The Very First Coins

The Very First Coins

How did coins become money? 


The history of numismatics stems before the invention of written languages, before the land of Mesopotamia, and into the dawn of civilization. Precious metals were first discovered around the late bronze age, where gold was panned from rivers or mined out of quartz veins and turned into simple jewelry or trinkets. Because of the easy malleability of gold, the first civilization to use it practically was the ancient Egyptians. It is peculiar, however, that humanity decided to use a precious metal based system of trade, as precious metals had no intrinsic value up until the point they were being used as currency. Perhaps the demand for gold and silver came from the painstaking process in which it was sourced and poured, or the sheer sparkling beauty of it all which left our archaic ancestors in awe.

Lisa Weidauer’s book Problems in Early Electrum Coinage is perhaps the best resource for deciphering the earliest coins. It is the standard reference for electrum dating evidence and decades of research. Another scholar, Joseph Linzalone, a leading expert on the dawn of coinage, places this idea perfectly in his analysis on Electrum and the Invention of Coinage: “The Ancient Greek Kingdom of Lydia and the surrounding Greek city-state colonies of Ionia, situated south of ancient Troy in what is the present-day far western part of modern Turkey, invented what we now recognize as the world's first minted coinage around 660 B.C., utilizing a locally abundant, naturally-occurring gold and silver alloy, electrum.” Indeed the very first coins were invented around this 660 BC timeframe, but the exact coin and the exact city state in which it was invented is up to debate. The first coins in human history came from the regions of Ionia and Lydia, and it is entirely plausible that a system of precious metal based economics was present before this dawn of coinage.

the first mints for coins

The precious metal based system of exchange before coin dies were invented paved this path for coinage. Proto-coinage was invented in Ionia, thought to be earlier than the Lydian coinage. Proto-coins were cast nuggets of metal with a simple stamp on the obverse. Electrum was abundant in ancient Lydia and had been refined and used for centuries. In order to trade with their neighbors, the Lydians sought a means of exchange that would be easy to spend and hold their value. The rest is history, and soon their Ionian neighbors adopted the process and the fundamentals of coinage spread. Linzalone references the king Gyges as being the first to circulate coinage in Lydia, whilst some sources give the invention to Demodike of Kyrm. The city in which coins were first minted is also heavily under debate, as well as the first design of coinage. It is generally accepted that the first coins were the striated-pattern Staters. Although there is no conclusive evidence these are the first designed pieces of electrum meant for circulation. The most conclusive early hoards for electrum point to the striated or proto-Starters as being the first. A famous hoard conducted by the British Museum, excavating the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, yielded 93 Ionian and Lydian coinage along with period artifacts from the 7th century BC. These coins were buried in tribute to the goddess.

            The coins themselves are named based on their weight. The Lydian and Ionian Stater, originally being weighed off the Lydo-Milesian weight standard, was formed in a unit of twelfths. The Stater was the basis for Electrum coinage and every fractional denomination would be fractions of a Stater. For example, a Trite was one “third '' a Stater (hence the archaic form of trio).

Since the invention of coinage, societies began to awake from the “Greek Dark Age”. Civilized societies were reborn, and the city state became the leading dominating force in the Greek world. Up until the end of the 7th century BC, there had been small civilizations of clans and peoples spread across Anatolia and the Hellas. Money brings people together, and it allows people to have motivation to complete tasks. Money built the ancient world, without it people would not have society. Coinage became the standard in which to evaluate time and value of your work and skill. Coinage also made democracy possible, as people could show their skills and aspirations through the work they accomplished. People could become leaders, and elect officials, go to war, and gain independence. Coinage broadened the ability for someone to move up the ranks in society, as social status was now determined by wealth rather than clan or orientation. There were small exceptions of course, but wealth had a new meaning in society.

 The “Striated Stater”

The “Striated Stater” 660-600 BC

Courtesy of HA

The “Proto- Stater”

The “Proto- Stater” 660-600 BC

The Periods of coinage are organized as follows: Early Archaic (660-630 BC); Archaic (630-600 BC); Late Archaic (600-550 BC); Greek (550-480 BC); Classical Greek (480-350 BC). As the kickoff of a precious-metal based economy diminished, most city states in Greece had adopted this new invention by the year 500 BC. In this, a new wave of inventions in coinage surpassed the initial Electrum. In a process called cupellation, societies were able to extract the silver from Electrum to make pure gold coins. These pure gold coins were mastered by the Persian empire.

One of the first societies to also adopt a means of exchange was the people of Mysia. Coinage of Kyzikos shows their city emblem, a tunny fish. Kyzikos issued electrum coinage up until the end of the 4th century BC and issued many fractional denominations in fine style portraiture. William Greenwell’s work in 1887 titled The Electrum Coinage of Cyzicus is one of the earliest studies on this area of Electrum. The state was once a colony of Ionia, which branched off and began minting their own coins in the style of the Ionians around the 6th century.  Kyzikos became a vital center for trade and commerce along the Sea of Marmara. Its coins, dating back to the 6th century BC, are particularly noteworthy. Kyzikene coins were among the earliest to feature a city's patron deity on one side and often depicted a tunny fish on the reverse, symbolizing its maritime prominence.Throughout its history, Kyzikos formed alliances with various Greek city-states, notably becoming a member of the Delian League under Athens' leadership during the 5th century BCE. These alliances are reflected in its coinage. After the Peloponnesian War, Kyzikos regained its autonomy and continued to flourish as a trading hub, minting coins that celebrated its maritime heritage. In the Hellenistic and Roman eras, Kyzikos evolved with the changing political and cultural tides, producing coins that featured deities, rulers, and designs influenced by the prevailing powers.

Stater of Kyzikos featuring the god Silenos

Stater of Kyzikos featuring the god Silenos 550 BC

Courtesy of CNG

A rare, double struck Stater of Kyzikos

A rare, double struck Stater of Kyzikos 550 BC

Courtesy of the author

As time passed, Kyzikos faced a decline due to shifting trade routes and geopolitical changes. It is apparent in their coinage, which never truly evolved past the nugget planchets and simplistic stylized figures. There were periods towards the middle of their existence which issued fine-style coinage; it was rather brief,a dn the coinage of Kyzikos today brings strong premiums.

 Late Hekte of Kyzikos

Late Hekte of Kyzikos 390-341 BC

Courtesy of Leu

Silver, previously regarded as a poor scrap of the refinement process, soon found its new permanent space in the form of tiny fractional coins. The fractional Greek silver coins became the basis for change in the Greek economy. As the large gold coins were too valuable for simple transactions, the common people used silver based exchange for everyday transactions. As these coins were very small, they were often lost or discarded. They became obsolete after the Athenians and the Sicilians began minting larger silver coins and bronze coins. Coins made from bronze were intended to replace the silver coins and coins made in large amounts of silver were intended to replace the larger Electrum coins. Under the Athenian tyrants the Wappenmunzen or “heraldic coinage” was produced until around 510 BC. These early prototypes of the Athenian own were intended to supply the people of Athens and their surrounding clans; it was only under the Athenian democracy Kleisthenes that the Attic standard became the most accepted form of exchange throughout the Athenian democracy and eventually the Delian league.

In this, we start to see a more negative impact of coinage in societies. Greed and the other obvious scenarios will not be discussed…but tangible historical evidence. During the Peloponnesian war, Athenians were paid in Athenian coins, but the Spartans (contrary to the Athenians in almost every way) were not paid. The glory of fighting for Sparta was all the soldiers needed as morale to fight. This is why many ancient Spartans looked down upon the Athenians as “soft” and too civilized.

the first Athenian owl coin.

“Wappenmunzen” Didrachm of Athens 545-515 BC. Considered to be the first Athenian owl coin.

Courtesy of Baldwin's Auctions Ltd


The earliest prototype for the Athenian owl

The earliest prototype for the Athenian owl, issued under the democrat Kleisthenes in 510 BC.

Courtesy of NAC

The first mass-produced Archaic Athenian Owl

The first mass-produced Archaic Athenian Owl 500-490 BC

Courtesy of Gorny and Mosch Geissener Munzhandlung

As the armies of Macedonia led by Alexander III marched into Greece conquering most of the city states as well as the Persian empire, the need for electrum coinage diminished. Alexander had set the standard for coins in his empire and the archaic nuggets of electrum were obsolete and replaced by the fine-style Athena portrait counterparts of Alexander. Alexander adopted the Attic standard of the Delian league and continued to mint coins even after his death. During this period, from the time about a century before Alexander and a century after, is often regarded as the period of the highest Greek art. No longer were electrum coins mass produced, but refined gold and beautiful struck silver coins were being issued in nearly every city state. The dominating force in coinage switched to Sicily when Athens fell at the hand of the Macedonians. It is in Sicily and the early Roman republic where the finest coins in all of antiquity were produced. Famously, the Athenian Dekadrachm signed by the master artist Kimon was produced during this time. In a period after this, we wrap up the tight ends of Greek coinage, and pave a way for the new people of Rome to dominate the entire known world.


Article By. Colby J. Abele


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