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
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
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...)
| [Bearers of Meaning] | [Contents]
| [Essays] | [Catalogue]
All contents copyright (c) 1996.
All rights reserved.