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How difficult was it to create an exceptional coin in say 400BC?


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I was recently at the (largely Roman) superb museum in Cirencester, England where, alongside coins, they display Iron Age coin-making artifacts - see  below photos. The output of these tools was (to me) somewhat crude, and possibly from having been born nearby, I felt  slightly overshadowed by the different class of coinage from say Magna Graecia centuries earlier. This  in turn got me wondering why when there was such a clear standard of excellence established by some of the latter's  output and why - when the Roman world admired and copied so  much of Greek culture - Roman and subsequent coinage was  usually not more subjectively beautiful.

Was the skill, time and  money involved in producing exceptional coins off the scale truly hard to replicate? 

I do understand  this question is subjective, and that Greeks could  produce "poor" coins and - say - Romans could produce wonderful  coins but if the question is accepted  in  broad terms, why would powerful rulers controlling often vast empires and who possibly used coins for  propaganda etc not  seek to emulate or advance on some of what came  before. I know  I am exposing myself to photos of terrible  Greek coins (and know there were  important  Greek cities with repetitive and far-from exceptional coins) and magnificent Roman but the question is just to try to understand why later examples  were often so  different to the mean of what came before. Maybe they  just didn't care hugely? Or possibly were gifted engravers rare, taught in a certain "school" and once lost,  it was a skill  that was  extremely hard to  bring back?

I greatly  appreciate any knowledge on this.








Edited by Deinomenid
Apologies if the photos are large. I tried (failed?) to reduce them as much as I could.
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Interesting topic! Also looks like a fascinating exhibit - thanks for sharing. 

I've also always wondered about why the artistry and fabric and "quality" changed so much from early to late antiquity (c. 600 BCE - 1453 CE). Accepting that artistic merit is always partly subjective / culturally relative, and there was internal variation within any period, I agree that it's still possible to recognize measurable changes.


My own personal theories are mostly about incentives created by structural relationships between states and state actors. (Changing state structures  corresponded roughly to different periods of coinage: Classical, Hellenistic, Roman Republican, Roman Imperial, "Byzantine," etc.)

(I've also seen interesting theories about changing technologies, art-historical traditions, economic conditions, and other historical factors -- from wars to environmental changes and public health!)


I think there are different answers for different periods. For this one:

Classical: My view is that creativity was heightened in the Classical period by competition between many different small coin- producing city states. (Everyone wanted to produce the next "Aegina Turtle" or "Owl Tet" or "Pegasus Stater.)

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Hellenistic: The rise of "empire" (first Hellenistic, then Roman) increasingly centralized coin production (the design & planning, if not the actual mints, which were still dispersed), and correspondingly limited competition for creative new ideas and artistic talent. (Hellenistic Kings felt they "had to" adapt to Alexander's institutionalized model of how money was expected to appear, down to the right-facing portrait and full-bodied left-facing figure on reverse; even small changes would stand out.)



Republican: Support for that theory actually comes from the Roman Republican period of Moneyers: Each year a new Roman family introduced its own types of denarii, essentially competing for prestige against past (and future) Moneyers and famous old families. Often these new designs were wildly artistic and original (though the size and shape of flan, and other details, remained similar)

Titurius-Sabinus-RRC-Denarius-Sabine-Captives-Leu-WA-20-ex-JMAL.jpg  9129247.m.jpg  CONSERVATORI-Hostilius-Saserna-AR-Denarius-Dreadlocked-Gallia.png

So we get a burst of creativity and beauty and interesting variety for a century or so. 


RIC: Once the coinage was centralized by Empire, it was standardized and the incentives and competitive pressures were reduced. Uniformity became ideology and purpose; inherently conservative, novelty was to be avoided outside narrow parameters.

The height of uniformity was reached during the 4th cent. from the Tetrarchy onward. Regardless of ruler, the portrait looked the same; regardless of mint, the same formula was followed: Obv: a very impersonal portrait of ruler's head and/or shoulders, w/ a few choices of headwear and garments, clockwise legend of regnal titles running around the perimeter; Rev: a populist image, usually a patriotic legend clockwise around the perimeter; a mintmark in the exergue at 6h). 

The same model still applies to much of the world's coinage today, including U.S. coins:



RPC: Creativity persisted in the local Provincial coinage types, but there was a different set of structural/economic pressures suppressing the highest artistic quality in the "local coinages." (For one thing, they were local or regional, not competing against "the whole world" for artistic / monetary supremacy.)



Et al.: And yet other sets of pressures in the "Byzantine" period, for Islamic, medieval, early Celtic, Judaean & others. (I have specific hypotheses / evidence for and notes on the topic of each.)



That's a summary of my own perspective (developed across several forum conversations like this one!) ... I always enjoy when this topic comes up and always seem to learn something new hearing what others have to say. 

Edited by Curtis JJ
Embedding exemplar-photos from previous posts
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19 hours ago, Deinomenid said:

ceptional coins) and magnificent Roman b

I greatly appreciate this. I bought/read a book on the Roman Republican period  before I posted this as I thought it the most likely period to produce similar levels of coins, if  "only" because of  competition and prestige (Roman Republican moneyers, by Harlan.) I say this as  someone with precisely zero hours of art  history education and  an uncanny ability to  not even be able to draw a decent stick figure, but are the heights of this period seen  in a similar  light to the heights of the earlier? They seem creative but lesser in some way.

I'd read a few threads around the subject,  but struggled to  grasp  the level of skill and cost of production (foundry, training, design whatever)  involved  in the process. Do you  think  if the  incentives created by the structural relationships  had been there at any other given  period then output could have been similar? Ie no  "permanently" lost skill element?








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Thank you for the information and images.

In terms of why British coins were cruder, I think there are a few factors.

In Iron Age Britain, they didn't see owl tetradrachms or many of the more beautiful coins. The main influence at first was the Philip II gold stater and even then, they may have just been copying Gallic copies of those. They also copied the bronzes of Massalia, which weren't spectacular. They were functional coins that did their job and reached this far end of Europe.

In the earlier stages, the British didn't really use coins for trade amongst themselves. They came to need them to pay the Romans. There's no propaganda value in that. They didn't even put their names on them until later. Why put a lot of time into them? Not long after they started using coins at home, the Romans invaded and stopped production altogether. The whole period of Celtic production in Britain may have been as short as 140 years.

Even so, some of the abstract designs the Celts came up with are arguably more interesting artistically and more creative than the Greek models. The Dobunni (from the Cirencester area) produced gold staters that I think are much more exciting than Philip II staters. The Greek coins with their subtle engraving would be the equivalent of Rembrandt, while the Celtic coins are more like Van Gogh -  energetic and impressionistic rather than precise.

When you think about it, it's a bit puzzling why the Greeks wasted effort making something so functional more complicated than it needed to be.

Edited by John Conduitt
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The Alexanders posthumous at Kyme and Myrina  were deliberately replaced with civic stephanaphorus types c 150's BC  This is known because the Alexanders have some magistrates who span both types.  The replacement coinage seems to have been produced to supply Alexander Ballas  versus Demetrios l Soter as king of seleucid lands  in line with Roman wishes. The Attalids acting as a cut-out for the republican senate.

The very common Kyme and Myrina coins  only were minted for less than 10 years  but are a really massive artistic new territory. Below is wot I wrote somewhere else to thunderous silence...I think it might receive more of an appreciative audience here...who knows!?

Many of the hellenistic coins such as he Thasos  can actually be viewed as a ROMAN PROXY COINAGE. This includes the Myrhina and the Kyme  where financial support for the Roman favoured candidate seemingly was paid for by these tiny cities!  The coins wasn't produced for long  and abruptly discontinued.  I believe even the Athens NewStyle coinage was at the behest of the Romans. Think of the Roman Macedonian wars and the largish NewStyle issues and the "over represented" NewStyles in Thracian hoards as noted by deCallatay  and Meadows...why unless Rome didn't order them to produce coinage for them.  see "more than it would seem" by F deCallatay on academia.edu.  The Great Transformation by Meadows too, although it doesn't speculate on why the coinages became large flan  and "individualist",  maybe "the freedom of the Greeks" ? ( freedom to mint coinage when and where Rome demanded!)  But what of the Kyberei Syros coinage and the Dionysiac artists  coinage?  Where does that fit in?  Does it need to fit in?  The Hellenistic coinages are FAB!

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1 hour ago, Etcherdude said:

aesthetic judgements are tricky, maybe it’s alright that we don’t rank things in terms of artistic value.

1 hour ago, John Conduitt said:

, some of the abstract designs the Celts came up with are arguably more interesting artistically and more creative than the Greek models.

22 hours ago, Deinomenid said:

a clear standard of excellence established by some of the latter's  output

I think both things can be true: the artistic standards of one culture cannot be easily applied to those of another; and there are ways to impartially judge works against one another. But it's necessary to do two things: (1) apply a measurable, applicable standard; and, most importantly, (2) incorporate the goals, meanings, and standards of the people we're discussing.

We may not be able to say who was "better," Rembrandt or Picasso, but we could, in theory, discuss how much time and care went into each of their works, the quality of the materials they used, that both were considered important by their peers and later generations, and so on.

For coins, it's easy to recognize, for example, that the Greeks considered some engravers to be exceptional artists and rewarded them well, copied their works, and institutionalized systems of education and apprenticeship so that students could be mentored by them, and their artistic innovations could be passed on to and elaborated by later generations.

Similarly, we can recognize that the "Byzantine" culture de-emphasized material representations, and artistic accomplishment was held in lower prestige. Put simply, by their own standards, they didn't care nearly as much about being artistic. For instance, even though Iconoclasm was a relatively short-lived extreme movement, there was a much more enduring hostility (or at least ambivalence) toward portraiture. (There were similar trends in Islamic and ancient Jewish culture, both of which tended to produce more calligraphic designs.) Where there was portraiture on later Byzantine coins (even on the finest gold ones), it was meant to be functional -- they specifically avoided physical beauty in favor of spiritual. They invested much less in the infrastructure of coin engraving, both physical and social. (Beyond ideological, there were also severe economic obstacles that would've prevented Greek-style artistry; the relationship between the ideological and economic is another issue....)

For Celtic artwork, we just have to set aside the "realism" and corporeal beauty with which the Greeks were obsessed. Instead, there are fascinating technical features of Celtic artwork, like "Cheshire cat design" -- in which different foregrounds emerge and backgrounds recede when focusing on different aspects of a single image -- or the use of naturalistic elements to represent different things -- such as making the petals on a flower also represent cheekbones and jawlines and the "stigma" (center hub) represent a cheekbone or eye... The finest Celtic art can be a very active and creative experience for viewer. I believe they actually exploited pareidolia -- the tendency to find patterns (especially faces) where none were intended. (The artist may not have even realized they were creating a second face in that "portrait," but the elements are meant to represent multiple things, so any given viewer can put them together in unique ways that others might not have anticipated.)

Edited by Curtis JJ
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This is a fascinating discussion. As to the original question, how difficult was it to create an exceptional coin in 400BC, the answer appears to be less difficult than in 20th century America. Because in 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Smithsonian and saw an Alexander gold coin. He said to the master of the US Mint, Charles Barber, why can't we produce coins of this quality and relief? Barber went away, looked into it and said we can - but only at the rate of one day, because to obtain that high relief we need 9 pressings by a 172 tonne hydraulic press. So Roosevelt said, OK, give me some of those coins and over a month or so they produced 24 ultra-high relief $20 gold coins that were once (they may be now for all I know) the most expensive coins in the world. How can it be that the Greeks could bang out large volumes of high-relief coins by hand and yet 23 centuries later the most technologically advanced country in the world could not? There is a discussion of this in a lecture on the beauty of ancient Greek coinage by the Belgian numismatist Francois De Callatay (mentioned above). The lecture is on youtube.

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With regards to relief, my understanding was that it's a matter of hot striking versus cold striking - we know that the ancients heated their coins in a furnace to soften the flans- but still the drive to make something like this as money is just mind-boggling



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Beauty is not quantifiable. It has little-to-no relation to “time and care” or “quality of materials”.

Appreciation of aesthetic quality is arrived at by study and experience, there are no shortcuts for arriving at informed judgements.


On 8/24/2022 at 9:10 AM, Curtis JJ said:

time and care went into each of their works, the quality of the materials they used


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I'm a little perplexed by that statement (partly because it seems to misunderstand my point entirely). My point actually was, more or less, that "beauty is not quantifiable" (i.e., cross-cultural comparisons requires standards other than beauty).

My point (well, it's not my own, but my understanding of anthropology/history of art):

If you want to understand how and why different cultures' (or the same culture's, at different times) coins or other artworks have very different qualities (i.e., the characteristics), simply trying to rank which ones are more beautiful is not going to be a successful approach.

Instead, one good alternative is to incorporate the cultures' own standards and intentions: What were their priorities? How much did they care about artistry? What were their resources and infrastructure for art or coinage? Those are empirical phenomenon (and completely separate from judging what is or isn't beautiful): Did they have institutions for, or invest lots of time in, mentoring new generations of engravers (as the Greeks did)? Were individual dies very technically elaborate, taking a very long time to produce (because they valued beauty highly)? Or were they engraved hastily with the intent of functionality (either because they lacked resources, or, as for some actors at some points in Byzantine history, because they were actually rather hostile to material artistry and beauty)?

6 hours ago, Etcherdude said:

Beauty is not quantifiable. It has little-to-no relation to “time and care” or “quality of materials”.

Appreciation of aesthetic quality is arrived at by study and experience, there are no shortcuts for arriving at informed judgements.

To your point: if you believe beauty has nothing to do with "quality of materials," I don't understand why artists would devote so much energy and expense to them..? (One reads that old painters searched far and wide for just the right pigments and became expert in producing their own materials.) Obviously having the right materials isn't enough; but if it had little-no-relation to whether the final product turned out to be beautiful, it's hard to imagine all the effort and expense. Likewise, I'm finding it hard to imagine why you think investing "time and care" into artwork is unrelated to whether is turns out well. If it didn't, I can't understand why artists often spend many years creating their masterpieces, rather than just banging them out in an afternoon.


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