Ancient Greek coins

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Athenian silver coin with Athena's owl

Athenian silver coin with Athena’s owl

Beginning around 600 BC, each Greek city-state minted (made) its own kinds of coins. (They got the idea from the Lydians in West Asia). A lot of the Greek coins were silver. You made them by taking a small lump of silver and putting it on an iron mold, and then striking it with a hammer that had another kind of mold in it. That way you could squash a picture into both sides at the same time. The Athenians had a lot of silver from their silver mines at Laurion, so a lot of their coins were silver.

Corinthian coin with Pegasus, the winged horse

Corinthian coin with Pegasus, the winged horse

The pictures on the coins were different for each city-state. Athenians put a picture of Athena’s owl on their silver coins. Can you see that the coin says ATHE on it in Greek letters?

Silver obol (front and back) from Kelenderis in Cilicia (300s BC)

Silver obol (front and back) from Kelenderis in Cilicia (300s BC)

Silver coins from Corinth had a picture of the flying horse Pegasus. Can you see him?

Just like today, some coins were worth more than others. This coin is worth less. It’s an obol (it has a centaur on it). An unskilled worker, like someone who unloaded boats or dug ditches, in Athens, would earn about two obols a day – two silver obols a day was approximately minimum wage in ancient Athens.

Chalkos (Athenian bronze coin)

Chalkos (Athenian bronze coin)

Even an obol was too much to spend at the store, so the Athenians also made tiny silver coins and larger bronze coins. Eight chalkoi were worth one obol.

All the designs on these coins changed a little from year to year, so numismatists can tell what year (more or less) a particular coin was made, or struck. The government changed the coins so that if anyone cheated and put less silver in some coins, it would be easy to know which were the bad coins.

After the Greeks were conquered by the Romans, Greek cities stopped minting their own coins and used Roman coins instead.

Learn by doing: making Athenian coins
Check out the coins of other Greek cities.

Bibliography and further reading about Greek coins:

Eyewitness: Money (Eyewitness Books) (2000).

Sold!: The Origins of Money and Trade (Buried Worlds) (1994). School Library Journal says, “Grade 6-10-Covering primarily the ancient Mediterranean civilizations, this well-written, beautifully illustrated account describes early forms of money, how the first coins were made, and what they reveal to archaeologists about the people who used them.”

Ancient History from Coins, by C. J. Howgego (1995). Not so easy to read, but a good introduction to what we can learn about history from coins.

Greek Coins, by Ian Carradice (1995). This handbook for beginners shows some of the different types of Greek coins, with a little historical background. About a page per century.

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By | 2017-07-06T00:13:42+00:00 July 6th, 2017|Economy, Greeks|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Ancient Greek coins. Quatr.us Study Guides, July 6, 2017. Web. December 11, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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