Carol L. Lawton

From about the eighth century B.C. and even after the Greeks were absorbed into the kingdoms of Alexander the Great and his successors, the Greek world was characterized by the polis, the city-state, of which there were several hundred. Each polis consisted of a city and its surrounding countryside, and each had its own form of government, its own patron deities and heroes and sanctuaries dedicated to them, and its own distinctive economy. The poleis were fiercely independent, even when they were ruled by tyrants or dominated by Hellenistic kings, and their coins are eloquent testimony to their autonomy. Almost from their earliest appearance Greek coins used a combination of figures, symbols, and inscriptions to emphasize the independence and individuality of the poleis, depicting their patron deities and heroes, products, and even visual puns on the cities' names.

The earliest coins appeared in western Asia Minor in the late seventh century B.C. Whether they were invented by the Ionian Greeks or by the neighboring Lydians will probably never be known, but it was the Greeks who spread coinage throughout the Mediterranean, introducing it to many non-Greek peoples with whom they came in contact. At first, Greek coins were stamped with designs, which numismatists call "types," only on the front or obverse, and the reverse carried the impression of the punch used to stamp the metal into the obverse die, but by the end of the sixth century the punch also carried a die for the reverse, and from this point onward most Greek coins had types on both sides. Although on the earliest Greek coins, and particularly on the early electrum issues of Asia Minor with their constantly changing types, it is not always clear what dictated the choice of types, it soon became almost universal practice to use types and inscriptions that identified the polis issuing the coins.


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The coin depicted on this page is No. 30, tetradrachm of Athens, c. 450-40 B.C. Reverse: Owl.

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