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Ancient Greek Coins: Archaic to Classical

Image: Met Museum.

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..

Archaic Greece, born out of the ruins of the Bronze Age Mycenaean culture, quickly began to dominate the eastern Mediterranean Sea. For roughly three hundred years after that great Mediterranean power–centered on the city of Mycenae but with trading cities throughout the Peloponnese and Asia Minor–violently collapsed, Greece descended into a so-called dark age. Marked by the recognizable geometric artistic style that can be seen on the terracotta krater to the right. We do not have any “first-handwritten documents of any kind” from this time. The geometric style can be seen mainly on pottery, kraters, grave markers, and other grave goods. Due to the discontinuation of the Mycenaean Linear B script, this paucity of historical information leaves us blind to an important transitional period in ancient Greek history.

However, by studying the few remaining archeological and artistic artifacts, historians can theorize that many Mycenaean buildings and palace complexes were not rebuilt and remained abandoned. Slowly, with the development of the city-state or polis, Greek civilization emerged once again and evolved into a recognizably archaic form. New political and religious developments, such as the decline of local monarchies, the development of oligarchies, increased trade, and the proliferation of philosophy led to the rise of the famous Greek city-states of Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Syracuse, and many others. These fundamental transformations in the bedrock of society were translated into art and culture and can be seen today on archaic coins and statuary.

Shifting towards a semi-naturalistic style, Greek artists reflected the increased globalization and regional connectivity between the young Greek city-states and the then ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian counterparts. This cultural coopting sparked a flourishing revival in poetry, architecture, and artwork. Some of the most common attributes of the archaic style were the famous “archaic smile”, frontal or side poses, abstract rendering of facial features, and a lack of individuality (Harvard). These can be seen on ubiquitous kouroi, or statues of idealized youths. These stylized figures reflected the ideals of beauty as described by the contemporary Greek poet Theognis when he wrote: “What is beautiful is loved, and what is not is unloved” (Getty). With the kouros statues, the most interesting stylistic elements are the depictions of the hair ringlets, the rough carving of the eyes, stylized musculature, stiff and sparse clothing, and that transcendent smile.

These characteristics can also be observed on the famous silver stater from the Aegean island of Poseidonia, struck circa 530-500 BCE as seen below. Employing an interesting incuse striking method these coins, and others like them, display a standard relief obverse image and a repeated concave impression of the design on the reverse. This design typifies the high archaic style with all the important characteristics included. The figure of Poseidon is depicted heroically nude, taking a partial stride forward.

Additionally, the god’s hair is highly detailed with the standard repeating circular ringlet design. The draped chlamys, or traditional Greek cloak, falls stiffly as is expected with archaic art. While on a whole the coin design is highly detailed and the master die carver was a highly skilled artist, the rendition is not quite realistic. The figure’s proportions are a little off; its feet are slightly too small, and its chest appears in a fully frontal perspective while the rest of the figure is in profile. The effect of this is a highly stylized and beautiful, yet not very realistic, figure.

Lucania, Poseidonia AR Stater. Circa 530-500 BCE archaic.
Lucania, Poseidonia AR Stater. Circa 530-500 BCE archaic. Image: Roma Numismatics.

While the incuse striking practice was found mainly in colonial cities in the region of southern Italy known as Magna Grecia by the Romans, many other Greek cities developed stunning archaic numismatic designs around the same time.

For example, an electrum stater from the western Anatolian city of Kyzikos depicts a full-frontal head of the satyr Silenus. While the ringleted hair and pronounced facial features mark this coin as fully archaic, it is nevertheless of high artistic quality. The use of electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver found in Anatolia, also speaks to the archaic nature of this coin. Electrum fell out of use due to both the fact that metal processing techniques had progressed quickly and that the alloy did not occur in a consistent ratio. This meant that some electrum staters would be mostly silver while others were almost pure gold. Therefore, by the high classical period, the vast majority of coins were either produced in gold or silver.

Mysia, Kyzikos EL Stater
Mysia, Kyzikos EL Stater. Image: Roma Numismatics.

While the above designs are fully archaic, some designs evolved as tastes changed. In fact, the transitional process from archaic to classical can be traced on these coins.

For example, the northern city of Akanthos struck a tetradrachm in the late archaic period which already displayed characteristics of both the archaic and classical styles. This type portrays a lion in the act of attacking a crouching bull. An early example struck around 470 BCE, while full of action and movement that typifies the classical style, still retains the archaic stiffness and characteristic hair designs. When compared with an example from the same series struck approximately 40 years later, around 430 BCE, the style is fully classical. The animals are hyper-realistic and are portrayed with lifelike details.

Akanthos Transitional Tetradrachm
Akanthos Transitional Tetradrachm. Image: Roma Numismatics.
Akanthos Classical Tetradrachm
Akanthos Classical Tetradrachm. Image: Roma Numismatics.

Another city-state whose coinage documents a beautiful transition from archaic to classical artistic and numismatic styles was the Magna Graecia city of Naxos on the island of Sicily. In approximately 500 BCE, Naxos began striking a drachm which features an ivy-wreathed head of Dionysus on the obverse and a bunch of grapes hanging from the stalk on the reverse. This figure of Dionysus had the typical archaic pointed beard, and its hair was formed from ringlets. The god also has the typical almond eyes and archaic smile.

Later, the famous Aetna Master created a “protoclassical” tetradrachm for Naxos. Like the earlier drachm, this new tetradrachm depicted the god Dionysus. This time, however, the god has his hair tied up in a knot at the nape of his neck. Dionysus does not have the quintessential archaic forward-facing eye and is definitely more lifelike, yet he retains an arched eyebrow and that faint archaic smile. But while the obverse design still preserves some archaic elements, the reverse is a masterpiece of early classical artwork. This depiction of Silenus boasts near “perfect anatomical realism”. The satyr’s facial features are extremely expressive, and the body’s contortions and musculature are highly detailed. This tetradrachm is a widely accepted masterpiece of transitional design.

Naxos Archaic Drachm
Naxos Archaic Drachm. Image: Leu Numismatik. 
Naxos Transitional Tetradrachm
Naxos Transitional Tetradrachm. Image: Leu Numismatik. 

The artistic culmination of Naxos’s coinage can be seen in the silver tetradrachm below. Struck between 430 and 420 BCE, this example has very similar design elements to the earlier transitional tetradrachm from Naxos. The main design difference is that Dionysus’s hair is cut short and he wears a stephanos, or headband. While the reverse is very similar, there are some improvements in the way the nymph Silenus is sitting and holding his kantharos, as well as his facial expression.

The real stylistic difference can be found on the obverse. The new portrait is fully realistic, with flowing hair and delicate facial features. This “idealized naturalism” stands in contrast with the transitional and archaic repeating “regular linear patterned” hair. With this example, the engravers moved from the “symmetrical and pattern-like forms which were the ideals of the archaic style to a more idealized naturalistic portrayal of human” which are hallmarks of the classical style (Roma Numismatics).

Naxos Classical Tetradrachm
Naxos Classical Tetradrachm. Image: Roma Numismatics.

Perhaps the most well-known archaic tetradrachm is that of the Attic city of Athens.

Early on in the city’s history, around 510 BCE, they began striking the famous Athenian tetradrachm. The obverse of this early example, as seen below, has the pointed chin, powerful nose, forward-facing eye, and ringlet hair typical of archaic designs. On the reverse, the owl is a bit stiff and does not appear quite natural.

As time progressed, these large silver coins became the international trading currency, a la the US Dollar. Therefore, under the impression that there is power in stability, the city government made the conscious decision to retain the same imagery on their coinage. The archaic type was produced for around 30 years (510–480 BCE) and the classical type for 85 years (478-393 BCE) before there was a major redesign of the coinage. The classical type retained almost all of the archaic design elements with few exceptions. The two main exceptions are on the obverse: Athena’s hair is flowing instead of ridged ringlets and overall and the portrait is slightly more natural and realistic. However, the forward-facing eye and archaic smile remain.

While the decision to retain the archaic design was purely political, it provided an anachronistic reminder of Athens’s power, and the artistic legacy of archaic Greece as the classical world rapidly developed.

Athenian Archaic Tetradrachm
Athenian Archaic Tetradrachm. Image: Stack’s.
Athens Tetradrachm Classical
Athens Tetradrachm Classical. Image CNG.

Classical Greek designs lasted for several hundred years before they began to morph once again into the Hellenistic designs as typified by the many numismatic types that appeared following the disintegration of Alexander the Great’s empire in 356 BCE. While most of the coins featured in this article cost thousands of dollars, a quality example of a classical type Athenian tetradrachm can cost as little as $6-700. However, many lesser-known and smaller denomination archaic Greek silver can be acquired for less than $1-200 from any reputable auction house or coin dealer.

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About the Author

Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University's Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies sustainable international development and conflict resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington, D.C., he worked for Save the Children, creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the U.S. from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

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