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Updated on November 1, 2009

Coins have been made in Europe and the Near East for about 2,500 years: in China their history is equally long. They have almost always been made of metal: sometimes, in a crisis, people have had to use leather or card, and sometimes they have preferred materials like porcelain or glass; but gold, silver, copper, brass and bronze were most often used in the past. Russia experimented with platinum at one time. Now nickel, aluminium and hard-wearing alloys have replaced silver, and gold is hardly ever coined: only bronze remains of the older choice. Coins have been round in shape at nearly all times, for convenience, and for centuries they have had designs stamped on each side. The early Romans manufactured their coins in the temple of Juno Moneta, and hence come the words 'money' and 'mint'.

Groups of people living together in primitive conditions without a system of money have always had to buy and sell by exchanging things. A man with corn to spare exchanged his surplus for a cow which his neighbour had to spare. Difficulties would arise when the miller wanted to sell flour worth only half a cow to the butcher, for the butcher might not have a customer available for the other half. What each of them needed was something that each valued equally and wanted equally. Many different things have been used in this way: bars of salt, lengths of cloth, and other such things are used even today in some backward parts of the world. But long ago people realized that metal is a much better thing to be exchanged from hand to hand. Metal does not melt or rot or go bad: it is needed to make things of every variety, from jewellery to arms and cooking-pots; and it is just scarce enough to make everyone glad to have it. Gold was placed first, for its durability and appearance. Silver is a good second. And, of the base metals, fine red copper makes an obvious third, as it is fairly easy to work.

The earliest western coins were made in Asia Minor about 700 B.C., either by merchants of the Kingdom of Lydia or by Greeks of the coast-land - the Greeks themselves were uncertain which story was correct. At first the coins were simple lumps of metal very roughly marked, and of varying weight. In trade this meant that each lump had to be weighed out - an inconvenient waste of time - and it was quickly realized that if the lumps were made to a given weight in a given district, and marked with a mark that stood for that district, there would be no need to weigh them time after time. The distinctive mark also served as a guarantee that the coin was of good metal and so full value. This was a simple and clever idea, and all the coins of today, with their portraits and badges and pictures and inscriptions, owe their existence to it. Every coin now tells us where it was made and (usually) what it is worth, and so everybody, in his own country, is willing to put the same value on the coinage.

The actual making of early coins was quite simply done. An engraver had to hollow out the designs on pieces of specially hardened iron. One of these dies was set firmly in a metal block, like an anvil, standing on the floor. When blanks for the coins themselves, of the right weight and shape, had been prepared, these were placed, one by one, on the anvil die: a workman held the other die firmly above the blank in a long pair of tongs, and another workman brought down a heavy hammer on the whole 'sandwich' (die, coin-blank, die). Under the sudden pressure the coin-blank took the impressions from the engraved dies on either side of it. Any metal-smith's hut containing a small furnace would suffice for the operation provided that an engraver could be found; and, with constant variations and improvements, coins of all lands were minted in this way down to the sixteenth century.

As soon as designs, or 'types' (to use the technical phrase), appeared on the early Greek coins, one city after another took up the idea. For some time their designs were simple badges -a sea-turtle for the island of Aegina, an owl (sacred to Pallas Athene) for Athens, a winged horse for Corinth. But the Greeks quickly elaborated their coins, making them among the loveliest the world has seen. Their favourite metal was silver, fairly evenly distributed in the Greek world; and fine, large coins of this lovely metal were minted in many cities. The 'heads', or obverses, showed some form of city-badge - often the head of a city's patron god or goddess, like Athene's head at Athens, or that of the local spirit of a river or a fountain, as at Syracuse, where the fountain-nymph Arethusa was pictured. On the reverses were types which symbolized aspects of a city's national life or commercial activity - a bunch of grapes or an ear of barley or fish for cities rich in vineyards or arable land or fisheries. By the middle of the fourth century B.C. an immense variety of types had been used, some simpler, some more ornate: the men who designed the best coins became famous, and even signed with their names the dies which they engraved. This work was seldom much more than an inch in diameter, but it possessed all the grandeur and simplicity and technical mastery which only the greatest artists can combine. The Greeks took a pride in their fine coins, which, by showing that their cities were go-ahead and inventive, were therefore good for trade. And everything depended on brisk trade: cities were small, by modern standards, and small cities quickly get left behind, or simply starve, when international competition is keen.

They could not stand up to Alexander the Great: his kingdom absorbed most of the free Greek cities, and his coins pushed theirs out. Previous coins had shown a city-badge. Alexander's showed a royal badge - the half-divine portrait of Alexander himself, the natural symbol of the vast empire he built up from Macedonia, its center, to India: Alexander was Macedonia. From that time kings put their heads on coinage as a matter of course.

Greek coinage was 'struck', that is, hammered between dies: early Roman coins were differently made. Italy had no gold and scarcely any silver, though she was fairly rich in the metals which form bronze. But bronze is not a precious metal like gold and silver: it took a deal of bronze to be worth anything, and they coined it by the pound, for that is what Rome's first pieces weighed. Hence the £ (from Libra - pound). These great coins, too large to strike, had to be cast from molds, just as Chinese coinage was cast for many centuries until quite recent times. Later on, Rome captured sources of silver and began to strike silver denarii (the d. of £s.d., for the English penny used to be of silver) with types which were seldom beautiful but nearly always interesting, since they glorified the legend and myth of Rome's earliest history.

The Roman Republic was collapsing when Julius Caesar was killed in 44 B.C., Augustus, his adopted son, transformed it into an empire within twenty years. Like Alexander, he now put his head on the coinage, which henceforth bears a magnificent series of imperial portraits (in gold, silver, brass and copper) for over four hundred years. Brass and copper coins of the Empire were quite large and enabled die-engravers to make really fine designs, and the coins themselves were excellently struck by the mint-workmen who hammered the coins out. The engravers probably used sculptured portrait-busts of the emperors as models for their superbly realistic and strong coin-portraits.

Combined with the types on the backs of the coins (which generally said what the emperor was trying to do for the welfare of his subjects), these portraits must have suggested the force of imperial personality very vividly from end to end of an enormous empire which had no radio or newspapers to spread official news. From Britain to Arabia the imperial coins of Rome acted as an imperial gazette: unlike those of Greece, their types were changed very frequently in order to spread the latest news - of a battle won, a victory celebrated, a building erected, or an era of peace and plenty begun (compare the varied postage stamps of many countries, such as the U.S.S.R.).

A thousand years of Greek and Roman coinage had developed all the essentials of later coinages. The use of gold, silver and the baser metals: the technique of engraving dies and of hammering the blanks between the dies; the appearance of royal or imperial portraits, together with other designs serving as national badges or symbols - all these were standard features in coinage for a further thousand years. And there was one other feature contributed by Rome. Christianity, after being for a long time tolerated by Rome, was officially adopted by many of the later emperors: Constantine the Great protected the new faith. Many coins of the late empire are of a more or less Christian character or feeling. When the imperial control of Europe collapsed in the fifth century, and barbarian invaders took over, they adopted much of this Christian symbolism on their coins; coinage of the Byzantine empire of the East, which survived until Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, showed not only the portraits of the Byzantine emperors, but often a portrait of Christ himself as 'King of kings'.

In medieval Europe, therefore, as one kingdom after another was carved out and stabilized, coinages developed in an essentially Christian and yet also a Roman tradition. Venice with its lozenge-shaped badge of the Christ; Charlemagne with his type of a church surmounted by the inscription 'Christiana Religio'; today's portrait coinage of Elizabeth II of England, described, in Latin, as 'Defender of the Faith' - all come from the same ancient origins. Three main changes have occurred. First, the invention of coining-machinery in the sixteenth century revolutionized the minting of money, which is now done in huge quantities by immense power presses. Dies are seldom now engraved by hand: instead, they are modelled in relief, and machines then engrave them automatically. Secondly, many countries have lost the old habit of varying their coin-types for the sake of seeking designs which are both new and good: Eire was an exception when she brought out her coins showing horses, salmon, chickens and pigs - symbols of her agricultural fertility. Thirdly, precious metals like gold and silver have become too valuable and too expensive to use as money. Great Britain, for example, no longer mints gold and silver. Instead of gold pounds the Government uses pound notes, which promise that the citizen will be paid twenty shillings if he prefers it so; but these 'silver' shillings - of cupro-nickel and not of silver at all - are worth only a fraction of the actual value written on them. In other words, modern coins are tokens, which everyone is content to accept at a value more than they are worth simply because they have enough trust in the governments which mint them.


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    • Jonathan Grimes profile image

      Jonathan Grimes 

      6 years ago from Devon

      As a metal detectoist I love searcing for those old lost coins and will never get tired of seeing a hammered coin appear from the ground. I've found my share of coins and if your interested I have placed a few on my blog at the link below.


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