Numismatics is the science which has for its object the study of coins and medals, especially those struck by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The word is derived from the Greek νομισμα, or the Latinnumuscoin or medal. Numismatics is now regarded as indispensable to archæology, and to a thorough acquaintance of the fine arts; it is also of great assistance in philology and the explanation of the ancient classics; it appears to have been entirely unknown to the ancients, but since the middle of the sixteenth century, it has occupied the attention of many learned men.

The name of coins is given to pieces of metal, on which the public authority has impressed different marks to indicate their weight and value, to make them a convenient medium of exchange. By the wordmedals, when used in reference to modern times, is understood pieces of metal similar to coins but not intended as a medium of exchange, but struck and distributed to commemorate some important event, or in memory of some distinguished personage. The name of medals, however, is also given to all pieces of money which have remained from ancient times. The term medallion is given to medals of a very large size, many of them being several inches in diameter. The parts of a coin or medal are the two sides; first, the obverse side, face or head, which contains the portrait of the person at whose command or in whose honor it was struck, or other figures relating to him: this portrait consists either of the head alone, or the bust, half length, or full figure; second, the reverse contains mythological, allegorical, or historical figures. The words around the border form the legend, and those in the middle the inscription. The lower part of the coin, which is separated by a line from the figures or the inscription, is the basis orexergue, and contains subsidiary matter, as the date, the place where the piece was struck, etc.

Numismatics has the same divisions as history.—Ancient Numismatics extends to the extinction of the empire of the West; the Numismatics of the middle ages commences with Charlemagne; and modern Numismatics with the revival of learning.

Medals indicate the names of provinces and cities, determine their position, and present pictures of many celebrated places. They fix the period of events, frequently determine their character, and enable us to trace the series of kings. They also enable us to learn the different metallurgical processes, the different alloys, the modes of gilding and plating practiced by the ancients, the metals which they used, their weight and measures, their different modes of reckoning, the names and titles of the various kings and magistrates, and also their portraits, their different divinities, with their attributes and titles, the utensils and ceremonies of their worship, the costume of their priests—in fine, everything which relates to their usages, civil, military, and religious. Medals also acquaint us with the history of art. They contain representations of several celebrated works of antiquity which have been lost, the value of which may be estimated from the ancient medals of those still existing, as the Farnese Hercules, Niobe and her Children, the Venus of Gnidos, etc. Like gems and statues, they enable us to trace the epochs of different styles of art, to ascertain its progress among the most civilized nations, and its condition among the rude.

The ancient medals were struck or cast; some were first cast and then struck. The first coins of Rome and other cities of Italy must have been cast, as the hammer could not have produced so bold a relief. The copper coins of Egypt were cast. The right of coining money has always been one of the privileges which rulers have confined to themselves. The free cities have inscribed only their names on their coins. The cities subject to kings sometimes obtained permission to strike money in their own name, but were most frequently required to add the name or image of the king to whom they were subject. The medals of the Parthians and the Phœnecians offer many examples of this sort. Rome, under the republic, allowed no individual the right to coin money; no magistrate could put his name thereon, though this honor was sometimes allowed, as a special favor, by a decree of the Senate. We can count as numismatic countries only those into which the Greeks and Romans carried the use of money; though some of the oriental nations used gold and silver as a medium of exchange, before their time it was by weight. The people in the northern part of Europe had no money.

The coins preserved from antiquity are estimated to be more numerous than those we possess from the middle ages, in the proportion of a hundred to one! Millin thinks that the number of extant ancient medals amounts to 70,000! What a fund of the most curious and authentic information do they contain, and what a multitude of errors have been corrected by their means! There are valuable cabinets of medals in all the principal cities of Europe; that of Paris is by far the richest; Pillerin alone added to it 33,000 ancient coins and medals. The coins of the kings of Macedon are the most ancient of any yet discovered having portraits; and Alexander I., who commenced his reign about B.C. 500, is the earliest monarch whose medals have yet been found. Then succeed the sovereigns who reigned in Sicily, Caria, Cyprus, Heraclea, and Pontus. Afterwards comes the series of kings of Egypt, Syria, the Cimmerian Bosphorus, Thrace, Parthia, Armenia, Damascus, Cappadocia, Paphlagonia, Pergamos, Galatia, Cilicia, Sparta Pæonia, Epirus, Illyricum, Gaul, and the Alps. This series reaches from the time of Alexander the Great to the Christian Era, comprising a period of about 330 years. A perfect and distinct series is formed by the Roman emperors, from the time of Julius Cæsar to the destruction of the empire, and even still later. The Grecian medals claim that place in a cabinet, from their antiquity, which their workmanship might ensure them, independently of that advantageous consideration. It is observed by Pinkerton, that an immense number of the medals of cities, which, from their character, we might judge to be of the highest antiquity, have a surprising strength, beauty, and relief in their impressions. About the time of Alexander the Great, this art appears to have attained its highest perfection. The coins of Alexander and his father exceed in beauty all that were ever executed, if we except those of Sicily, Magna Grecia, and the ancient ones of Asia Minor. Sicilian medals are famous for workmanship, even from the time of Gelo. The coins of the Syrian kings, successors to Alexander, almost equal his own in beauty; but adequate judges confine their high praises of the Greek mint to those coins struck before the subjection of Greece to the Roman empire. The Roman coins, considered as medals in a cabinet, may be divided into two great classes—the consular and the imperial; both are numerous and valuable. In the cabinet of the Grand Duke of Tuscany is a set of twelve medals of Antonius Pius, each with one of the signs of the Zodiac on the reverse, and part of another set, eight in number with as many of the labors of Hercules.