasting impression on the field of numismatics.

[Destiny Trejo]


Art Institute of Chicago
2012    Launchpad: Coin Production in the Ancient Greek World. Facebook.

Classical Coins
N.D.    How Ancient Coins Were Made. Classical Coins. Kampmann, Ursula

2015    The Coins of Alexander the Great of Macedonia. CoinsWeekly.

British Museum
2007    Coin of Alexander the Great, III. Self made, Photographed at the British Museum.

2014    Alexander the Great: between god and man. Museum of the National Bank of Belgium.

Object: Coin

Coin (As or aes)
Nîmes (Nemausus), France
10-14 CE
Materials: Bronze

This bronze coin, or as, was produced in a mint in the Roman town of Nemausus, now Nîmes in southern France, in about 10-14 CE. Assis were a primary unit of Roman currency, similar to a dollar in US currency today, and had the same value as 12 unciae (or ounces). The obverse, or heads, side of the coin shows the emperor Augustus (aka. Octavian) and his friend and general Marcus Agrippa. Augustus is considered to be the first Roman emperor, and was the adopted son of Julius Caesar (his uncle). After the assassination of Julius Caesar a triumvirate, or alliance between three leaders, was formed amongst Augustus, Marc Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus to avenge the death of Caesar and bring his murderers to justice. Over time this alliance broke down and resulted in a civil war between Augustus and Marc Antony. During this conflict Marc Antony allied himself with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII. Cleopatra had strong ties to Rome, and owed much of her reign to the influence of Julius Caesar. She had an illegitimate son with Julius Caesar and was famously involved with Marc Antony, having three children with him just prior to their deaths. The reverse, or tails, side of the coin shows a crocodile chained to a palm tree. The chained crocodile is meant to represent the Roman victory against Cleopatra VII of Egypt in 31 BCE, and end of the Roman civil war against Marc Antony. The victory at the Battle of Actium, signaled the final defeat of Antony and was lead by Augustus and Agrippa. Roughly four years after this victory, the Roman town of Nemausus was given the name “colonia” and veterans from Augustus’ force in the war were given lands in and around Nemausus. This coin, and others like it, were produced around the time of Augustus’ (14 CE) and Agrippa’s (12 CE) deaths, to honor them and the victory that gave many of the residents of Nemausus their lands.

The following video describes the Battle of Actium in more detail.

[Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Coin

Bronze semis coin
275-270 BCE
Materials: Bronze

Roman coins from the Republican era like this example were not struck like Greek coins, but cast in molds. The casting process required more metal and made heavier coins. Early Roman coin makers attempted to approximate the value of their coins through weight, so a heavy coin was worth more than a light coin. As the Roman Empire expanded, the cost of producing this type of coin became too great and lead to the adoption of struck coins. This coin is a semis, a denomination of bronze coin meaning “half” that was worth half of an as. Roman Republican denominations for cast bronze coinage are all based on the unit of the as. The as was 1 Roman pound (roughly 324 grams) and was divided into 12 unciae, or ounces. So, by this system, an as was 1 Roman pound of bronze and a semis was half a Roman pound of bronze.

This semis has a Pegasus on both the obverse (heads side) and reverse (tails side). In Greek mythology Pegasus was a winged horse, and a child of Medusa and the sea/horse god Poseidon. Pegasus was born, along with his twin brother Chrysaor, when the Greek hero Perseus cut off Medusa’s head. Pegasus was believed to have transported thunder and lightening for Zeus, created a magical fountain on Mt. Helicon, and helped the Greek hero Bellerophon to defeat the Chimera before being made into a constellation by Zeus. Images of Pegasus appear on coins from throughout the Mediterranean region and are particularly common on coins from Corinth. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Coin

Tunisia, Carthage
AD 203
Materials: Silver

This object is a Roman coin that is made of silver. Roman coins were made in mints by many different workers. Roman coins had minting marks on them to inform the people that used them where the coins were made. Silver coins in the Roman Empire were used from around 800 BCE until the fall of the Roman Empire. During this period, coins were used similar to the way that newspapers are used today. The coins spread throughout the Empire to inform people about the Emperor and depict events during his reign. This specific coin, struck in AD 203, has a depiction on the front of the coin of the laureate head of Denarius of Septimus Severus. The reverse of the coin has Fortuna seated with a rudder in her right hand, a cornucopia in her left, and a wheel under the chair (Brown et al.).

Coins in the Roman Empire tell a story about Roman life and economy at the time that they were minted. This coin would have been valued as a denarius because it was made from silver.  Most Romans would have been paid using denari. For example, a fortune teller, or Haruspex, would make around 10 denari per month. A Roman guard, or Praetorian, would make about 60 denari per month. One denari was equal to four sestertii. One denarius was equal to sixteen “as.” The sale of food and other items were denominated in as and the price of food in the Roman economy  was very high. The price of wheat, which was a primary source of food, could sell for as high as 32 as for one modius! A modius is a unit of weight used to measure the wheat. A modius is equal to 6.67 kilograms in today’s measurement.  A typical Roman male ate about two pounds of bread a day, or 16 to 20 pounds per month! Thus, a typical Roman would need four modii per month to produce the 16 to 20 loaves of bread that they ate. Today, wheat is not as much of a staple food as it was in the Roman economy and it sells for $3.00 per 170 metric tons!

[Sarah Dumas]

References: Brown,Frederick L., Mario A. Del Chiaro, Barbara L. Gunn, A.J. Heisserer, A. Jamme, Daniel C. Snell. Classical Antiquities. The Collection of the Stovall Museum of Science and History . A.J. Heisserer. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, pg. 115-135.

Object: Coin

Roman: Coin
BCE 7, Caesar Augustus
Materials: Bronze

Coins like this were used throughout Roman history. From the monarchy to the republic and finally the empire, coins would depict Greco/Roman deities and emperors. Pressed into the bronze is an image of Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, who reigned from 17 B.C. to 14 A.D. Anointed emperors would have their own images stamped onto new coins, or over old ones.

The coins are made by hammering or pressing a ‘dye’ onto the ‘blank’. The dyes would be sent along Rome’s extensive road network to towns across the Empire. There, craftsmen-minters would have the tools needed to mint coin blanks from metal that was mined in their region. On the dyes, propaganda, religious, and political symbols were depicted. A trend began during the reign of the imperial predecessor, Julius Caesar, to begin minting the faces of rulers onto the coins. As Roman influence and conquest expanded, what better psychological tool than money to let the newly conquered know who was in charge? Roman coins found their way to Britain, Spain, Carthage, Egypt, and the Middle East.

Like modern currency, Roman coins often featured abbreviations. This 7 B.C.E. coin has the head of Augustus on the front, and on the back has “SC,” meaning “Senatus Consulto” or “by Decree of the Senate.” The name of the moneyer, Ssalvus Otho, is printed along the edge. ‘Moneyer’ was a high level position, of which four existed at any given time during Rome’s imperial era.

[Jordan Dikeman]

Object: Coin

Judaean: Coin
AD 66-70
Materials: Bronze

This small bronze coin was minted by Jewish rebels who attempted to free Judaea from Roman rule during the First Jewish Revolt in A.D. 66-70.

Herod was in Rome in 40 BC, when the senate appointed him king of Judaea (the area surrounding Jerusalem). He entered Palestinian region with a Roman army, and by 37 BC he was firmly in control of his new kingdom. He ruled Judaea until his death in 4 BC, becoming known to history as Herod the Great.   Known as a great builder, Herod founded new Roman cities, and created a new Temple on the holy mount in Jerusalem.  However, he was also known as a violet ruler.  He killed his wife and her family in an outburst of jealousy.

In his will Herod divided the kingdom between three of his sons. Their inability to control an increasingly turbulent Palestine prompted Rome to give more power to its provincial governors, or procurators. These rulers could not pacify the Jewish people, who were resentful of Roman rule and horrified by any encroachment of Roman religious symbolism (including what they considered the idolatrous theme of a divine emperor). During this tumultuous period the Zealots emerged.  The Zealots were a radical political group committed to ending Roman rule in Palestine.

In A.D. 41, Herod Agrippa was appointed king of Judaea.  He was the grandson of Herod the Great.  For a while, under the rule of Agrippa, Palestine seemed set to enjoy a stability associated with the long reign of Herod the Great. But when Agrippa dies in A.D. 44, the region once again returns to the rule of Roman governors. By this time the violent actions of the Zealots had acquired much support, reinforced by their assassination of Jews who collaborate with the Romans. The Zealots were prominent in the popular uprising which in A.D. 66 expelled the Romans from Jerusalem.  They also played a large part in the revolutionary government which briefly ruled Palestine following the revolt.

The First Jewish Revolt is crushed when Emperor Nero sent General Vespasian and his son Titus to Judaea.  They make progress in restoring Roman order to Palestine. Nero’s suicide prompted Vespasian to return to Rome, leaving Titus in Palestine.  In A.D. 70, Titus besieged Jerusalem and demolished parts of the city wall.  The great Temple built by Herod was looted and burned, with much of the spoils returning to Rome with Titus.

First Jewish Revolt coinage was issued by the Jews after the Zealots captured Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple from the Romans in 66 AD at the beginning of the First Jewish Revolt. The Jewish leaders of the Revolt minted their own coins to emphasize their newly obtained independence from Rome.

In the Revolt’s first year (66–67 AD), the Jews minted only silver coins, which were struck from the Temple’s store of silver. During the second (67–68 AD) and third (69–70 AD) years of the Revolt bronze prutah coins were issued. In the fourth year of the Revolt (70–71 AD) three large sizes of bronze coins were minted, possibly because the supplies of Temple silver were diminishing.

[Debra Taylor]

Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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