The coinage of Carthage was first minted from the 5th century BCE. Initially adopting the drachma, the Carthaginians later minted silver shekel coins. Designs were instantly recognisable, as intended, and included famous figures such as Hannibal or local flora and fauna like the palm tree and elephant.
From Barter to Coinage
Carthage, like its Phoenician founders and many other ancient Mediterranean trading cultures, was a relatively late entrant into the world of coins. Greece and its colonies had already been using them for several centuries. Barter and exchange were the tried and tested form of payment in the ancient world prior to coinage, and this system was particularly useful for nations like Carthage which traded in far-flung places where minted coins were less useful and their value not always recognised. Eventually, though, the convenience of transporting ingots of specific weights made from precious and semi-precious metals convinced the Carthaginians to adopt this method, and from there it was but a small step to minting even more manageable forms of payment in the shape of coins.
The first Carthaginian coins were not actually minted at the home city of Carthage but in Sicily sometime in the late 5th century BCE, not coincidentally, a place which had long produced its own coins. The beginning of a Carthaginian controlled mint was likely driven, as it had been earlier in wider Greece, by the necessity to pay mercenary troops. Soldiers in the field did not have much use for heavy metal ingots and nor could they conveniently carry about large quantities of goods such as grain or other foodstuffs. The military campaigns of Carthage in western Sicily from 409 and 405 BCE and the arrival of coinage were not, then, unrelated.
The Drachma & Shekel
The first Carthaginian coins were made of either silver or bronze and copied the Greek tetradrachm (four-drachma) coin and its denominations famously produced by Athens. They were minted in the fashion typical of the time by hammering a smooth metal disk between two engraved dyes. A Carthaginian silver tetradrachm coin weighed around 17 grammes. From the 4th century BCE new more valuable coins were added to the range made of electrum (a gold and silver alloy) and the pure gold stater, which was equal to 20 drachmas. The 4th century BCE also saw Carthage mint coins at home, and by the end of that century, the drachma was abandoned in favour of a new denomination, the shekel, which was a heavy silver coin (c. 11 g). There were fractions of a shekel coins for smaller purchases, and two, three, or even six (c. 44 g) shekel coins for the bigger spenders.
When Carthage conquered southern Spain in the 3rd century BCE and gained control of the rich silver mines there, local mints were established to immediately cash in on this new bounty. Sardinia was another important mint, particularly during the First Punic War (264-241 BCE) when Sicily came under threat. When things started to go badly for Carthage against the might of Rome, their silver coins began to include less and less silver.
Coins in the ancient world were an important means to convey political and cultural messages by presenting the heads of rulers and figures from local mythology. Carthage was no different, and their coins depicted such important figures as Dido (aka Elissa and distinguished by her soft Phrygian cap with long neck and earflaps) who was the legendary founder of Carthage, the god Melqart (typically wearing a lionskin headdress and/or carrying a club), the goddesses Tanit, Astarte, and more rarely Isis, and the great generals Hamilcar Barca and Hannibal. Other popular and instantly recognisable designs were a ship's prow, the palm tree, horse (either just the head or whole), lion, and war elephant.
Carthaginian coins sometimes bore legends as well as pictures which included the city of issue, such as Sys (Panormus) and Qart-hadasht, or words indicating their immediate destination: mhnt (army), 'm mhnt (people of the army), mhsbm (paymasters), and b'rst ('in the territories', e.g. Sicily and Spain).
Carthaginian coins were, then, an eclectic mix of Greek designs and Carthage's own artistic tradition, leading historian Dexter Hoyos to conclude that "the Carthaginian's ability to adopt, adapt and develop what they wanted from other cultural worlds is no less evident in their coinage" (121). That the coins were a success and helped drive Carthage's trade-based prosperity is evidenced by archaeologists finding them not only in Spain, Sicily, and the Italian mainland but also in such far-flung places as the Balkans and the Azores.