Ancient Currency: Coin Standards of the World's Empires
Timeline of the History of Money
Before there were crisp paper $20 bills or, indeed, our dear friend Mighty Max for some quick cash, there were ancient forms of currency including gold coins and pressed metal tokens. We’ve created a handy list of old currencies of the world, especially of the empires that ruled vast areas around the globe. This ancient money was tossed and traded for hundreds of years for spices, goods, and services. From the ancient coins pressed with the faces of emperors to the utilitarian Ban Liang coins of China, there are easily hundreds of types of currency. The history of money might’ve started with bartering, but it’s evolved into a wide, colorful landscape of diverse and beautifully unique old currency.
Ancient Currency Transcript
Coin Standards of the World’s Empires
Ancient Greece (1200 BCE-600 CE)
|Dekadrachm||10 base coin|
|Tetradrachm||4 base coin|
|Didrachm (or Stater)||2 base coin|
|Tetrobol||2/3rd base coin|
|Triobol||½ base coin|
|Diobol||1/3rd base coin|
|Obol||1/6 base coin|
|Tritartemorion||1/8 of base coin|
|Hemiobol||1/12 of base coin|
|Tetartemorion||1/24 base coin|
|Hemitartemorion||1/48 base coin|
Kingdom of Aksum (100 CE-960 CE)
|Gold Coin||Base Coin|
The coins were first introduced by King Endubis. The exact value of the three issues of gold, silver, and bronze coins is unknown, but the gold coins were of exceedingly high purity.
Ancient Rome (753 BCE-476 CE)
|Denarius||10 base coin|
|Sesterius||2 1/2 base coin|
|Dupondius||2 base coin|
|As||1 base coin|
|Semis||½ base coin|
|Triens||1/3 base coin|
|Quadrans||¼ base coin|
|Quincunx||5/12 base coin|
|Uncia||1/12 base coin|
|Solidus||10 base coin|
|Argenteus||1 base coin|
|Nummus||1/4 base coin|
|Radiate||1/20 base coin|
|Laureate||1/50 base coin|
|Denarius||1/100 base coin|
Ancient Roman coins have been found as far away as Okinawa, Japan, at Katsuren Castle, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Byzantine Empire (330 CE-1453 CE)
Under Anastasius I
|Solidus||420 base coin|
|Follis||1 base coin|
|Half Follis||1/2 base coin|
|Decanummium||1/4 base coin|
|Pentanummium||1/8 base coin|
|Nummus||1/40 base coin|
Maurya Empire (322 BCE-187 BCE)
These punch-marked coins are among some of the earliest in India.
Achaemenid Empire (First Persian Empire) (550 BCE-330 BCE)
|Daric||1 base coin|
|Siglos||1/20 base coin|
Ancient China (200 BCE-1900 CE)
Ban Liang System
|Ban Liang (Cash Coin)||1 base coin|
|Yīguànqián (A string of coins)||1,000 base coin|
While other forms of currency existed, like knife money, spade money, and the earliest forms of fiat paper money, China’s cash coins, a round coin with a square hole, remained largely the same for more than two thousand years. The only differences were the writing, metals, and weight. They had a hole so that they could be strung together.
Haudenosaunee (1142 CE-Present)
|Wampum, Saki (Dark)||2 base coin|
|Wampum, Wampi (White)||1 base coin|
Haudenosaunee peoples used wampum in ceremonies and for official purposes as a way of presenting one’s credentials. Europeans adopted it as currency, and for a brief time, it was legal tender in New England, New York, and North Carolina.
Lydia (1200 BCE-546 BCE)
|Trite||1/3 base coin|
|Hecte||1/6 base coin|
|Hemihecton||1/12 base coin|
Lydians were the first to create gold and silver coins, according to Herodotus. The world’s oldest coin is a Lydian coin made of a gold and silver mixture called electrum.
Umayyad Caliphate (661 CE-750 CE)
The Early Evolution of Money
If you look at a timeline of the history of money, most will start with a barter system where livestock was the primary means of trade. The oldest currency currently known is that of the Chinese, who used cowrie shells, or bèi, for trade. When was money invented? Bèi were used as far back as 2,000 BCE. Following that, bronze cowri imitations with pictorials were created and could be thought of as the world’s first coins.
The Oldest Coin in the World
Outside of cowrie shells, what is the oldest coin in the world? According to different scholars, the Lydian stater is considered the world’s oldest coin still around. Made of a mix of gold and silver called electrum, these early coins were minted around 600 BCE in the kingdom of Lydia in the modern country of Turkey. These coins often featured a lion with a sunburst. They likely started a trend of imprinting metals with an interesting or official image, which has been copied, still today, the world over. The study of numismatics examines these images as well as the coin materials to indicate age and other characterizations of old coins and paper money.
Ancient Greek Currency
Everyone, from peasants to presidents, has been obsessed with the simple beauty of ancient Greek money. The Greek drachma is the world’s oldest currency still in use. They must’ve been doing something right! Here’s a list of ancient Greek coins:
- Dekadrachm – 10 drachmae
- Tetradrachm – 4 drachmae
- Didrachm – 2 drachmae
- Drachma – 6 obols
- Tetrobol – 4 obols
- Triobol – 3 obols
- Diobol – 2 obols
- Obol – 4 tetartemorions
- Tritartemorion – 3 tetartemorions
- Hemiobol – 2 tetartemorions
- Hemitartemorion – ½ tetartemorions
Ancient Roman Currency
Currency in ancient Rome worked a bit differently and Roman coins went through different phases. There were the Early Republic values (indicated below), the Augustan values, the Diocletian values, and the values adopted as the empire was failing. In Ancient Rome, currency depended on when you were as much as where. But for Rome’s early history, what were the name of ancient roman coins?
- Denarius – 10 as
- Sesterius – A quarter of a denarius or two and a half as
- Dupondius – A fifth of a denarius or two as
- As – A tenth of a denarius
- Semis – A twentieth of a denarius or half an as
- Triens – A thirtieth of a denarius or a third of an as
- Quadrans – A fortieth of a denarius or a fourth of an as
- Quincunx – A twenty-fourth of a denarius or five-twelfths of an as
- Uncia – A one-hundred-and-twentieth of a denarius or a twelfth of an as
Ancient Chinese Money
The history of Ancient Chinese currency is perhaps the most fascinating. Not only because they predated modern coins with bèi shells, knife money, and spade money, but because the basic shape and mint of ancient Chinese coins were almost entirely unchanged for about 2,300 years. Chinese cash coins were of a brilliant design: a round shape with a square hole symbolizing heaven and earth. They were weighted using the revolutionary standard of weights and measures: Ban Liang. They were brilliant because they could be strung along a string like beads, resulting in 100- or 1,000-coin strands with more. When inflation became a problem, the Chinese were also the first to produce paper money, which could help merchants avoid carrying massive strands of coins on the open road.
Ancient Egyptian Currency
There’s one thing that wasn’t used very much in Ancient Egypt: money! Operating largely on a weights-and-measures barter system, Egyptians usually had precious metals for adornments and jewelry and sometimes weights, but almost never coinage. They more often dealt in grain and cattle. The Greeks and Romans were the ones who introduced the culture to the concept.
Other Important Coin Names and Standards
While walking through Europe in the early middle ages, you might want to have a solidus in your pocket. When traveling through Africa in the early common era, you might want a gold coin with the face of Emperor Endubis on it. In the wide world of money, Ancient currency names can be an exciting discovery whether you’re wondering or world-building. Check out our old gold coin names list to learn much more about ancient culture
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