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Virtual Lecture: The J. William Holland Memorial Lecture—Ancient Coins with Peter van Alfen



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Photo courtesy Peter van Alfen; Tetradrachm (Coin) Depicting the Goddess Athena, 530–490 BCE. Gift of William F. Dunham

Join Peter van Alfen, chief curator at the American Numismatic Society, for a discussion on the relationship between political power and coinage with Liz Hahn Benge, collection manager of Arts of Africa and Arts of the Ancient Mediterranean and Byzantium.

The words and images that appear on the bills and coins we use today are clearly linked to the powers that issued them. Images of dead presidents and inscriptions like “United States of America” point to the authority of the federal government, and ancillary images, such as the Lincoln Memorial, serve to define our shared heritage as the nation of “We the People.”

Using coin imagery, or types (in numismatic parlance), to convey these concepts is a practice as old as coinage itself; indeed we don’t have to search far among Roman or Greek coins to find types expressly linked to the powers that issued them. It would seem a fair assumption, then, that coins served these purposes from the very beginning, explicitly linking money to political powers.

However, as van Alfen will illustrate, drawing on examples from the Art Institute’s collection and beyond, this assumption is seriously challenged by the sheer number of coin types, and even nontypes, found among the earliest coins—those struck between approximately 650 and 500 BCE. This evidence defies easy explanation and instead pushes us to reconsider not only the function of early coin types but the easy relationship between these types and archaic political powers.

We recommend using a laptop or desktop computer, and downloading the latest version of Zoom to enjoy this program.

If you have any questions about virtual programming, please reach out to

Closed captioning will be available for this program. For questions related to accessibility accommodations, please email


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