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Invaluable coins reveal the history of ancient Greece

One hundred and twenty-six coins which reveal the essential chapters in the history of ancient Greece will be on display at the Hong Kong Museum of History from tomorrow (July 14) to October 4.

Selected from the renowned Zhuyuetang Collection, the invaluable coins not only form a pleasing art gallery of miniatures, but also make up the story of Greek coinage during a period when a wide sweep of historical events took place.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the exhibition, Secretary for Home Affairs, Dr Patrick Ho Chi-ping, said the coins selected from the Zhuyuetang Collection were unique and rare.

He said that these coins, which were between the 7th century BC and the 1st century BC, were more than a medium of exchange, but also works of art and historical artefacts that witnessed the glorious period when Greek culture and philosophy helped shape the Western world.

"The ancient Greek coins have experienced the tides of the times and have been greatly utilised across a vast and extensive realm of the ancient Greek world.

"As we appreciate these coins, we can marvel at their remarkable craftsmanship. The wide variety of designs, which symbolises various important parts of Greek civilisation, includes Greek gods, goddesses, heroes, historical events, as well as images associated with the ancient Olympic Games," said Dr Ho.

Before the coinage was invented, people paid for goods and services by cutting pieces of precious metal. The fixed values and known weights of coins made transaction much more convenient and greatly enhanced the trading.

The earliest coins of Greece were struck in Ionia-Lydia on the coast of Asia Minor (today's Turkey) with electrum, an alloy of gold and silver. Coins of that time were produced in denominational set and some of them were inscribed with a name.

Early electrum coinage produced by Greek civic bodies was often badged with types that formed a pun on the city's name or alluded to a myth or religious cult associated with the city. While each of these civic electrum issues may have been handy for commercial use in its own city, the circulation did not operate over larger distances. Since the gold to silver ratio in an alloy could easily be altered, pure gold and silver eventually replaced electrum.

Athens was one of the earliest city-states to produce silver coinage, starting from the latter half of the 6th century BC. Widely trusted throughout the Mediterranean, this was eventually imitated in Palestine and Egypt. The design the Athenians settled on closely linked coinage with the city, the obverse showing the head of Athens' patron goddess, Athena, the reverse, her sacred bird, the owl.

At the great Pan-Hellenic (or 'all-Greek') festivals, the individual city-states of Greece set aside their considerable differences and came together to worship gods and goddesses. Such events were expensive to organise and could well require a coinage. Among the many festivals, the Olympic Games was the most important. Some Greek historians even saw their world as beginning with the first Olympic Games in 776 BC.

By 338 BC Philip II of Macedon ruled over all of mainland Greece. His coinage was produced in huge quantities which included gold, silver and bronze.

After Philip's death, his son, Alexander the Great (336-323 BC), pushed the kingdom he had inherited further to the east, conquering the Persian Empire and reaching Afghanistan and India, the edge of the known world. Alexander created coinage that was totally identifiable with himself. Wherever in his empire it had been produced, it looked just the same. In a world without mass media but with a widely differing cultural makeup, this great innovator saw that only coinage could effectively unite a huge population and carry his clarion message across the vast spaces of Asia.

Alexander the Great died in 323 BC. The Successors kept using his designs and his name in the coinage. Obviously they needed to stress their personal relationships with Alexander to legitimise their power. However, the Macedonian kingdom ended following the rise of the Roman Empire.

Egypt was ruled for more than 250 years by the Ptolemy dynasty. The Ptolemies were remarkable for the amount of gold coinage they put into circulation and certain silver denominations also show how wealthy the kingdom was. When Egypt finally succumbed to the Empire of Rome in 31 BC under the rule of its last queen, Cleopatra VII, the story of coinage ended.

The exhibition at the Museum of History will tell the story of these important events through the display of more than 100 ancient Greeks coins and a number of other selected Greek artefacts as well as detailed text panels. To coincide with the exhibition, a seminar will also be held this Saturday (July 17) from 2pm to 5.30pm at the Lecture Hall of the Museum of History. The owner of Zhuyuetang Collection, Mr Richard W C Kan; Curator of Greek Coins at the British Museum, Mr Andrew Meadows, and Chairperson of Financial and Monetary History of the Greek World and Director of the Museological Department of the Royal Library of Belgium (Brussels), Professor Francois de Callatay, will discuss the topics of how coinage became a form of money of Europe and Asia; and the relationship between coinage and Greek culture. They will also tell audiences the story of the most valuable ancient coin in the world - the Aitna Tetradrachm. The seminar will be conducted in English as well as Cantonese. Admission is free and 140 seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

An illustrated catalogue published by the Zhuyuetang will also be available for sale at the Museum of History's gift shop.

The Museum of History is located at 100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. It opens from 10am to 6pm from Monday to Saturday and from 10 am to 7 pm on Sundays and public holidays. It is closed on Tuesdays (except public holidays). Admission is $10 and a half-price concession available to full-time students, senior citizens and people with disabilities. Admission is free on Wednesdays.

For details of the exhibition, please visit the Museum of History's website at or call 2724 9042.

Ends/Tuesday, July 13, 2004
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