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The First Coins and the Birth of Coinage

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My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over sixty books.

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A Time Before Coins

Since the dawn of recorded history men and women have traded goods with each other to get thing they needed or wanted: eggs for firewood, onions for a blanket… The list goes on and on. To make this trading process or barter easier people began introducing items that acted as units of value, and these were early examples of currency. The first known examples of currency or money go back to the eight century BC in China where knives, hoes, and billhooks (pruning tools) with inscriptions designating the authority of the issuer were used as money. The durable and malleable properties of metals have always made them a natural choice as the basis of any system of money. The Ancient Egyptians, who did not develop a coinage system, used bars of gold of a set weight starting around the 4th millennium BC. In the Middle East, gold rings served both as jewelry and a form of currency along with gold and silver bars that could be cut to fixed weights. The type of metal used in these units of exchange depended largely on a local source of metal. In towns and cities along the coast of the Aegean Sea, ingots of copper weighing up to 55 pounds became a unit of exchange. In Italy, lumps of bronze, known as aes rude, formed a currency in early times, followed by bars of regular weight.

These early forms of “heavy” currencies derived from copper, iron, and bronze were useful metals suitable for making tools, weapons, and implements. The introduction of precious metals of gold and silver as a medium of exchange made it imperative to standardize the weight and purity of the metal bars and ingots. Once it became commonplace for small quantities of gold and silver to be accepted as units of value for trade, the door was opened for a true coinage system to emerge.

Spade money from China, c. 650-400 BC.

Spade money from China, c. 650-400 BC.

The First Coins

Around 2700 years ago, the early Greeks began to make crude coins out of precious metals to facilitate trade at home and with cities around the Mediterranean Sea. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus, writing in about 430 BC, reported the Lydians as “the first people we know of to strike coins of silver and gold.” The oldest known coins were unearthed in 1904 by British Museum archaeologists at the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. The temple was dedicated to Artemis, Greek goddess of the wilderness, wild animals, and the moon. The elaborate temple is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The ancient city of Ephesus is located on the western coastline of modern-day Turkey on the Aegean Sea. British archaeologists unearthed about 90 coins made of electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver, at the temple site. The stash of coins consisted of some that were crude lumps of electrum of uniform weight and others that were marked with a simple punch, with the remainder of the coins bearing a combination of animal representations and punch marks. The coins were found in a stratum of soil that predated King Croesus, who reigned over Lydia from 560 BC until his defeat by the Persian king Cyrus the Great around 546 BC. This indicates the coins were probably struck before the reign of Croesus, and the coins could date as early as the reign of Gyges or one of his descendants in the early to mid-seventh century BC. The image of a lion found on early Lydian coins gives credence to the conjecture since the lion was part of the coat of arms of Gyges and his dynasty.

Map of Ancient Lydian Empire under King Croesus, c. 547 BC.

Map of Ancient Lydian Empire under King Croesus, c. 547 BC.

Electrum Coins of Lydia

The prevalent denomination for the early Lydian electrum coins is the 1/3 stater, or trite, which weighs approximately 4.7 grams. The design consists of a forceful lion’s head facing right with an open mouth and a radiant sun above the forehead. The reverse design has a double incuse punch-mark. The relatively high value of the full stater, a little over 14 grams of electrum, relegated it to higher value transactions, such as purchasing houses, cattle, and land. The coins of that period were struck by starting with a carefully measured quantity of electrum and then striking the lump or blank with a punch that drove the metal into a cavity that contained the design. The square punch was probably held by one man while another swung a heavy mallet to provide the necessary force to cause the metal to flow into the cavity. The larger lumps of electrum had to be heated before striking to allow the increased quantity of metal to flow into the die cavity.

The king’s control of the mining of gold and silver resulted in the accumulation of great wealth for the royal treasury in the early sixth century BC. The last and most famous of the Lydian kings, Croesus, abandoned the use of electrum in favor of a dual coinage system of gold and silver. The bi-metallic coin system allowed for smaller denomination silver coins to be stuck that could be used in daily business transactions. The gold coins were valued at 13 times that of an equal weighted silver coin. Both the silver and gold coins featured the forepart of a ferocious lion attacking a bull. The reverse has the incused punch marks from the striking process. The purchasing power of the coins by today’s standards is hard to exactly determine; however, it is estimated that the gold coins were roughly a month’s wage for a laborer.

Early sixth century BC Lydian electrum 1/3 stater.

Early sixth century BC Lydian electrum 1/3 stater.

King Croesus and the Birth of a Coinage System

King Croesus was known for his great wealth as recorded by the first century Greek writer Plutarch, who described the king as being, “…decked out with everything in the way of precious stones, dyed raiment, and wrought gold that men deem remarkable, or extravagant, or enviable, in order that he might present a most august and gorgeous spectacle.” However, Croesus’ luck began to turn as he grew concerned about the aggression of the Persian Empire to the west, prompting him to launch a preemptive strike against the Persians. The Lydians turned out to be no match for the Persian army, resulting in the end of the reign of King Croesus over the Lydian Empire. The Persians readily accepted the coinage system of the Lydians and adopted it to their own use. Late in the sixth century BC, the Persians began to issue a parallel coinage of gold and silver known as darics and sigloi. These coins were of similar size and weight to those of the Lydians but depicted a standing king with various weapons.

Aegina and the Turtle Coins

As the coins from Lydia and Persia began to spread throughout the towns and cites that dotted the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea, it was only natural that other cities adopted their own coins for trade. It didn’t take the merchants on the island of Aegina (or Aigina), located off the coast of Athens, long to grasp the utility of coinage and they began to produce their own silver coins. They first produced an electrum stater with a sea turtle on the obverse and a punch mark on the reverse. The sea turtle was important to the Aeginetes because it represented their dependance on the sea and it was the sacred animal of the goddess Aphrodite. Next, they began to produce silver stater coins of a similar design in larger quantities using silver from the nearby island of Siphnos. The coins are often crudely struck with a crack in the metal being common. Improvements were made in the coins around the end of the sixth century BC when better-defined reverse punches were used. Over time the minters of the coins improved their skills, making the turtle bolder and with better detail. In the middle of the fifth century BC the city-state of Athens rose in power, conquered Aegina, and put an end to their sea turtle design, replacing it with a land tortoise. The turtle coins became Europe’s first coins and their usage spread rapidly throughout the Mediterranean world.

Silver stater of Aegina, c. 550 to 530 BC. The obverse features a sea turtle, and the reverse consists of an incused punch mark.

Silver stater of Aegina, c. 550 to 530 BC. The obverse features a sea turtle, and the reverse consists of an incused punch mark.

Athenian Owl Silver Coin

During the fifth century BC the city-state of Athens became one of the preeminent powers in the Mediterranean world, politically, militarily, and culturally. After the soldiers of Athens repealed the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, Athens began its transformation under the leadership of its leading citizen, Pericles, into the political, artistic, and intellectual center of the Grecian world. It was during this period, which we now call the golden age of Athens, that democracy took root, the Parthenon was built, and philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle roamed the streets. It was also when the citizens of Athens produced a large silver coin called a tetradrachm, which featured the goddess Athena on the obverse and an owl with the inscription AΘE on the reverse. The owl was Athena’s favorite animal and the inscription AΘE was an abbreviation for AΘENAION, meaning “of the Athenians.”

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The heavy silver tetradrachm was minted in large quantities with silver from the mines at Laurium. The basic design of the owl coin was produced for around 400 years and gradually improved in quality over the centuries. In 449 BC the designs were revised, and production was rapidly increased to keep up with demands to fund large building projects and the Peloponnesian War that had started in 431 BC. The value of the thick silver coins, about the diameter of a U.S. quarter, was too high for routine daily purchases, relegating the coin to being used for larger transactions. To facilitate day-to-day purchases, a series of smaller denomination coins were produced, down to the tiny hemitartemorion, which weighs less than a tenth of a gram. The consistent design, purity, and weight made the coin a global standard for trade throughout the ancient world.

An Athenian “Owl” tetradrachm from after 499 BC, showing the head of Athena and the owl on the reverse.

An Athenian “Owl” tetradrachm from after 499 BC, showing the head of Athena and the owl on the reverse.

The Spread of Coins Throughout Europe and Asia

Around the Aegean Sea area many of the city-states began to strike their own coins as a matter of civic pride and to facilitate trade. By around 500 BC, coinage of various sizes and designs had spread throughout much of the Greek and Persian Empires. As minting techniques improved so did the quality and beauty of the coins. Gradually the crude punch marks of the reverses were replaced with detailed designs. The Greeks preferred simple motifs for their coins, often featuring animals and their various gods. Images of bulls, birds, lions, goats, chickens, and some vegetables are often seen on their coins. The city-state of Corinth developed beautiful coins featuring the mythological winged horse Pegasus while Syracuse minted the very artistic decadrachm. The coin depicts a profile of Arethusa, a nymph of springs and water, wearing a crown of leaves. The goddess has a triple-pendant earring and necklace with her portrait surrounded by four swimming dolphins. The reverse features four horses pulling a chariot while the god Nike flies above.

As a result of the Peloponnesian War that pitted Sparta and her allies against Athens and the city-states in her domain, the silver from the mines at Laurium was cut off to Athenians by the Spartans. By 407 BC the shortage of precious metals had become acute, forcing Athenians to melt golden statues from the Parthenon to make coins. This shortage of silver coins brought about the introduction of bronze coins, which turned out to be unpopular substitutes for the small fractional silver coins. As it became apparent that Athens was losing the war with Sparta, city after city began to abandon Athens, sparking a flurry of independent coinage being struck in these cities.

During the period of the conquests of Alexander the Great, vast quantities of coins were struck at various mints from Macedonia to Babylon with uniform types and weights. After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, his generals parceled off his kingdom and issued coins of their own design. Alexander’s spread of the Hellenic culture was evident with the issuance of Greek style coins by the Arsacid kings of Parthia and the Bactrian kings that ruled the lands that are part of modern-day Turkey and Pakistan.

As the use of coins became widely adopted, they spread throughout the Greek domain into the far reaches of Europe, Persia, and much of Asia. By the opening of the first century of the Common Era, coinage had spread throughout much of Europe and Asia. The continents of Africa, North America, and South America relied heavily on imported coins from Europe and Asia to support their economies. It was not until relatively modern times that any significant quantities of coins were produced on these three continents.

Syracuse silver decadrachm coin, c. 404 – 390 BC.

Syracuse silver decadrachm coin, c. 404 – 390 BC.

What Does It Cost to Own One of These Early Coins?

A surprising number of the early Lydian coins still exist; though not cheap, they are actively collected. The smaller denomination coins in silver, such as the 1/12 stater issued under King Croesus, can be purchased in the range of $400 to $500. Unless you are buying from a coin dealer with a noted expertise in ancient coins, it is always wise to purchase coins graded by one of the professional grading services–NGC, PCGS, ANACS, or ICG. A full stater silver coin from that period in VF condition will cost around $3,000. Prices go up from there. Take, for example, the silver “heavy stater” in top condition; it is worth around $8,000. The earlier gold and electrum coins in top condition become very expensive and out of the range of the average collector. The silver drachm turtle coins from Aegina, c. 480 to 457 BC, sell in the $1,000 to $2,000 range, while the Athenian “Owl” tetradrachm can be had for less than a $1,000 in well circulated condition.

References

  • Bressett, Kenneth. Milestone Coins: A Pageant of the World’s Most Significant and Popular Monies. Atlanta: Whitman Publishing, LLC, 2007.
  • Morris, Ian and Barry B. Powell. The Greeks: History, Culture, and Society. Second Edition. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2010.
  • Sayles, Wayne G. Ancient Coin Collecting II: Numismatic Art of the Greek World. Iola: Krause Publications, 2007.
  • The New Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1994.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Doug West

Comments

Doug West (author) from Missouri on April 03, 2021:

Glad you liked it. Coins and money are things we take for granted, but they had to be invented.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on April 03, 2021:

Doug, a most interesting and informative article with great photos. Thank you for this great piece of history.

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