The world’s first coins were minted in ancient Lydia


A Lydian gold stater, one of the earliest coins in the world. These coins were the very first coins to be used in the world. Credit: Mark Cartwright/ CC4

Ancient Lydia holds the distinction of creating the world’s first coins; At first not much more than drops of metal with basic stamps, they quickly turned into beautiful works of art in their own right, featuring characters from Greek mythology.

Created as a means of authenticating payment, currency represents a sea change in human development that was part of the growing complexity of trade between peoples as early as 600 BC.

Coinage as we know it today was first minted in Lydia, an Anatolian kingdom with ties to ancient Greece. Kingdom of the legendary King Croesus, it is normal that the coins produced there are shiny gold and silver.

Lydia’s gold staters were the world’s first coins

The Lydian stater became the official coin of the Lydian Empire, which flourished for many years before falling into the Persian Empire. The earliest coins on the planet are believed to date back to around the second half of the 7th century BC, during the reign of King Alyattes, who was in power from 619 to 560 BC.

Numismatic historians agree that the Lydian stater was the very first coin officially issued by a government and served as the model for virtually all subsequent coins everywhere.

Unlike other tokens or items used in barter, coins are issued by a central authority or government. Of course, a coin can be made of any substance, but due to a need for durability, it was made of metal from this period.

Of course, when they were made of a precious metal like gold, they had their own intrinsic value. Other features of coins that have made them so revolutionary are that they are portable, hard to counterfeit, and have some value, either inherently or by decree set by the government.

Two staters with stamps
Lydian gold stater coins. Credit: Mark Cartwright/CC4-1

Lydia’s gold coins also featured stunning scenes from Greek mythology

According to the 19th century historian Barclay V. Head, “the precious metals had long … recommended themselves to the civilized peoples of the Orient as being the least fluctuating measure of value, the most compact in volume and the more directly convertible.

The precious metals gold and silver were used as trace currencies for a long time before the first coins appeared, of course. In the form of rings or ingots (or bars), they were used by traders throughout the ancient world.

However, their use was tedious since they had to be weighed and checked each time such a transaction took place to know their true value. This situation, however, created a Eureka moment for an unknown individual, who was the first person in the world to come up with the idea of ​​creating an easily transportable token issued by a central government, with an agreed value.

With standardized weights, coins eliminated this tedious and vexing problem, quickly making them a universally accepted medium of commerce.

It was the great ancient Greek historian Herodotus, known as the Father of History, who said, perhaps exaggerating the truth a bit, that the Lydians were the world’s first merchants. Whether this was technically true or not, they undoubtedly lived at a great crossroads of peoples in Asia Minor and had a well-deserved reputation for being at the center of trade.

In his work entitled “The Coinage of Lydia and Persia”, Barclay Head acknowledged “the spirit of commercial activity possessed by the natives of Lydia”, while another 19th century historian, Ernst R. Curtius, has declared that they resembled the Phoenicians in that they occupied an essential commercial niche: “The Lydians became on land what the Phoenicians were on the sea, the mediators between Hellas (Greece) and Asia.

Located near the Bosphorus and the Hellespont, which connect the Black Sea with the Aegean, it is not surprising that the Lydian Empire, even at the end of the 7th and the beginning of the 6th century BC, had already become a commercial power.

Croesus
King Croesus, who refined the idea of ​​a coin invented during his father’s reign, was eventually defeated by the Persians and his empire was subsumed into theirs. This Attic red-figure amphora shows his death at the stake. Credit: :Bibi Saint-Pol,Public domain

The Lydian Empire placed great importance on trade, merchants

The Lydians, as part of the rigidly stratified society of the time, accorded special status to merchants, calling them then “agoraios” or “market people”; as a result, they enjoyed a higher rank than commoners in social matters, according to the Encyclopedia of World History.

However, the beautiful gold coins were minted at this time which were the first coins in the world and may not have been common currency, used for daily purchases in the agora.

Archaeologists argue that the absence of such pieces in places like Sardis, in the ruins of shops and markets, is proof of this theory; in reality, according to them, the coins were probably hoarded by the king and the upper classes. They may also have been issued for the collection of taxes, and possibly used in long-distance and high-value trade between Lydia and neighboring states, as large numbers of staters have been found at Ionian temple sites.

Although some historians believe that India or China may be the site where coinage was first used, evidence seems to indicate that this happened later than the Lydian minting of coins.

Although apparently made of solid gold, the stater pieces were actually made of electrum, a shimmering alloy of gold and silver that occurs naturally; however, the actual coins were made from a consistent mixture of around 55% gold, 45% silver, and a tiny amount of copper. Historians and numismatists believe that silver and copper were added to natural electrum to make it a more durable metal alloy. Additionally, the extra copper gave the coins a dramatic golden sheen, unlike the pale white gold of pure electrum.

The Pactolus River, whose bed is full of electrum, probably provided the raw materials for the parts. The river itself is mentioned in legend, it is said to have been blessed with shining metal after the famous King Midas of Phrygia bathed in its waters when he attempted to remove his curse of the “touch golden”, in which everything he touched, including his daughter, turned to gold.

For those who study the history of money, the new idea of ​​affixing an official seal to a precious metal coin giving it an official value, undertaken during the reign of Alyattes and his son Croesus, distinguishes the stater from all other tokens that had been used in trading before.

Like all ancient coins that followed, including shekels, drachmas and others, the coins represented units of weight rather than a specific monetary value – the word “stater” meaning “that which balances the scales” in ancient Greece.

The beautiful coins were minted in the ancient city of Sardis (or Sardis), the capital of Lydia, and they had a design that paid homage to the symbols of the city, the front parts of a lion and a bull. facing each other.

Croesid
A silver croesid, showing the lion and the bull symbolizing the city of Sardis. Credit: jastrow /DC BY 2.5

The “Lydian Lion” hallmark distinguishes the coins from all previous currencies

It was another hallmark of the stater that distinguished it from all previous financial offerings in that the “Lion of Lydia” hallmark indicated that the coins were the king’s official currency; this concept had never been seen before in the ancient world.

After King Croesus introduced the first monetary standard involving the intrinsic value of the two precious metals, the Greeks then created their own silver coinage system based on the drachma. Most historians believe that the Greek Ionians introduced smaller silver coins to the retail market.

Croesus served as viceroy under his father Alyattes; historians believe that it was this experience that led him to realize the usefulness of a circulating gold stater in increasing Lydia’s influence and power abroad, especially with her Greek trading partners.

Later it became so associated with this gold stater, replacing those made of electrum, that those invented during this period are classed as “croesid”.

It is also important to note that an exchange rate of ten staters of silver for one new stater of gold shows that Croesus took great care to mint coins that could be used internationally, with universal value accepted. This notion in itself contributed to the expansion of the Lydian empire, especially around the time Croesus rose to power, when the lands of the west coast of Asia Minor were incorporated into the Lydian Empire. as vassal states.

Incredibly, even after the Persians conquered Lydia, croesid coinage remained in use for some time thereafter. So many Lydian-style gold and silver staters dating from after the fall of Croesus have been discovered over the centuries that many historians believe that the new Persian rulers of Anatolia continued to use the same dies at the mint of Sardis for many years.

The Lydian stater clearly ruled the merchant world until the introduction of the gold daric issued by Darius the Great of Persia before the 5th century BC. Yet the electrum, gold, and silver staters first created in Lydia are the earliest coins in world history.

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