Ancient Currency: Coin Standards of the World's Empires

Timeline of the History of Money

Written by Carly Hallman

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.

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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
  • Tetartemorion
  • 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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