Ancient Greek coins have a variety of attributes that enable difference between the contexts of individual poleis. Each polis independently designed and created its own coins, with symbols that were representative of the deities and heroes important to that particular government. This theme supersedes all of the other trends in Greek coin making through the centuries.
Archaic period coins are simple and crude. Rather than being symmetrically round, they approximate lumps of metal that have been pressed into irregular disks. Usually made from gold, silver, or electrum, they have a basic impression of the patron deity of the originating polis.
During the classical period, coin-making techniques were refined. Most coins were minted from gold or silver. The coins were more consistently shaped, with intricate representations of deities or heroes on one side and a symbol for the polis on the reverse. Inscriptions were initially incorporated into the design for coins created during the Classical period. Coin designers paid special attention to the meaning of the symbols, and used them to incorporate political messages into the currency. For example, coins depicting an owl (a symbol for wisdom) are usually from Athens during the fourth and fifth centuries BC, when the polis was focusing on portraying an image of peaceful strength and power.
Hellenistic period coins are not as detailed as Classical period coins because they were designed to be easier to mass produce for wider circulation. They are most commonly mined from gold and are often much larger than their predecessors. While earlier coins only featured images of animals or inanimate objects, for the first time, Greek coins depicted living people, such as a profile of the ruler of the issuing polis. The name of the ruler may be inscribed under the portrait, and on the reverse of the coin is usually a symbol for the polis.
Greek coin denominations are determined by weight. Gold coins were measured in terms of the stater, which could be divided into smaller denominations. Silver coins were measured in terms of the drachm, which could either be divided into smaller denominations or multiplied into larger denominations. Bronze coins were measured in terms of the litra. Despite the standardization in the assignment of names to the units of measurement, however, each polis defined the units of measurement differently, such that how much a stater, drachm or litra weighed in one polis did not necessarily correlate to the weights for the same units of measurement in other poleis. Thus, what suffices as a drachm in one polis may have been too light or too heavy to be used as a drachm in another polis.