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From the Origin of Coins to Croesus

By Walter M. Shandruk

The origin of ancient coins in the Mediterranean region is a problem fraught with a paucity of evidence yet demands an explanation. It is, indeed, a question concerning no less that the origin of the first coins in the world as Chinese coinage, which developed independently, did so approximately near the end of the 6th century, when coins in the Mediterranean were already well established. Credit for the development of the first coins often falls on either the Greek city states of Asia Minor or the Lydian kingdom. The latter, however, cannot be considered mutually exclusive from the Greek world, as Lydian culture had already been partially Hellenized by that period. Both in art and architecture Lydia had been influenced by Greek styles to the extent that it had a Greek agora in its capital Sardis.[1]

There are several indications that Lydia was indeed fundamentally involved in the origin of coins in the Mediterranean world. Firstly, the material of the earliest known coins suggests a Lydian origin. The coin horde from the Ephesian Artemisium a temple to the Goddess Artemis - and other finds throughout Asia Minor are consistently made of electrum. Electrum was an alloy of gold and silver that was available naturally in the silt of the river Paktolos which flows through Sardis[2] and was therefore a commodity largely controlled by the Lydian kings[3], but it should not be assumed that naturally occurring electrum was the sole source for early coins as there is evidence that the alloy of some Lydian coin issues were made of a controlled proportion of gold and silver, and there is evidence that during the first half of the 6th century B.C.E. gold and silver were being separated in Sardis. [4]Furthermore, later electrum issues from Cyzicus, Phokaea and Mytilene were composed of an artificially controlled ratio of gold to silver. This having been said, it would not be overstepping the evidence to suggest that the peculiarity of the usage of electrum for the first coins can be attributed to the inspiration offered by its natural occurrence in Lydia and so locating its origins therein.

Another indication that the earliest electrum coins were from Lydia is the distribution of weight standards to which they adhere. By far, the majority of early electurm finds, especially of those ninety-three pieces in the Artimision horde of Ephesus, conform to the Milesian weight standard, which was the weight standard of Lydia as well as the Ionian city-states of western Asia Minor. Only two coins from the Artimision horde are of a different weight standard, namely the Phokaic, and the usage of the seal (fwke) device on both makes the attribution to Phokaea even stronger.[5]

Just as the usage of the seal suggests an attribution of the above two coins to Phokaea, the wide ranging (although not exclusive) use of the of the lion on many other early electrum specimens under the Milesian weight standard further suggests Lydia as their origin, as the symbol lion was closely associated with the royal Mermnad dynasty of Lydia.[6]Forty seven (23 with lions head in profile, 22 with lions paw, 1 with lions head facing, and 1 with lion recumbent)[7] of the ninety three pieces found at the Artemisium used either a lions head or lions paw as their symbol, and forty five other pieces from a horde found at Gordion also carry this symbol.[8] With finds of the presumably Lydian style coinage in both Phrygia and Ionia, the coinage was seemingly widely used, but what motivated the minting of the first coinage is still uncertain. In recent decades a higher abundance of small fraction electrum coinage has been discovered,[9] which puts to doubt earlier assumptions that the first coins were minted mainly for large transactions. Reasonable speculation suggests that the smaller fractional pieces, of which the smallest are tiny bits of metal at 1/96th of a stater, were issued for use as civil service pay and in turn accepted as payment for taxes. Minting of fractional denominations quickly increased, and considering that nearly every other piece in a 6th century B.C.E. horde of 906 coins from western Asia Minor used a different die, suggests a very large minting, perhaps in the millions.[10] Nonetheless, the larger denominations were very likely used for expensive transactions, such as state purchasing of mercenaries or supplies,[11] or as in the case of the Artimision horde where most of the lion head types are one-third staters,[12] for wealthy dedicatory purposes.

Lydia, Asia Minor, 650-561 B.C.

One of the first coins produced with more than simple crude lines and punches were the lion head types of Lydia. These coins retained the general nugget shape and two reverse incuse punch marks of the earlier globule and striated types.

Figure 1. Electrum 1/3 stater, Triton III 535-536, Dewing 2421-23, Weidauer 86-89, Rosen 655-666, 4.70g, 12.7mm;
obverse head of roaring lion right, knob with multiple rays on forehead; reverse double incuse punch

Having reasonably secured the region of origin for the first Mediterranean coins in Lydia, we come up against the more difficult issue of timing. The Artimision coin horde in Ephesus was accompanied by many other dedicatory items, including jewelry, which have been dated anywhere from the late 7th

Figure 2. Source Artemisium peripteros with cella in center surrounded by six columns (from Antike Welt, Sondernr. 27 (1996), fig. 32)

century (circa 600) B.C.E.[13] to the early 6th century (circa 560) B.C.E.[14] The pot in which one of the two parts of the Artimision coin horde was found dates to the late 7th century (circa 650-625) B.C.E., although this does not necessarily indicate that the coins must date from the same period as they couldve been placed in the pot much later. [15] The restoration of the temple by the Lydian king Croesus does give us a terminus ante quem for the placing of the coins. Following the destruction of the Artimision in the 7th century by the Cimmerians, it was rebuilt by Croesus, who came to power in 561 B.C.E. Part of the cella (an enclosure within Greek and Roman temples which consisted of the primary sanctuary in which a statue of a god was situated) of the old temple was reused during the reconstruction, and it is under this part that the aforementioned horde was found during excavations in 1904-1905. Thus, our finds could have been placed there no later than 561 B.C.E., which gives us a preliminary date to work with. In addition, if we presume that the items were placed under the cella no earlier than the destruction of the temple, then we have an upper bound of 626 B.C.E., being the date in which Ashurbanipal died and before which it is surmised that the Cimmerians did their deed.[16] Furthermore, based on type style, the coins suggest a 7th century B.C.E. artistic influence, particularly in the nose wart on many third-staters of the lion head type, which is reminiscent of 7th century B.C.E. Assyrian art.[17] However, as we know from later issues of coins, such as the famous owl series of tetradrachms minted in Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries, coins tend to have a conservative tendency, preserving older styles under which they were issued so as to allow for a continuity in recognition of the coins as authentic and official. This would suggest that although the Artimision coin horde doesnt necessarily date to the 7th century B.C.E., the coin types may be based on dies that do date that far back. Coupled with our upper limit of 626 B.C.E. the stylistic evidence is tempting, but not conclusive.

Another point of controversy which has been used to push the estimates for the first coins back as far as possible is based on the varieties of coins found in the Artimision horde. Five varieties can be been distinguished, with the first three of particular interest:

  1. Essentially unmarked blank with no punch (2 pieces, one an 1/8th and another a 1/24th of a Milesian stater).

  2. Type-less pieces with an incuse punch on one side (3 pieces, 1/24th, 1/48th, and 1/96th of a Milesian stater).

  3. Type-less pieces with a striated surface on one side (4 pieces, one 1/6th, two 1/24th and one 1/48th of a Milesian stater).

  4. Several coins like c have various device types on the striated side.

  5. All of the rest have coin-types (lions head or paw, horses head, beetle, griffins head, etc) and make use of incuse punches.

The first four varieties have been suggested as representative of the earliest phases of the development of coins, and are indeed unique, as types a, b, c, and d have not been found anywhere else. Type a essentially represents a pre-coin, not having any mark designating it as an official medium of exchange, but resting its validity strictly on the precious metal content based on the Milesian weight standard. Type b can be interpreted as a secondary phase in coin development where punches were employed for the dual purpose of 1) visually proving the content of the piece by cutting into the metal and confirming to those who would use it that it is not simply token metal plated with a precious metal, and 2) to keep the metal from slipping while being struck. Type c with striated side can be understood as an analogous development to type b where a method was employed for keeping the metal from slipping during striking (the striations), and type d an evolution of type c, where a device type was finally placed on the striated side. Twenty typed coins from the Artemisium horde are striated (13 with cocks confronting, and 7 with goats head and neck). Finally, once it was realized that punches on the reverse side are sufficient to keep the coin from slipping during striking, the technique employing striation was phased out, resulting in a method recognizable henceforth in Mediterranean coins for centuries to come: obverse with device type and reverse with punch, sometimes with a design in the punch field.[18]

It is tempting to interpret these rare finds in this manner, and it has traditionally been done so, however, in the last two decades, criticism has been mounting in interpreting the finds of the Artimision horde as indicative of phases in the evolution of coins. The most striking contradiction comes from a die study of the horde finds, which indicates that in at least one case, the punch on a type b "pre-coin was struck with the same die as the punch on a type e coin. This deals a perhaps insurmountable blow to the above interpretation of the finds, clearly suggesting that at the very least, some typless and typed coins with reverse punches were struck at the same time. If, however, typless and typed coins, and even striated pieces, were minted contemporaneously with each other, we are no closer to understanding the motivation for minting such an unusual and rare variety. It may well be that typed coins developed within a very short period, and so the die cutters continued to employ the same reverse punches.

Unfortunately, too many questions remain open, and we are still left with the previously determined upper and lower bounds 626 B.C.E. and 561 B.C.E., respectively, for the coin horde. What is clear, however, is that shortly after the accession of Croesus to the throne, a new bimetallic denominational system was issued by him. These are the famous "croeseids, related to us by Herodotus, bearing the obverse type of confronting lion and bull and one or two reverse incuse punches. The first series of gold staters issued under Croesus were intended to aid in phasing out the 14.2g Milesian standard electrum stater by issuing lighter gold staters at 10.89g which were of equivalent value to the former.[19] This allowed an easy conversion between the two systems. Silver staters were issued at the same weight as the gold. After several years the period indeterminate the gold stater was reduced in weight to 8.17g resulting in a convenient conversion between the gold and silver staters with a ration of 1:10. [20] In addition, half-staters were issued which allowed for a 1:20 gold:silver ratio. As for fractional issues, several varieties were minted, some as tiny as 0.36g.[21] Such a bimetallic system was the first known in the world, and probably was the first to utilize specifically silver coins, although the use of silver in coinage, facilitated by the rich silver deposits on the Greek mainland and islands, was soon adopted throughout the Greek world probably as early as the 550s[22] by the cities of Mysia, Ionia, Caria, the Carian islands, and various Aegean islands, with perhaps the most famous and widespread of the late 6th century B.C.E. being the Aeginetan staters with turtle on obverse and incuse punch with various patterns on reverse. These have been found in the Persepolis horde datable to 515 B.C.E,[24] but probably were in use earlier yet. Many silver denominations date to circa 530 B.C.E,[23] over a decade after Lydia had been conquered by the Persians. By circa 500 B.C.E. silver coinage was being widely minted throughout the Mediterranean, such as in Greece, Italy, and Sicily, including those Hellenized regions that came under the control of the Persian empire such as Asia Minor and Cyrenaica in northern Africa.[25]

It is known that once the Persian empire conquered the region in 547 B.C.E., they continued minting coins in the regions whose economies had come to employ them. In Lydia, it is also clear that the same mint at Sardis continued to function following the rise of the Persians, as many of the above "croeseid issues continued to be minted, although with a degradation in artistic quality.[26] Indeed, the majority of half-staters date from the Persian period, as indicated by finds in the Persepolis horde where many "croeseids were found[27], which has led some numismatists to speculate whether they are strictly a development during the early Persian period, although this is unlikely.  [28]

The development of Croesus bimetallic coinage system is a watershed event in early numismatic history, as it clearly delineates between the earlier period in which electrum coins were exclusively used and the latter period, in which silver coins quickly took root throughout the Mediterranean. By how many years prior to Croesus the electrum coins represented in the Artimision horde were minted can not be determined, although stylistically they hark back to the 7th century B.C.E, and our upper bound date of consideration is 626 B.C.E. Unfortunately, without further horde evidence, the best we may be able to say is that coinage began with electrum somewhere between the end of the 7th century B.C.E. and the accession of Croesus in 561 B.C.E., with many unknowns in between.

Ephesos, Ionia, Asia Minor, c. 650 B.C.?

Another of the earliest coins was minted at Ephesos in Ionia. Coins of Ephesos most frequently depicted a bee on the obverse. The bee on this coin is very archaic. Only 12 examples of this extremely rare coin are known to exist.

Figure 3. Electrum hemihecte (1/12 stater), unpublished, VF+, 1.15g, 7.9mm, c. 650 B.C.?; obverse very archaic bee, reverse quatrefoil flower

Uncertain city, Ionia, Asia Minor, 650-590 B.C.

Another early coin type from Ionia, presented below, is a bit of a mystery. The type is referred to as "geometric" for obvious reasons. The city of origin is unknown. The date of issue is uncertain. CNG has dated them from 650-600 B.C. Jonathan Kern believes they are more likely from 610-590 B.C. The meaning of the designs is also uncertain and there is no relationship between the patterns and the denominations. These coins may be the very first that circulated in everyday use. Unlike other coins from the 7th century, these coins have been found in worn circulated condition.

Figure 4. Electrum Geometric Trite (1/3 stater), Traite pl. 1, 4 (same dies), Svoronos pl. 16, 8 (same dies), gVF, 4.64g, 13.1 x 10.7mm, obverse geometric pattern of an irregular square bisected by crossing lines, reverse geometric incuse rectangular punch of 12 compartments the two largest containing pellets

Figure 5. Electrum Geometric Hecte (1/6 stater), Traite pl. 1, 4 (same dies), Svoronos pl. 16, 8 (same dies), gVF, 3.20g, 9.9 x 8.8mm, obverse geometric pattern of an irregular square bisected by crossing lines, reverse geometric incuse rectangular punch of 12 compartments the two largest containing pellet

Figure 6. Electrum Geometric hemihecte (1/12 stater), similar to CF Rosen 279 (1/24th) but unlisted denomination, aEF, 1.14g, 8mm, obverse geometric pattern of an irregular square bisected by crossing lines, reverse geometric square punch with eight triangular compartments

Kings of Lydia, King Kroisos, c. 561 - 546 B.C., Lydia, Asia Minor
King Kroisos minted the first silver and gold coins. He was famous for his extraordinary wealth, but with his defeat by Kyros in 546 B.C. Lydia became a Persian satrapy.

Figure 7. Silver siglos (half-stater), SNG Cop 456, SNG Kayhan 1024, SNG von Aulock 2877, S 3420, BMC 46, choice gVF, toned, 5.36g, 16.2 x 12.1mm, Sardis? mint, obverse confronted foreparts of roaring lion on right and bull on left, pellet over head of lion; reverse double incuse punch, larger punch on the side of the lion

Persian Empire, Artaxerxes I - Darius III, c. 450 - 330 B.C., Lydia, Asia Minor
Minted in Lydia, Asia Minor while under Persian control, prior to Alexander the Great's conquest.

Figure 8. Gold daric, S 4679, choice EF, 8.36g, 15.3mm, obverse Bearded archer (the Great King) kneeling right holding spear and bow; reverse Oblong punch

  [1] "Ancient History from Coins, Christopher Howgego, p. 2.

  [2] "Ancient Greek Coins, G. K. Jenkins, p. 14.

  [3] "Archaic and Classical Greek Coins, Colin M. Kraay, p. 28.

  [4] "Ancient History from Coins, Christopher Howgego, p. 4.

  [5] "Archaic and Classical Greek Coins, Colin M. Kraay, p. 21, "Ancient History from Coins, Christopher Howgego, p. 3.

  [6i] Ibid. p. 24.

  [7] Ibid. p. 22.

  [8] "Ancient History from Coins, Christopher Howgego, p. 3.

  [9] Ibid. p. 6.

  [10] "Ancient History from Coins, Christopher Howgego, p. 7.

  [11] Ibid. p. 3.

  [12] "Ancient Greek Coins, G. K. Jenkins, p. 14.

  [13] Ibid. 12.

  [14] "Ancient History from Coins, Christopher Howgego, p. 7.

  [15] Ibid. p. 2.

  [16] "Archaic and Classical Greek Coins, Colin M. Kraay, p. 40.

  [17] "Ancient Greek Coins, G. K. Jenkins, p. 12.

  [18] "Archaic and Classical Greek Coins, Colin M. Kraay, pp. 21-22.

  [19] "Archaic and Classical Greek Coins, Colin M. Kraay, pp. 31.

  [20] Ibid. p. 31.

  [22] "Ancient Greek Coins, G. K. Jenkins, p. 18.

  [23] "Archaic and Classical Greek Coins, Colin M. Kraay, pp. 43.

  [24] "Greek Coins and their Values, Volume 2, David R. Sear. Some examples: Kyzikos, 3475, Tendos 3481, Lesbos 3483, Phokaea 3495, Klazomenia 3501-6, Chios 3507-17, Samos 3518-21, Caria (uncertain mints) 3534-39, etc. 

  [25] "Ancient History from Coins, Christopher Howgego, p. 6.

  [27] "Ancient Greek Coins, G. K. Jenkins, p. 21.

  [28] "Ancient History from Coins, Christopher Howgego, p. 4.

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