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HomeCoinWeek Podcast #157: The History of Numismatics

CoinWeek Podcast #157: The History of Numismatics

CoinWeek Podcast #157: The History of Numismatics

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The study of coins and non-coin objects–numismatics–traces its roots back to the ancient world and began with a study of non-current coins and medals, many pulled from the ground and brought to local experts and historians. Originally an academic pursuit, a branch of numismatics morphed into today’s hobby of coin collecting. CoinWeek Ancients writer Mike Markowitz takes us back in time to discuss the birth of our favorite hobby.

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The following is a transcript of Mike’s podcast:

Mike Markowitz: This is Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek. For many of us, it’s been quite a while since we actually purchased anything using coins, but we still think of coins as money. Over much of the world for the last 2,500 years or so, coins really were the dominant form of money. But coins have been many other things too. An official medium for propaganda, or if you prefer for the transmission of ideas about politics, religion, art, and expression of civilization in miniature.

Numismatics is the study of coins and coin-like objects.

Coin-like objects, say what? Well, there are lots of little round collectible metallic things that look like coins, such as commercial weights, tokens, medallions, amulets that were never actually used or intended as money. Numismatists have a technical term for these non-monetary coin-like objects. We call them exonumia, from Greek roots meaning “outside coins”.

Classical numismatics is the study of ancient Greek and Roman coins. In numismatics, the Greek category, oddly enough, includes coins made by Semitic, Celtic, Iranian, Central Asian, and other ancient peoples who spoke little or no actual Greek. For anyone who is passionate about collecting ancient coins, or is involved with buying and selling them, an understanding of our heritage, the long history of numismatics, is something worth knowing about. It’s reassuring to learn that for centuries, there have been men and women who cared very deeply about coins, and many of them accomplished remarkable things.

Coin collecting certainly goes back a long way. The Roman historian and gossip writer Suetonius, who lived from about 69 to 122 CE, writing about the first emperor, Augustus, reported on the Saturnalia festival, and at any other time when he took it into his head, he would give gifts of clothing or golden silver, or coins of every device, including old pieces of the kings and foreign money. The 11th-century Byzantine historian Michaḗl Psellós in his Chronicle tells us that his contemporary, the empress Theodora, daily gloated over her collection of ancient gold coins, for which he had bronze cabinets made.

But the birth of numismatics, as a science, came with the Italian Renaissance when Europeans began to rediscover their heritage of Greek and Roman civilization, which had largely been lost and forgotten in the centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West in the fifth century. The Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, who’s better known in English as Petrarch, was born in 1304. He’s often called the “Father of the Renaissance”, but he has a good claim to the title of “Father of Numismatics” as well. He wrote in one of his letters that he was often approached by vine diggers with old coins that they had found in the fields, asking him to buy or to identify the ruler. In 1355, Petrarch presented a collection of ancient Roman coins to the German emperor, Karl IV, who was a great patron of art and culture and learning. He founded Charles University in Prague.

Isabella d’Este, who was born in 1474, and died in 1539, was the daughter of the Duke of Ferrara and the wife of Francesco Gonzaga, the ruler of Mantua in northern Italy. She was one of the most remarkable women of the Italian Renaissance. She described herself as having, “an insatiable desire for old things, amassing ancient coins, metals in grave gems and statuettes.” Her collecting zeal was so great that a fellow aristocrat jokingly warned that she was in danger of becoming more like a merchant than a lady. An inventory that was made after her death listed more than 1,500 items – mainly coins and medallions. She commissioned a sculptor, Giancristoforo Romano, to create a bronze portrait medallion of herself modeled after an ancient Roman coin of the empress Faustina the Younger. She gave these selfies as gifts to her friends, establishing a renaissance fashion for aristocratic portrait medallions in classical style. Inscribed on the back of the medal was, “For those who serve her.”

The Great Gonzaga family coin collection was eventually dispersed to collectors, so there’s no way to trace which coins actually belonged to Isabella. All the coins were stamped with the family crest, a tiny inlaid eagle, and these occasionally turn up in modern coin auctions. The gold coins were stamped with silver and the silver and bronze coins with gold.

Some of the great Italian Renaissance collectors of ancient coins included Medici, Duke of Florence, Pope Paul II, and Cardinal Marcello Cervini, a librarian who served for just 22 days in the year 1555 as Pope Marcellus II. He’s credited with founding the great Vatican coin cabinet with coins from his personal collection. Most of these coins were stolen during the French Revolution when the French occupied Rome, but the collection was rebuilt in the 19th century, and today includes some 300,000 pieces.

The invention of printing for movable type by Gutenberg in the 1450s revolutionized learning by making books cheap to mass-produce. One of the earliest printed numismatic books was authored by Guillaume Budé, a French scholar and royal librarian. The book De Asse et Partibus Eius, was published in 1514 at Venice. The title means “On the As and Its Parts”. The As was a Roman copper coin. The book was a very detailed study of ancient Greek and Roman weights and measures in relation to coinage. Like most scholarly works before the 19th century, it was written in Latin.

Just three years later, the second printed numismatic book was the first one to have actual illustrations of coins. It was published at Rome in 1517 entitled Illustrium Imagines, “Images of the Famous”, with 204 wood-cut pictures of ancient Roman coins, engraved gems, and medallions. Written by Andrea Fulvio, a friend of the artist Raphael, and illustrated by the master engraver Giovanni Palumba, a copy of his book sold at $8,750 in a 2013 Christie’s auction. There are many modern reproductions of this famous book and high-resolution scanned versions of the original can be found online with a bit of searching.

Since the demand for ancient coins from wealthy collectors was greater than the supply that vine diggers found in the fields, it was not long before a market for fakes developed. Giovanni Cavino of Padua, who was born in 1500 and died in 1570, was one of the earliest artists to create reproductions of ancient Roman coins.

When we reach early modern times, if you’re looking for exciting stories, frankly, the lives of post-Renaissance numismatists can be a pretty boring lot. They were generally academics who spent their long careers shuffling coin trays and arguing with editors, museum administrators, and one another. But the sum of their labors is our present understanding of ancient money and how it worked.

Hubert Goltzius, a Dutch painter, engraver, and printer born in 1526, traveled widely across Europe. He visited 380 different coin collections in Italy, 200 in France, 175 in Germany, all the time copying coin images. He spent 12 years working on a book of engravings of Roman emperors based on their coin portraits. In 2019, the Royal Numismatic Society of Belgium established a prize named for Goltzius to be awarded every three years for achievements in numismatic scholarship.

King Charles I of England was a very enthusiastic collector of arts and antiquities of all kinds, including ancient coins. After he was executed in 1649, his royal collection was sold off, and many of his coins were acquired by Queen Christina of Sweden.

The Flemish painter, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, born in 1577, who was knighted by Charles I, assembled a collection of 18,000 ancient coins, which as usual was later sold off and dispersed.

The 18th century saw the development of enormous and well-documented royal coin cabinets in Paris, Copenhagen, Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg, London, and other capitals, which would eventually develop into some of the great national museum collections that exist today.

Joseph Eckhel, born in 1737, an Austrian Jesuit priest, was the most influential numismatist of the 18th century. In Rome, he was able to study the enormous coin collection assembled by Queen Christina of Sweden, who died in exile at Rome in 1689. The collection had come into the possession of the aristocratic Odescalchi family of Rome. Eckhel was hired by the Grand Duke of Tuscany to organize and rearrange his coin collection in Florence. He did this so well that the empress Maria Theresa appointed him as curator of the Austrian Royal Coin Collection in 1774. He served for 24 years there as a professor of antiquities and numismatics at the University of Vienna.

His lifetime of study was summarized in a massive eight-volume Latin work, Doctrina Numorum Veterum (“The Study of Old Coins”), that was published between 1792 and 1798, the year that Eckhel died. The organizing system that he developed based on ancient geographic regions is still used today in coin auction catalogs and reference books. This is why, for example, the coins of Athens appear listed under Attica, and those of Carthage under Zeugitania, the geographic regions where those capital cities are located.

When we reach the 19th century, we come to a golden age of numismatic history. The rise of mass literacy meant that Latin was rapidly replaced by French, German, Italian, English, and other modern languages as the languages of scholarship in the Western world. Beginning in the 19th century, the newly invented art of photography was gradually applied to ancient coins, and this was a great advance over engraved, hand-drawn images or plaster casts, which had previously been the main ways that numismatists shared visual images of coins.

One of the greatest numismatists of the 19th century was Henri Cohen, born in Amsterdam in 1808. He earned a living as a music teacher and a composer. Writing several books about music theory, but his passion was ancient Roman coins. In 1859, he became a curator at the French National Library. By 1868, he had completed the first six volumes of his monumental work, Historical Description of the Coins Struck Under the Roman Empire. The book was organized in a radically innovative manner. It was arranged under each emperor by the inscriptions in alphabetical order, so it could be easily used by non-experts. He also gave an estimated value in contemporary French francs for every type of coin. This would become a standard reference for Roman Imperial coinage, and even today, we often see Cohen numbers in auction catalog listings. Two additional volumes were published after Cohen’s death, and a complete facsimile of the 1892 edition can be viewed online at

Another towering figure in the 19th- and early 20th-century history of classical numismatics in France was Ernest Babelon. He was born in 1852 and lived until 1924. His massive 11-volume Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage was published between 1901 and 1933. For 32 years until his death in 1924, he was the director of the French National Coin Collection, Cabinet des Médailles. His son, Jean Babelon, eventually held the same position.

In Great Britain, the 19th century saw the production of a stream of important coin catalogs from the Department of Coins and Medals of the British Museum, over 30 volumes. One of the greatest British numismatists of that century is Barclay V. Head, who started work at the British Museum in 1864 at the age of 20. He spent the rest of his long career there, and in 1887, he published Historia Numorum: A Manual of Greek Numismatics, which is still a standard reference on that subject and can be viewed online in a very accessible digital edition thanks to the labor of the American numismatist, Ed Snible.

During the 19th century, numismatic societies sprang up in many nations, assembling important collections and publishing the latest research in their journals. The Royal Numismatic Society of London was founded in 1836; the American Numismatic Society, 1858; Italy 1892, and so forth.

In the German-speaking world, the 19th century continued the great tradition of meticulous numismatic scholarship. One of the greatest classicists of that era was Theodor Mommsen, born in 1817. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902, the year before he died for being “the greatest living master of the art of historical writing.” Especially for his five-volume history of Rome, he was one of the very few nonfiction writers to ever receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

A very significant 19th-century numismatist in the German-speaking world was a Swiss scholar, Friedrich Imhoof-Blumer, born in 1838. Through his father’s import-export business, he was able to make many contacts in the Middle East. He made trips to Greece and Turkey, particularly where he made successful purchases, well-prepared through his language and history lessons. Imhoof-Blumer was soon able to put his collecting on a scientifically sound basis. He bought his first coin in 1862, and when he sold his collection to the Berlin Museum in 1900, it comprised 21,000 items. This purchase was arranged by the historian, Theodor Mommsen.

In America, we know that many of our Founding Fathers had received a solid classical education, and were deeply influenced by the heritage of Greece and Rome. That’s why we’re a republic, and we have a Senate. Thomas Jefferson probably owned a few ancient coins, and Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Surgeon General of George Washington’s army, was a collector. We also know that John Quincy Adams, the sixth President, son of John Adams, the second President, was a collector, and his ancient coins were eventually donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society, which sold them off over the years, and some of these occasionally turn up today in modern coin auctions.

The National Numismatic Collection in the American museum, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington D.C., has an important collection of almost 27,000 ancient coins. Although only a handful are currently on display, the collection is gradually being digitized. The American Numismatic Society in New York City, which has about 2,000 members, has a very important collection of ancient coins. The American Numismatic Association in Colorado Springs, founded in 1891, has about 24,000 members today.

Our time has seen the globalization of numismatics. The internet, which first emerged from computer research labs in the 1970s and which developed into a vast public utility with the creation of the world wide web in 1991, has transformed the study of numismatics. Just as it has transformed the market for collectibles of all kinds, the internet has made centuries of hard-won scholarly research instantly accessible to a global audience with just a few clicks, if you know what to click on.

Well, what can we say about the future of numismatics? In my opinion, there are two main threats to the future of classical numismatics. The first, and I think the most serious, is the decline in the teaching of classical languages, and more generally, the teaching of ancient history in our educational system. The second threat is the growing proliferation of import restrictions on the international trade in ancient coins. The issue of cultural patrimony has become a focus of nationalism in many nations, and a large segment of the academic archaeology community would like to criminalize the private ownership of antiquities of all kinds. But that’s a story for another day.

Would you like to know more?

The best one-volume introduction to the history of numismatics in English is a slim 102-page volume, Numismatics and Ancient Science by Elvira Clain-Stefanelli, published by the Smithsonian in Washington in 1965. Also very useful is a little book that’s a general introduction to the subject of numismatics by Philip Grierson, published by Oxford in 1975, just called Numismatics.

The book Coins and Archaeology, by the British archaeologist Lloyd Laing, London, 1969 is a reminder of a happier time when numismatists and archaeologists were often the same person. The book, Ancient History from Coins, by Oxford Professor Christopher Howgego, London, 1995, explains very lucidly how numismatics fits into the broader context of ancient history.

Finally, the book Classical Deception, by Wayne Sayles, published in 2001 is an excellent introduction to the history of fake ancient coins.

For, this is Mike Markowitz, wishing you good hunting.

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CoinWeek is the #1 website online for news and information about numismatics.

For four years running, the CoinWeek Podcast has been recognized by the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) as the hobby’s Best Audio Program. CoinWeek has also won the NLG Award for the best Numismatic Website for six of the past seven years!

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