American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars: The History of Money

Ancient Greece and the Mediterranean World


The first coins were struck in 7th-century Lydia in Western Turkey. The new coins offered a convenient way to pay with pre-weighed pieces of metal, which were guaranteed by an authority. For centuries before this, people had been using cut-up silver bullion to conduct transactions, a practice that continued alongside bartering for many centuries. Due to the influence of Greek cities, coinage became a popular form of money that spread rapidly over the entire Mediterranean world and beyond.

For the first 300 years, coins were struck predominantly in silver, and the value of a coin was closely tied to its weight as bullion. In order to allow for smaller transactions, many Greek cities began to mint low-value bronze coins. Coins allowed people to facilitate long-distance trade and daily transactions, or simply to hoard savings. But despite a fairly well-developed coinage system, it is likely that most people in the ancient world, who lived in a largely agrarian society, did not use coins on a daily basis.

The design of Greek coins is important for the understanding of world coins of all periods. Many of the design features of coins, such as portraits or certain emblems, were first used on Greek coins. The engravers that created the dies for coins were sometimes outstanding artists, whose work survives in the miniature pieces of art.