Review: Numismatique grecque

Hélène Nicolet-Pierre. Numismatique grecque. Armand Colin. Paris 2002. 302 pp. Pb. 30 Euro. ISBN 2-200-21781-1

Most introductory books on Greek coinage are addressed to a broad readership and have a certain predictability in conception: after one or two obligatory opening chapters on coining techniques and the methodology of numismatic study, the bulk of the work is given over to a region-by-region chronological survey of the many coinages. This fine new volume by Hélène Nicolet-Pierre, however, is refreshingly different in that it is written as an advanced introductory text for a narrower, university audience of graduate-level students and devotes almost as much space to methodological issues, source-material, and the history of numismatic scholarship as to the survey of the coins themselves. That is to say that its main concern is with Greek numismatics in all its variety, richness and fascination as a field of study, as opposed to being simply a book about coins.

It too is a kind of testament to the author’s influential career as Curator of Greek Coins and now Honorary Director at the Cabinet des Médailles in Paris and to her life-long stream of fundamental contributions to the field. As in her many papers, the present book is enlivened by her characteristic precision and attention to detail, the centrality of the problems that most interest her, and the elegance and energy of her prose.

The first three chapters cover, among many other things: Instruments and techniques of coining. Can we quantify the coin production of a mint? An old quarrel: “antiquarians” and historians. The modern recovery of coins. Interpretation of excavation coins. Circulation and hoarding. Coinage and economic history. Chapter 4, “The Greeks and their coins: the ancient sources,” is devoted entirely to the importance of written testimonia—inscriptions and statements of ancient authors—in numismatic study, and, in keeping with current academic interests in ancient attitudes towards money, includes a short discussion on philosophers and coinage. Another chapter “Money before coins,” reviews the Near Eastern and early Greek textual and material evidence for weights and early monetary instruments in a condensed account that is probably as up-to-date and judicious as any in print. Appealingly, these discussions are frequently broken up with directly quoted paragraphs from ancient and modern authorities on the points at hand, which have the effect of highlighting key testimonia and making other scholars actual contributors to the text.

A four-chapter survey of major coinages, Lydian through Hellenistic, follows. The coverage is relatively abbreviated in many places, but this may be just as well as it avoids overwhelming the reader with the vastness of the material, while drawing his or her attention to the more essential coinages and coin problems. The emphasis throughout is on recent scholarly interpretations and discoveries, a good number of them involving Mme. Nicollet-Pierre’s own research; and generally, as in the chapter on early electrum (aptly entitled “L’âge de l’or”), it is hard to imagine how the treatment could be improved upon within the given space. The concluding chapter reviews the many proposed answers to the perennial question, Why did the Greeks strike coins?

Since it is not in English, the book will probably not receive the wide use it ought to have in the Anglophone world. This is too bad, since it sums up the present state of Greek numismatic studies probably better than any work in print. And because it is so new and because the author is so conversant with all the latest scholarship, researchers will find it valuable for its up-to-the-minute bibliography alone.

Some readers will be disappointed with the quality of the plates. But more serious is the absence of plate captions or a list of illustrations, since a number of the pictured coins and other items have an exceptional interest, and without references readers have no way of following them up. The usefulness of the book as a reference is compromised further by the lack of an index.

Still, as a sophisticated presentation of Greek numismatics for the serious student it really has no rival, and not just because of its erudition and coverage. Owing to the vibrancy of her writing and her obviously deep involvement with the subject, Hélène Nicolet-Pierre has a way of conveying the excitement of this continually evolving field that most Greek numismatists know very well but rarely see so vividly expressed on the printed page.

—John H. Kroll