The Dating Of Greek Coins

Tetradrachm of Alexander I of Syria: Seleukid date 162 151/150 B.C.

In general, Greek coins were not marked with their year of issue until a very late period {2nd Century B.C.), when the Hellenistic Kingdoms of Syria and Egypt commenced the practice. The Seleukids dated their coins according to an era commencing in 312 B.C., when Seleukos I regained possession of Babylon. The Ptolemies, on the other hand, used the less satisfactory method of indicating only the regnal year; and as every Greek King of Egypt bore the name ‘Ptolemy’ the dates appearing on their coins provide only limited assistance in our efforts to establish the precise chronology of the Ptolemaic series. But even in the case of these late regal issues many of the coins are not dated and the practice only spread to a limited number of autonomous city mints. In attempting to establish the approximate period of issue for the majority of Greek coins, then, the numismatist must have recourse to other criteria, such as style and fabric.

 

      

 Archaic winged figure on a tetradrachm of Peparethos, circa 500 B.C.   Archaic eagle on a stater of Elis, early 5th Cent. B.C

Broadly speaking, the six centuries of Greek coinage, prior to the establishment of the Roman Empire, divide up into three periods, each characterized by artistic style and, to a lesser extent, by the method of production. In the Archaic period (from the invention of coinage down to the time of the Persian defeat in 479 B.C.) representations of the human form have a stiff, almost stylized look. In profile heads the eye tends to be represented full face, whilst in showing the full-length figure to left or to right there is a tendency to depict the head and legs correctly in profile, whilst the torso has a more frontal aspect. Similarly, with flying birds the body is in profile whilst the wings are depicted as if viewed from below. Although lacking the artistic finesse and sculptural qualities of later periods much of the work produced by the early die-engravers is pleasing to the eye and fascinating in its symbolization of a most exciting period in the history of civilization. To begin with, coins bore no reverse types and simply had an incuse square sometimes roughly divided into segments. In the later archaic period the divisions of the incuse square became more formalized and finally, in the closing years of the 6th Century, the first true reverse types began to appear. However, some mints, such as Aigina, never abandoned the use of the incuse square reverse. In the Aegean area the flans of the earliest coins are often very thick, almost globular, whilst subsequent issues gradually become thinner and larger. In the West the opposite is often the case; the very thin, spread flans of the earliest issues giving way to thicker, more compact coins. A curious feature of the first issues of many of the Magna Graecian mints was the mirroring of the obverse type on the reverse, in incuse form.

Tetradrachm of Segesta in Sicily, circa 410 B.C.

The period 479-336 B.C., from the Persian Wars to the time of Alexander, is termed the Classical period of Greek coinage. Its first few decades witness a progressive transition from the unlifclike representations of archaic art to a more natural style, though still retaining something of the old severity in the earlier phases. Towards the latter part of the 5th Century, and especially in Sicily, numismatic art reaches a level of realism combined with nobility ot style which makes many of the coins masterpieces in miniature. Nothing comparable has been produced in the twenty-four centuries which have since elapsed. Although the Sicilian coinage was cut short by the Carthaginian invasions at the end of the century, mints in other parts of the Greek world were also producing coins of fine style, and these issues continued until the beginning of the Macedonian domination of Greece. This despite the political turmoil which the Greek world found itself in as the aftermath of the great Peloponnesian War.

Hellenistic tetradrachm of Myrina, circa 150 B.C.

The eastern conquests of Alexander and the subsequent establishment of great kingdoms brought about fundamental changes in the coinage. The Hellenistic period, which lasted three centuries until the suicide of Cleopatra of Egypt (30 B.C.), saw the first mass-production of Greek coinage, with the possible exception of the Athenian ‘owls’ produced in the age of Perikles. The vast realms over which the Hellenistic monarchs ruled required coinage on a scale unknown in the days of the city-states. Working under such pressure even experienced die-engravers could hardly be expected to produce notable work, and as time went by there was a steady decline in the artistic standard of the coinage. Although there was something of a revival in the 2nd Century B.C., when many cities were temporarily liberated from regal control by Rome’s intervention in eastern affairs, still the general impression conveyed by most of the later Hellenistic coins is one of artistic decadence and hurried, careless production.
In the foregoing notes I have tried to make clear the principal characteristics of each major period—Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic. In order to arrive at a more precise dating for an individual piece a close study of the history of the mint can sometimes provide valuable clues. Many Greek cities were destroyed by their neighbours, or by foreign invaders, to be rebuilt at a later date and sometimes even to suffer a second destruction. The names of cities could be changed, sometimes more than once: the Italian city of Sybaris was renamed Thourioi in

425 B.C., the name which it bore until the Romans changed it to Copia in 194 B.C. Such events enable us to construct a chronological framework for the coinages of certain cities; and as the majority of mints were active only sporadically we are able, sometimes, to fix the precise occasion for some special issue. This knowledge can then be used to date the coins of other mints in the same vicinity, and so the picture is gradually built up like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

There is much still to be learnt about the chronology of Greek coins, and our views often have to be modified m the light of evidence provided by hoards. But in this brief survey of a most complex and controversial subject I hope I have not only made the reader aware of the difficulties involved in the dating of Greek coins but also have conveyed something of the fascmauon and the challenge which this subject affords.
The table below explains the Greek letter-numerals by which dates are expressed on certain issues of the 2nd and 1st Centuries B.C.

 

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