Understanding The World Of Ancient Coins – Complete Guide

Ancient coins and the history of money have always been fascinating, but it’s a topic that doesn’t get much attention.

To understand modern currency, it helps to go back to the very beginning and learn about ancient coins and their values. 

Some of these ancient coins are a significant part of history, while others are simply a mystery because they are so rare.

From ancient Greece to the Middle East, many are to be talked about. Let this serve as your ultimate guide to ancient coins worth knowing and collecting. 

Types of Ancient Coins

Before we get into specific coins, let’s talk about some identifying factors and traits of each region and culture that produced their own coins. 

Ancient Greek Coins

Coins in ancient Greece as well as pre-euro were called Drachma.

Each old city-state would use different denominations, which was an interesting feature given how small their country was.

Gold and silver bullion were predominantly used for trade and were weighed for value. 

Ancient Greek coins can be a headache for collectors because of the different denominations and because Greece went through four different periods with their coins. 

  1. Archaic
  2. Classical
  3. Hellenistic
  4. Roman

There are dozens of Greek denominations, so it’s worth some extra time when dealing with Ancient Greek coins. 

For example, the silver Tetradrachm, or stater, was equal to about four Drachma and eventually became the most common coin of Antiquity.

The Decadrachma was equal to ten drachmas.

Ancient Roman Coins

Ancient Roman coins were more straightforward. It was one gold monetary unit that was initially called nummus aureus. This translated to gold money.

It was also commonly called the Denarius Aureus. The silver Denarius was introduced in 211 B.C. during the Second Punic War.

Ancient Roman imperial coins were struck in silver, gold, and bronze from 27 BC to 491 AD.

Octavian coins were struck during the 41 years of Gaius Octavius Thurinus’s rule.

After he founded the Roman Empire and became emperor, he reformed the military and coinage. In 27 B.C., Octavius was renamed Augustus.

Another term for the large bronze Roman coin is Follis.

Composed of 4% silver and weighing 10 grams, some argue the coin was known as “nummus,” but others say the term follis means “a thin layer of metal.”

Ancient Asian Coins

Ancient coins from Asia are incredibly unique. They are almost immediately identifiable as Asian and are called Yuanbao.

This was primarily used in ancient China and made out of silver or gold.

It was valued by weight, where they used taels as the metric. These coins were small and made by local silversmiths. 

Ancient Middle Eastern Coins

Persians called their coins the Dirham, which stemmed from the Greek Drachma. But Persians weren’t the only Middle Eastern ancient coins.

Arabs eventually came out with their coin, the dinar.

The name still exists in several Arab countries today. Consider the Turkish Dinar. However, the Dirham would stay on both through pre-Islamic and after, with Egyptians, among many more countries adopting it. 

Byzantine Coins

Byzantine coins came around after the fall of the West in Eastern Roman countries. Instead of gold and silver, they were the Gold Solidus or Bronze coin varieties.

The Byzantine Empire held several minutes through the 6th century but eventually was lost during invasions of the 7th century.

It’s one of the reasons the coins from this empire and time in history are so rare.

10 Most Valuable Ancient Coins Ever Created

The Brutus “Eid Mar” Denarius, 42 BC – $4.2 Million

One of the most valuable ancient coins known to man also represents one of the most significant times in history.

This coin depicts the story of Julius Caesar being assassinated. In 44 BC, Julius Caesar named himself dictator for life.

Two years later, Brutus and his co-conspirator, Cassius, would free The Republic and become the Roman Empire. 

The obverse of this silver coin shows just that featuring a portrait of Brutus. The coin’s reverse depicts a pileus, a cup slaves were given to signify their freedom.

The reverse also features two daggers for Brutus and Cassius.  

Today, there are said to be less than 100 in the world, owned by the largest rare coin collections to exist. The value of this particular artifact is estimated at around $4.2 million. 

The Brutus Eid Mar Denarius, 42 BC

The Decadrachm of Syracuse, 400 BC – $200,000

Among the many ancient coins of Greece are the Decadrachms of Syracuse.

Collectors love these ancient coins for their numismatic art and that they came from one of the most influential cities in Magna Graecia at the time.

Kimon, the engraver of the Dechacfracm of Syracuse, had the entire coin dedicated to him. 

The coin’s obverse illustrates Arethusa, the water nymph surrounded by four dolphins. The chariot, which is called a quadriga, sits on the back.

The quadriga symbolizes the four tyrants of Syracuse since it’s a four-horse chariot. Nike, the Goddess of victory, is flying overhead. 

The Decadrachm of Syracuse 400 BC

The Naxos Tetradrachm, 460 BC – $317,000

Arguably the most well-known and popular ancient coin is The Naxos Tetradrachm.

What makes this ancient coin special is that it was made from a single pair of dies instead of multiples engraved by different people. 

The coinage celebrates the refounding of Naxos and is a spectacle of art. The obverse shows the God Dionysus. The back shows satyr Silenos.

The engraving is crystal clear, making it a fine piece of art and an ancient coin. 

The Naxos Tetradrachm 460 BC ancient coins

The Titus Colosseum Sestertius, 82 A.D. – $464,000

It wouldn’t be possible to have an ancient Roman Republic coin from Rome that didn’t feature The Colosseum, one of the world’s seven wonders.

To celebrate the final construction of The Colosseum, ceremonies were held.

To commemorate the ceremonies, the Roman bronze coin was made with the bust of Titus on the front and the entire Colosseum on the back. 

It’s also a scarce coin, with only ten examples of it to be known. It’s the earliest depiction of The Colosseum around the world. 

The Titus Colosseum Sestertius ancient coins

The Athens Decadrachm, 460 BC – $200,000

This ancient coin of Greece signifies another critical point in history where the Persians continually sought to invade Greece. However, their failure in three notable battles:

  1. The Battle of Thermopylae
  2. The Battle of Marathon
  3. The Battle of Plataea

Had Greece not held them off, Western Civilization would look different.

In these notable times, The Athens Decadrachm was made to celebrate the victory over the Persians. None other than Athena is on the front, who is the God of Athens.

The back is an owl which was also the symbol of Athena. 

The coin was equally valuable back then as it only was used in wealthy families. It’s estimated to be worth about $375,000. 

Another rare ancient Greek coin sold for $27,600 at auction. The silver decadrachm of Alexander the Great was one of just twenty-four examples to exist.

The Athens Decadrachm, 460 BC ancient coins

The Akragas Decadrachm, 411 BC – $2,714,000

It doesn’t get much rarer than The Akragas Decadrachm. There are said to be fewer than ten coins of this denomination worldwide.

The coin originated in the 5th century and was minted in Sicily, making it an ancient Roman coin. Sicily was among the first cities to start minting silver coins.

The thought was that the coin honored an Olympic Chariot Race. 

The coin’s obverse shows Helios, The God of the Sun, in a chariot. The sky above is symbolized as an eagle and the sea as a crab. The coin’s reverse has two eagles towering over the body of a hare.

Because of how much silver was used to produce the coin, it was not circulated for everyday use but rather as a special item. 

Putting a precise value on this coin from ancient Rome is nearly impossible because of how rare it is. 

The Akragas Decadrachm, 411 BC

The Nero Port of Ostia Sestertius, 64 A.D.

This ancient Roman coin depicts an interesting moment in history. Rome stands today as one of the most well-known ancient empires.

Back in 64 A.D., it was a city that didn’t have the luxury of a harbor or port to import and export goods. This made it difficult for supply and demand to keep up with the growing population. 

A famine pushed Emperor Claudius to start a project that would ultimately create the Port of Ostia.

But because the project took so long, it would complete under the reign of Nero.

This is why the Sestertius coin has the attribution on the front of the bust of Nero and the reverse seeing the River God Tiberius and the harbor on the back. 

The Nero Port of Ostia Sestertius, 64 A.D.

Portrait Denarius of Julius Caesar, 44 B.C.

Contrary to the portrait of Brutus, before that coin was the portrait of Julius Caesar. We already know that Julius Caesar was one of the most prominent figures in history.

He also was the first ruler to have their portrait on a coin. 

The was the Portrait Denarius of Julius Caesar, an ancient Roman coin. The obverse features Caesar himself, but the back features a globe, rudder, caduceus, cornucopia, and apex, which is a priest’s cap.

This precedent would stay around the world till this day. 

Portrait Denarius of Julius Caesar, 44 B.C.

Ying Yuan Chinese Gold Coin, 600 BC

This coin was among some of the earliest known coins to man. Yin was the name of the city “Chu.”

It was more common for coins to be made of metals and tins than they were of precious metals such as gold. 

That’s why the Yin Yuan wasn’t necessarily round and was sought after for its high value. The Chu Gold Block Money were 3-5 mm thick sheets of gold, making it distinctly unique.

Some of these coins are said to be found but still belong to China custody. Their value is hard to pin down because of this. 

Ying Yuan Chinese Gold Coin

Ionian Hemiobols, 550 BC

The last coin is another ancient Greek Coin that is among the oldest.

These coins came from Ionia (not sure which Greek City) and featured a horse head on a molded piece of metal that almost became a circular coin.

The coin itself looks more like a pebble than it does a coin and holds a relatively lower value than some of the others on this list. 

Ionian Hemiobols, 550 BC

Other Ancient Coins

  • Prutah – Copper coin similar to a Shekel, used in Ancient Judaea by King Herod the Great.
  • Gordian III Coins – As Roman Emperor at only thirteen years old, Gordian III had several coins made at the central mint in Rome. Most are unified and similar in style and sell for only a few hundred dollars to this day.
  • Lydian Coins – From the Kingdom of Lydia, best known for King Croesus’s “Lion and Bull” coinage.
  • Philippeioi – Gold Macedonian coins from the ancient Greek Kingdom, or Alexanders.
  • Scythian Coins – Issued by the Greek Kingdom of the Scythians from 250 to 100 B.C.
  • Widow’s Mite – The smallest denomination currency during the time of Maccabees to King Herod. Also mentioned in the New Testament.
  • Drachm 

Ancient Coin Mysteries

Because collecting ancient coins still poses many questions about history and the coins themselves, here are a few commonly asked questions.

What is the Science that Studies Ancient Coins?

In general, numismatics is the study of coins or the collection of currency and money. It includes paper money, medals, tokens, and similar valued objects.

Ancient coins follow under that as a subgenre because they are a currency category. 

What are the Punch Marked Coins in Ancient India?

This refers to a manufacturing technique that is said to be among the first coins made, from around the 7th or 6th century B.C. until the 1st century A.D.

They are coins, typically silver, with symbols or art punched separately instead of designed or engraved with the coin. 

How Can I Tell If My Ancient Coin Has Value?

Taking your coin to several coin valuations and collectors is the best approach. PCGS and NGC will certify and value ancient coins.

But only sell after the first stop to avoid the risk of being scammed.

Ancient coins are rare to come by and are often a part of collectors’ showcases. They are not in circulation today.

Double-checking at a few places will give you the appropriate value for your coin collection. 

There’s More to Learn About Ancient Coins –

We Now Know That –

  • There were four different periods of Greek coins, Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman.
  • Roman ancient coins were produced from 27 BC to 491 AD and struck in bronze, gold, and silver.
  • The Brutus “Eid Mar” Denarius coin sold for a whopping $4.2 million at a rare coin auction, making it the most valuable ancient coin in the world.
  • One of the earliest coins in world history came from China called the Ying Yuan Chinese gold coin with an estimated date of 600 BC.

But There’s So Much More to Learn About Ancient Coins –

  • Ancient and antique coins were made of more than just gold. Brass, copper, bronze, silver, and electrum were other compositions found in ancient currencies.
  • The oldest coin in the world is the Lydian Lion, discovered in modern-day Turkey and is thought to have been created over 2,700 years ago. It now rests in the British Museum.
  • Gold coins were not commonly used as currency until just before Alexander the Great.
  • Roman emperor Nero lowered the silver composition in coinage to about 90%, but as time passed, coins actually contained as low as 2.5% silver.
  • The Punic Wars led to the first Roman coins composed of pure gold. And soon after that, the denarius became the most used currency for the next 500 years.
  • Roman emperors wanted their profiles and face on coins to show their power and wealth. Later, Benjamin Franklin and the Founding Fathers of America would strictly oppose U.S. coins with their own profiles, in an attempt to focus political power away from one single person.
  • The ancient Roman mint expanded to France, Turkey, and Egypt to assure coinage would spread throughout the empire.
  • The very first coins were minted in China from 600 – 300 BC and eventually spread to Greece and Lydia. Then to Lydia and Persia in 546 BC and eventually to the Romans in 270 BC.
  • One of the oldest Roman coins ever discovered near a site in Hallaton, Leics, gathered dust on a museum shelf for 10 years before it was identified as a valuable artifact.
  • Some historians believe the first currency originated in Ancient Egypt in 2000 BC. Then the Tang Dynasty of China adopted the first paper currency to avoid hauling hundreds or thousands of coins for exchange.

Check it out! My episode about creating the Saint Gaudens double eagle gold coins –

Learn More About Rare Valuable Coins –

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