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The Earliest Mints

Mints are where that most precious of products - coins - are produced. Modern-day mints use machinery that ensures every coin produced of a particular style and denomination is exactly the same as every other coin of that style and denomination. Until the Renaissance, though, coins were produced (or "struck") by hand. Using a hammer or other heavy object to pound, shape, and stamp a coin, it's easy to see why for the first two thousand years of coinage, not a single coin was exactly like another.

One of the earliest mints was likely the one at Sardis, Lydia (in modern-day Turkey), which operated under the reign of Croesus about 650 B.C. As coins became more popular as currency, the technology used to produce them advanced, and the coinage system became more organized. Each city-state in Ancient Greece had its own mint that struck official coins. During the Roman Empire, imperial mints were spread far and wide, and each minter was given a license to make coins.

During an earlier era of Ancient Rome called the Republican period, minting was governed by the Senate. Around the time that the denarius was made the official unit of exchange, a board of three men were given authority to mint coins. Called "moneyers," they were responsible for approving designs for coins and could be held responsible for any discrepancies in the size and weight of coins that bore their own marks. The position of tresviri monetales, the official title of the moneyer, was appointed annually, and all three usually issued coins during the same periods. Besides the Roman board of three, many of the provinces also each had their own boards of moneyers. These authorities held until the Republic began to deteriorate. By the time of Julius Caesar, generals and others with sufficient power had the authority to strike their own coinage to pay their troops. As the Republic gave way to the Roman Empire, the sole authority to approve coinage came to rest in the hands of the emperor.

Mints were located throughout the Empire, and used the talents of both free men and slaves who were skilled artists, designers, and engravers, as well as mechanics who understood the process of smelting metal, casting flans, and striking coins. Often, different groups worked within a mint, each creating their own series of coins. These groups, as well as the individual mints, can often be identified by "mint markings" on the reverse of the coins they struck. Their names, titles, and marks were often abbreviated and stamped onto the coin along with the major image. These began to appear around 125 B.C. and persisted through the first century.

The Imperial mints divided the authority to issue coins between the Emperor and the Senate. The Emperor alone had the right to strike gold and silver coins. The Senate could authorize the striking of bronze coins of various denominations, usually suggested by the Emperor. Unlike the days of the Republic, when the tresviri monetales often placed their own faces and those of their family members on coins, this board now was overseen by the chief financial minister or the head of the Senatorial treasury.

There have been mints found Egypt, Spain, and Gaul (an area in modern-day Western Europe that includes France and parts of several other countries) which offer particular insight into how the mints operated. They appear to have been organized along military lines, and divided into shops called officinales. By the middle of the first century, mint marks were being used to identify coins made by particular officinales. These mint marks were more than signatures; they served as quality control devices. Whether by mistake or for profit, minters who made coins with less-than-accurate weights or measures could be traced by the mint mark, and appropriate actions could be taken.