Thracian Tetradrachms
Origins and Collecting

Thracian tetradrachms, wildly abstracted derivations of Thasos tetradrachms minted on the Thracian mainland during the middle of the first century BC, are as intriguing as they're misunderstood. Among other things, there's misunderstanding, and disagreement, about who actually minted them.


In some popular references, such as David Sear's 1978 book Greek Coins and Their Values and Wayne G. Sayles' 1999 book Ancient Coin Collecting VI: Non-Classical Cultures, as well as in some coin auctions and by some coin dealers, abstracted imitations of Thasos tetradrachms are attributed as Celtic, specifically as being minted by the Danubian Celts (who lived in the region around the Danube River).

But many of those who've studied these coins in recent years disagree and believe they were minted by indigenous Thracians, including Derek Allen, author of the 1987 book Catalogue of the Celtic Coins in the British Museum, Vol. One: Silver Coins of the East Celts and Balkan Peoples and the 1980 book The Coins of the Ancient Celts, Daphne Nash, author of the 1987 book Coinage in the Celtic World, Yordanka Youroukova, who wrote the 1976 book Coins of the Ancient Thracians and numerous articles on Thracian coinage, Katalin Biró-Sey, who wrote the 1987 paper "Celtic Coins of the Danube Region in West Swedish Collections" and other numismatic works, and Theodore Gerassimov, author of numerous articles as well as books on Thracian coinage.

On the other hand, other experts such as Robert Göbl, Alexandru Sasianu, and Michaela Kostial refer to these coins as Celtic. Ilya Prokopov feels that some are of Thracian origin, some Celtic. Stavri Topalov feels that some are Thracian, some are Celtic, and some are Roman, though it seems unlikely that Romans, who prized order and organization, would have allowed coins minted under their authority to become so disjointedly abstracted in style.

"Nose Job." Dionysos has a large hooked nose and a weak mouth on this weakly struck and porous Thracian tetradrachm. Herakles has a bird-like head and very long neck. A number of these coins depict Herakles with a beak. The spiral in Dionysos' hair may represent a sun symbol. 16.2g, 33mm. Göbl Class III, Lukanc -.
For reasons both historical and aesthetic, I believe that the coins that I'm calling Thracian tetradrachms were struck for the most part by Thracians, not Celts. Historically, the Celts had only a minor presence in Thrace. They may have been the dominant people in western Europe during the period these coins were struck, but they were not dominant in Thrace or the rest of the Balkans. The Celts, migrating from the northwest, did have their own nation within Thrace before it was destroyed by the indigenous Thracians. But this occurred ca. 279-211 BC, well over a century before Thracian tetradrachms began being minted, and though some Celtic presence persisted in Thrace, it was far from dominant.

Aesthetically, both Thracian tetradrachms and Celtic coins follow similar patterns of abstraction/degradation. And with both types of coins, the degradation of reality often leads to an elevation of form and style and becomes art. But the art on Thracian tetradrachms is different from the art on Celtic coins that have emanated from regions including present-day Germany, France, and England. The Thracian art is angular, pointillistic, and geometric, while the Celtic art is fluid, curvilinear, and rubbery. As Nash has written, the appearance of Thracian tetradrachms "has nothing Celtic about it."

One would-be thorn in the side of this theory is the paucity of other Thracian art with styling that resembles Thracian tetradrachms. When looking at pictures of hundreds of Thracian votive reliefs, appliqués, rhytons, cupolas, friezes, phaleras, phiales, amphoras, cantharoses, and other artifacts excavated in recent years, it's clear that Thracian art on the whole strives to be representational, much like Greek art, if not always so successfully (though some experts regard qualities in Thracian art such as the absence of perspective in human forms as deliberate). Stylized animals appear in Thracian art, but it's Celtic art that tends more toward the abstract. Yet Celtic archeological finds are stylistically dissimilar from Thracian tetradrachms, as are the large number of varieties of coins that have been conclusively attributed to the Celts.

A solution to this dilemma I'd propose is that the Thracians were influenced by the contrarian, idiosyncratic style of Celtic coins, just as Thracian agricultural tools (though not arms and armor) for the most part were influenced by Celtic versions. The Celtic derivations of Philip II coinage circulated in Thrace, as did the derivations of Alexander the Great/Philip III coinage (there's also disagreement about whether this latter coinage was Celtic or Thracian). When the Thracians needed their own large silver coinage, they diverged from previous Greek coinage similarly, though not exactly, to the way the Celts diverged from previous Greek coinage. They put their own individual imprint on coins they were familiar with, changing them substantially but not completely.

Part of the reason for the attribution of Thracian tetradrachms to the Celts may result from the need to categorize and the inevitable reductionistic shoe-horning that results from it. It's simply easier to describe all the people of the European interior of this period as Celtic rather than to distinguish among the Celts and the Thracians, Ligurians, Venetians, Aquitanians, and so on. Some of this may be due to ignorance. And some may result from wanting to latch on to the romance and marketability of Celtic coins -- many people today in the U.S. and Europe feel an ancestral affinity to the ancient Celts. Celtic coins are simply sexier, and more saleable, than Thracian coins. (Some eBay dealers seem to attribute any coin as "Celtic" that's struck poorly or heavily worn.)

The Thracians and Celts were both Indo-European speaking peoples, but they diverged before the classical age, probably during the second millennium BC as they settled in their respective locations. Those who would become the Thracians settled in southern Europe, along with those who would become the Hellenes and the Italics, while those who would become the Germanics and Slavs settled in northern Europe, and those who would become the Celts settled in western Europe. These Indo-European speaking people likely begun migrating from the Caucasus or northern Asia Minor during the third millennium BC after the invention of the horse-drawn wheeled vehicle. With their superior technology, these Indo-European speaking peoples likely dominated then merged with the indiginous populations.

Later there was further migration and intermingling. At the time Thracian tetradrachms were minted, though Thrace was primarily Thracian, it was also inhabited by Greeks, Celts, Goths, Skythians, and Sarmatians, among others. Because of their geographic proximity and common ancestry, Thracians and Celts shared many characteristics, including a proclivity for warfare, horsemanship, metalwork, heroic ancestor worship, and political disunity. But it's without question that the Thracians and the Celts were distinct peoples, each with its own language and culture. The Celts were an interesting people, and so were the Thracians.

Coins of other peoples are sometimes misattributed in a similar way. The traditional method of lumping together under the Greek heading all coins produced by ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean and neighboring regions except Rome, I believe, compromises truth. The common Persian siglos, for instance, is anything but a Greek coin, just as its makers, the Persians, were anything but Greek. In ancient times, if you described a Persian as Greek, you very well could have had your head lopped off. (The same might be said today about Turkey and Greece.)

"Broken Man." Here's a Thracian tetradrachm that I bought like this, broken into four pieces. The seller said it had been broken in transit. This highly crystallized piece illustrates well what happens to silver coins internally as they age. All nearly pure silver crystallizes over time because of the inherent instability of silver and the small amounts of copper and lead that even relatively pure ancient silver is typically alloyed with. The copper and lead leaches or precipitates to the coin's surface over long stretches of time, causing voids between the silver grains and making the coin spongy and brittle. You can sometimes see under magnification feather-like crystals on the coin's surface, especially near the edges, though other times the crystallization is completely internal and invisible ... unless you're looking at a broken coin.

Thracian tetradrachms are among the most collectible, and affordable, of any large silver ancient coins. They generally range in price from about $50 to $400, depending on the beauty/wildness of the particular design and, as with other ancient coins, on such factors as the state of wear, the quality of the strike, the condition of the flan, the existence of any corrosion, the appearance of the patina, the presence of any tooling, and the dealer, auction house, or collector you buy from. Among the best sources I've found for these coins, which are typically dug up in Bulgaria, are Bulgarian ancient coin dealers.

Along with varying in style, Thracian tetradrachms exhibit considerable variability in weight, size, and fabric.

In ancient Thrace these coins were likely minted by different tribes using different production techniques, though it's not known which coins were minted by which tribes. Many were likely minted by the Odrysae, the most powerful Thracian tribe. Ivo Lukanc in his 1996 book Les Imitations Des Monnaies D'Alexandre Le Grand Et De Thasos argues that Thracian tetradrachms were issued by one tribe, using as justification for this their weight consistency, but I don't believe their weight is consistent enough to justify this conclusion.

Thracian and Thasos-type tetradrachms vary significantly in weight, according to a metrological analysis that Lukanc himself did, though most cluster around a narrower range. In weighing 941 mostly Thracian tetradrachms, he found that they range from 10 to 19 grams, though most weigh between 15.0 and 16.7 grams. In weighing 994 of the earlier Thasos-type tetradrachms, he found that as a whole they're slightly heavier and vary less in weight than Thracian tetradrachms, ranging from 11 to 19 grams, with most between 16.0 and 16.9 grams.

These coins also vary widely in diameter. Lukanc indicates that Thasos-type tetradrachms commonly range from 30mm to 36mm in diameter. Though he doesn't write about the flan sizes of Thracian tetradrachms, when I measured the maximum diameter of 693 Göbl Class III, IV, and V coins he pictured, I found that most also measure between 30mm and 36mm. Just as they vary more in weight than the Thasos-type tetradrachms, the Thracian tetradrachms vary more in size. The smallest of the Thracian tetradrachms was 24mm, the largest 39mm. Flan sizes as a whole increase slightly with an increase in abstraction, though even the most abstracted included examples of small, medium, and large flans.

Metrology of Thracian Tetradrachms

  Common Range Low High
Diameter 30-36mm 24mm 39mm
Weight 15.0-16.7g 10.0g 19.0g
The flans of Thracian tetradrachms also vary considerably. Most are round, but some have slight irregularities in their shape. Many are flat, but some are slightly convex/concave, and quite a few are bent or curled at one or more sides. Some have flat edges, some have hammered edges, and a few have edges with lips of slightly raised metal. Many have a die axis of 12 o'clock, though other axis relationships of obverse to reverse are common. The majority are well centered on both obverse and reverse.

A number of theories attempt to explain why many Thracian tetradrachms have bent flans. According to one theory, these coins were bent during circulation to test the integrity of the metal, just as some other coins were test-cut. If you bend a coin of good metal, the coin will just bend. If you bend a silver-plated counterfeit, or fourree, the plating will pop away or crack. According to another theory, the flans were bent after manufacture as a sign of valuation or ownership, much like a countermark.

Perhaps the most credible bent-flan theory, as explained by coin dealer Dimitre Genov of Ancient Auction House, is that these particularly issues were inadvertently bent because they were rolled during manufacture, not struck as were most, with the heavy weight that was used causing the edges to curl. Rolling gently with a heavy weight, compared with striking violently with a hammer, is thought to have prolonged the life of the dies.

Most Thracian tetradrachms have hammered edges, some more visibly than others. These coins are thought to have been produced from cast planchets, typically with three planchets having been cast at a time. The planchets were connected together -- blank three-coin connected planchets of this type have been found. Thracian moneyers may have poured molten silver into clay molds to form the planchets, or they may have melted silver nuggets or ingots inside the molds. After the silver cooled, they cut apart the three individual planchets, sometimes more neatly than other times. They then hammered the planchets, particularly at the edges, to flatten and smooth them, Finally they placed the planchets between the obverse and reverse dies, which were likely made from hardened bronze or possibly iron using bow drills, gravers, and abrasives.

"Mealy Mouth." On this Thracian tetradrachm, Dionysos looks as weak as Herakles, with bulging chest and leg muscles, looks strong. A mealy-mouth, weak-chin Dionysos is fairly common on both Thasos-type and Thracian tetradrachms. The legend on this coin is badly blundered, and the lion scalp on Herakles' left shoulder has transformed into a flowing diadem. The coin is slightly curled at the edges -- a number of Thracian tetradrachms have severely curled edges. But perhaps the most interesting characteristic of this coin in that it was overstruck on an Aesillas tetradrachm (thanks to Donald J. MacDonald, an overstruck coin specialist, for pointing this out). On Herakles' left knee, you can see remnants of the Q (short for Quaestor) that's on the reverse of these earlier Macedonian coins of the Roman quaestor Aesillas. Additionally, there are faint remnants of what are likely Alexander's hair locks at the metal disturbance on Dionysos' cheek. In both cases, there wasn't enough metal to completely fill the die with the restruck coin. A number of Thracian tetradrachms were struck on Aesillas tetradrachms as well as Athenian New Style tetradrachms. 16.4g, 34mm. Göbl Class III, Lukanc 1311.
Some Thracian tetradrachms have holes in their flans, indicating they were once used as jewelry or carried on a strap. Some have test cuts, often at the coin's edge and triangular in shape, sometimes into the surface of the obverse or reverse, indicating they were hammered with a chisel in ancient times to verify that the coin was solid silver and not a silver-plated fake. Some were overstruck on flans of previous coins such as Athenian New Style tetradrachms and Macedonian tetradrachms of the Roman quaestor Aesillas. A good number of Thasos-type tetradrachms were overstruck on previous tetradrachms of various types.

Patinas on Thracian tetradrachms are as variable as they are on other ancient silver coins. Some are an attractive uniform gun-metal gray, some lighter on the highpoints where they were recently buffed and darker in the recesses, some uniformly dark, some overcleaned and bright, some with an attractive frosted silver appearance, some with beautiful golden (silver sulfide) undertones, some with ugly blackish patches of horn-silver (silver chloride) corrosion.



Abstraction Progression


Imitations and Thrace

Art and Barbarism

Chronology and Attribution

Origins and Collecting



More Info

Other glomworthy coins:

Oldest Coins

 Athenian Owls

Alexander the Great Coins

Medusa Coins

Thracian Tetradrachms

House of Constantine

Draped Bust Coins

Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles

Coin sites:
Coin Collecting: Consumer Protection Guide
Glomming: Coin Connoisseurship
Bogos: Counterfeit Coins

© 2013 Reid Goldsborough

Note: Any of the items illustrated on these pages that are in my possession are stored off site.