A Brief Timeline
Ancient coinage really took off in early Greek civilization, and can be divided into three time frames, Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic eras, which all together span more than seven centuries. The Archaic period extends from around 700 BC until the Persian Wars in about 480 BC. The Classical period ended around 323 BC with the conquests of Alexander the Great. The Hellenistic period concluded around 30 BC with the Roman absorption of the ancient Greek world.
The Archaic Period
Some of the first coins to ever be circulated were minted during the Archaic period over 2,500 years ago, by wealthy King Croesus of Lydia, which is now the coast of modern-day turkey. The Lydians’ were early entrepreneurs who needed small forms of monetary exchange in a standardized precious metal form. This need inspired the first coins in the world which carried a symbolic design to authenticate their value. These early examples of coins were minted from lumps of electrum, a naturally occurring gold and silver alloy, that was highly prized and abundant in the region.
Classical Greek Coinage
Greek coinage reached a high level of aesthetic and technical quality in the Classical period. Early Greek coinage is often considered as ancient art. Two beautiful examples of this artistry in early coins are the Greek Turtle Silver Stater from the Island of Aegina and the Greek Athena Owl coin, a beautiful silver tetradrachm. Special Olympic Staters were produced only during the Olympic games to support the temporary economy and act as a commemorative coin of the events.
It was these Ancient coin designs that inspired President, Theodore Roosevelt to elevate American coinage to the level of these works of art. Roosevelt would then go on to enlist sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design some of the most beautiful American coins to ever be produced.
During the Hellenistic period, coins featured the portraits of Hellenistic kings like Alexander the Great and other successor kings. Today, such portraits give us a realistic look at the faces of many historical figures from the ancient world on the obverse, juxtaposed with imagery of victorious conquests and political propaganda.
Hellenistic coinage was succeeded by what numismatists refer to as Roman Imperatorial Coinage. Such coinage from the Roman Empire would feature the likenesses of Julius and Augustus Caesar and even those of Cleopatra and Marc Antony. Today, assembling a 12 Caesar set in either gold or silver is an exciting and rewarding adventure to pursue. The true visages of world rulers over the centuries were recorded for posterity, and many of these rulers are unknown to history except through their realistic coin portraits that we see on these Ancient coins.
The Judaeo-Christian religions are well represented by coins as well. Many such coins refer to events in the New Testament like ancient Widow's Mite Bronze Lepton, the Tribute Penny, and the Coin in the Fish's Mouth.