A Gallery of Coins through the Ages

A Gallery of Coins through the Ages
Coins have fascinated mankind ever since the first ones were struck about 2600 years ago. They have pictured gods, kings, emperors, important events, landmarks, and ideas. Often, the only way we know about ancient civilizations is through their coins. The most important use of coinage in ancient times was to pay the armies that fought the constant wars of that era. Use of coins for commerce evolved a few centuries after their introduction. Included in this section is a sampling of interesting coins through history. So warm up your mouse and clicking finger, sit back, and enjoy the journey. You may start at the beginning or at any point in the gallery.



lydia coins
Image courtesy Stack's Rare Coins

The first coins were struck in the Kingdom of Lydia in what is now Turkey in the 7th Century B.C.E. The coins were crude pieces, made from a natural alloy of gold and silver called electrum. As you can see, small lumps of this metal were stamped with a design on one side and a punch on the other. This coin shows a lion which represents Lydia -- in other versions a lion and a bull (Persia) fighting with each other were pictured if the constant wars between the two kingdoms were active.

King Croesus of Lydia was credited with inventing the bimetallic coinage system, where coins of gold and silver circulated side by side. This allowed a stable coinage of fixed value.



Athean Owl

Image courtesy Guy Clark

One of the first coins used for trade was issued by Athens in the Fifth Century B.C.E. Athena wearing a plumed helmet graced the obverse, and her sacred bird was pictured on the back. The coin served to advertise the city, with an olive branch depicting its main export (olive oil), and the first three letters of its name. This coin became THE trade coin of the Eastern Mediterranean for almost 400 years.

Note that ancient coins are irregular in shape. The ancient minting process was done entirely by hand. Designs were carved into obverse and reverse dies; one die would be stationary and one movable (more on this later). The coiner would place a coin blank between the dies and hit the movable die with a hammer, usually several times. The design would be impressed into the blank and the next coin made. There was nothing to keep the coin perfectly round as in modern coin presses, so the resulting coin's shape was irregular.



Athena and Nike

Image courtesy Stack's Rare Coins


This lovely coin was struck during the lifetime of Alexander the Great and a for few years after his death in 323 B.C.E. It is made of gold and pictures Athena on the front (obverse) and the figure of Nike (Victory) on the reverse (back). The name of this coin is distater which means Double Stater. Even though this scarce coin is 2400 years old, its estimated cost is around $9000.

The stationary die would be carved into the surface of a large piece of metal like an anvil, and would usually have the more complicated design. The movable die was on a bar of metal which was hand-held. Movable dies wore out faster than the stationary ones.



Alexander the Great

Image courtesy Stack's Rare Coins


Want to know what Alexander the Great looked like? Here is his portrait. After Alexander died, several of his generals took over pieces of his kingdom. One of these generals, named Lysimachos, became king of Thrace, located on the Greek mainland. He advertised his right to kingship through his coinage which basically says, "See? I am the successor of Alexander!" This is the first coin known to show a living person.

Ancient coinage dies were carved by hand, using crude tools and the bare eyeball (the magnifying glass would not be invented for another 1500 years or so). Even with these difficulties, the wonderful detail and artistry in these coins is astounding!




Image courtesy Stack's Rare Coins


This coin is from one of the kings of Bactria, a land in central Asia (Afghanistan) that was conquered by Alexander. After Alexander died, Bactria changed hands many times through assassination and infighting. Bactrian coins were made to the Greek Standard, and this is one of the most beautiful coins of the late Hellenistic period. The king's name was Eukratides who reigned in the second century B.C.E.




Image courtesy Certified Coin Exchange


Remember all those Shakespeare lessons in high school? Julius Caesar was always one of those studied. What Shakespeare wrote was a fictional account about an event that actually happened in history. Not only did Brutus and Cassius kill Caesar in the Roman Forum on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.E., Brutus issued a coin bragging about it! The coin shows a Liberty Cap and two daggers above the date of the assassination. A bloody civil war resulted and Brutus was eventually killed. Et tu, Bruté!

This is probably the most historic coin in existence and less than one hundred coins in silver and two in gold are known.




Image courtesy Stack's Rare Coins


Exactly what were the thirty pieces of silver that were paid for the betrayal of Christ? Nobody knows for sure, but this coin is the prime candidate. This is the Shekel of Tyre, minted in the Pheonecian city of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast in modern-day Lebanon. It was the only coin that was accepted for Temple Tax in Jerusalem, so it is logical that this is the coin in the payoff.

Examples of this coin are readily available for just a few hundred dollars.



8 Reale

Image courtesy Stack's Rare Coins


"Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum!" To hear the term "Pieces of Eight" brings to mind pirate treasure and the Spanish Main. This coin is known as the Spanish Pillar Dollar, or officially as 8 Reales (ree-AL-ees). The design on the reverse represents the Pillars of Hercules, the gateway to the Mediterranean, with the motto Plus Ultra ("There is more beyond") referring to the New World. These coins were often cut into eight parts, each worth 1 Real (ree-AL), and these 8 pieces were called bits. "Shave and a haircut, two bits." This series of coins was minted in the New World for almost 300 years. The U.S. Silver Dollar was patterned on this coin. This particular piece was minted in Mexico City in 1768 and was issued in the name of the Spanish emperor Charles the Third. Spanish Pillar Dollars were legal tender in the U.S. until 1857!

Until machines took over the minting process, coins were made by hand. The beautiful roundness of "milled" coins was achieved through the use of a retaining ring or collar which contained the flow of metal as the coin was being struck. Ancient coinmakers did not have these collars so their coins were normally irregular in shape.



Double Eagle ObverseDouble Eagle Reverse

Image courtesy Heritage Rare Coins


During his Presidency, Theodore Roosevelt thought that the coinage of the United States was not good enough for the national image. So he did something about it. He had an appreciation for the coinage of ancient Greece and asked his friend, New Hampshire sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to create some coins. One of the results was this magnificent gold $20 double eagle.

The home of Augustus Saint-Gaudens is a National Historic Site in Cornish and is open to visitors.



Walker ObvWalker Rev

Image courtesy Heritage Rare Coins


The Walking Liberty Half Dollar is the most beautiful regular issue silver coin minted by the United States. It was struck from 1916 to 1947, and was designed by Adolf A. Weinman. Many people living today can remember spending these lovely coins.



NH Quarter

Issued in August of 2000, the ninth coin in the 50 States Quarters® Program commemorates the State of New Hampshire. It features the Old Man of the Mountain, New Hampshire's beloved symbol that fell in 2003. Nine stars for the ninth state denote New Hampshire's vital role in the ratification of the Constitution -- it was the 2/3 majority needed to accept the basic document of our nation. The deisgn is completed with the State's Motto "Live Free or Die", which was part of a toast sent by General John Stark to his Regimental Reunion in 1809: "Live Free or Die; Death is not the Worst of Evils."