Originally, the Ancient Greeks employed a barter system in order to trade goods and services. This likely worked well before sea trade became prevalent in the region, and trading large goods such as sacks of wheat or large farm animals would have been quite cumbersome. Around the eighth century B.C., the Greeks began minting and using silver coins (some areas of Greece were slower to begin minting coins, and used other, more compact forms of currency, such as the Athenian obol). This streamlined business and industry, and led to a standardization of currency, weights, and measures that has continued to influence our own monies and measures today.
Ancient Greece was not a unified country. It was broken up into more than 100 different poleis (city-states), with different laws, standards, and customs. This was reflected not only in the appearance of coinage, but also in the value of each coin. The coins of each polis, while all round in appearance and silver in composition, all featured different pictures and characters that would have been relevant or symbolic to it. Just as a coin from the United States is different from a Canadian coin, an Athenian coin would likely feature an owl and other important civic symbols, while a Corinthian coin might feature its own specific symbols pertinent to the polis.
The first Greek coinage appeared on the island of Aegina sometime around 600 B.C. Pheidon, the tyrant of Argos and head of a confederation of seven Greek poleis called the Amphyctiony, ordered that silver coins be minted on Aegina (Pheidon also set a standard of weights and measures). Pheidon saw the success of the Ionians (settlers of a group of islands between Greece and Anatolia), a culture of sailors and merchants who utilized coinage in doing business. As seafarers themselves, the people of Aegina would have benefitted greatly by adopting a system of coinage.
Featuring a turtle on each coin, this monetary standard of Aegina influenced the rest of the Aegean, prompting minted coinage throughout Greece and even into southern Italy. Until 450 B.C., the coinage of Aegina was the prevailing influence. Until Athens, that is.
Around 510 B.C., Athens began minting coins of their own. Their coinage, a silver tetradrachm featuring an owl (a symbol of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens), came along at a time when Athens was asserting itself as the superpower of Ancient Greece. Subsequently, the tetradrachm became the primary trade coin, circulating widely throughout the region. The height of the tetradrachm’s production was during the mid fifth century B.C., when the Delian League was in power, requiring regular tribute payments from poleis to Athens.
Silver coins were produced widely throughout Greece well into Roman times. In fact, the Romans even switched from bronze bars to minted coins by 300 B.C. Today, we see the continued influence of coinage in our own forms of currency, from the denominations, to the appearance of our coins, featuring the same types of civic and historical figures as the original Greek coins.