In the archaic period a design is normally found only on the obverse of the coin, produced by the lower (anvil) die. The reverse die, consisting merely of a square or oblong punch, was employed simply to hold the blank firmly in position during striking and to ensure that sufficient pressure was exerted to obtain a clear impression of the obverse die. Towards the end of the archaic period, as minting techniques improved, designs began appearing on the reverse dies too, though still within the incuse square, which now formed a frame for the type. Good examples of early ‘double-sided’ types are to be found at Athens (head of Athena/owl) and at Corinth (Pegasos/head of Athena), both types introduced at the end of the 6th Century.

Silver tetradrachm of Athens, circa 510-505 B.C.

The choice of types in this formative period of Greek numismatics is of special interest. Traditions were being established which were to have a lasting influence on all subsequent coinage, right down to the present day. It was recognized, almost from the start, that there was a completely new medium for artistic expression, whilst the issuing authorities saw the opportunity of advertising the special characteristics of their states The great diversity of deities in the Greek pantheon and the different interpretations of the roles enslaved by each nod and goddess provided scope for much local variation in religious beliefs.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, those religious subjects were dominant in the earliest phases of coinage. In this way, the individuality of each city could be proclaimed whilst the artist was given the greatest scope for his talents in representing the grandeur and mystery of the Olympians and their minions.

Silver stater of Corinth, circa 500 B.C.

Although religious types dominated the obverses and reverses of the Greek coinage down to the age of Alexander the Great, nevertheless there are many issues which do not fall within this category. The cornear of Metapontion, the crab of Akragas, the shield of Boeotia, the bee of Ephesos and the silphium plant of Kyrene are all emblematic types, being the official ‘badges’ of their states. Even here, however, there are religious connotations: the ear of corn is associated with Demeter and Persephone, whilst the bee was sacred to Artemis who was especially revered by the Ephesians.

Other ‘badges’, such as the amphora, triskelis, knuckle-bone, wheel, etc., found on the ‘Wappenmunzen’ coinage of Athens, could be heraldic devices associated with the Athenian nobility of the 6th Century B.C. But, here again, a religious interpretation of the types seems more likely, with the various aspects of the cult of Athena providing the inspiration. Punning allusions to the names of cities are also not infrequently encountered. At Selinus, in Sicily, the leaf of the wild celery plant (selinon) is the constant obverse type of the city’s archaic coinage, whilst the Aegean island of Melos similarly features the apple {melon). There are many such examples from mints in all parts of the Greek world.

Silver tetradrachm of Ephesos, mid-4th Cent. B.C.

With the establishment of the great Hellenistic Kingdoms in the period following the death of Alexander came a most important development in the evolution of Greek coin types the beginnings of royal portraiture. The names of the Macedonian Kings had appeared regularly on the coinage from the first half of the 5th Century B.C., but no effigy had ever been produced by the die-engravers, not even of the great Alexander himself. Several of Alexander’s successors, however, placed their portraits on their coins and once the tradition was established.


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