What happened to a coin after it was issued depended to a great extent on its denomination. Having only fiduciary or token value, bronze coins were unlikely to travel far from where they were minted. These smaller denominations served the everyday purposes of most people, who primarily used them in the market place. Coins of silver or gold, on the other hand, were more likely to have been used in international trade or for various payments to or by the state -- to pay taxes or military expenses.

Silver and bronze but almost never gold coins sometimes had small marks, usually symbols or monograms, punched into them after minting. Called punchmarks or countermarks, these were made both by merchants or private individuals and by states. Countermarking of silver coins, most common in the Hellenistic period, was usually done by a state to show that foreign coins could be used as legal tender in its territory. In some states, such as Hellenistic Pergamon in Asia Minor, all foreign coins had to be countermarked. The state could thus maintain a monopoly on coinage and make a profit from countermarking fees. But countermarks are relatively rare; more often states accepted foreign coinage as legal tender without marking it, especially in the case of well-known and respected issues such as Athenian "owls" (no. 30). Or the state or its merchants kept some foreign coins to use in their commercial or other dealings with the other state.

Unlike silver coins, bronze coins were countermarked by the states that had issued them. A state might demonitize a bronze issue, usually to raise money by issuing new coins, or people holding old coins could get them countermarked for a fee. Countermarking was common in the first century A.D. when, owing to a shortage of bronze coins, even very worn coins as much as forty years old were countermarked with the initials or monogram of the emperor or issuing authority.

Occasionally a Greek silver coin is found with a person's name scratched on it. This might have been written to ensure that the person, having left his coin on deposit for some reason, would receive the same coin back, and not another one that was more worn and thus lighter. Another form of graffiti found on coins is the initial of a deity to whom the coin had been dedicated.

In general, if a coin lost weight through wear to the point that it would not be accepted, the loss had to be borne by the owner of the coin; the state would not replace it. Some states did have laws, however, to help guarantee against forgeries. In fourth-century B.C. Athens, a person could bring suspect coins to official testers on duty in the Agora, the market place, and in Peiraeius, the port. Coins found to be silver-plated forgeries were defaced with deep chisel cuts and dedicated to the Mother of the Gods.

What ultimately happened to a coin also depended to a great deal on its denomination. Most bronze coins extant today probably had been lost by their former owners; they are the coins most frequently found in archaeological excavations or as stray surface finds. Of the 14,000 Athenian coins found in the excavations of the Athenian Agora, more than 99 per cent were bronzes, and of the 100,000 coins of all types found there, the great majority were bronzes. Silver and gold coins were valuable enough that, if lost, their owners would take the time to try to find them. They are more likely to be found in hoards, intentionally buried or perhaps hidden in a cave, deposited by their owners for safe-keeping, either in emergencies or as a normal safe-keeping procedure; there were no ancient banks in our sense of the word. Hoards are usually found by chance and not during archaeological excavations. Most hoards are dispersed and sold before they can be properly studied or recorded; even their find spots may not be known.

Much of the material for the above article was gleaned from the following sources, which are recommended for further reading:

Carson, R.A.G., Coins of the Roman Empire. London and New York, 1990.

Crawford, M.H., Roman Republican Coinage, vol. II. Cambridge, 1974.

Grierson, P., Numismatics. Oxford, 1975.

Hill, G.F., "Ancient methods of coining," Numismatic Chronicle 1922, 1-42.

Kraay, C.M., Archaic and Classical Greek Coins. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1976.

Mørkholm, O., Early Hellenistic Coinage from the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamea (336-188 B.C.), P. Grierson and U. Westermark, eds. Cambridge, 1991.

Sellwood, D.G., "Some experiments in Greek minting technique," Numismatic Chronicle 1963, 217-231.

Sellwood, D.G., "Minting," in Roman Crafts, D. Strong and D. Brown, eds. New York, 1976.

[LU Home] | [Bearers of Meaning] | [Contents] | [Essays] | [Catalogue] | [Glossary]

All contents copyright (c) 1996.
Lawrence University
All rights reserved.