Historically, coins have been a way for governments to exert their political authority over their subjects, which is why the world’s earliest coins tend to be associated with the world’s oldest civilizations.

For example, the Greeks struck coins beginning 680 BCE. Coins from that civilization’s first few hundred years were often irregularly shaped rather than round and initially featured little more than a punched geometric mark on one side and an animal on the other. Within a few hundred years, though, ancient Greek coins began to feature figures on both sides, and the coins blossomed artistically between 415 and 336 BCE. Some of the most beautiful bronze coins from this period were struck on the island of Sicily by an engraver named Kimon.

Denominations for ancient Greek coins were based on the drachm, pronounced ‘dram’. Fractional denominations for the drachm included the obol, which was worth one-sixth of a drachm, while the stater, which was often produced out of gold, could have equal or even greater value than a drachm, depending on its size.

Coins of ancient Rome generally fall into two categories—those struck during the Roman Republic, which lasted from 509 until 27 BCE, and coins minted during the Roman Empire, which ruled the West until the end of the 5th century. Like the earliest Greek coins, the earliest Roman coins were cast in irregular bronze shapes and were exchanged based on their weight. By the 3rd century BCE, Romans were producing aes signatum coins, which were also weight-based coins but featured animals and symbols on their faces.

By the time of the Roman Empire, coins were being struck in gold and silver, as well as copper and brass. Probably the most common Empire coin was the denarius, although the aureus may be the best known since it featured an image of Caesar. Other common coins bore the likenesses of emperors Trajan, under whose rule Rome reached its greatest extent, and Hadrian.

Coinage in China also goes back some 2,500 years. Like ancient Greek and Roman coins, the first Chinese coins were cast in bronze, but Chinese coin makers eventually went in a different design direction than their Western counterparts. For example, by the time ancient Chinese coins were circulating along the Silk Road in the 1st century BCE, the round coins were made of copper and had square voids at their centers. In some cases, the coins bore inscriptions in both Han and Quici languages.


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