Icons & Ideals: Coins of the Greek City States

February 2016 to February 2017

The coins minted by Greek city-states in the Archaic and Classical periods bore distinct identifying iconography. These images drew on the Greeks’ shared cultural background, most recognisably a Pantheon of distinctly Hellenic gods and goddesses. But a city-state could also articulate its autonomy by including symbols such as local agricultural produce, myths and legends, and the built environment.

Symbols relating to deities such as Athena, Zeus, Apollo or Hera appear on numerous Greek coins, as these gods and goddesses were worshipped by Greeks across the Mediterranean. These cultural similarities also extended into areas of language, agriculture, and economics, including a shared weight-standard based on the drachma (pronounced drak-mah). Many Greek cities were colonies of other city-states and these ancient ties can be seen in the use of shared symbols on their coinage.

Despite these shared cultural symbols, each city-state was also able to draw on local icons to express their individual identity. These symbols could be associated with local mythology and heroes, agricultural produce, patron deities, and might also include the name of the city in Greek characters. The iconography of coins is both geographically and symbolically diverse, making them a perfect medium for exploring the many different city-states that comprised the early Greek world.

Curated by Mr James Donaldson and Ms Alice O'Brien