The Exhibition

Introduction to
Bryn Mawr College
Coin Collection





Exhibition curated by
Sarah E. Hafner
National Endowment
for the Humanities 2005
Summer Curatorial Intern


(Click images to Enlarge)

Obverse of a tetradrachm of Athens, c. 500 BCE Bryn Mawr College Antique Coins Bryn Mawr College Art and Archaeology Collection




Tetradrachm of Mende, Northern Greece c.460 BCE Elisabeth Washburn King Collection of Greek Coins Bryn Mawr College Art and Archaeology Collection






Republican denarius of Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius Imperator 81 BCE Aline Abaercherli Boyce Collection of Roman Republican Coins presented in honor of Lily Ross Taylor Bryn Mawr College Art and Archaeology Collection









Reverse of a denarius of M. Volteius M.f. c.78 BCE Aline Abaercherli Boyce Collection of Roman Republican Coins presented in honor of Lily Ross Taylor Bryn Mawr College Art and Archaeology Collection



Obverse of a denarius of C. Julius Caesar 47-46 BCE Aline Abaercherli Boyce Collection of Roman Republican Coins presented in honor of Lily Ross Taylor Bryn Mawr College Art and Archaeology Collection


(Sections of the exhibition in bold face below)

The exhibition is organized thematically in order to depict the variety of ancient coinage but also to demonstrate how much there is to learn from the coins themselves. The section Animals on Greek Coins illustrates the fine craftsmanship of the ancient die maker and hints at the breadth of images found on ancient coins. Greek Rulers gives examples of the fine portraiture produced in miniature by die makers, including the portraits of Alexander the Great in the guise of various gods.

Examples are also given of the standard coins of Sicily, Corinth, and Athens to demonstrate the conservative nature of the images, as described above and as seen in the “archaic eye” of the coin to the left. The change from the Archaic Style to the Classical Style is perceptible in the refinement of the artistic technique. The development of the New Style of the Athenian drachma corresponds to the Hellenistic period of ancient art.

The Modern coin of Greece is included to show the lasting influence of the ancient Athenian coins. The Smaller Issues of Athens and the various issues of Boeotia demonstrate just how small the coins could be, while still retaining their recognizable images that ensured authenticity.

The Greek Mythological Themes exemplify how city-states would often advertise themselves or their products on their coins. For example the coin of Mende, which depicts the wine-god Dionysus drinking on a donkey’s back, advertised Mende’s wine trade as it circulated in the Mediterranean.

Only two coins in the case float without a header. One is a hekte of Phokaea, included because it is an example of a coin minted of electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver. The other is an early coin of the Roman republic, an aes grave, a large bronze coin. It is an excellent example of the type of crude workmanship the Romans were doing at the same time that the Greeks were producing high quality art on their coins.

By the 2nd century BCE, the Romans caught up in the area of numismatic artistry, producing fine silver coins called denarii. Roman Republican minting was under the purview of a college of three low-ranking magistrates called moneyers. These young men had a certain amount of control over the images placed on the coins, particularly in the later Republic (2nd-1st century BCE). As they were often new to Roman politics, putting their names and associated symbols on circulating objects was an excellent way for these magistrates to make their names known to the voting public. This is the idea behind The Elephant Coins of the Caecilii Metelli.

The Caecilii Metelli were a powerful Roman Republican family. An illustrious ancestor had defeated the Carthaginians in 251 BCE, captured the enemy elephants, and brought them back to Rome. This symbol of the might of Rome appears on the coins for several generations to remind voters about the celebrated past of the gens Caecilia Metella.

The coins depicting Roman Myths and Legends also serve to promote the moneyer, for often they refer to his family’s mythological foundation or to the important role of his family in the Roman mytho-historical past. These coins are also interesting for their depiction of legends found in ancient texts, as are their Greek counterparts.

The coins depicting Roman Art and Architecture are valuable for their visual representation of buildings and other artifacts that do not exist today, e.g., Jupiter’s temple on the Capitoline in Rome, depicted on the coin at right. Coins are sometimes the only visual clue to how an important ancient building or work of art looked, and they are used along with archeological remains and textual evidence to inform modern understanding. Buildings are depicted on Republican coins for the same reason as the elephants and the legends—the structure was built or refurbished by an ancestor and may therefore advertise on behalf of the current moneyer, still too young to have contributed anything substantial to Rome.

The Roman Socio-Political Coins contain clues to the turbulent political world of the late Roman Republic, and include coins produced by Brutus and Caesar, each of whom depicted their ancestors as a way to proclaim their own worthiness to be a part of Rome’s ruling class. Brutus minted coins depicting Liberty and his tyrant-killing ancestor. At left is pictured Caesar’s iconic coin with Aeneas rescuing his father and a religious artifact from burning Troy.

The Republic became the Empire, and the exhibition includes examples of Roman Imperial Coinage to demonstrate how Imperial coins differed from Republican. The emperors followed the Republican tradition of displaying accomplishments, but now highlighted their own deeds rather than those of their ancestors. The exhibition includes most of the more famous emperors (and in some cases, their wives).

The Bryn Mawr College Art and Archaeology Collection contains many fine coins and it is hoped that the small sample in the exhibition will encourage interest in numismatics in general and the Bryn Mawr Coin Collection in particular.