Ancient coins were made from gold, silver, electrum, and copper and its alloys, bronze or brass. The earliest coins, minted in Asia Minor in the mid- to late seventh century B.C., were of naturally-occurring electrum, an alloy of gold and at least 20 per cent silver. They were consistent in weight, implying that they were intended to have a set value, yet their value as bullion varied greatly, since coins of the same weight possessed different ratios of the more precious gold and the less precious silver. These early electrum coins were minted for only about fifty years, and by the middle of the sixth century they were replaced by coins of silver. Gold coins did not become common until the time of Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great.

Coins of gold and silver are said to be coins of intrinsic value, since their worth usually closely approximated the value of the bullion making up the coin. The weight of individual coins of the same denomination was, therefore, closely monitored. Not all states followed the same weight standard, but each city-state, especially the more important mints such as Athens, adhered quite strictly to its own standard in minting its coins (see no. 30 of 17.19 g.; the standard for the coin was 17.20 g.). As time passed, however, most weight standards were reduced.

The fineness or purity of the metal used for gold and silver coinages was also closely monitored. Throughout Greek and Roman times, gold coins were consistently of very high purity, usually more than 95 per cent pure gold. Silver coins were of an equally high purity until the time of the Roman emperor Nero, who lowered the silver content, but only to about 90 per cent. By late Imperial times, however, some "silver" coins contained very little silver, at times as low as 2.5 per cent.

In most cases, however, coins of precious metal, certainly those of silver, were somewhat overvalued, somewhat lighter than bullion of equal value would have been. Some overvaluation is to be expected simply to cover the cost of the minting, but it is also clear that in some cases the state minted coins for the purpose of making a profit. The overvaluation of the Athenian drachm was about 5 per cent; it may have been higher in other states since cities such as Athens that had their own mineral sources could better afford to keep the overvaluation low.

Coins of copper and its alloys, not common until the later fourth century B.C., possessed a value that bore little relation to the value of the metal, and thus, like most modern coins, they are called token or fiduciary coins. These coins were highly overvalued in terms of their metal content and were therefore much more profitable for the state to produce. Consequently, less care was given to the weight of individual copper coins and to the purity of the metal or alloy used.

For the token coinages, the Greeks used mainly bronze, copper alloyed with tin, or simply copper. The Romans used a yellowish alloy of copper and zinc, a type of brass called orichalcum, for the higher token denominations (see nos. 80-81) and the redder copper for the two smallest denominations. Both Greeks and Romans sometimes added lead or used lead bronze, probably because lead made the blanks somewhat softer and easier to strike. Numismatists label all copper-alloy coins as bronze (AE).

METAL SOURCES (Continues...)

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