Coins of Ancient Empires

Part of the Gold exhibition.

Coins of Ancient Empires

Large coins used in long-distance trade bore simple designs so that merchants all over the empire would recognize them. The Persian Empire's standard gold coin was the daric, named after Darius the Great (521-486 BC). Alexander the Great (336-323 BC) established coinage that furthered his conquest of Persia and the movement of gold into Europe. Roman Emperor Augustus (31 BC-AD 14) issued the aureus, spurring the expansion of the Roman economy.

Two ancient gold coins, one stamped with an image of two humans.
Solidus coin Heraclius and son Heraclius Constantine Constantinople; AD 614-641 American Museum of Natural History, Anthropology 75.0/7694
© AMNH / Craig Chesek

Byzantine and Early Christian Coins

Constantine the Great (AD 306-337) replaced the Roman aureus with the solidus, which gradually developed an appearance of its own, with standardized ruler portraits and Christian symbols added to pagan subjects. As other kingdoms were converted to Christianity, their coinage changed as well.

From AD 100-800, the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum was a destination for many merchants and travelers.

World's Earliest Coins

Early Chinese money developed from cowrie shells. Gilded bronze shell-shaped coins were in use around 1100 BC for ceremonial or government purposes. True coins, made of electrum--a mineral combining gold and at least 20 percent silver--were first minted in the ancient kingdoms of Lydia and Ionia. Around 560-546 BC, the Lydians learned to separate the gold from the silver in electrum and began to mint gold coins.

The stater was an ancient coin of Greek or Lydian origin, in use from 600 BC to AD 50.

Nine ancient gold coins.
Group of various Byzantine and Islamic coins
© AMNH / Craig Chesek

Medieval Europe, Islam and India

During the 1500s, gold currencies came into wide use in Europe. The promise of gold led Spanish explorers to conquer the Aztec and Incan civilizations of the New World.

From the 600s to the 1600s, Islamic empires spread from Arabia to the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey, Asia and Europe. Byzantine coinage gave way to Islamic designs that replaced human images with words from the Qur'an. Islam influenced Indian coinage during the Persian Mughal empire.