HomeAncient CoinsFirst Read: 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, Third Edition

First Read: 100 Greatest Ancient Coins, Third Edition

100 Greatest Ancient Coins, 3rd Edition.
100 Greatest Ancient Coins, 3rd Edition.

Review by Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..

With nearly six decades of experience in the business, Chicago coin dealer Harlan J. Berk is a well known personality in the world of classical numismatics. The catalog of his Byzantine collection, Roman Gold Coins of the Medieval World, 383-1453 (Joliet, IL, 1986) was one of the first numismatic books I ever purchased. His book Eastern Roman Successors of the Sestertius (Joliet, IL, 1986) is still a useful reference for collectors of Byzantine bronze coinage.

Whitman Publishing produces a series of “100 Greatest” coin books, including classic U.S., modern U.S., modern World, U.S. Errors, Canadian coins and tokens, and Women on Coins. Harlan Berk was the perfect author to tackle the challenge of selecting and documenting the 100 Greatest Ancient Coins. In 2008, Berk published the 131-page first edition of this richly illustrated large-format book. A revised second edition of 138 pages appeared in 2019. The first two editions sold out. This new third edition runs to 152 pages with much new content.

Harlan J. Berk.
Harlan J. Berk.

The choice of the “100 greatest ancient coins” and their ranking was based on a survey of museum curators, classical scholars, dealers, and collectors. There was a high degree of consensus among the experts. Rather more than 100 individual coins are pictured and described, because some of the categories, such as “Coinage of Croesus” (#9) and “Athens tetradrachm” (#38) include multiple types. Thirty-eight of the coins are Roman; six are Byzantine; and the rest could be loosely categorized as “Greek”, including Phoenician, Carthaginian, and Judean issues. Coins are presented in chronological order, over a time span that extends from about 650 BCE to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE.

Some of these coins are great rarities, with only two or three known examples (#22 the Aetna tetradrachm struck in Sicily in 476 BCE is unique, with just a single example held by the Belgian royal library). Others are quite common, with thousands or even millions of surviving pieces, such as #20, the silver tetradrachm of Alexander the Great (ruled 336 – 323 BCE) struck in vast quantities from the tons of bullion he captured from the treasure cities of the Persian Empire, and which continued to be issued in his name from many mints for over a century after his death. Twenty-eight of the coins are gold or electrum (an alloy of gold and silver); 57 are silver; and 15 are bronze or copper. The first coin on the list, “Ionia Electrum Stater”, is a 20 mm lump of metal with some grooves on one flattened side and three punch marks on the other side. The very last coin, “Constantine XI Stavraton”, was struck during the final Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453, on silver melted down from ritual vessels collected from the city’s churches.

Of the 100 greatest ancient coins, 17 have images of horses; five depict lions; and nine feature eagles. Only one (#25, “Hannibal Coin, c.230-220 BCE”) shows an elephant. Forty-five depict actual male rulers (rather than gods) while just 10 show actual historic women (rather than goddesses). Nike, the goddess of victory, is the deity who appears most frequently, followed by Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Mars, and the demigod Herakles. The current record holder for the highest price paid for an ancient at auction is #39 “Panticapaeum Gold Stater, c. 340 BCE. A superb example of this coin brought $4,860,267 USD in a 2023 Swiss auction[1].

Gold Eid Mar, not the finest known.
Gold Eid Mar (not the finest known).

The #1-rated type is the famous EID MAR denarius of Brutus issued in 42 BCE, celebrating the murder of Julius Caesar. EID MAR is the Latin abbreviation of Eidibus Martiis (“on the Ides of March”), a reference to the date of Caesar’s assassination: March 15, 44 BCE.

The book’s cover illustration is #10, the silver tetradrachm of Athens, c. 440 BCE, popularly known as an “owl.” The coin pictured is described by Berk as “the best example we have found in more than 50 years.” The prominence of Athens in the ancient world and its immense influence on Western civilization rested on its rich silver mines at Laurium, about 60 km (37 miles) southeast of the city. Berk devotes four pages (38-41) to this type, which retained the same design for over a century, becoming a standard currency of international trade. A recent immense hoard of these coins (rumored to be over 30,000 pieces) is gradually being dispersed on the numismatic market. The obverse bears the helmeted profile head of Athena, the city’s patron goddess. Although the head is shown in profile, the almond-shaped eye of the goddess is drawn in facing aspect, an archaic feature that reflects the influence of ancient Egyptian art. Because these coins were often carelessly struck and poorly centered, examples that show a full helmet crest are coveted by collectors and sell for a large premium. The reverse shows the standing figure of Athena’s companion bird, the owl, symbol of wisdom, its enormous eyes staring out at the viewer. Above the owl, there is a sprig of olive leaves, and a tiny crescent moon. The abbreviated name of the city, AθE, appears in bold Greek letters to the right.

The art of coin die engraving reached a peak of technical excellence among the prosperous Greek cities on the island of Sicily around 400 BCE, when the leading artisans proudly signed their dies in tiny letters[2]. Of the 100 greatest ancient coins, 11 were struck in Sicily. Two coins regarded by many collectors as the most beautiful ever struck feature prominently: the Syracuse decadrachms of engravers Kimon (#6) dated to 415 BCE and Euainetos (#3) dated to c.412-393 BCE. Weighing about 43 grams (1.38 troy ounces) with a diameter of 35 mm (1.38 inches) these big coins provided ample scope for creative expression. The obverse bears a lovely profile bust of Arethusa, the mythical nymph who presided over the city’s freshwater spring[3] (which still flows). She is framed by four graceful dolphins swimming around the coin’s edge. On the reverse, a charioteer leans forward to lash his four horses while Nike, the winged goddess of victory, soars overhead.

Berk writes:

Euainetos was at the forefront of the modern art movement of his time, the high classical style, with its dynamic tension between idealism and realism… Euainetos’s dies are as refined as Kimon’s but are bolder and more self-assured (p. 48).

Two coins in the book are especially dear to me because they are types in my own collection: #77, the “First Reign Justinian II Christ Solidus”, and #93 the “Second Reign Justinian II Christ Solidus”. Justinian II became emperor at Constantinople in 685 at the age of 16. About the year 692, he placed a facing portrait of Jesus on the obverse of his solidus, a pure gold coin of 4.5 grams. This was the first depiction of Christ on a coin intended for mass-circulation. The surrounding Latin inscription declares “Jesus Christ, King of Those Who Reign.” Justinian placed his own standing figure holding a cross on the reverse with the inscription “Lord Justinian Servant of Christ.” This was a defiant response to the empire’s rival, the Umayyad Caliphate, which had placed a standing figure of the Muslim caliph on their gold coinage, along with an Arabic religious inscription. Overthrown in a palace coup, mutilated, and exiled to Crimea in 695, Justinian II gathered allies, plotted his vengeance, and returned to power in 705. The coins of his second reign bear a distinctively different image of Jesus, with curly hair above an oval face with a short beard. The reason for this change is unknown. In 711, Justinian II was deposed and executed, along with his young son Tiberios, who appears beside him on some of these coins.

One coin type has changed between this edition and the earlier ones.

Coin #95, a rare, enigmatic, and obscure gold aureus of the Roman emperor Gallienus, who ruled from 253 to 268 CE, is replaced by the large copper follis of Byzantine emperor Constantine IV (ruled 668-685). These heavy pieces depicted the warrior emperor wearing elaborate parade armor of an earlier century. Like our modern American cent, they cost more to mint than their face value. They were often cut into quarters and over-struck by later rulers, which accounts for their rarity.

The introduction includes a discussion of the birth of art with the cave paintings and carved figurines of the Paleolithic era (the “Old Stone Age”). Berk explains:

Anatomically modern humans like you and me probably first existed about half a million years ago. On that basis, what is 40,000 to 10,000 years? NOTHING. This means that the Greeks and Romans might be combined with us by future historians 40,000 years from now (4).

The introduction includes a history of ancient coin collecting, with stories and portraits of some famous collectors such as French surgeon Samuel Jean Pozzi[4] (1846-1918), British-Armenian oil magnate Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (1859-1955), and American banker John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913).

For beginning collectors (and even many experienced ones), the most useful part of this book is the section titled “How to Collect Ancient Coins, and What to Avoid” (pages 10-11, continued on 15-18):

If you travel to Greece or Italy, and a nine-year-old walks up to you with a “great bargain” on an ancient coin, remember that unless God brings you coffee in the morning, you are not so blessed. If you think the nine-year-old child is a sucker for selling you a great coin so cheaply, look in the mirror and you’ll find the fool. Coins or antiquities sold to tourists in Italy, Greece, Egypt, Israel, or anywhere that archaeological sites and tourists come together are rarely genuine or are of extremely low value.

This reviewer would have liked to see consistent data on the estimated current values of these coins. This was provided in the second edition (on pages 15-16) but has disappeared in this third edition, perhaps because that sort of “price realized” information rapidly becomes outdated in today’s fast-changing market.

The highest price estimates in the second edition are for #22, the unique Aetna tetradrachm, and #47, the lovely silver tetradrachm of Clazomenae (c. 375 BCE) with an “exceptionally fine head of Apollo, facing slightly left” on the obverse and a graceful swan on the reverse. With only three known examples, this coin is so rare that it has never appeared at auction, and the estimate of $1,000,000+ is noted with Berk’s comment that the coin may never be offered and is “too rare to price.”

The layout and design of this book is superb, with thoughtful use of color and typography. At the bottom of each entry, there is a timeline that locates that specific issue in the span of 20 centuries. There is a good index, a bibliography, a glossary of numismatic terms, and a seven-page “Gallery” that displays all the coins in their actual sizes. There is also a gallery of examples of different denominations: 21 Greek, 13 Roman, and 22 Byzantine, including many types that are not among the 100 greatest.

The foreword by Biblical coin expert David Hendin notes:

Coin collectors have a well-known saying: “Buy the book before the coin.” In this case you must have the book, so in this case it is OK to buy it before OR after you buy the coin. You will be paging through it for many years to come.

# # #

100 Greatest Ancient Coins, Third Edition
Whitman Publishing: Pelham, AL
By Harlan J. Berk; foreword by David Hendin
ISBN 978-0794850784
152 pages, full color
Retail $34.95 U.S.

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[1] NAC Auction 138, May 18, 2023, Lot 155. Realized CHF 4,400,000 (about $4,860,267 USD; estimate CHF 1,250,000).

[2] When the Lithuanian-American sculptor Victor D. Brenner (1871-1924) did this on his coin portrait of Abraham Lincoln for the 1909 cent, he was harshly criticized!

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_of_Arethusa

[4] Pozzi’s life was so colorful and dramatic that his Wikipedia biography merely notes that “[h]e also collected coins and statuettes.”

* * *

Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York, and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

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