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Coin Jewelry – Part III: Heads or Tails

Why is coin jewelry so desirable today? We’re looking into the history of coins as works of art this week as part of our Coin Jewelry blog series.  These blogs recount the history of coins as currency and art and share the history behind the pieces in our Coin Jewelry Collection

Have you been keeping up with this new series? Check out Part I: From Cattle to Coinage and Part II: Fakes and Forgeries or skip ahead to Part IV: Hammer Time, Part V: The Good, Bad, and Deceptive,Part VI: Spreading Rumors, and Part VII: The Son Also Rises.

Coin from Leontini. Features head of Apollo on the front and the roaring lion on the reverse. Photo via wildwinds

As we recall from Part I of our Coin Jewelry blog series, the Lydians were the first society to strike coins.  With their ties to the Lydians, the Greeks were therefore among the first to popularize the use of coins.  The earliest of the Greek coins were not inscribed – at most, they had a few inscriptions marking the issuing region.  These plain coins were not in production for terribly long, however.  Greece was soon to set a high-standard for coin design and make fabulous art out of generic currency.

As the use of coins spread throughout Greece, the Greek coins soon began to feature beautiful images of animals, objects, or mythological creatures.  The images alluded to the names cities (a coin from Leontini would be inscribed with a lion) or products for which a particular region was known (a Chios coin would feature a wine jar).  Greek mythology was also represented on these coins, from the Minotaur to the tripod of Apollo.  Not surprisingly, the heads of deities were probably the most popular design, with Zeus and Athena commonly being represented. It’s worth noting, however, that Greek coins rarely depicted full human figures.

Ancient Greek coins are not simply noted for their beauty, but also the meaning and historic value behind their fantastical artwork.  Many of the coins featured miniature representations of “numerous large-scale sculptural and architectural works now lost.

Sicilian coin (310-305) featuring head of Arethusa on the front and a chariot racer on the reverse. Via

Many historians, however, remark that the finest coins were struck in Italy.  In the 5th century, Italian engravers began to sign their work which now featured more complex scenes on the reverse side of coins.  Italian coins were also notable for their historic and political content. Greek coins, in contrast, featured religious and mythological symbolism.  Together, however, Greek and Italian coins set the standard against all other coins were (and continue to be) held. 

One aspect of coinage that has remained the same from ancient times to the modern era is the portrayal of leaders on coins. The death of Alexander the Great popularized this practice.   During his life, Alexander’s name was featured on Greek currency (it was very rare for a living ruler’s image to be featured on currency) and a god (usually Apollo or Zeus) was featured on the reverse side.

After his death, however, it became increasingly common to find coins bearing Alexander’s deified portrait.  These coins were therefore a testament to his legacy and the coins fortified Alexander’s posthumous reputation as an omnipotent ruler. Thus, living kings and rulers were inspired by the coins and their symbolism and wanted to have their own portraits struck on currency.  These deified portraits established their divine rights/associations and bolstered their authority.

This trend spread quickly throughout the ancient world, necessitating an identifying legend on the portrait.  The legends marked the date of the coin, denomination, or signature of the engraver.  These inscriptions also served as an aesthetic enhancement, augmenting the portrait. These legends vary from inscriptions circling the portrait to abbreviations or monograms.

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Coin Jewelry Collection

Our Coin Jewelry Collection features many ancient leaders, from Alexander the Great to Emperor Justinian.  Each piece is cast from an ancient coin and is true to the coin’s detail and origin.  We invite you to explore this collection and discover the history behind each piece.

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)

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Alexander the Great mosaic. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Alexander the Great’s legacy extends beyond his military conquests. He founded roughly 20 cities that bore his name, many of which became major cultural centers and survived into the 21st century.

His chroniclers recorded valuable information about the areas through which he marched and is settlement of Greek colonists resulted in the expansion of Greek culture, aspects of which were still evident in the traditions of the Byzantine Empire in the mid 15th century and beyond). Accordingly, Alexander the Great is often ranked among the most influential people in human history.

Most astonishing, perhaps, is the fact that he accomplished so much before the age of 35.  A precocious youth and the son of the Macedonian King Philip II , Alexander had been privately tutored by Aristotle.  As a teen, his military legacy began to form with a decisive victory at the Battle of Charonea.  He later reinforced this reputation with the conquering of Egypt (where he founded the eponymous city, Alexandria).

Numerous battles, victories, and conquests made Alexander seem invincible, yet the great leader was dead at 33.  Alexander’s cause of death is unknown – some suspect that it was brought on by an excessive drinking bout at a party while others believe that it was a bacterial infection caused by contaminated drinking water.  Nevertheless, the Macedonian was left without their fearless leader or an heir to take his place on the throne.

Alexander the Great Coins

Alexander the great, coin jewelry, ancient coin, gold necklace, greece, ancient greece, gold coin, historyAlexander was posthumously regarded as a god (which led to his image being struck of Greek currency, leading to the popularity of rulers and kings as depicted on coins, as mentioned above).

Around 331, Alexander sought out the Oracle of Ammon at Libya.  After a long journey that included crossing the desert, Alexander reached the Oracle. There, the chief priest welcomed Alexander the Great as the “son of God” and therefore “allowed him access to the Adyton of the temple, a privilege usually reserved exclusively for the priests. Alexander’s entourage was only allowed to enter the front yard and receive their oracles there. Only Alexander received his oracle personally in the Adyton.”

According to some sources, Alexander took this unique opportunity to heart and proclaimed his divinity.  He mandated that subjects worship him as a god and claimed to be a descendant of Herakles.  Alexander also declared that Zeus was his father, an idea previously instilled by his mother, Olympias.  She had confided to her young son she had been impregnated by Zeus and Alexander was thus the product of a virgin birth.

athena, gold coin, coin jewelry, greece, greek gods, goddess, victory, gold jewelryReferring to these godly relations, many coins depict Alexander as Herakles wearing the lion’s mane.  Our Alexander the Great coin (dating between 297-281 BC) features the leader’s diademed head with the horn of Ammon.

On the back of the coin, Athena Nikephoros seated left, resting her left arm on shield set on the ground.  Athena is the Greek goddess of wisdom, justice, and war. A spear is behind her and there is a monogram above the star to inner left.  There are many epithets for Athena and she is depicted as “Athena Nikephoros” on the obverse of this coin; “she who brings victory” (a fitting counterpart to Alexander the Great).

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