The ROM's ancient Greek coin collection sure to profit from the ROMkomma project

October 11, 2023 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

Did you know the change rattling in your pocket is surprisingly similar to coins used in ancient Greece? In fact, the current design of your quarters, loonies and toonies is almost identical to those used more than 2,000 years ago.

To bring these early coins to a wider audience, Ben Akrigg, an associate professor in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of Classics, is working with a team of scholars and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to study, catalogue and publish information on more than 2,000 ancient Greek coins through the ROMkomma project.

Begun last year, the ROMkomma project — “komma” means “impression of a coin” in ancient Greek — is supported by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Akrigg is working alongside Boris Chrubasik, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga; Kate Cooper, an assistant professor, teaching stream in the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies at University of Toronto Scarborough; as well as a team of graduate students.

“Greek coinage is so interesting, because it’s almost the earliest coinage, at least in the Western tradition of coinage,” says Akrigg.

Two coins, the coin on the left is a profile of a face, the other on the right is a full profile of a women with letters and text.
A Seleukid Empire coin (circa 155/4 BCE) with the head of King Demetrios and Tyche: the personification of fortune or luck.

“The idea is to make sure that our high-resolution photographs and up-to-date identification, dating and commentary are available on the museum’s website for anyone who wants to look at them.”

While the bulk of the updated information is housed in a database for ROM internal use only, there is a small database available to general public.

Ben Akrigg.
To Ben Akrigg, every coin in the ROMkomma project is a “unique little work of art.”

The first phase of the project, which wraps up in 2024, focuses on about 250 coins from two regions of ancient Greece: the city of Athens (6th -1st centuries BCE) and the cities of the Hellenistic empire of the Seleukid rulers (4th -1st centuries BCE).

Akrigg and his team are providing information such as the weight, size and dimensions of each coin, an approximate date it was minted, what the markings mean, and other relevant information about its use and significance in ancient Greek history.

“To some extent, we can trace changes in the economies and the day-to-day lives and day-to-day uses of money in Greek cities by seeing what kinds of coins they're minting,” says Akrigg.

To update the database, the team had to first refer to the original files from the ROM — some of which were decades old — leading them to put their research talents to good use.

“My favorite part was looking for ‘mystery coins,” says Anastasia Zabalueva, a PhD student with the Department of Classics.

“Some old printed pictures of coins had incorrect inventory numbers or did not have a number at all, so we had to identify the right number, so that we could match the picture and the page of coin in the database.”

Zabalueva and her colleagues also deep dived into filing cabinets and other source materials to ensure the descriptions were accurate, sometimes comparing and matching descriptions with those from other international ancient coin collections.

“We felt like detectives solving a mystery,” she says.

Most of the coins are made from silver and all were made by hand. So how were they made?

 Greek coin (circa 125-124 BCE) with the head of Athena and an owl standing on an amphora – a type of Greek vase.
A Greek coin (circa 125-124 BCE) with the head of Athena and an owl standing on an amphora – a type of Greek vase.

A blank coin was heated to become softer and placed on a die containing the design on the one side — the obverse or “heads” side. Then another die containing the design of the other side — the reverse or “tails” side — was placed on top and was struck by a hammer, creating a two-sided coin in a single blow.

One group of coins the team is studying is from ancient Athens, one of the earliest Greek cities to create its own coinage in the middle of the 6th century BCE.

“If you look at the Athenian coins, what's striking is that they’re instantly recognizable as coins, monetary instruments like ours, and partly because in many ways, they resemble the coins we have in our pocket,” says Akrigg.

On the “heads” side, many of these coins have a profile image of Athena — the goddess of wisdom and war, and the city’s protector. The other side of the coins display symbols associated with Athena, often an owl or an olive branch.

“The owl is a symbol of wisdom associated with the goddess, though owls have other meanings as well,” says Akrigg.

 coin from the Hellenistic period (circa 300-295 BCE) with the head of a young Herakles and Zeus sitting on a throne holding an eagle.
A coin from the Hellenistic period (circa 300-295 BCE) with the head of a young Herakles and Zeus sitting on a throne holding an eagle.

Later coins from the Seleukid Empire often placed rulers on the face of the coin — especially Alexander the Great, with the image of a god such as Zeus or Apollo on the reverse, as well as a variety of creatures such as turtles, lions, elephants and other creatures.

“At the end of the 4th century BCE some of Alexander’s successor kings put Alexander's portrait on their coins, but then after a while, the kings thought, ‘Hang on, why don't we just put ourselves on?’” says Akrigg. “And so coins became a way to assert their own legitimacy as kings in their new kingdoms.”

For Zabalueva, the ROMkomma project is far more than the analysis of ancient artifacts and identifying whose face is on what coin, it’s a journey into cultural history.

“Each kingdom depicted on their coins represents something very important for the community: it might be a god or goddess, an animal, a ruler, an abstract symbol,” she says.

And that tradition remains relatively unchanged. Most Canadian coins have a portrait of the late Queen Elizabeth II on one side, and for our loonies, quarters and nickels, a loon, a caribou and a beaver, respectively, on the opposite side.

Though ROMkomma is a massive project that will ultimately take years to complete, Akrigg will always get a charge out of seeing the coins first-hand.

“The coins are mass produced but because they're handmade, each one is unique,” he says. “No two coins are exactly alike. They’re unique little works of art.”

“It's much more than just a means of exchange,” says Zabalueva. “It's a display of local culture, history, power and state propaganda all at the same time.”