The word ‘coin’ transmits the image of a round and flat metal object which one uses in order to buy something. Before coins were actually being produced the system of bartering was in place. Such bartering, which must have existed from prehistoric times, meant that people could exchange one object with another according to their exigencies. Actual coins started being struck in ca 650 BC. Such coins leave us with physical material evidence, which provide not only monetary values but also historic ones. Coins give us an insight on the political importance of different periods and their stamped iconography is a source of information on gods, emperors, saints and coat of arms synonymous with the people who commissioned such coins. Until 1972 the Maltese people and the islands’ inhabitants mainly utilized the coinage used by the power that was occupying the islands at the time. This decimalisation process in Malta followed the first series of currency notes issued by Central Bank of Malta in September 1969.
The National Numismatic collection
The National Numismatic Collection is made up of an accumulated collection of coins and medals. The earliest coins date back to the Punic period. With more than 16,000 pieces, this collection is considered to be an extremely important one especially that covering the period of the order of the Knights of St John. A number of rare specimens increase its importance and makes it the most comprehensive and renowned collection of coinage from the period of the Order of the Knights of St John. This collection grew throughout the years primarily thanks to a number of donations like the one by Prof Salvatore Luigi Pisani. His numismatic collection consisted of Punic, Roman, Order of the Knights of St John, French and British coins. 928 out of the 1926 coins we currently have from the Order of Knights of St John formed part of his collection. The National Numismatic collection is continuously being supplemented with acquisitions by Heritage Malta or other donations. Through its remit of preserving and making accessible its collections to the public, Heritage Malta also displays a number these coins in its permanent displays in various museums such as the Domus Romana, the archaeology museum in Gozo and the newly opened Fort St Elmo.
The Minting Process
The first type of coins were ‘cast’. Melted metal was poured into moulds where it hardened to form the coin. Around 650 BC coins started being ‘struck’, a process which involved the striking with two coining dies. A coin blank, consisting of molten metal or alloy, would be placed between the two dies depicting the coin in a negative form. The upper die would be struck with a hammer, rendering a positive image on the blank. The obverse die was mounted on an anvil, the coin blank (also referred to as flan) was placed on it, and the top die would be struck to make the impressions on both sides, thus producing the coin.
With use dies became worn, though at times they still continued to be used. The die that got the hammer blow (usually the reverse) tended to wear out first. Dies were made of hard bronze or iron. Bronze dies, hardened with tin, were easier to engrave, did not rust but wore out faster. Image was engraved on the die, in reverse, therefore negative and mirror image.
The metal used for the coins were bronze, copper, iron and gold. The highest values of coins were often minted in gold (ca 95% purity). At times the value of the metal used in the coin was approximately the value of the coin, thus giving it an ‘intrinsic’ value. Other metal used for high denominations was electrum, an alloy of gold and silver and orichalcum, an alloy of gold and zinc, as well as silver, copper and bronze. Evidence of Roman coin production shows that a two man team could strike around 30 coins per minute and a workshop could produce up to 20,000 coins per day.
Punic - Classical coins
Carthaginian coins (end 5th c BC)
The first known coins to be used in Malta were introduced in the end of the 5th century BC by the Carthaginians, the North African Phoenicians who colonised Malta since the 6th century BC. All Carthaginian (Punic) coins used in Malta were mainly made in bronze but also some gold and silver. They were minted in various cities in Carthaginian regions, like Western Sicily (Sicolo-Punic), Zeugitana, Phoenicia and Sardinia (Sardo-Punic). These coins generally depicted the head in profile of the Goddess Tanit on the main face of the coin (Obverse) and either a horse or a palm tree, or a combination of both on the back face (Reverse). The main Carthaginian currency was the Shekel, however it was common to use instead the names of corresponding Greek coins like the Drachma and the Stater.
Classical world – Greek coins (5th-4th C BC)
During the same period the Greeks were the other strong power in the Mediterranean. Even though the Carthaginians were in constant war with many of the Greek city states, Greek coins were used and accepted in Malta alongside the Punic coins. Such coins, which were made of copper and bronze with a few silver specimens, were mainly struck in Greek cities and colonies in Southern Italy (Magna Graecia) and Eastern Sicily, but included also other cities from other Greek regions like Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt and Cyrenaica. These coins generally depicted a head in profile of a God or Goddess on the Obverse and the symbol of the city-state or province who minted the coin on the Reverse side. This convention continued until today but with the head of the Emperor, King, Queen or President replacing the head of the God or Goddess on the obverse. The main Greek currencies were the Drachma and the Stater.
Roman coins 218 BC
When in 218 BC Malta passed under the Roman rule, there was still concurrent use of both Carthaginian and Roman coins. All Maltese Roman coins show strong Punic and Greek influence and had their value based on the Roman standard monetary weight of the bronze currency As. The earliest of these coins were Sextans (⅙ of an As). The first Roman coins actually minted in Malta were struck ca 212 BC and depicted a bearded male head (possibly the Greek god Herakles or Aesculapius, the Punic Baal Hammon , or the Phoenician Eshmun) with a Caduceus symbol on the obverse and a priest sacrificial cap with three Punic letters Aleph, Nun, Nun (ANN) on the reverse coin face. Historiansgive different nterpretations to this; i) ANUN meaning 'fish'; ii) GHONAN meaning 'ship' / 'boat'; iii) ANIN meaning 'our lord', the abbreviated name or title of the Phoenician God Melqart; all possibly the pre-Roman name for Malta. Other Maltese Roman coins with the Punic legend ANN are the Semis (½ an As) struck in circa 175 BC with the Egyptian Goddess Osiris holding a flail and a sceptre flanked by the winged Egyptian Goddesses Isis and Nephthys on the reverse face; Quadrans (1/4 of an As) minted in circa 89 BC, and depicting a ram’s head on the reverse face; Triens (⅓ of an As), minted in circa 85 BC with a sacrificial tripod on the reverse face.
Greek and Phoenician legends continued being used simultaneously for about a century, however a few coins were struck with the Greek letters MEΛITAIΩN (Melitaion – ‘of the Maltese’). Two Semis coins, show a kneeling four-winged Egyptian God Osiris holding a sceptre and a whip on the reverse. One of the coins has the symbol of Tanit (c. 160 BC) on the obverse while the other has a wheat head (c. 125 BC). Other variants were struck later some with MEΛI on the right side of the tripod and TAIΩN on the left side. One particular coin included a Latin inscription. Minted in 35 BC, this Semis had the Greek MEΛITAIΩN on the female head coin face and the Latin C. ARRVNTANVS BALB PROPR, (the name and title of the Roman Propraetor governing the Sicilian province at the time), on the reverse side which showed a Curule Chair.
Towards the mid 1st century BC, Gozo enjoyed municipal independence from Malta and in 40 BC was allowed to mint a coin of its own. This coin, a Quincunx, depicted a helmeted female head in profile (possibly the Goddesses Astarte or Juno) above a large crescent moon. On the reverse face we find a female warrior (possibly the same Goddess) holding a lance and a shield with a star at the bottom. This coin face contained the Greek legend ΓAYΛITΩN (Gaulos) meaning 'of the Gozitans'.
Like all the Roman coins minted in the Provence of Sicily, the Maltese Roman coins bore no value symbols, with the exception of this coin which bore the 'V' symbol, as the value of the Quincunx, under the chin of the female head. Values were otherwise determined by the size and weight of the coins.
The last Roman Maltese coin minted in Malta only had a Latin legend. Struck in 15 BC, this Semis bore a sacrificial tripod with the Latin legend MELITAS, meaning 'of the Maltese', divided, MELI on the right side of the tripod and TAS on the left side of the reverse coin face. At the end of the 1st century BC all Roman provinces, including Malta, stopped minting their own coinage on orders from Rome. The authority to mint gold and silver coins was vested in the Emperor and the Senate controlled the minting of brass, copper and bronze coins which bore the letters ‘SC’. The regular Imperial coinage produced mainly in Rome, supplied all currency requirements in the Maltese Islands.
Some of the Roman Maltese coins were found countermarked with a small female head. Such countermarks could have been done for various reasons including the coinage revaluation of 89 BC, the extension of the zone in which these coins had tender value, example in certain cities of Sicily, or just to make old eroded coins reusable.
By the early 1st century BC, the growth of Roman power started creating problems in the old political system of the Republic. Civil wars between great Roman Generals and Senators evolved into dictatorships and led to the establishment of the Roman Empire under the first Emperor Augustus (Octavianus) in 27 BC. During this troublesome period, all leaders involved minted their own coinage, including Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, Brutus, Sextus Pompeius, Marcus Antonius and Octavianus. During this time the focus of each coin became the Emperor, with his portrait on one coin face and a divinity or its attributes on the reverse face - an attempt by the Emperor to appear God-like. This tradition was started by Julius Caesar who was the first living individual to feature on Roman coinage. Prior to Julius Caesar, only deities or dead ancestors featured on coins.
While the portrait of the Emperor was the most frequent portrait found on Roman coins, it was not uncommon to have the portraits of heirs apparent (example Gaius and Lucius, Germanicus), predecessors, Imperial family members (Marcus Agrippa, Agrippina the Elder, Decentius), Empresses (Livia, Vibia Sabina, Faustina the Elder, Faustina the Younger, Lucilla, [St] Helen, Aelia Eudoxia) and successors featured on one of the faces of Roman coinage. The main Roman Imperial currencies were the gold Aureus and Solidus, the silver Denarius, Antoninianus, Didrachm, Victoriatus and Argenteus and the bronze As, Sestertius and Follis.
Vandals and Ostrogoths (455-534AD)
The division of the Western Roman Empire between the various Barbarian tribes lead to the occupation of the Maltese islands by the Vandals, who at the time occupied North Africa, Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, probably around 455 AD. At circa 476 AD, Malta was granted to the Barbarian Odoacer, at the time ruler of Italy, in return for a tribute. However in 493 AD he was defeated in battle and assassinated by the Ostrogoths during their invasion of Italy. Malta then passed under the rule of Theodoric the Great, King of the Ostrogoths.
Besides minting their own bronze coins based on the Roman style, the Vandals brought back in circulation old Roman coins from the 1st and 2nd centuries and marked them with roman numbers in Nummi, their main bronze currency. On the contrary, Ostrogoths issued bronze coins along the Byzantine monetary system but also in Nummi, often with the legend INVIC TAROMA
Byzantine coins (535– 870 AD)
Through lack of sound historic information, historians assume that Malta actually began to form part of the Byzantine Empire along with Sicily in 535 AD. However the National collection has a number of Byzantine coins from 491 AD from the reign of Anastasius I. Since coins were used for trading it is common to find coins pertaining to a period before the actual occupying rulers came on the islands. It is also common to find their coins after the occupying power would have left.
During this period, coins were minted into three denominations, Follis of 40 Nummi (M), 20 Nummi (K), 10 Nummi (I), with the 5 Nummi (E) being introduced later. The size and weight of the coins at the beginning of this period reflected their denomination, but both gradually decreased so that the Follis was no larger than the 10 Nummi (I). Coins were reused and countermarked by later emperors.
The characteristics of the gold Solidus are a three- quarter bust front facing wearing military clothing. Anastasius minted this side with D(ominus) N(oster) ANASTASIVS P(er) P(etuus) AVG(ustsus) meaning Our lord Anastasius, Perpetual Emperor. Later, Phocas introduced the bearded bust whereas Heraclius introduced the double bust by adding his son’s to his.
The reign of Justinian I was considered as the ‘Golden age’ and that the gold money, which had no parallels, was accepted worldwide. His successor and nephew Justin II issued a new iconography for his Follis, of the emperor and empress sitting side by side on the throne. Double and even triple figures became very common in the 7th century.
Some Byzantine coins found in Malta showed Constantine and St. Helen, the mother of Constantine. Many thought that these coins had medicinal properties against epilepsy with records showing a doctor advising against such use.
Most of the Byzantine coins found in Malta are of Sicilian mint. The bronze coins minted in Sicily were quite crudely made. They reutilized previous coins and heavily countermarked them. From Heraclius up to Leo III the emperor’s name was struck in monograms.
Arab coins (870- 1090 AD)
The Arabs introduced a number of gold coins of various denominations, the Dinar, Half Dinar and Quarter Dinar which were minted in Sicily, namely at Palermo which the Arabs made as their capital when they conquered Sicily. They also issued silver Dirhams. None of the coins which were being used on our islands bear the name of Malta and the script on them was Cufic. The coins of this period bear no iconography but solely script praising the prophet Mohammed. The date and the location where the coins were minted are also indicated.
Norman coins (1090- 1194 AD)
During the Norman period, the coins were still being struck in Palermo and in Arabic script. The Tari d’Oro (quarter-dinar) started being circulated and these were eventually valued by weight since such weight varied a lot. The iconography of Roger I showed him mounted on horseback with a long spear in his hand. The reverse shows the Madonna with child. Under the reign of Roger II, the script remained in Arabic but the legend was a Christian one. William II, son of William I, introduced the Apuliense with various fractions instead of the Silver Ducale. With these coins he introduced a lion’s head and a palm tree amongst other icons.
Hohenstaufen - Swabian coins (1194-1266 AD)
Following Roger II’s death, Henry IV who was married to Constantine, Roger’s daughter became the rightful heir of Sicily. Henry replaced the copper Follaro with a base silver Denaro. The gold Tarì, which he continued minting was replaced by his successor Fredrick II. Fredrick II’s title was that of ‘Augustus and Caeser’ and he was very powerful in Sicily. He minted a new denomination, the gold Augustalis, which shows him draped in a tunic with a laurel wreath on his head with the words CESAR AVG/IMP ROM on the obverse. The reverse shows a wing-spreaded eagle with the words FRIDE RICVS. His successors, Conrad and Manfred, however reverted back to the gold Tarì.
House of Anjou ( 1226 – 1282)
Charles of Anjou kept minting the previous denominations such as the gold Tari and the silver Denari. However he also introduced new denominations, the gold Reale and the gold and silver Saluto. The gold Reale shows the bust of the King on the obverse with the fleur de lys coat of arms of Anjou. The Saluto portrays the Annunciation with the words AVE GRATIA PLENA DOMINVS TECUM on the obverse with the legend meaning Charles by the Grace of God, King of Jerusalem and Sicily, surrounding the Coat of Arms of Jerusalem and Anjou on the reverse.
House of Aragon
Malta was conquered by the Aragonese admiral in 1283. Peter of Aragon who had married into the Hohenstaufen family was crowned King of Sicily in 1282, one year before. Peter issued a new coin, the Pierreale, in both gold and silver. These coins have the Aragonese shield on the obverse and the wing-spreaded eagle on the reverse. The iconography of the coins remained the same throughout his succession, with just a change in the name of the current regnant. This changed with the reign of Ferdinand II, known as Ferdinand the Catholic who replaced the Aragonese emblem with a shield sowing the arms of Castile, Aragon and Sicily. The eagle became the emblem of Sicily, giving its name to the new denomination, the Aquila, which replaced the Pierreale. Charles V was the last regnant before donating the Maltese islands to the Order of the Knights of St John. Some of his coinage bears the cross of Jerusalem.
Courtesy of the National Museum of Archaeology