Ancient Coins of the Levant

The Levant includes an area spanning roughly modern-day Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon. It was this area that saw some of the greatest advances of culture, from the Phoenician ship-builders to the Abrahamic religions. Before coins, the people of the Levant traded and bartered with goods, usually using careful weights of precious metals, such as the shekels and talents described in the Old Testament.

This region was also rich in resources, and therefore changed hands many times. This is reflected in the many types and varieties of coins found in the Levant; each new set of rulers brought their own style and denomination. These coins are extremely helpful to archaeologists in dating periods of transition.

Persian Coinage

One of the earliest coin producing political entities, the Persian Achaemenid Dynasty, ruled over the Levant from the 6th century B.C. until Alexander the Great’s conquest in 332 B.C. Although the Persians minted many coins, including the silver siglos (shekel) and the gold daric, these coins are not very well represented in the Levant, and there is no evidence to suggest they were ever minted there. Due to their rarity in the Levant, the Luther College collection contains no Persian coinage.

Hellenistic Coinage

As Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenids, he made his way down the east coast of the Mediterranean and through the Levant on his way to Egypt. The Greeks had already been minting coins for a while by the time of this expedition, and the cities which they conquered in the Levant began producing coins in the Greek style. This continued for some time under Alexander’s successor kingdoms: first the Ptolemies and then, after many years of war, the Seleucids, both of whom minted many coins featuring the images of their kings and gods and who are quite well represented in the hoards of coins found in the Levant.

Jewish Coinage

When the Jewish Hasmoneans, commonly known as the Maccabees, revolted and gained independence from the Seleucids in 140 B.C., they began to mint the first truly Jewish coins. These coins continued to be produced under the Herodian dynasty, a puppet government for Rome, and later under the Romans themselves. During the Roman rule of the Levant, many coins were minted by authority granted by territorial governors, including Pontius Pilate of New Testament notoriety. Truly Jewish coins were produced again for short bursts during the Jewish Revolts from A.D. 66-70 and again from A.D. 132-135. Although these coins are not as technically impressive as their Greek or Roman counterparts, they are nonetheless important to historians looking to verify the historical record.

Many of Luther's coins from the Levant were donated by Professor Emeritus of Religion Richard Simon Hanson. Hanson obtained his coins while working as a numismatist between 1970 and 1972 for an archaeological expedition at Khirbet Shema in modern-day Israel. Many of the coins are rough, as the finer examples were taken by the archaeologists or put into museums in Israel, but there are also a few replicas to give a better sense as to what the coins may have looked like in their original condition. The Levantine coins in the Luther College Collection are mostly of Jewish origin, although a few Seleucid and Ptolemaic coins do appear.

For more information on the coins, please contact Prof. Dan Davis, Classics Collection Manager, at [email protected]. Also, please visit our Flickr page.