Why collect ancient coins?
"Ancient coins mirror the ancient world, indicate the progress of its art, perpetuate the fame of noble generations, and keep alive the memory of great men.”
(The Beauty and Lore of Coins, Clain-Stefanelli, 1974)
Ancient coins offer us a tangible and immediate connection to the distant past. Our sacred relationship with coins has lasted for millennia: to this day we still throw them into pools of water, place them in the foundations of new buildings, hide them in food and give them as gifts. Their invention in the 6th century BC represents a crucial spark in man’s intellectual awakening and it has been said that “Wherever man thinks, money lives.” Coins were invented as a convenient and mass-produced means of financial exchange but the ancients quickly turned them into so much more, treating these small lumps of metal as a canvas on which to showcase the fundamental ideals of their culture. The Greeks pushed the medium to its artistic limits, approaching their coins as miniature sculptures and attaining levels of beauty and sophistication never seen before or since. The Romans appreciated the importance of coinage in disseminating their unique cultural brand. Coins were the mass media of the ancient world, spreading the concepts of ‘Romanitas’ from one end of the Mediterranean to the other and beyond. Through coins, ancient civilisations hoped to expand their sphere of influence as far as possible geographically - little did they know they would also go on to traverse time itself, continuing to celebrate and add to the prestige of great names two thousand years later.
An understandable popular assumption is that all ancient coins must be incredibly rare or prohibitively expensive. After all, not many people have ever owned a handcrafted piece of ancient art. Most are pleasantly surprised to learn then that neither is necessarily the case. Ancient coins were struck in their millions, across numerous continents for roughly a thousand years. Unless they were melted down, most ancient coins were accidentally lost or, in a world before banking, intentionally buried in hoards for safekeeping. Others were sent to the seabed in shipwrecks or covered over by fires and disaster. People have been unearthing ancient coins, often in vast numbers and in the most surprising places, for centuries and there are untold amounts still to be discovered. So many ancient coins survive that any lover of history hoping to bring the classical world to life with a collection of its money can see it as a perfectly realistic goal.
The building of a coin collection has long been a joyful project through which parents and children have bonded, not only encouraging a young person to develop their historical knowledge and intellectual curiosity but also honing their virtues of patience, diligence and humility. Collecting ancients promotes these qualities as well as providing a complete immersion in the endlessly fascinating mythos of the classical world. The coinage of the ancients is in many ways a visual manifest through the essential components of western civilisation, diarising the evolution of art, language, architecture, conflict and government. It is no exaggeration to say that a dedicated ancient coin collector might acquire in the pursuit of the hobby their own ‘classical education’. Before long they will be able to read a coin’s Greek or Latin legends, identify its gods and goddesses, recount the myths it portrays, locate the cities and provinces where it was struck and of course, recognise the faces of any number of kings and emperors stamped on its surface as if they were old friends.
Even as we come to the end of our long human relationship with coins, they remain remarkable educational tools. Unlike many aspects of the ancient world that seem so confusing and alien to us, coins as an idea need little explanation. Holding an ancient coin in your palm can be a profound experience and one that has ignited in many young minds a lifelong passion for history. In a very real way, coins are time capsules presenting to us faces, buildings, monuments, beliefs and triumphs of a world long gone. Even a common ancient coin gives you the chance to look down at the face of an all-powerful ruler and read the words he proclaimed to his people, all the while knowing the portrait was hand-cut by a master of his ancient craft, a sculptor who “well those passions read”. Collectors ensure his art continues to be widely celebrated, despite coins quickly losing their relevance to modern life. Enjoying one of the world’s oldest humanistic hobbies they build on the study of countless generations of the past, preserving the knowledge of this ancient art for the generations of the future.