Silver coin

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Silver coins are possibly the oldest mass-produced form of coinage. Silver has been used as a coinage metal since the times of the Greeks; their silver drachmas were popular trade coins. The ancient Persians used silver coins between 612-330 BC. Before 1797, British pennies were made of silver.


As with all collectible coins, many factors determine the value of a silver coin, such as its rarity, demand, condition and the number originally minted. Ancient silver coins coveted by collectors include the Denarius and Miliarense, while more recent collectible silver coins include the Morgan Dollar and the Spanish Milled Dollar.

Other than collector's silver coins, silver bullion coins are popular among people who desire a "hedge" against currency inflation or store of value. Silver has an international currency symbol of XAG under ISO 4217.

Origins and early development of silver coins

Silver drachma from the island of Aegina, after 404 BC BMC 193.jpg
Silver drachma from the island of Aegina, after 404 BC

The earliest coins in the world were minted in the kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor around 600 BC. [1] The coins of Lydia were made of electrum, which is a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver, that was available within the territory of Lydia. [1] The concept of coinage, i.e. stamped lumps of metal of a specified weight, quickly spread to adjacent regions, such as Aegina. In these neighbouring regions, inhabited by Greeks, coins were mostly made of silver. As Greek merchants traded with Greek communities (colonies) throughout the Mediterranean Sea, the Greek coinage concept soon spread through trade to the entire Mediterranean region. These early Greek silver coins were denominated in staters or drachmas and its fractions (obols).

More or less simultaneously with the development of the Lydian and Greek coinages, a coinage system was developed independently in China. The Chinese coins, however, were a different concept and they were made of bronze.

In the Mediterranean region, the silver and other precious metal coins were later supplemented with local bronze coinages, that served as small change, useful for transactions where small sums were involved.

The coins of the Greeks were issued by a great number of city-states, and each coin carried an indication of its place of origin. The coinage systems were not entirely the same from one place to another. However, the so-called Attic standard, Corinthian standard, Aiginetic standard and other standards defined the proper weight of each coin. Each of these standards were used in multiple places throughout the Mediterranean region.

In the 4th century BC, the Kingdom of Macedonia came to dominate the Greek world. The most powerful of their kings, Alexander the Great eventually launched an attack on the Kingdom of Persia, defeating and conquering it. Alexander's Empire fell apart after his death in 323 BC, and the eastern mediterranean region and western Asia (previously Persian territory) were divided into a small number of kingdoms, replacing the city-state as the principal unit of Greek government. Greek coins were now issued by kings, and only to a lesser extent by cities. Greek rulers were now minting coins as far away as Egypt and central Asia. The tetradrachm (four drachms) was a popular coin throughout the region. This era is referred to as the hellenistic era.

While much of the Greek world was being transformed into monarchies, the Romans were expanding their control throughout the Italian Peninsula. The Romans minted their first coins during the early 3rd century BC. The earliest coins were - like other coins in the region - silver drachms with a supplementary bronze coinage. They later reverted to the silver denarius as their principal coin. The denarius remained an important Roman coin until the Roman economy began to crumble. During the 3rd century AD, the antoninianus was minted in quantity. This was originally a "silver" coin with low silver content, but developed through stages of debasement (sometimes silver washed) to pure bronze coins.

Although many regions ruled by Hellenistic monarchs were brought under Roman control, this did not immediately lead to a unitary monetary system throughout the Mediterranean region. Local coinage traditions in the eastern regions prevailed, while the denarius dominated the western regions. The local Greek coinages are known as Greek Imperial coins.

Apart from the Greeks and the Romans, other peoples in the Mediterranean region also issued coins. These include the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Jews, the Celts and various regions in the Iberian Peninsula and the Arab Peninsula.

In regions to the East of the Roman Empire, that were formerly controlled by the Hellenistic Seleucids, the Parthians created a kingdom in Persia. The Parthians issued a relatively stable series of silver drachms and tetradrachms. After the Parthians were overthrown by the Sassanians in 226 AD, the new dynasty of Persia began the minting of their distinct thin, spread fabric silver drachms, that became a staple of their empire right up to the Arab conquest in the 7th century AD.

Middle Ages

In the Byzantine Empire, which was basically what was left of the eastern Roman Empire, the currency system was reorganised, but the coinage mostly consisted of copper and gold. A silver miliaresion was developed, usually with a cross on steps obverse and an inscription forming the reverse. Later, the cup-shaped (or 'scyphate') trachy were issued, but the silver content of these rapidly declined towards only a few per cent, finally ending up as a pure copper coin after the Fourth Crusade (13th century).

Muhammad established the Constitution of Medina in 622 in the Arabian Peninsula. After the death of Mohammed in 632, the state was governed by caliphs, thus named 'the Caliphate'. As the caliphate expanded into Byzantine territories to the Northwest and conquered the Sassanian (Persian) Empire to the Northeast, the question of a caliphal coinage became imminent. The caliphate adapted the Sassanian drachm as their silver coin. Initially, Arabic inscriptions were added to the Sassanian coin type. Later, the type was completely revised, so as to include inscriptions and ornaments only. (Depictions of human beings is prohibited according to Sunni Islam [ citation needed ]). These coins are known in Arabic as dirhem s. The dirhems of the caliphate gained wide acceptance. They are consequently found along trading routes in Ukraine, Russia and Scandinavia.

Dirham minted in the name of the Aghlabid ruler Ibrahim I (800-812) and the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun (813-832). It is similar to regular Abbasid dirhams but showing early signs of emerging independent coin types. Aghlabid dirham - Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab - al-Maamoun.jpg
Dirham minted in the name of the Aghlabid ruler Ibrahim I (800-812) and the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun (813-832). It is similar to regular Abbasid dirhams but showing early signs of emerging independent coin types.

As the power balance within the caliphate changed (weaker central power), the names of local leaders, or feudal lords, were increasingly indicated on the dirhems. Various Arabic dynasties continued to issue dirhems for centuries after the demise of the classical caliphates. There is a great variety of types, although retaining the inscriptions and ornaments only formula.

In medieval Europe (outside the Byzantine Empire), the coinage was very complex, as the types were often different from one (small) region to another. In some regions, certain coin types became a commonly accepted coin type in inter-regional trade. For instance, the silver sceattas were a popular type of coin in England, the Netherlands and the Frisian region. The penny was a popular interregional silver coin, thus being known in several different languages as 'penny' (English), 'pfennig' (German) and 'penning' (Scandinavian languages). Medieval coin types frequently suffered from gradual debasement, and the coins were generally small. This changed when the great amounts of silver began to flow into Europe from the New World.

Early Modern period

Ottoman Empire and Persia

While the Byzantine Empire in the Balkans was crumbling, a new power was growing strong in Asia Minor: the Ottoman state. The Ottomans eventually conquered the Byzantine capital in 1453, creating the Ottoman Empire. Early Ottoman silver coins are the small akçes.

With the accession of the Safavid dynasty, Persia emerged as an independent state, also in terms of language and identity. This coincided with a shift from the use of Arabic to Persian in the coins' inscriptions. The coins now tended to employ cursive and interlaced script, radically altering the appearance of the coins.


See also Indian rupee , History of the rupee and Coinage of India

A silver coin made during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Alamgir II Silver Rupee Madras Presidency.JPG
A silver coin made during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Alamgir II

The earliest coins of India are the so-called punch-marked coins. These were small pieces of silver of a specified weight, punched with several dies, each carrying a symbol. These very early coins were issued at a point in time when India was still separated from the Greek world by Persia (Persia proper did not use silver coins at the time).

The Sanskrit word rūpyakam (रूप्यकम्) means "wrought silver" or a coin of silver. [2] The term could also be related to "something provided with an image, a coin," from Sanskrit rūpa "shape, likeness, image."

The word Rupee was adopted by Sher Shah Suri, a renegade governor who broke off from the Mughal Empire during his short rule of northern India between (1540–1545). It was used for the silver coin weighing 178 grains. He also introduced copper coins called Dam and gold coins called Mohur that weighed 169 grains. [3] Later on, the Mughal Emperors standardised this coinage of tri-metalism across the sub-continent in order to consolidate the monetary system.

Spanish America, the peso/dollar and Pacific trade

With the Spanish colonization of the Americas after 1492, there were significant finds in both New Spain (Mexico) in various sites in mainly in the zone outside indigenous settlement and in Peru, with the discovery of the great silver mine of Potosí (in modern Bolivia). The Spanish crown licensed mining sites with the provision that a fifth of the proceeds, the quinto would go to the crown. The crown established mints in Mexico and Peru, such that over the whole colonial period high quality, uniformly minted coins became the international currency. Not only did silver flow to Spain and then to the rest of Europe, enriching the Spanish crown and stimulating industries in Europe, Spanish silver coins were transported to Asia, via the Manila Galleon. China in particular preferred silver coinage and the high quality Spanish coins paid for high quality Chinese porcelains and silks and other luxury goods. Mexican silver coins continued to be exported to China in the late nineteenth-century.

1888 Mexican 8 Real coin with Chinese chop marks 1888 Mexico 8 Reals Trade Coin Silver.jpg
1888 Mexican 8 Real coin with Chinese chop marks

Europeans started silver mining in the "New World" soon after discovery of the Americas to answer a demand for silver in Europe inspired by the fine craftsmanship of the Renaissance. [4] The discovery of silver in Joachimsthal also gave rise to the silver joachimsthaler coin. Production of silver in the Americas influenced trade and politics in Europe and transformed European relations with other regions of the world, particularly China and the Ottoman Empire. The influx of silver into Europe led to the sometimes uncontrolled minting of coins. All countries of Europe eventually began to issue large size silver coins. Europeans then used these silver coins to purchase goods abroad which eventually led to inflation. [5] The great amounts of new silver supply caused the relative value of silver against gold to drop.

United States

US dimes, quarters, half dollars and dollars were minted in 90% silver until 1964. Produced to save nickel for the war effort, war nickels 1942-1945 are 35% silver (silver nickel production started part way into 1942). Half-dollar coins minted between 1965 and 1970 are 40% silver, but from 1971 on, contain no silver.

After silver was removed from US circulating coins the US Mint made special commemorative coins minted for sale to coin collectors and, starting in 1986, bullion coins primarily sold to investors. Both types, although legal tender, are not expected to circulate for commerce.

American Silver Eagle American Silver Eagle, obverse, 2004.jpg
American Silver Eagle

Modern Silver Minting

Bullion coins

Various governments mint, or authorize the minting of, silver bullion coins with a nominal face value in the national currency. The face value is nominal because the value stated on the coin is much less than the value of the silver in the coin. The most common world silver bullion coins, preceded by minimum guaranteed purity, and ordered by their year of introduction:

Silver rounds

Privately minted "silver rounds" or "generic silver rounds" are called "rounds" instead of "coins" because the US Mint and other government mints reserves the use of the word "coin" for Government Issued currency with a face value expressed in the national currency. The privately minted "rounds" usually have a set weight of 1 troy ounce of silver (31.103 grams of 99.9% silver), with the dimensions of 2.54 mm thick and 39 mm across. These carry all sorts of designs, from assayer/mine backed bullion to engravable gifts, automobiles, firearms, armed forces commemorative, and holidays. Unlike silver bullion coins, silver rounds carry no face value and are not considered legal tender. Similarly, both government and private sector mints issue silver bars for investors and collectors without a nominal face value.


Silver coins have evolved in many different forms through the ages; a rough timeline for silver coins is as follows:

Reasons for the usage of silver coinage

Silver coins were among the first coins ever used, thousands of years ago. The silver standard was used for centuries in many places of the world. And the use of silver for coins, instead of other materials, has many reasons:

A silver coin or coins sometimes are placed under the mast or in the keel of a ship as a good luck charm. [7] This tradition probably originated with the Romans. [8] [9] The tradition continues in modern times, for example, officers of USS New Orleans placed 33 coins heads up under her foremast and mainmast before she was launched in 1933 and USS Higgins, commissioned in 1999, had 11 coins specially selected for her mast stepping. [10]

See also

Related Research Articles

Coin Small, flat and usually round piece of material used as money

A coin is a small, flat, round piece of metal or plastic used primarily as a medium of exchange or legal tender. They are standardized in weight, and produced in large quantities at a mint in order to facilitate trade. They are most often issued by a government. Coins often have images, numerals, or text on them. Obverse and its opposite, reverse, refer to the two flat faces of coins and medals. In this usage, obverse means the front face of the object and reverse means the back face. The obverse of a coin is commonly called heads, because it often depicts the head of a prominent person, and the reverse tails.

The drachma was the currency used in Greece during several periods in its history:

  1. An ancient Greek currency unit issued by many Greek city states during a period of ten centuries, from the Archaic period throughout the Classical period, the Hellenistic period up to the Roman period under Greek Imperial Coinage.
  2. Three modern Greek currencies, the first introduced in 1832 by the Greek King Otto (Όθων) and the last replaced by the euro in 2001. The euro did not begin circulating until 2001 but the exchange rate was fixed on 19 June 2000, with legal introduction of the euro taking place in January 2002.
Denarius Ancient Roman coin

The denarius was the standard Roman silver coin from its introduction in the Second Punic War c. 211 BC to the reign of Gordian III, when it was gradually replaced by the Antoninianus. It continued to be minted in very small quantities, likely for ceremonial purposes, until and through the tetrarchy (293–313).

Thaler Large silver coin used in 16th to 19th century Europe

A thaler is one of the large silver coins minted in the states and territories of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg monarchy during the Early Modern period. A thaler size silver coin has a diameter of about 40 mm (1½") and a weight of about 25 to 30 grams, or roughly 1 ounce. The word is shortened from Joachimsthaler, the original thaler coin minted in Joachimstal, Bohemia, from 1518.

Precious metal Rare, naturally occurring metallic chemical element of high economic and cultural value

Precious metals are rare, naturally occurring metallic chemical elements of high economic value. Chemically, the precious metals tend to be less reactive than most elements. They are usually ductile and have a high lustre. Historically, precious metals were important as currency but are now regarded mainly as investment and industrial commodities. Gold, silver, platinum, and palladium each have an ISO 4217 currency code.

Dinar monetary currency unit of some countries

The dinar is the principal currency unit in several countries near the Mediterranean Sea, and its historical use is even more widespread.

Roman currency Currency of ancient Rome

Roman currency for most of Roman history consisted of gold, silver, bronze, orichalcum and copper coinage. From its introduction to the Republic, during the third century BC, well into Imperial times, Roman currency saw many changes in form, denomination, and composition. A persistent feature was the inflationary debasement and replacement of coins over the centuries. Notable examples of this followed the reforms of Diocletian. This trend continued into Byzantine times.

Ancient Greek coinage

The history of ancient Greek coinage can be divided into four periods: the Archaic, the Classical, the Hellenistic and the Roman. The Archaic period extends from the introduction of coinage to the Greek world during the 7th century BC until the Persian Wars in about 480 BC. The Classical period then began, and lasted until the conquests of Alexander the Great in about 330 BC, which began the Hellenistic period, extending until the Roman absorption of the Greek world in the 1st century BC. The Greek cities continued to produce their own coins for several more centuries under Roman rule. The coins produced during this period are called Roman provincial coins or Greek Imperial Coins.

Solidus (coin)

The solidus, nomisma, or bezant was originally a relatively pure gold coin issued in the Late Roman Empire. Under Constantine, who introduced it on a wide scale, it had a weight of about 4.5 grams. It was largely replaced in Western Europe by Pepin the Short's currency reform, which introduced the silver-based pound/shilling/penny system. In Eastern Europe, the nomisma was gradually debased by the Byzantine emperors until it was abolished by Alexius I in 1092, who replaced it with the hyperpyron, which also came to be known as a "bezant". The Byzantine solidus also inspired the originally slightly less pure dinar issued by the Muslim Caliphate.


The dirham, dirhem or dirhm was a silver coin, and, in some cases, still is a unit of currency in several Arab states. It was also the related unit of mass. The name derives from that of the ancient Greek currency, drachma.

Roman Republican currency refers to the Coinage struck by the various magistrates of the Roman Republic, to be used as legal tender. In modern times, the abbreviation RRC, "Roman Republican Coinage" originally the name of a reference work on the topic by Michael H. Crawford, has come to be used as an identifying tag for coins assigned a number in that work, such as RRC 367.

Ducat Gold or silver coin used as a trade coin in Europe

The ducat was a gold or silver coin used as a trade coin in Europe from the later Middle Ages until as late as the 20th century. Many types of ducats had various metallic content and purchasing power throughout the period. The gold ducat of Venice gained wide international acceptance, like the medieval Byzantine hyperpyron and the Florentine florin, or the modern British pound sterling and the United States dollar.

The earliest coinage of Asia is also the oldest coinage of the world. Coins were invented several times independently of each other. The earliest coins from the Mediterranean region are from the kingdom of Lydia, and are now dated ca. 600 BCE. The dating of the earliest coins of China and India is difficult and the subject of debate. Nevertheless, the first coins of China are at least as old as the earliest Lydian coins and possibly older, while the earliest coins of India seems to have appeared at a later stage.

Seleucid coinage

The coinage of the Seleucid Empire is based on the coins of Alexander the Great, which in turn were based on Athenian coinage of the Attic weight. Many mints and different issues are defined, with mainly base and silver coinage being in abundance. A large concentration of mints existed in the Seleucid Syria, as the Mediterranean parts of the empire were more reliant on coinage in economic function.

Gold dinar

The gold dinar is an Islamic medieval gold coin first issued in AH 77 (696–697 CE) by Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. The weight of the dinar is 1 mithqal.

Coinage Act of 1853

The Coinage Act of 1853, 10 Stat. 160, was a piece of legislation passed by the United States Congress which lowered the silver content of the silver half dime, dime, quarter dollar, and half dollar, and authorized a three dollar gold piece. Although intending to stabilize the country's silver shortage, it, in effect, pushed the United States closer to abandoning bimetallism entirely and adopting the gold standard.

Attic weight

Attic weight, or the Attic standard, also known as Euboic standard, was one of the main monetary standards in ancient Greece. As a result of its use in the coinage of the Athenian empire and the empire of Alexander the Great, it was the dominant weight standard for coinage issued in the Eastern Mediterranean from the fifth century BC until the introduction of the Roman denarius to the region in the late first century BC.

Ptolemaic coinage

Coinage was used in the Ptolemaic Kingdom during the last dynasty of Egypt and, briefly, during Roman rule of Egypt.

Sasanian coinage

Sasanian coinage was produced within the domains of the Iranian Sasanian Empire (224–651). Together with the Roman Empire, the Sasanian Empire was the most important money-issuing polity in Late Antiquity. Sasanian coinage had a significant influence on coinage of other polities. Sasanian coins are a pivotal primary source for the study of the Sasanian period, and of major importance in history and art history in general. The Sylloge nummorum Sasanidarum is the most important primary work of reference for Sasanian coins.


  1. 1 2 "The origins of coinage". Retrieved September 21, 2015.
  2. "Etymology of rupee". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2020-03-29.
  3. Mughal Coinage Archived 2002-10-05 at the Wayback Machine at RBI Monetary Museum. Retrieved on May 4, 2008.
  4. "Silver". Guide to Gems. Credo Reference. Retrieved 27 February 2013.
  5. "Silver". Encyclopedia of World Trade From Ancient Times to the Present. Credo Reference. Retrieved 27 February 2013.
  6. 1 2 Hommel, Jason. "Silver Coin Proposal". Retrieved November 17, 2009.
  7. Eyers, Jonathan (2011). Don't Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions. A&C Black, London, UK. ISBN   978-1-4081-3131-2.
  8. Carlson, Deborah N. (2007-02-02). "Mast-Step Coins among the Romans". International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. 36 (2): 317–324. doi: 10.1111/j.1095-9270.2006.00132.x .
  9. "Lucky coin found in medieval ship". BBC News. 2006-02-06. Retrieved 2009-03-16.
  10. "Boating Encyclopedia:Coin Under Mast". . Retrieved 2010-02-26.