By interesting coincidence, the initial time range of coinage coincides closely with that of recorded history of the Greek tradition. As strictly defined, its first appearance occurs during the seventh century BCE. By the last quarter of the sixth century it had developed varied and sophisticated forms. Its first currency was in the Lydian kingdom of eastern Anatolia, reflected in the proverbial association of such Lydian rulers as Gyges (c. 679) and Croesus (560–546) with wealth and possession of gold. Simultaneously or soon afterward, coinage began to appear in the Ionian merchant cities of the eastern Aegean, such as Miletus, Ephesus, and Phocaea. Thereafter the spread of coinage continued to parallel that of Greek culture, and its decorative types are noted as fully representative of Greek art. Thus students of Greek and ancient culture and history follow closely the development of coinage and emerging numismatic evidence. In contrast, coin evidence has been of less relevance to prehistorians; and indeed to Assyriologists, though in recent years it has become clear that monetary evidence of a sort was widely present, if formerly unrecognized, in the earlier Mesopotamian archaeological evidence. Though not strictly coinage, this material, broadly categorized as “ingot currency” or “bulk silver,” can provide, when studied on numismatic lines, economic and even political data.

The classic definition of coin is that provided by Aristotle in Politics 1257a:

"When the community's partners, from whom to import requirements, and to whom to export a surplus, began to extend farther afield, the employment of coinage was devised. For natural commodities are not conveniently transported. Consequently for exchange purposes a medium was agreed to pay and receive, which itself was useful, and had a convenient application in everyday life, such as iron or silver. At first this was measured by size and weight. Eventually an emblem was impressed upon it, so as to free (the users) from the need to measure it. For the emblem (itself) was an indication of the quantity."

Thus, in true coinage the units bear a stamp of authenticity applied by the authority responsible for weight and content. This authority was in most demonstrable cases the state. Suggested ascriptions to merchant guilds, goldsmiths, and other commercial bodies have rarely been substantiated, though these groups may have been responsible for certain punchmarks found on coins. The issue of temple tokens provides a special province of numismatics, going back even to Assyrian times, and later well represented at Palmyra. Thus the emblems struck on coins designate the issuing states, often indicating the place and, inferentially, the date of issue. Explicit dates, however, are almost completely confined to the Parthian, Roman, and Islamic series. Because different states maintained specific standards of weight and composition, these—especially the weight—are also characteristic of the issuers. Serious losses could be incurred by a mint issuing precious metal if the weights were inaccurate; therefore, great care was taken to ensure exact standards.

Almost invariably, throughout the history of coinage—normally a prerogative of the state—coins were produced by striking. A blank, which might be cold or hot, depending on size and the practice of the mint in question, was suitably adjusted for dimensions and weight. It was then placed between two dies of bronze or iron, or, by the Islamic period, of steel. The lower die was often fixed in a wooden block, or placed in a fitted recess of an anvil. The upper die, often a punch held freely in the hand or with tongs, was struck once or repeatedly with a sledge-hammer to produce the impression. The decorative subjects of the coins were engraved on the dies in intaglio, commonly freehand, so that every die was distinctly individual. Only in some later periods, and especially in the Islamic era, is there evidence of mass production of the dies by casting or by hubbing, a process of marking out the design on the die by striking this with a punch bearing the subject in relief, before finishing with tools.

The official production of coins by casting has been employed only sporadically, especially in the early Roman, and in the Indian series. Casting from genuine coins is of course the simplest proceedure for producing coin forgeries, detectable by their “soapy” surface, and prevalence of bubbles. In some periods, ancient counterfeits were also produced by casting, and may occasionally even reflect genuine varieties not currently available (Morton, 1975, p. 163).

Since the anvil- or obverse (sometimes also called the “staple”) die lasted longer in use, it was customary to engrave here the more difficult or sophisticated subjects. During periods of portrait coinage, especially in Hellenistic times, the royal portrait, the most difficult part of the work, was engraved on the obverse die, whence the present-day terminology of “heads” and “tails” for obverse and reverse. The more ephemeral reverse dies lasted only half, or a third, the life of the obverse. Thus we find coins which are “die duplicates” (i.e., obverse and reverse struck from the same pair of individual dies), and others which share only an obverse (or less frequently a reverse) die, and are said to be “die-linked.” It is normally assumed that die-linked coins would be products of the same mint, and close together in time. At the same time, rare instances are known of coindies under the Seleucids, and possibly other Hellenistic kingdoms, being sent to branch mints that are far distant, so that they are linked with issues from totally different series.

From considerable bodies of coinage (coin hoards or museum collections) die-sequences of linked issues can be built up, establishing the chronological series, even when explicit evidence of date is lacking. The rule is now broadly accepted that if in a coin series six examples from each die are present, it may be assumed that every die in the series is known. If however there are some dies represented by fewer than six specimens, allowance must be made for the possibility that several dies are missing, and the sequence consequently incomplete.

The reverse dies (sometimes also called punch dies, or trussels) might for striking, as already noted, be held loose in the hand. The “die-axis,” or relation between the orientation of obverse and reverse types upon the resulting coin, would then be haphazard. Sometimes however it appears that guiding lines were marked on the punch die, and upon the anvil, enabling the worker to line up the two dies consistently, though only, of course, with approximate accuracy. Again, in certain series, especially that of Periclean Athens, square-headed dies appear to have been used, which would fit in one of four possible orientations. In other cases, the dies appear to have been hinged, so that a single, mechanically accurate orientation was achieved. This was usually either upright ↑ ↑, or reversed ↑ ↓; and can be expressed more simply with a single arrow as ↑, or ↓. In some periods, variations in die axis help to distinguish the output of different mints or define the chronology of blocks of coinage.

The earliest coinages, in seventh–sixth-century BCE Lydia and Ionia, had a decorative subject engraved only in the obverse die. The reverses were impressions of simple punches, single or double, and designated as “incuse” squares or rectangles. On some thin Greek coinages of southern Italy, the reverses, cut in relief on the dies, closely followed the outlines of the obverse types, producing what are sometimes called “repoussé” coinages. From the late sixth century onward, however, it became customary to engrave both obverse and reverse dies in intaglio, each producing relief impressions on the resulting coins.

The obverse of a coinage is usually distinguished by its convexity, the reverse being concave, a feature resulting from the blow of the die. However, in Islamic coinages, characteristically thin and flat, it is difficult to determine the “technological” obverse. Consequently cataloguers have resorted to the convention that the face bearing the name of Allah and the declaration of faith (shahādah) should be considered the obverse. Sometimes the true obverse can be detected as a result of a striking-error known as a brockage, in which a struck flan adheres to the punch die; and the next blank receives, instead of the reverse impression, an intaglio version of the obverse, which thus appears on both faces of the succeeding coin (Bacharach and Awad, 1973, pp. 187–188.)

In this way it will be seen that the technology of coinage, here only briefly outlined, provides special facilities for the analysis of the extensive numismatic evidence surviving from ancient and medieval times (cf. Philip Grierson, Numismatics, London and Oxford, 1975, p. 94ff.). The printing of motifs and inscriptions on the metal of coinage preceded by many centuries the introduction of printing on paper. Thus it came to provide perhaps the first historical medium for communication between governments and population. Though full exploitation of this potential for official propaganda was characteristic of the Roman Empire, eastern monarchies such as those of the Parthians and Sasanians used coinage to present an image of the ruler, and to display the ideology and aspirations of the realm.

Coins have several characteristics helpful for conveying historical information. The output of individual mints form sequences, from which the chronology of succeeding issues can be deduced. Again, during ancient times, especially in periods of upheaval, a frequent practice was to bury deposits of coins for security. Such coin hoards often come to light, and constitute time capsules, conveying chronological information. For study purposes, it is important first to determine which are the latest specimens in each hoard. The sequences contained in overlapping hoards then throw special light on the order of successive issues. “Treasury hoards” consist of stocks of fresh and related coins. “Cumulative” and “savings” hoards may cover long periods of accumulation. “Foundation” deposits (as at Persepolis) have a distinctive character. Sporadic coin finds, on the other hand, carefully plotted on the map, throw light on the places of issue when the mints are unknown. “Area finds” recovered in excavation illustrate the economic history of a settlement, and “location finds” contribute to the dating of structures.


COINS. Figure 1. Ingot currency. From Nush-i Jan, Iran, seventh century BCE. Nos. 1–6, “cut-silver” pieces; nos. 7–9, ring-money (shekels); nos. 10–11, large rings (“torques”). (Courtesy David Stronach)

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Even before the destruction of Assyria In 614–612 BCE by the Babylonians and the Medes, “ingot currencies” of several types circulated in the Near East (see figure 1). It is now realized the “silversmiths' hoards” mentioned in old excavation reports were not mere working stocks, but had a monetary character. The oldest forms in circulation were probably “ring money” of several types, especially the so-called “earrings,” also perhaps worn on ringlets of hair. These forms seem characteristic of Babylonia, possibly from the early second millennium. Their weight approximates that of the shekel, but often on standards older and higher than that of the typical Babylonian shekel of 8.40 g. Current later were the rare “slab ingots,” monetary “torques,” and “cake ingots” (German Silberkuchen). These last are known from Zincirli (Luschan, 1943, pp. 119–121) and bear the inscription, incised not impressed, BRRKB BR PNMW, naming a local ruler who held office around 712 BCE. Although this person is the first ruler named on currency, his ingots do not count as coins since the legend was not mass-produced by stamping; and the weights, though some approach the Babylonian mina of 504 g, are very irregular. Cake ingots were also found, with Greek coins among other items, in the Syrian Ras Shamra hoard (Thompson et al., 1973 [hereafter IGCH], 1478; Schaeffer, 1939, pp. 464, 466, 486), and in several hoards from Egypt, notably those of Beni Hasan (IGCH 1651), Damanhur (IGCH 1637), and Mit Rahineh (IGCH 1636).

Another form of ingot currency, found at Nush-i Jan in Iran, are the “bar ingots,” apparently characteristic of the Median Empire in Iran (seventh-sixth century BCE). The thirteen specimens in this find illustrate a weight range of 12, 18, 24, and 100 g, suggesting a shekel standard around 12g, and representing units of 1, 1½, 2, and 8 shekels. As mentioned, a single piece at 8.40 g represents the Babylonian standard, later revived by the reform of Darius the Great. This last unit, the most influential weight standard of the ancient Near East, is hexagesimal, and gives rise to the following correspondences:

60 minas = 1 talent = 30,240.00 g
60 shekels = 1 mina = 504.00 g
1 shekel = 8.40 g
1 zwz (drachma) = ½ shekel = 4.20 g

Bar ingots apparently continued in use under the Achaemenids, inspiring the development of the bent bar and punch-marked coinages of ancient India. Finally, “cut-silver” (Ger., Hacksilber) makes its appearance as a monetary form, which consists of small chunks of silver cut from larger ingots, bars, or slabs to provide small denominations, usually shekels and their halves. The weights of such fragments are very approximately adjusted, small scraps of silver being used to make up units of weight and bulk payments being weighed out on the balance. Because the shekel standard often fluctuated in the system of ingot currency, payments in silver were simply reckoned on the balance, using the standard weights in force at the time. An increase or reduction of the standard—such as for taxation purposes—could be effected by simply increasing or reducing the weights.


COINS. Figure 2. Typical contents of Near East silver hoards. Nos. 1–17, from Kabul, Chaman Huzuri hoard, 1933 (courtesy Kabul Museum, 1962): (1) Kerkyra, (2) Acanthus, (3) Athens (archaic), (4) Athens (c. 430 BCE), (5, 6) Aigina, (7) Chios, (8) Samos, (9) Lesbos, (10) Phaselis, (11) Aspendos, (12) Soloi, (13) Tarsus, (14) Mallus, (15) Kition (King Azbaal), (16) Salamis (Cyprus), (17) Paphos. Nos. 18–19, British Museum (Courtesy of the Trustees): (18) Sidon, (19) Tyre. Note chisel cuts typical of Achaemenid treasury usage. All fifth-fourth century BCE.

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By the end of the sixth century BCE and the beginning of fifth, deposits of bulk silver recorded in Asia east of the Taurus and in Egypt begin to include, together with ingot currency of several kinds, quantities of coined Greek silver, mainly from the areas of silver extraction in Greece (see figure 2). Such regions are the Thraco-Macedonian area; Siphnos, island source of silver used in the Aiginetan “turtle” coinage; and also Athens, a noted producer from the Laurium mines. The mints of Phoenicia, especially Tyre, Sidon, Byblos (Jubayl), and Aradus, probably obtained their bullion by international trade. Hoards of this type are those of Ras Shamra (c. 510–500), the Taranto hoard of 1911 (500–490) with its rare slab ingot, Asyut (c. 475), and the “Jordan 1967” hoard (c. 445). Close dates can be established from the Greek coins present, often heavily chopped or gashed with a chisel—a test for purity of silver probably imposed by the Achaemenid treasuries. The “bulk silver” content probably consisted of pieces retained in circulation from earlier periods. By the second half of the fifth century BCE, the widely distributed hoards of Greek silver in Asia tend to consist entirely of coins. As the study by Daniel Schlumberger (1953) shows, this coinage, received in the Achaemenid Empire by tribute or trade, was widespread in Mesopotamia, Iran, and Afghanistan—a phenomenon illustrated by the hoards of Malayer (discovered 1934), of the Chaman Huzuri at Kabul (discovered 1933), and by C. J. Rich's Tigris Hoard described by G. K. Jenkins (1964).

Although a “silver standard” thus prevailed in the Aegean and in Asia beyond the Taurus, a “gold standard” dominated in the east Anatolian kingdoms of Lydia and Phrygia and the cities of the Aegean coast. The earliest issues were in electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver. These were “dumps” marked with parallel striations on the obverse, and threefold incuse punch on the reverse. Coins with the legend Walweš are ascribed by some to Alyattes, king of Lydia (c. 580), and must come early in the series. Later, respective gold and silver issues of “heavy” standard (about 10.9 g), with types of a confronted lion and bull, are ascribed to Croesus, king of Lydia (560–546). They are followed by issues on a lighter standard with similar emblems, in gold and silver respectively, now increasingly ascribed to Cyrus, king of Persia (550–530), after his conquest of Lydia. These issues, of which the silver denominations reckoned twenty to the gold shekel, weighed respectively 5.4 g and 8 g. Examples were found in the Persepolis foundation deposit toward 511 BCE (Herzfeld, 1938, pp. 413–414; Schmidt, 1957, p. 113). They were quickly followed by the famous “daricsiglos” series, inaugurated no doubt by Darius the Great. The obverse featured a Persian archer, and the reverse had rectangular incuse. It is now known that the sequence of types for both silver and gold was as follows: (1) half-length figure (daric 8 g, siglos 5.4 g); (2) archer shooting with bow (daric 7.87–8.34 g, siglos 5.4 g); (3) archer running with bow and spear, two pellets vertically beneath ear (daric 8.35 g, siglos 5.4 g); (4) archer running with bow and spear, no pellets beneath ear (daric 8.35 g, siglos 5.60 g); and (5) archer running with bow and dagger (daric 8.35 g, siglos 5.60 g). Although the silver coin is known in Greek as the siglos (i.e., shekel), it was in fact the gold daric which was to weigh 8.35 g, representing (with a small discount for seigniorage) the standard of the Babylonian shekel (8.40 g) revived by Darius's monetary reforms. The silver denomination of 5.4 g or 5.6 g was adjusted so that it rated twenty to the daric at a silver/gold ratio of 13:1 or 13.3:1. The small fluctuations in the weight standards of silver and gold gave critical clues to the sequence of the daric issues, otherwise differentiated only by details of posture and ornament. Thus, the famous Persian archer series of daric and siglos, effectively the coinage of the Lydian satrapy at Sardis, is recognized by numismatists as typical of the Achaemenids. It is represented in finds far across the empire, although the siglos was treated as bullion in the eastern satrapies (provinces), where there were still no mints for the manufacture of circular coinage until the advent of Alexander the Great. Reports of the minting of sigloi under the Achaemenids elsewhere in the Near East than Sardis (e.g., in Egypt under Aryandes, in Anatolia, or in Babylon) have not yet been confirmed decisively.

If the gold daric was typical of the Lydian satrapy, in some of the Greek cities and islands coinage of the gold-silver alloy electrum persisted. Sometimes it was the natural metal, but increasingly produced as artificial alloy, which was called by numismatists white gold. Important centers were Phocaea and Mytilene. Because the Achaemenid satrapy of the Hellespont in northwestern Anatolia produced no coinage of its own, however, the electrum staters (units) of Lampsacus and especially of Cyzicus appear to have supplied the need and played an international role in the Black Sea trade. The Cyzicene series, current from the late sixth century until the advent of Alexander, had an extensive repertoire of changing types, always characterized by the accompanying symbol of the tuna fish, the local product. The main stater denomination was adjusted to a standard of 16.05 g, and the hekte (“sixth”) was a common subdivision. The electrum series of Lampsacus bore the winged forepart of a horse and weighed about 15.35 g. Both these coinages bore on the reverse the incuse impression of a plain “mill sail” punch. Toward 400 Lampsacus gave up electrum and produced a distinguished coinage in pure gold with changing obverse types, weighing 8.40 g. This was exactly the standard of the daric and presumably valued against it at par. Important Greek silver coinages of the fifth century BCE circulating in the Near East were the Aiginetan “turtles,” the Athenian “owls,” the large Thraco-Macedonian pieces and issues of the Phoenician cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Aradus, together with Citium (Kition) in Cyprus.

Hellenistic and Parthian Coinage.

Only under Alexander the Great (332–321) was the attempt made to impose a uniform coinage across his territories extending from Macedonia to Iran. The imperial obverse type for gold was a helmeted Athena with her head to right, and the reverse featured a winged Victory holding the stylis, a nautical attachment. Athena's helmet was usually ornamented with a coiled serpent, but on some late varieties there was a eagle-griffin, lion-griffin, or sphinx. Remarkably this series seems to have commenced before any victory had actually been won. The silver had the obverse head of Heracles (Herakles) attired in the lion scalp, and on the reverse the Olympian Zeus is enthroned, holding an eagle on his right hand. Separate issues are distinguished in both series by symbols or monograms or both; and the mints, even when not so differentiated, have often been recognized from die links and engravers' styles. Initially the main mints are thought to have been Amphipolis and Pella. Later, as the conquests advanced, coins were issued in many regional centers. The most easterly mint in Alexander's lifetime appears to have been Ecbatana (Hamadan) in Iran. Further east, mixed coinage, “bulk silver,” and bars continued to circulate.

The obverse type of Alexander's coinage was not originally a portrait but was quickly taken as such. After the conqueror's death and deification, his portrait in various forms appeared on the coins of the Hellenistic monarchies: on that of Antigonus in Phrygia retaining the Heracles; on that of Ptolemy in Egypt wearing the elephant-scalp commemorative of the Indian conquests; and on that of Lysimachus in Thrace with the ram's horns recalling his sojourn in Egypt. This last was a coinage widely diffused and known throughout the Near East.

Ultimately the diademed portrait of the living ruler became the characteristic obverse of the Hellenistic monarchies, producing some of the finest known Greek portraiture. The Attic standard introduced by Alexander, with a tetradrachm of 17.2 g (.6 oz.), became the most common metrology, but it soon slipped marginally to 16.8 g (.6 oz.), coinciding with the long familiar Babylonian shekel at 8.40 g (.30 oz.), of which it thus represented the double.

The Seleucid kingdom (312–88) in its heyday stretched from the Aegean to Central Asia, and the studies of its mints by Edward T. Newell (1938, 1941) still constitute a model of numismatic method. A characteristic reverse type depicted the god Apollo seated on the Delphic omphalos (a rounded stone in his temple regarded as the center of the world) and holding his bow and arrows. Their number, one to three, indicated the mint. Soon the Seleucid eastern territories fell either to the independent Bactrian kingdom or to the advancing Parthians, who pressed forward down the Asian highway from the Caspian to Qumis-Hecatompylos, Rayy (modern Tehran), Hamadan and Seleucia on the Tigris. At first their coinage largely conformed to the Hellenistic pattern, but later the bearded obverse portrait was normally turned to the left. The reverse was soon standardized as the dynastic founder, Arsaces, seated on the omphalos or on a throne and holding his bow and arrows. The royal name was inscribed simply as Arsaces, usually accompanied by titles. Thus the absence of the ruler's personal name causes difficulties of identification. Although the drachma denomination was copiously issued at the cities on the Iranian plateau, the large tetradrachms were struck exclusively at Seleucia on the Tigris, where the practice was established of inscribing dates according to the Seleucid era of 312 and frequently also the exact month. Frontal portraits represent pretenders to the Arsacid throne.

The Greek inscriptions on Parthian coins became increasingly conventionalized, and by the reign of Vologeses I (51–78 CE) they are supplemented by initially abbreviated inscriptions in Parthian indicating the royal names, such as WL for Vologeses, later wlgšy mlk' (“King Vologeses”). These have the advantage of designating the ruler individually.

Besides the main series of Parthian coinage, the subordinate kingdoms that were a feature of the Arsacid dispensation—Persis, Elymais, and Characene—intermittently issued their own coinages. Persis indeed produced autonomous tetradrachms and drachms of the Attic standard soon after the death of Seleucus I In 280 BCE. The series is sometimes styled the “Fratadara” coinage from a reading by Ernst Herzfeld (1938) that is now known to be incorrect but nevertheless provides a useful label for the series. These issues bear the Aramaic inscription frtrk' zy 'lhy', apparently “administrator of” (i.e., appointed by) “the gods,” in opposition, presumably, to those appointed by the Seleucid kings. Rulers named include Bagadata, Oborzus (whwbrz), Artaxerxes ('rthštr), and Autophradates (wtprdt), besides others less clearly decipherable. The usual types show the ruler on obverse, wearing the satrapal tiara, and a fire temple or fire altar on the reverse. Subsequent coinages on a lighter standard continue until the advent of the Sasanian dynasty (see below).

Elymais, the kingdom in the Zagros foothills east of Susa and Ahvaz, also produced a coinage under its founder, Kamnaskires, a title deriving from that of the Achaemenid treasurers residing at Susa. This quaint designation long remained the throne name of the Elymaean kings. Soon after the start of the Christian era, Greek types and inscriptions gave way to “Oriental” portraits and legends in a local form of Aramaic, naming as kings Phraates, Orodes (wrwd), and Chosroes. At the head of the Persian Gulf again lay Characene, a state founded by a chief named Hyspaosines (c. 125), who once more struck large silver coins with Greek legends, beardless portraits, and Heracles on the reverse. His successors Apodakos, Tiraios, and Artabazos continued the tradition until 48–47 BCE. Under later rulers there was progressive debasement of the silver denominations, and here too after about 143 CE, Greek was replaced by a variety of the Aramaic alphabet.


COINS. Figure 3. Early Sasanian coins. Coins 3, 12, and 15 are gold; otherwise all are silver. No. 1, Shapur (207 CE), king of Persis. Nos. 2–3, Ardashir I (208–223–241 CE) with successive crowns as king of Persis; no. 4 (223 CE) after defeat of Artabanus V; no. 5 (226 CE) with mural crown after capture of Ctesiphon; no. 6, with definitive crown as Shahanshah, after 228 CE; no. 7, with prince Shapur as heir. No. 8, Shapur I (241–272 CE) with eagle crown as successor in accession year; nos. 9–10, Shapur I with plain crown and crown with cheek-piece. No. 11, Ohrmazd I (272–273 CE). No. 12, Vahram I (273–276 CE). No. 13, Vahram II (276–293 CE). No. 14, Vahram III (293 CE). No. 15, Narseh (293–302 CE). British Museum (Courtesy of the Trustees).

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COINS. Figure 4. Early Sasanian drachmae with mint names. No. 1, Vahram I (273–276 CE), mint, rev. above fire altar, Skst'n (for Sistan). No. 2, Vahram II (276–293 CE), with consort, and to right, hier; mint, rev. above fire altar, Ldy for Rayy. No. 3, Ohrmazd II (302–309 CE); mint, rev. on fire altar, Ldy for Rayy. Enlarged about 2x. Note ornate individual crowns of kings. No. 1, Indian National Museum, Parieck Collection. Nos. 2–3, British Museum (Courtesy of the Trustees).

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Sasanian Dynasty

(223–631 CE). In 223 CE Ardashir I, the local prince of Persis, rebelled against his Parthian overlords, defeated Artabanus V (Ardavan V, sometimes also numbered Artabanus IV), the last Arsacid king, and embarked on the consolidation of Iran. Rigorous reforms were introduced in every theater. Military, administrative, and religious centralization were accompanied by a complete renovation of the coinage. The debased Parthian silver was replaced by a brilliant series in gold and fine silver respectively, the former commemorative, the latter constituting henceforth the principal currency (see figure 3). The weight standard of the silver at 4.1 g, was effectively that of the Attic drachma. The characteristic types showed the royal bust on the obverse now turned toward the right and identified by a specific individual crown. On the reverse was the fire altar symbolic of the dynasty's Zoroastrian faith. This image in the following reigns was flanked by two “guardians.” In the initial period the Pahlavi inscriptions were often blundered because the engravers were not literate. The legends were intended to give on the obverse the name and titles of the ruler with the formula “Mazda-worshiping lord N., king (of kings) of Iran (and non-Iran, whose descent is from the gods),” and on the reverse “fire of N.” is written with reference to the royal sacred fires established for every ruler at his accession. With the passage of generations the individual crowns become increasingly complex, occasional mint names appear on the reverses and are eventually standardized in abbreviated form (see figure 4). By the reign of Kavad (488–531 CE), such abbreviations regularly appear to the right of the fire altar, and the regnal date of the issue is indicated in words on the left. The script evolves from the “epigraphic Pahlavi” with its separate characters to the cursive “Book Pahlavi” forms. The volume of coinage was greatly increased under Khusrau I Anushirvan (531–579), revenue thereafter being levied in cash rather than kind. The epic wars against Byzantium waged by Khusrau II Parvez (592–628) demanded vast output of coinage, no doubt often struck from the enormous booty. The Sasanian drachma was by this time a flat and thin module with widely spread flan. It provided the pattern not only for certain Byzantine silver coinages but especially for the dirhams of Islam.

Islamic Coinages.

When In 637 the Muslim Arab armies overran Syria and Mesopotamia, they entered a world of two distinct currency systems. That of the Byzantine Empire, based on gold and bronze, functioned farther to the west. That of Sasanian Iran, consisting chiefly of silver, was active to the east. At first the huge quantities of coinage available as tribute or booty sufficed for current needs. Yet already there was being laid the foundation of a coinage system in all three metals. As the Arab armies advanced through Iran, drachmae of the Sasanian pattern continued in issue. Prototypes were naturally coins of the last Sasanian king, Yazdgird III (632–651), dated to regnal year 20, his last, but with slight variations of detail and decoration. For some decades dating continued in Yazdgird's era. The numerous issues of Khusrau II were also imitated and soon began to predominate. Typically, short inscriptions in Arabic appear in the second quarter of the obverse margin, especially bi-ismi'llāh (“in the name of Allah”) and jayyid (“excellent”). The names of the Arab governors, replacing the name of Khusrau, came to be written in Pahlavi in front of the conventionalized portrait. Eventually around AH 60/679–80 CE, the Muslim Hijrah reckoning was introduced for the dates. With the transfer of the caliphal capital to Damascus by the Umayyads, under the caliph ῾Abd al-Malik, the quest began for a definitive Islamic coinage. In gold, the Byzantine “three emperors” type of Heraclius was progressively modified by elimination of the crosses: the “cross on steps” and those on the crowns. Finally, the Arabic declaration of faith appears in the reverse margin. A similar type in silver with the central figure in an attitude of prayer was issued for Bishr ibn Marwan at al-Kufah (Aramaic ῾Aqula) and Basra, respectively In 73/692–93 and 75/694–95. Next, the “standing caliph” type appears on the obverse of gold issues for 76/695–96 and on silver from Damascus dated 75/694–95 (cf. Walker, 1956). A remarkable type of 72/691–92 from Sistan has the Muslim Declaration of Faith in Middle Persian written in the Pahlavi script.

The definitive Islamic typology (the “reformed coinage”) appears In 77/696–97 for gold and In 79/698–99 for silver. Figural representations are now banned. The types are exclusively inscriptional, obverses bearing simply the Declaration of Faith (shahādah) in the central area and the “Prophetic Mission” (Qur'an 9:33) in the margin. The reverse has the Surat al-Ikhlas (Qur'an 112:1–3) in the central area. These words—“Allah is one, Allah is eternal, He did not beget, nor was He begotten”—were a formula said to have been inscribed on the banners of armies marching to fight the Byzantines. In the reverse margin is the date-legend with the numeral written in words. On gold, mint names are uncommon. It is assumed that the bulk of coinage was issued at Damascus, although the mint names Ifriqiyah (Africa), al-Andalus (Spain), and Ma῾dan Amir al-Mu'minin bi al-Ḥijaz (“Mine of the Caliph in the Hijaz”) are sometimes found. On silver, mint names appear for more than sixty-six provincial and district centers, constituting the main interest of the series. On the Umayyad gold and silver coinage, remarkably no name of any ruler is found. The extensive copper coinage, issued from innumerable local municipalities, at first has only religious formulae. Mint names, names of governors, and ultimately dates progressively make their appearance. Although of humdrum appearance, Islamic copper coinage, which every excavated site introduces in new varieties, has probably the greatest research potential in Near Eastern numismatics. Local knowledge is required to attribute the many “mintless” varieties.

The classically angular Arabic script on these early Islamic coins is designated “Kufic.” The diacritical points distinguishing letters of similar form are sparingly found, but they do occur sporadically. Although evolving in detail, forms of the angular script continued until the later twelfth century CE when they were replaced by the joined and flowing “Naskhi” style. Coins of the ῾Abbasid dynasty, who ousted the Umayyads In 132/749–50, are distinguished from earlier issues chiefly by the replacement in the reverse legend of the Surat al-Ikhlaṣ by the words “Muhammad is the Prophet of Allāh.” In 146/763–64, the official name of the new ῾Abbasid capital—Baghdad—appeared as Madinat es-Salam (“the city of peace”) in the margin. The second city of the ῾Abbasids was Rayy, the ancient predecessor of Tehran, under the designation al-Muhammadiyah. Although the ῾Abbasid gold dinars continued the Umayyad form largely unchanged, the dirhams evolved a slender and elongated Kufic script, which persisted until after the death of Harun al-Rashid In 170–193/786–809. Gradually the brief names of officials begin to appear on the coinage: mint supervisors, princes, ministers, governors, and eventually, the caliph himself with full titles. It was only in the tenth century CE with the increasing fragmentation of caliphal power that local princes bearing the title amir became effectively sovereign. They issued coinage, often even gold, in their own names, but still always acknowledging in the legends the ῾Abbasid caliph as overlord. Such rulers were the Ṣaffarids and Ghaznavids in Afghanistan; the Samanids and Qarakhanids in Central Asia; the Buyids, Zaydids, and Musafirids in Iran; and the Hamdanids and Marwanids in Syria and Mesopotamia. Finally, the Turkish dynasty of the Great Seljuqs overshadowed all lesser rivals, and from their capital at Isfahan established perhaps the most stable dispensation, dominating Asian Islam from 429/1038 until 590/1194. During this last phase a “silver famine,” variously explained, overtook the treasuries of Islam, coinage seemingly being confined to gold and some copper. This interlude as a whole provides material of striking variety, issued by a galaxy of local mints, and documenting every stage of the complex history. After the brief interlude of the Khwarazmshahs, ῾Ala ad-Din Tekish (567–596/1172–1200), and his son ῾Ala al-Din Muhammad b. Tekish (596/617–1200–1220), the Mongol avalanche swept away the ῾Abbasid caliphate and its satellites. Their onslaught utterly destroyed the old world of Islam and introduced in due course the late medieval coinage of the Near East with its Naskhi script and innovative designs.

[See also Weights and Measures. In addition many of the ruling dynasties and individual sites mentioned are the subject of independent entries.]


  • Balmuth, Miriam S. “The Monetary Forerunners of Coinage in Phoenicia and Palestine.” In International Numismatic Convention, Jerusalem, 17–31 December 1963, pp. 25–32. Tel Aviv, 1967.
  • Balmuth, Miriam S. “Origins of Coinage.” In A Survey of Numismatic Research, 1966–1971, vol. 1, Ancient Numismatics, edited by Paul Naster et al., pp. 27–35. New York, 1973.
  • Balmuth, Miriam S. “Jewellers' Hoards and the Development of Early Coinage.” In Actes du 8ème congrès international de numismatique, New York–Washington, September 1973, edited by Herbert A. Cahn and Georges Le Rider, pp. 27–30. Paris and Basel, 1976.
  • Bivar, A. D. H. “A Hoard of Ingot-Currency of the Median Period, from Nūsh-i Jān, near Malayir.” Iran 9 (1971): 97–111.
    Illustrates archaeological evidence for the context of bar-ingots
  • Bivar, A. D. H. “Bent Bars and Straight Bars: An Appendix to the Mir Zakah Hoard.” Studia Iranica 11 (1982): 49–60.
  • Bivar, A. D. H. “Achaemenid Coins, Weights, and Measures.” In The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 2, The Median and Achaemenian Periods, edited by Ilya Gershevitch, pp. 610–625. Cambridge, 1983.
  • Carradice, Ian. “The ‘Regal’ Coinage of the Persian Empire.” In Coinage and Administration in the Athenian and Persian Empires: The Ninth Oxford Symposium on Coinage and Monetary History, edited by Ian Carradice, pp. 73–95. British Archaeological Reports, International Series, no. 343. Oxford, 1987.
  • Herzfeld, Ernst. “Notes on the Achaemenid Coinage and Sasanian Mint-Names.” In Transactions of the International Numismatic Congress Organized and Held in London by the Royal Numismatic Society, June 30–July 3, 1936, on the Occasion of Its Centenary, edited by J. W. Allan et al., pp. 413–426. London, 1938.
    First publication of the Persepolis foundation deposit, and the pioneer use of Sasanian bullae to elucidate the mint signatures on coins
  • Jenkins, G. K. “Coins from the Collection of C. J. Rich.” British Museum Quarterly 28 (1964): 88–95.
    Literary records of a vast find of Greek coins and ingot currency on the Tigris bank not far from Baghdad
  • Kraay, Colin M., and Max Hirmer. Greek Coins. London, 1966.
    Superbly illustrated survey of Greek coinage
  • Kraay, Colin M., and P. R. S. Moorey. “Two Fifth-Century Hoards from the Near East.” Revue Numismatique 10 (1968): 181–235.
    A “Jordan hoard” and a “Syrian hoard” of mixed Greek coins and scrap silver
  • Kraay, Colin M. Archaic and Classical Greek Coins. London, 1976.
  • Kraay, Colin M., and P. R. S. Moorey. “A Black Sea Hoard of the Late Fifth Century B. C.” Numismatic Chronicle 141 (1981): 1–19.
  • Luschan, Felix von. Die Kleinfunde von Sendschrift (Ausgrabungen in Sendschirli V). Berlin, 1943, pp. 119–121.
  • Powell, Marvin A. “A Contribution to the History of Money in Mesopotamia Prior to the Invention of Coinage.” In Festschrift Lubor Matouš, edited by Blahoslav Hruška and Geza Komoróczy, pp. 211–243. Budapest, 1978.
    Survey of cuneiform texts illustrating the mechanism of ingot currency and confirming numismatic evidence that weight denominations were only approximately adjusted
  • Price, Martin, and Nancy Waggoner. Archaic Greek Coinage: The Asyut Hoard. London, 1975.
    The latest and most complete publication of a large hoard of Greek silver coins from Egypt, buried c. 475 BCE
  • Reade, Julian. “A Hoard of Silver Currency from Achaemenid Babylon.” Iran 24 (1986): 79–87.
  • Robinson, E. S. G. “A ‘Silversmith's Hoard’ from Mesopotamia.” Iraq 12 (1950): 44–51.
  • Robinson, E. S. G. “The Beginnings of Achaemenid Coinage.” Numismatic Chronicle 18 (1958): 187–193.
    Fundamental breakthrough in elucidation of the sequence and weight-standards of the Achaemenid coinage of Sardis
  • Schaeffer, Claude F.-A. “Une trouvaille de monnaies archaïques grecques à Ras Shamra.” In Mélanges syriens offerts à M. R. Dussaud, vol. 1, pp. 461–487. Bibliothèque Archéologique et Historique, vol. 30. Paris, 1939.
  • Schlumberger, Daniel. “L'argent grec dans l'empire achéménide.” In Trésors monétaires d'Afghanistan, by Raoul Curiel and Daniel Schlumberger, pp. 3–64. Mémoires de la Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan, 14. Paris, 1953.
    Publication of the Tchaman-i Hazouri (Kabul) hoard of fifth-fourth century Greek coins and bent bars. Also describes the Malayer hoard of fifth-century Greek coins
  • Schmidt, Erich F. Persepolis II. Chicago, 1957, pp. 113, pl. 84.
  • Sellwood, David. “Parthian Coins” and “Minor States in Southern Iran.” In The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 3.1, The Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian Periods, edited by Ehsan Yarshater, pp. 279–314. Cambridge, 1983.
    Includes excellent illustrations. The second article covers the coinage of Persis, Elymais, and Characene
  • Thompson, Margaret, et al. An Inventory of Greek Coin Hoards. (IGCH). New York, 1973.

Ingot Currency and Archaic Greek Coinage

Hellenistic and Parthian Coinage

  • Ingholt, Harald, et al. Recueil des tessères de Palmyre. Bibliothèque Archéologique et Historique, vol. 58. Paris, 1955.
    Catalogue of Palmyrene temple tokens (tesserae)
  • Jenkins, G. K. “Coin Hoards from Pasargadae.” Iran 3 (1965): 41–52.
    Two hoards of Alexander-coinage and of Seleucus
  • Le Rider, Georges. Suse sous les Séleucides et les Parthes: Les trouvailles monétaires et l'histoire de la ville. Paris, 1965.
  • Mørkholm, Otto. Early Hellenistic Coinage: From the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamea, 336–186 B.C. Cambridge, 1991.
  • Newell, Edward T. Royal Greek Portrait Coins. New York, 1937.
    A most useful general survey
  • Newell, Edward T. The Coinage of the Eastern Seleucid Mints, from Seleucus I to Antiochus III. New York, 1938.
    Fundamental analysis of the eastern Seleucid coinage and mint-structure, still indispensable today. Covers the mints of Seleucia on the Tigris, Ecbatana, Susa, and Bactria
  • Newell, Edward T. The Coinage of the Western Seleucid Mints, from Seleucus I to Antiochus III. New York, 1941.
  • Price, Martin Jessop. The Coinage in the Name of Alexander the Great and Philip Arrhidaeus. 2 vols. Zurich and London, 1991.
  • Sellwood, David. An Introduction to the Coinage of Parthia. 2d ed. London, 1980.
    Very serviceable description of Parthian coinage, with tables for the conversion of Seleucid and Parthian dates (pp. 11–13)

Sasanian and Early Islamic Coinage

  • Bacharach, Jere L., and H. A. Awad. “The Problem of Obverse and Reverse in Islamic Numismatics.” Numismatic Chronicle (1973): 183–191.
  • Broome, Michael. A Handbook of Islamic Coins. London, 1985.
  • Göbl, Robert. Sasanian Numismatics. Braunschweig, 1971.
    Careful description of the coinage
  • Göbl, Robert. “Sasanian Coins.” In The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 3.1, The Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian Periods, edited by Ehsan Yarshater, pp. 322–338. Cambridge, 1983.
  • Gyselen, Rika. “Trésor de monnaies sasanides trouvé à Suse.” Cahiers de la Délégation Archéologique Française en Iran 7 (1977): 61–74.
  • Gyselen, Rika. “Un trésor iranien de monnaies sasanides.” Revue Numismatique 23 (1981): 133–141.
  • Gyselen, Rika, and Ludvik Kalus. Deux trésors monétaires des premiers temps de l'Islam. Paris, 1983.
    Mixed hoards of Sasanian and early Islamic coins from Syria, with a valuable appendix on the Sasanian mint signatures
  • Gyselen, Rika. “Un trésor de monnaies sasanides tardives.” Revue Numismatique 32 (1990): 212–231.
  • Herzfeld, Ernst. “Notes on the Achaemenid Coinage and Sasanian Mint-Names.” In Transactions of the International Numismatic Congress Organized and Held in London by the Royal Numismatic Society, June 30–July 3, 1936, on the Occasion of Its Centenary, edited by J. W. Allan et al., pp. 413–426. London, 1938.
  • Malek, Hodge Mehdi. “A Seventh-Century Hoard of Sasanian Drachms.” Iran 31 (1993): 77–93.
    Up-to-date treatment of a hoard of 296 drachmae of Khusrau II acquired by a collector from Quetta
  • Malek, Hodge Mehdi. “A Survey of Research on Sasanian Numismatics.” Numismatic Chronicle 153 (1993): 227–269.
    Valuable survey with a comprehensive bibliography of 292 publications in the field (from which the present selection may be supplemented)
  • Mochiri, Malek Iradj. “A Pahlavi Forerunner of the Umayyad Reformed Coinage.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1981): 168–172.
    Remarkable Arab-Sasanian issue from Sīstān, dated 72/691–692, rendering the Muslim declaration of faith in Middle Persian, written in the Pahlavi script
  • Mochiri, Malek Iradj. “A Sasanian-Style Coin of Yazīd b. Mu῾āwiya.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1982): 137–141.
    Pseudo-Sasanian drachma, attesting in Pahlavi script “Year 1” of an unspecified ruler Yazīd
  • Morton, A. H. “An Islamic Hoard of Forged Dirhams.” Numismatic Chronicle (1975): 155–168.
  • Paruck, F. D. J. Sāsānian Coins. Bombay, 1924.
    Comprehensive work for its day, illustrating a wide range of coinage; now increasingly out of date
  • Plant, Richard J. Arabic Coins and How to Read Them. 2d ed. London, 1980.
    Useful introduction to the inscriptions on early Islamic coins
  • Simon, H. “Die sāsānidischen Münzen des Fundes von Babylon: Ein Teil des bei Koldeweys Ausgrabungen im Jahre 1900 gefunden Münzschatzes.” In Varia 1976, pp. 149–337. Acta Iranica, vol. 12. Tehran, 1977.
  • Walker, John. Catalogue of Muhammadan Coins in the British Museum, vol. 1, Arab-Sassanian Coins. London, 1941.
    Fundamental study of this series, now somewhat dated. The arrangement by governors' names, rather than by mints, sometimes seems confusing since tenures of office were interrupted. Also the author's transliteration of Pahlavi legends, though logical, was idiosyncratic. Despite such minor shortcomings, this work is essential for serious research
  • Walker, John. Catalogue of Muhammadan Coins in the British Museum, vol. 2, A Catalogue of the Arab-Byzantine and Post-Reform Umaiyad Coins. London, 1956.
    Indispensable research work for early Islamic coinage, though considerably supplemented in subsequent publications
  • Walker, John. “Some New Arab-Sassanian Coins.” Numismatic Chronicle 12 (1956): 106–110.
    Four notable additions to the repertoire of Arab-Sasanian coinage, including the astonishing Arab-Hephthalite issue of Yazīd b. al-Muhallab from Guzgān

A. D. H. Bivar