Beginning with the invention of coins in Asia Minor during the seventh century BC, coins, apart from being a convenient medium of exchange, have ben an important means of artistic expression. The earliest coins were struck in Lydia and Ionia (modern Western Turkey) from electrum, an early alloy of gold and silver that also occurs naturally.
These archaic coins usually depict a symbol of the relevant city or ruler on the obverse and a crude punch mark on the reverse. They were the world's first true coins, having been made of a scarce metal, were of a consistent weight, and were guaranteed by a government. Soon after coinage was initiated, the legendary King Croesus (561 – 546 BC) of Lydia introduced coins of pure silver and gold. Coinage quickly spread to the island and city-states of Western Greece.
During his reign, Alexander the Great (336 – 323 BC) spread the concept of coinage throughout the lands he conquered. His generals and successors founded the great Hellenistic empires and they introduced realistic portraits as a regular feature of their coinage. Thus were the true images of world rulers recorded for posterity, many of whom are unknown to history except through their coin portraits.
The Roman Empire continued the Hellenistic tradition of realistic portraiture and, in some cases, depicted the progression of an emperor from boyhood through to maturity. The imperial family were also frequently depicted on the coinage. The designs on the reverses of the coins frequently extolled the virtues of the emperor or commemorated his victories. Many public works and architectural achievements such as the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus were depicted.
The rise of the Byzantine Empire in the East, during the reign of Constantine the Great (307 – 337 AD), heralded the beginning of the medieval age. When the Christian Church became a major political force in the Empire and in Byzantine art, God, rather than man, stood at the centre of the universe. With the end of the pagan world of Rome, portraiture became stylised and the images depicted began to relate to Christianity.
Images of Christ, the Virgin, and various saints abound in the coinage of the era but, despite the Christian heritage, political intrigue was as prevalent as in the Roman Empire.
The Judaeo-Christian religions are well represented by coins, as this ancient coinage commenced during the Persian period (c.400 – 333 BC) and was continued by the Hashmoneans. During the Roman period coins were struck extensively and included important silver coins from during the two Jewish revolts against Rome.
The Romans also struck coins to commemorate the subjugation of Judea and many other cities and kings mentioned in the Bible appear on coins.
Coin production in ancient times was a laborious and time consuming process as they were produced by means of the hammering – by hand – of gold, silver, copper, or other precious metal discs, called blanks, with a bronze or iron die.
Italian craftsmen, working in the late 1400's, brought about the first main improvements in coin production as they produced more modern equipment which, in turn, increased production capacity, quality, and beauty of design. More improvements to the minting process were introduced during the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800’s – early 1900’s.
Early on in America, wampum, an Indian form of money comprising mussel shells, beaver pelts and various other commodities, as well as an assortment of coinage from Spain, France and other countries had served as money. With England continually ignoring the colonies’ pleas for coinage, the colonies decided to use both their own coinage, as well as that from other countries.
The first coins to be produced in America were minted by a gentleman named John Hull in the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1616. He was granted authority to mint coins by the General Court of the colony, in order to assist in relieving a general shortage of coinage.
The Spanish Dollar and its fractional parts circulated freely there and were officially sanctioned by various American State and National governments right up until 1857. A Real (pronounced ree-al) was the equivalent of 12 1/2 cents. Two Reals were equal to a quarter Dollar – or $0.25 thus was coined the expression "two bits". Because the Spanish Dollar, and not English coinage, circulated so freely there, the first American government made the unit of currency the Dollar, rather than the Pound.
In 1784, Thomas Jefferson, a member of the House of Representatives, advocated the use of the Dollar and a decimal system of fractional parts. This was eventually adopted by the Confederate Congress.
In 1792, the first mint building was built in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the first coin to be struck there was a silver coin named the half dime that had a value of $0.05. It was equal in value to the nickel that was only introduced a bit later on. Subsequent mints were established in Denver, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Carson City. Currently, the Department of the Treasury operates mints in Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco.
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