Coin Jewelry – Part I : From cattle to coinage

Not pictured: Something that easily fits into a purse or wallet. Photo by Fabien1309, via Wikimedia Commons.

As we recall from elementary Social Studies lessons, before paper currency and coinage, there was barter.  Two parties would agree to a set of terms and trade goods and services.

On paper, at least, barter seemed to be a direct and simple system, but it frequently proved to be inconvenient.  In some cases, one party did not have desired goods/services with which to trade.  Nor did it set up a convenient, uniform precedence on which to base all other transactions – for example, one cow may be worth quite a bit to a cobbler, but not much to a dairy farmer.  Also, as traveling and “long-distance bartering” came into prevalence, merchants, traders, and consumers were met with an issue. Traveling to markets was easy. Bringing livestock and other large trade-able goods? Not so much.  Consumers and merchants needed a simple and consistent system to buy and sell goods.

Carthage Electrum Coin (found in British Museum). Photo by PHGCOM, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ancient civilizations had tried to circumvent this issue: the Chinese had used shells as currency while the Mesopotamians had a banking system where people could deposit their goods (from grains and livestock to pottery and fabric) for safekeeping.  Event the use of metals as currency was not unknown in the ancient world.  Ingots, rings, and other metal shapes/objects had been widely used but were impractical currency.  There was no set standard of weight, size or shape – that is, until the Lydians struck the first coins around 650 BC.

Located in modern-day Turkey, the Lydians were a kingdom with ties to the ancient Greeks.  They  introduced a system of having money for, well, money’s sake.  People could show their wealth (or lack thereof) not just through their homes or clothes, but with the amount of coins they carried.  The Lydians struck coins of a “fixed weight and fineness, bearing the inscription and/or device of responsible authority stamped on it.”

Originally made of electrum (an alloy of gold and silver), the coins were later struck from the more durable gold and silver.  This change in materials also led coins to reflect an intrinsic value rather than an arbitrary one (as we have applied value to modern currency).

The use of coins spread throughout the ancient world (thanks, in part, to the ease with which coins could travel).  This led to a diversity in decoration with regions designing coins to commemorate local customs or leaders.  The Greeks commemorated their famed gods and goddesses; the Romans struck coins featuring their emperors; and the Celts engraved coins with images of symbolic runes and animals.  Despite the regional design differences, coins were a small, easily-transportable, and uniform collateral.  Consumer transactions were now nice and neat – modern currency was born.

4th century coin commemorating the glory of Rome and founding of Constantinople. Reverse side features Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf. Photo by Constantina Piliouras, Ancient Coin Traders. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It is worth noting, however, that despite their value as currency, coins were also seen as a form of art.  Widespread and engraved with images of gods, emperors, or animals and, oftentimes, made to commemorate important events, coins were valued from an aesthetic viewpoint as well.

At Gallery Byzantium, we celebrate these ancient coins with our new Coin  Jewelry Collection.  Cast from  actual coins, this collection brings ancient currency to today’s world and showcases the beauty and meaning behind each piece.

You can keep up with this new blog series by checking out Part II: Fakes and Forgeries, Part III: Heads or Tails, Part IV: Hammer Time, Part V: The Good, Bad, and Deceptive, Part VI: Spreading Rumors, and Part VII: The Son Also Rises.

Aelia Flaccilla Coin

Original Aelia Flaccilla Coin. Photo via

Not much is known about Aelia Flavia Flaccilla prior to her marriage to Roman Emperor Theodosius I.  She was renowned for her piety and generosity.  She was a fervent believer of the Nicene Creed and personally tended to the sick, disabled, and poor.  St. Ambrose described her as “a soul true to God” and St. Gregory of Nyssa praised her as a “leader of justice” and “pillar of the Church.”

Aelia Flaccilla was a Roman empress and the first wife of Roman Emperor Theodosius I. She was a true supporter and believer of the Nicene creed. St Gregory of Nyssa praises her Christian virtue and discusses her role as a “leader of justice” and “pillar of the Church.”

ancient roman coinAelia Flaccilla died of natural causes in 384 AD.  Constantinople’s Palatium Flaccillianum was named in her honor and a statue of her was placed in the Byzantine Senate.  She has also been canonized by the Eastern Orthodox Church and her feast day is celebrated on September 14th.

A Roman coin dating around 25 Aug 383 – 384 A.D., this coin features a diademed, draped bust of Aelia Flaccilla on the front.  On the reverse, the Roman goddess Victoria (the personification of victory and equivalent to the Greek goddess Nike) is seated, inscribing Christogram on a shield set.  Also known as a “Momogramma Christi” or “Chrismon,” Christograms are one of the earliest symbols of Christianity.  They are a ligature of Chi (X) and Rho (P), the first two letters of “Christ” in Greek.

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