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Ancient Coin Denominations

Silver Coins

Silver coins were among the first coins ever minted, and ancient silver coins are among the most prized by collectors of ancient coins. The finest artisans in the ancient empires created the dies with which the coins were struck. The images on the heads of the coins are those of some of the most powerful leaders of the ancient world. Of course, these gorgeous discs of precious metal were more currency than art when they were in circulation thousands of years ago. A Roman soldier's salary ranged from 3 silver denarii a day to 25 silver denarii a month. A single denarius would buy enough grain to make bread for nearly a month.

Trade was vital to the Roman Empire. They developed a sophisticated coinage system consisting of brass, bronze, silver, and gold coins. The silver denarius became the monetary standard of the ancient world, representing a day's pay for a Roman soldier. Coins were used throughout the Empire and beyond—some have even been discovered in India.

Silver and gold coins were used for larger purchases and saw far less circulation than bronze coins. Silver coins were buried in jars or leather pouches that protected them from the elements and the ravages of the earth and air. Because of this, silver coins that have made the trip through time are much likelier to be in better condition than bronze coins, though there are fewer of them still in existence. Between their relative rarity and their better quality, ancient silver coins tend to have considerably more value to collectors than bronze coins.

Bronze Coins

Bronze - that foundation of precious metals - was the coin of the realm in ancient times. The earliest cast and minted coins were the bronzes of ancient Greece and Rome. They were the coins that changed hands in the marketplaces of Athens, Sparta, Rome, and Byzantium.

In nearly every culture that used metal coins, bronze indicated coins of lower denominations. The smallest known ancient coin, the Biblical widow's mite, was bronze. It's estimated that the widow's mite was enough to purchase grain to make daily bread.

While bronze coins were the most common coins used in the ancient world, it can be difficult to come by examples of bronze coins in excellent condition. Because they were traded and used the most, many bronze coins that were created are "lost" - literally dropped and ground into the dirt and subjected to the ravages of time. However, Greta Parker selects from a small percentage of ancient bronze coins that have survived in good condition.


Denominations of Greek coins

All of the coins were hand-made, using simple tools such as clay ovens, anvils, and hammers. Errors, which are appealing today, were common. What was precise, however, was the weight of each coin. Minters carefully weighed coins to ensure that the face value of the coin accurately reflected its metal content.

The earliest coins contained images of animals or symbols that reflected the rulers. It wasn't until later that coins depicted actual people. Those early coins were made only of gold, silver, and electrum - the precious metals of ancient times.

In ancient times, Greece was an important trading center; its modern ports allowed people from other nations to conduct business on the islands. Problems continually arose, however, because traders from other nations used their own currency, and it was difficult to arrive at fair deals. The solution? Standardize a currency system.

While the U.S. bases its monetary system on gold, the Greeks originally based theirs on the value of an ox, which was universally understood and agreed upon. But because there were different rulers in different parts of Greece, there wasn't one "Greek" system, which is why we have so many unique coins to appreciate today.

Some of the Greek denominations include:

The stater was the gold unit of currency and could be issued in halves, thirds, or sixths.

Silver stater
The value of silver staters varied from area to area and was best known simply as the leading silver coinage for whatever locale you were in. It was eventually replaced by the didrachm (see below).

This was the basic unit of silver currency and was also issued in various denominations: didrachm (two drachms), tetradrachm (four drachms), the octodrachm (eight drachms), and the decadrachm (ten drachms). There was a need for smaller coinage, however, as only large debts could be paid with drachm units.

The obol, worth one-sixth of a drachm, and the half-obol were made of silver. They were useful in paying smaller debts, though still not small enough for most purchases. But they do enjoy a revered place in history as the coin placed in the mouths of the deceased to pay their passage to the River Styx.

Bronze coins
These didn't come into circulation until around the fifth century B.C. It's difficult for historians to place a worth on them, as they were likely valued differently by locals in various parts of the Greek world. One notable coin was the litra, the bronze basis for Sicily.

Of course, many other Greek coins and denominations existed, though they're not easily identifiable or ranked according to value. The Greeks tried valiantly to standardize a single currency, but a coin's weight was the important factor in ancient times, rather than what was stamped on the front.

Denominations of Roman coins

Roman coins, like other nations' currency, were based on the value of work animals, which were universally recognized. For Rome, that basis was the ass. A denarius, the foundation coin, was worth 16 asses - quite a bit of money! The denarius debuted in the late 3rd century B.C., a less unwieldy replacement for its predecessor, the Aes Grave bronze.

Unlike the Greek coins, which featured many different images - from animals to familial coats of arms - most of the ancient Roman coins contained depictions of emperors and their families, gods and goddesses, and illustrations of Rome's achievements. You'll also find inscriptions on some Roman coins, including the name of the person or a description of them: "divine," for example.

Like other nations of the time, the values of Roman coins were directly related to the worth of the metal of which they were made. The coins rose and fell in popularity depending on the ruler and on issues like inflation, which we can relate to today. For instance, by the third century, escalating inflation had brought an end to massive productions of denarii; instead, the antonianus became the coin of choice. Coin makers produced only currency that was needed, so not every coin was produced every year. It was a sort of checks-and-balances system for the Roman economy.

Common currency in ancient Rome included:

  • Gold Coins
  • Aureus (25 denarii)
  • Double aureus
  • Half aureus

Silver coins

  • Denarius (16 asses)
  • Half denarius
  • Antoninianus (two denarii)
  • Cistophorus (three denarii)

Brass coins

  • Dupondius (two asses)
  • Sestertius (four asses)
  • Double Sestertius (eight asses)
  • Semis (one-half as - see below)

Copper/Bronze coins

  • As
  • Quadrans (one-fourth as)

These are a sampling of the most popular coins circulated in ancient Rome. There were others, of course, especially in later years as rulers divided the Empire into smaller cities that minted their own coins. Many of these coins minted in various cities have their own "mint marks" on them, which allows historians to determine their origin.

Denominations of coins from the Biblical era

Coins in circulation during Biblical times have a special appeal for many people, though of course, they were simply currency for the people who used them on a daily basis. Because Israel was under near-constant Roman control, a large number of the coins were Roman issued and are covered under the article detailing Roman denominations. Other coins common during this time were of Jewish and Phoenician origin.

Widow's Mite coins
The widow's mite was made famous by Jesus' praise of a woman who gave all she had - one small coin - which he held in higher regard than the large amounts donated by wealthier people. Not surprisingly, this was a small coin. More properly called a lepton, it was, in fact, the smallest coin minted during this period. Another, larger coin - the prutah - was also called a widow's mite, though the true mite was the lepton.

These coins, originally from Tyre, are historically significant as the infamous "30 pieces of silver" paid to Judas in exchange for turning Jesus over to the Jewish authorities. Shekels, indeed made of silver, also were produced in half-shekel denominations, which was the annual amount each man owed as his Temple tax.

This was the basis of Roman currency and the object of Jesus' lesson to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's." More information on the Denarius can be found in the article on denominations of Roman coins.

Pontius Pilate coins
These "Crucifixion" coins were designed and circulated by Pontius Pilate in the years immediately before and after Jesus' death.

The Roman emperor began the process of Christianizing Rome, and the coins issued in his image mark this transition, which determined the direction of Western civilization.

Herodian coins
Beginning with Herod the Great, his descendents (also named Herod) ruled Israel in the centuries during and after the time of Christ. They each minted their own coins, most of which were made of bronze in the denominations of leptons, prutahs, and Judean cornucopias.

Coins of the Jewish Revolt
For a few precious years, the Jews regained control over Israel from the Romans and minted their own coins. From 67 AD through the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD (after which no more coins were minted), the "Jewish Revolt" coins were churned out in yearly increments. Year 2 coins were minted in 67-68 AD, and Year 3 coins were minted in 68-69 AD.