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truck or cast coinage—the first form of ‘money’ as we know it today, was invented in the early 7th century BC in Asia Minor1 and about the same time in China.2 An important aspect of this invention was that coins could be mass-produced—coinage became the first mass-producible medium of communication. A message could be reproduced exactly as intended in large quantities for the first time. Kingdom of Lydia, silver stater of  King Croesus,  mid–7th century B.C.Rulers began to realize the propaganda value of coins as symbols of power almost immediately—the Kings of Lydia used the Lion and the Bull,3 symbol of their dynasty, during the 7th century BC. Within 50 years the Greek City-States of Asia Minor and Greece proper had begun to produce their own coinages – each with their own representative symbols – a sea turtle for Aigina, the Pegasus for Corinth, Athena for Athens, a seal for Phokis, and so on. These symbols were designed to be easily associated with the city that produced the coins – often they were puns on the city name or pictured the patron deity of the city.4 Soon tiny little towns and petty dynasts were issuing coinages as expressions of their political independence.

The Greeks laid the foundations for the language of symbolism and text that is still used on coins to this day. From the early use of dynastic and civic symbolism, the Greek coinage tradition developed a fully articulated range of coin types that became associated with the political organization of the issuing authority. Silver tetradrachm of Ptolemy I,  323–283 B.C.Thus realistic portraiture on coins5 was developed in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests when Hellenistic monarchs were searching for ways to express their power and attributes to their large and diverse populations, federal coinage types were developed to represent the leagues of Greek or Hellenized cities using symbols of unity and solidarity,6 and republican types were created to represent cities with democratic governments.7

The development of realistic portraiture was a pivotal event in the history of numismatic art as well as in the development of coins as tools of political power. The ancient world did not have the printing press—there were no billboards or pamphlets—news traveled by hand-written letter or word of mouth. Coins were the media of mass communication par excellence of the ancient world—with coins a ruler could make known their desired self-image to their subjects. Hellenistic portraiture went hand in hand with a tendency to use inscriptions, at first to name the ruler, and later to name their attributes (‘saviour,’ ‘god manifest,’ ‘the great,’ ‘devoted to his father,’ etc.). Three Hellenistic tetradrachms, one of Alexander the Great at top, Ptolemy I on the left, and Antiochus I on the right.This image shows the transition of Hellenistic coinage from the general portraiture of Alexander’s coinage (showing Herakles), to that of realistic portraits of rulers, in this case Ptolemy I, one of Alexander’s generals and founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, and Antiochus I, son of Seleukos, another of Alexander’s generals and founder of the Seleucid dynasty centered in Syria and Mesopotamia. 8

The Romans developed the political use of coinage to unprecedented levels. Rome avoided producing coins of their own for several centuries—in fact, it was not until the early 3rd century BC that they began to produce coins based on those of the Greek cities of Magna Graecia.9 At the same time the Romans continued to use a monetary system based on the old Italic tradition of rough bronze ingots traded by weight. This system remained in place with gradual modifications until the 2nd Punic War. An early silver denarius of the Roman Republic, late third–early 2nd century B.C.The stress of fighting this protracted war for survival forced the Romans to revise their economic system – for the first time they began to issue an extensive coinage in silver in order to pay the costs of the war.10 The resulting denarius, introduced in 211 B.C., was to survive for the next 400 years as the basic silver denomination of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire.

Roman coinage is particularly interesting because it reflects the gradual change of the Roman state from a Republic to an Empire. This evolution is reflected in the coinage in the development of portraiture 11 (the Romans became masters of realistic portraiture) and a numismatic shorthand for standard legends and symbols representing key social, military, and political concepts. Roman moneyers and engravers became adept at expressing personal and political messages through the medium of coinage.12

Rome developed the first fully monetized society in the sense of money being used in the minor daily transactions of the majority of people. The fact that so many people (the Roman Empire at its height included up to 100 million people) regularly used coins meant that there was now an audience much larger than ever before for the messages that could be delivered via coinage. The Romans made full use of this huge audience, building on and refining the achievements of the Greeks in the development of numismatic design and symbolism. The result was a sophisticated and flexible system of inscriptions and symbols on their coinage. The messages conveyed were designed to support the Imperial government through expressions of the military prowess of the Emperor, the loyalty of the army, the happiness of the people, Imperial generosity and so on.13

Gold tremissus of Wittiza, Visigothic Spain, sixth century A.D.After the fall of the Roman Empire, coins continued to be produced on the Roman model although the repertoire of symbols was restricted.14 As Western Europe began to recover economically from the collapse of the Empire, limited coinages of gold fractions were replaced by silver ‘pennies’ based on the old denarius—these coins became the basis for the monetary system introduced by Charlemagne.15 Byzantium provides examples of the development of numismatic symbolism to represent the medieval concept of kingship as well as religion that was inherited in the medieval west and formed the direct link between the ancient world and the modern coinage.16 By the 13th century the Western European economy had recovered and the number of coin denominations and types in all metals began to proliferate. Beautiful coins were produced in gold bearing a complex symbology designed to reinforce the office of kingship and the power and prestige of the king. 17

With the beginning of the Renaissance Western Europeans began to look back to the Ancient World for their inspiration in art, science, and philosophy. Gold augustale of Friedrich II as king of  Sicily, issued in 1231 A.D. Friedrich is portrayed in antique fashion as a Roman EmperorNumismatics was no different, and early examples of this use of ancient coins as models include this gold augustale of Friedrich II ‘Stupor Mundi’ (wonder of the world) as king of Sicily—paving the way for the eventual revival of gold coinage in the West.18 Realistic portraiture on coinage was revived, as well as the symbolic ‘language’ used by the ancients. This is not to say that everything remained the same—too much time had passed, symbols were re-interpreted, language was modified, artistic convention altered. In particular, the symbolism of divinely–sanctioned sovereignty was elaborated.19

The ‘modern’ period of coinage begins at the beginning of the 16th century with the introduction of the first large silver coins for regular usage in Tyrol.20 These large coins were made possible through the large–scale exploitation of new silver deposits in Central Europe, primarily in Germany. Silver thaler of Friedrich Wilhelm, the ‘Great Elector’ of Brandenburg–Prussia, 1644.The introduction of larger coins encouraged a flowering of numismatic detail, if not art, characterized by increasingly elaborate designs, such as this one incorporating the family crests of the Elector of Brandenburg–Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm.21 Eventually old patterns of portraiture and symbolism reasserted themselves and new ones became established. Among the most interesting new expressions of sovereignty appeared in the form of realistic city views issued by autonomous and semi-autonomous cities—if monarchs could have their portraits on coins, why shouldn’t cities?22

French coinage of the late 18th century is provides an excellent case study for demonstrating the continued importance of coins in disseminating messages about sovereignty. The six livre coin is a classic example of the progressive modification of a coin type to reflect changing political circumstances and perceptions of sovereignty—in this case the change from a monarchy to a republic, and finally to an empire, each with its own distinctive imagery and legends.23 Note the progression of the legends:

  1. ‘Louis XVI, King of France and Navarre’ and ‘Blessed in the Name of the Lord,’
  2. ‘Louis XVI, King of the French’ and ‘The Rule of Law,’
  3. ‘The Rule of Law’ and ‘Republic of the French,’
  4. ‘Union and Strength’ and ‘Republic of France,’
  5. ‘Bonaparte, first Consul’ and ‘Republic of France,’
  6. ‘Emperor Napoleon’ and ‘Republic of France,’
  7. ‘Emperor Napoleon’ and ‘The French Empire,’

At the same time as the French were wrestling with the symbolism appropriate for their changing political situation, the United States was doing the same in the wake of the American Revolution. Discussions on the creation of a new mint included debate on the proposed designs for the new coinage of the United States. This debate highlighted the perceived importance of the messages conveyed on a nation's coinage and centered on what symbolism would be appropriate for a new Republic in a monarchical world. One cent pattern with a bust of George Washington, 1791.One proposed design incorporated George Washington's portrait as the first president of the new nation. Washington refused the honor on the grounds that portraiture on coins was a symbol of monarchy—the U.S. needed to make a departure from European tradition.24 Republican Rome became the inspiration for the new coinage. Liberty accompanied by the liberty cap, was selected as the ideal symbol for the new Republic, along with the eagle, ancient symbol of strength and power. Lady Liberty, in many forms, was to remain on U.S. coins for the next 140 years as the symbol of a free and democratic republic.25

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Last updated: 03/11/2008