Coins can tell us about religion, politics, history, economics and cultural exchange, and even how the ancient world has continued to attract attention long after the fall of the societies that produced them.   

Auckland War Memorial Museum houses a significant collection of ancient Greek and Roman coinage as part of its wider Numismatics collection. This collection covers an incredibly broad sweep of the classical world, from Roman occupied Britain to the Greek influenced kingdoms of Northern India. It also covers around 1000 years of numismatic history, from some of the earliest coinage around the 5th-century BCE, to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th-century CE

For such small objects these coins are treasure troves of information that illuminate the context of life in ancient Greece and Rome. 

Blog by Alex Lewis, Numismatics Summer Student 2023/4


Roman religion was pluralistic, and during the Julio-Claudian period was increasingly controlled by the emperor and the state. Temples and festivals were dedicated to particular gods that were seen as favouring an emperor’s reign or actions. The concept of ‘Augustan Peace’ was created by Claudius’s successor Augustus during his rise to power. Roman coinage frequently depicts gods alongside the emperor as a way of aligning that emperor with the power or attributes of that god.

Roman coin, Auckland War Memorial Museum Numismatics Collection

On the obverse side of this coin is a bust of Claudius, wearing the laurel wreath of victory. Surrounding him is an inscription listing the various titles given to the emperor. The 'P M' on the inscription stands for Pontifex Maximus, or high priest, one of the many titles given to Roman emperors. By aligning the emperor with traditional Roman religion, they could utilise the connection between religion and the state that had been a foundation of the Roman Republic. Because of the number of gods worshipped in Roman society, certain attributes were depicted with each god to make them recognisable, although some attributes overlapped. The reverse of this coin depicts Pax, the personification of peace, whose worship was popularised by the first Roman emperor Augustus to emphasise the concept of the ‘Augustan Peace’ that his rule had created. This is indicated by the inscription “Paci Augustae” or ‘To the Augustan Peace’. The caduceus held by Pax is usually a symbol of Mercury, but is also aligned with Pax, appearing in art of her Greek counterpart Eirene. The snake depicted by her feet represents well-being or health. 



This coin embodies the importance of Roman coinage in Roman economics and signifies the economic shifts that impacted the Roman Empire. Coinage first arose to standardise the weight and purity of metal used as currency and use the authority of the minting state as a guarantee. However, during the reign of the first emperors in the 1st-century CE the emperors authorised the shaving of small amounts of metal off newly minted coinage or adding a small amount of an alloy to pure gold or silver, meaning the actual value of the metal in the coins was smaller than the face value given to each coin. As these coins were released into the market, people would notice the difference in weight and purity, and the real value of the currency would decline. This process, known as devaluing or debasing, would continue to systematically occur throughout the history of the Roman Empire.

Currency was often devalued in times of economic strain such as to pay for large and expensive wars. Eventually, this process would require the complete overhaul of the currency system. An example of ‘debased’ coinage is this mid-3rd century CE bronze coin depicting the emperor Gallienus. This denomination, known as the ‘radiate’ because it depicted the emperor in a crown of radiating spikes, was originally made of pure silver when it was introduced in 215 CE. Over around 40 years of debasement, it became gradually became less and less pure until they were entirely minted in bronze.

Roman coin, Auckland War Memorial Museum Numismatics Collection





This is a silver drachma, minted in Roman Alexandria by the emperor Claudius, around 40 CE. The obverse depicts a portrait of Claudius, while the reverse depicts a standing woman with the remains of a Greek inscription, reading MESSA-. This coin is unique and can tell a lot about the politics and history of the time because it has been very literally defaced. The head and upper body of the woman has been destroyed by hammer blows. This is consistent with the practice of damnatio memoriae, which roughly translates to ‘condemnation of memory’. It involved the removal of all mentions of a high-profile figure like an emperor from the public record, including destroying or defacing their statues and chiseling their name from inscriptions. Even mentioning their name in public could be a punishable offence. This was usually done for a crime against the Emperor or the Imperial Cult. The inscription indicates that the coin depicts Messalina, Claudius’s first wife. She was executed by her husband after she was accused of infidelity, including marrying another man while he was away from Rome. The senate then ordered the damnatio memoriae, however the effort was not entirely successful as some depictions of her remain.

It is unclear what the circumstances were in which the coin was defaced. Possibly, the owner wanted to retain the coins value without returning it to be melted down or removed from circulation. Whatever the case is, it shows that damnatio memoriae was taken seriously enough that a coin in Roman Egypt could be impacted by Messalina’s downfall. It is a fascinating example of what a single object can tell us about the ancient world.

Roman coin, Auckland War Memorial Museum Numismatics Collection



The ancient Greek and Roman world was not homogenous, and influences from other cultures went both ways. This Parthian silver of the 1st-century BCE is a clear indication of the influence of ancient Greek language and culture on those areas on the edges of the ancient world. Parthia, a small area in the north of modern-day Afghanistan, was one of those ‘Hellenised’ kingdoms. It was conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th-century BCE and controlled by Greek speaking dynasties for the next three centuries. The coin depicts a portrait of an unknown ruler on the obverse, while the reverse depicts a common image for Parthian coinage, the king and founder of the dynasty Arsaces, seated on a throne firing a bow. He is surrounded by a square Greek inscription which lists the King's titles and honorifics. This kingdom is one of a series of Greek influenced kingdoms in Persia, some of which stretched over the Hindu Kush into Northern India. Additionally, these kingdoms had links to China through the silk road, as well as Egypt and Mesopotamia.  

Parthian coin, Auckland War Memorial Museum Numismatics Collection




Ancient coins were also used to indicate how a particular state wished to identify itself. As regular, stamped coinage began to emerge in the city-states of ancient Greece, each authority minted coinage with symbols associated with those states’ founding, myths associated with that place, or references to an area's primary trade. For example, Athenian coins depict the owl, a symbol of Athena, the city's patron goddess. This drachma was minted on the island of Tenedos, located off the coast of modern-day Turkey in the 2nd-century BCE The obverse depicts a Janiform, or two faces on one head, of a man and a woman, most likely Zeus and Hera. 

Greek coin, Auckland War Memorial Museum Numismatics Collection

The reverse depicts a double-headed axe, a symbol that appears on coins from Tenedos as early as the 5th-century BCE. It is commonly believed to be a religious symbol associated with a particular cult of Apollo or Dionysus worshipped in the area. Coinage was a key element of the growing economic links between Greek city-states, and their trade with the broader Mediterranean region. By depicting a state’s key identifiers, these coins were easily recognisable and a good way of easily portraying what made each state unique. They were often reminders of links to the mythical past or a close relationship to a particular god. This distinctive coinage also indicates how central trade and cultural exchange was the Classical World. The coinage of a prosperous state like Athens was often in high demand because it was seen as trustworthy and therefore more valuable. Coinage of various Greek states has been found across the Mediterranean and further afield, indicating the thriving networks of Mediterranean trade over the Classical period. 



Even coins that aren’t technically from ancient Greece and Rome can tell us something about the ancient world, how it was seen by those who came afterwards. Especially during the Renaissance, an obsession with the art and culture of the ancient world led to a thriving trade in ancient artefacts. Ancient coins were collected and admired for both their historical and artistic significance and can be seen as the beginning of modern studies in ancient numismatics. This was accompanied by an equally thriving trade in copies of coins, both deliberate forgeries and stylistic imitations. This bronze medal is stunning example of an Italian Renaissance copy of a Roman coin.

This is a ‘Paduan’ forgery, made during the 16th-century by a group of artisans, most notably Giovanni da Cavino, in the Italian city of Padua. These craftsmen were seen as artists, rather than simple forgers, as they used their talents not just for reproductions of ancient types but also for commissioned work for high-profile Italian nobles or even Popes. The creation of copies was both lucrative as they could be sold as genuine but was also a way of recreating the extremely popular classical style. Specifically, this was made as a replica of a coin of Caligula, commemorating the death of his mother Agrippina the Younger. The obverse depicts her portrait, with the coiled hair that indicates her status as the mother of the Emperor. The reverse depicts her funeral procession, along with the inscription SPQR for Senatus Populusque Romanus, which translates to ‘The Senate and the Roman People’. It also reads ‘Memoriae Agrippina’, or “In the memory of Agrippina”. 

Italian Renaissance replica of a Roman coin, Auckland War Memorial Museum Numismatics Collection

Coins were part of the everyday fabric of ancient life. Despite their small size, they contain incredible amounts of detail that can tell us so much about the past.

Auckland Museum houses thousands of coins and is undertaking work to better understand them and to share their unique stories with our audiences. This involves hosting them as part of our Collections Online, which was a part of this project, but also exploring other ways of sharing them such as through 3D models. 



Summer student Alex Lewis examined these coins as part of a project supported by the Royal Numismatics Society of New Zealand and the Auckland Numismatics Society, as well as Carolyn Werner and the Sheldon Werner Summer Studentship program.