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The Gold Coinage of Asia before
Alexander the Great

Percy Gardner

Fellow of the Academy

[From the Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. Ill]


Published for the British Academy
By Henry Frowde, Oxford University Press
Amen Corner, E.C.

Price Two Shillings and Sixpence net




January 29, 1908

I propose to give a brief account of the issues of gold money
in Asia down to the time of Alexander the Great. A sketch of this
kind may have its uses, since numismatists are apt to dwell on small
points, and to neglect broader aspects of the subject, while the
historians of Greece have often lacked that close familiarity with
coins which is necessary before one can use their testimony with con-
fidence and success. Coins are of all the materials for the reconstruc-
tion of ancient history the most trustworthy and objective, together
with inscriptions, but their testimony must needs be weighed by
a hand used to them before its value can be fully appreciated.

What I shall especially attempt is a chronological survey of the
relations between the Persian state and the subject countries and
cities, as they are reflected in the issues of gold and electrum coin.
And in doing so we shall have carefully to consider the view now
generally held, that the issue of gold coin was the exclusive privilege
of the Great King, a privilege jealously guarded and enforced.
Satraps of the Persian Empire were allowed to strike silver coins
freely for the needs of military expeditions, and the Greek cities
of the coast struck silver for ordinary purposes of trade. But no
issue of gold coin was allowed, save under exceptional circumstances.

Although this view is generally accepted, yet it is not easy to
establish it by quotations from ancient writers. Herodotus seems
under the influence of such a view when he writes, 1 ' Darius wished to
leave such a memorial of himself as no king had ever left before :
therefore, refining his gold to the last degree of purity, he issued
coins of it.' But this is, of course, no assertion of a principle of state,
that no one else should issue coin. Nor in fact is it likely that the
issue of gold coin was from the first looked upon as something quite

1 iv. 166.




exceptional. The first issue of pure gold was due to Croesus, not to
Darius. It seems likely that the principle that the issue of gold coin
was the first privilege of authority was one which made its way
slowly and perhaps almost unconsciously. From age to age it became
more solidly fixed : and the Roman Empire maintained it even more
rigidly than did that of Persia.

There is, however, another question as to which modern expert
opinion is more divided. If we allow that the issue of gold was
a right jealously guarded by the Great King, how far does this apply
to the issues of white gold or electrum, of that mixture of gold and
silver which was in ordinary use for coinage in the earliest period ?
Did Persia regard these as issues of gold ? or did Persia place them on
the level of issues of silver ? or did it pursue a middle course in regard
to their authorization ? This is not an easy question ; and it is one
on which we may hope to throw some light in the course of the
present investigation.

I propose to divide my subject into five sections, as follows : —
I.' The early electrum coinage.
II. Croesus to Darius.
III. The Ionian Revolt.
IV. Electrum coins, b.c. 480-330.
V. Gold coins of the same period.

I. The early Electrum Coinage.

It is generally thought, alike by numismatists and historians, that
the coinage of the western world took its origin on the coast of Asia
Minor in the eighth or at latest in the seventh century b.c, in those
primitive and rude coins of electrum, which are now abundant in our
museums. Of this coinage I do not propose to treat in detail, as
it has been the subject of able papers by Head, Babelon, and other
writers, 1 nor is it possible to discuss it without taking into account
a multitude of small numismatic considerations, the introduction of
which would thwart the purpose of the present paper, which is to
give a broad historic sketch. I will, however, give a brief summary of
views held in regard to it.

In the first place, it has been disputed to whom belongs the honour
of the first invention of coins. We know from Julius Pollux that this
question was much discussed by his learned authorities. He writes 2
that it was disputed * whether coins were first issued by Pheidon of

1 Head in Numismatic Chronicle, 1875; Catalogue of Greek Coins in the British
Museum : Ionia, Introduction. Babelon, Traite des Monnaies grecques et romaines,
Part II, vol. i, where further references. Also Revue Numismatique, 1894 and
1895. 2 ix. 83.


Argos, or by the Cymaean Demodice, wife of the Phrygian Midas,
who was daughter of Agamemnon, King of Cyme, or by the Athenians,
Erichthonius and Lycus, or by the Lydians, as Xenophanes asserts,
or by the Naxians, according to the view of Aglosthenes.' Some
of these views are now out of court, especially those which give the
origination of coins to Pheidon of Argos or to Athens. It is univers-
ally allowed that money first appears on the western coast of Asia
Minor. But it may still be doubted whether it originated with the
wealthy Mermnad kings of Lydia or with Miletus and other Ionian
cities of the coast.

In favour of the Lydians it may be urged that Herodotus seems to
support their claim. He writes of the Lydians, 1 itpmoi avOptoimv,
tS>v 37/*€is tbfJLtv, vopLHrpLa \pvcrov Kd\ apyvpov Ko^/dpievoL kyjpr\(TavTO'
TipGiToi he Kal Kaiii]\oi eyevovro. There seems to be some connexion
between the clauses of the sentence : that is, the fact that the
Lydians were pedlars or hucksters was the reason for their invention of
coin. And here it may be allowed that we can cite a parallel : the
great extension of the Aeginetan currency is explained by the fact
that the Aeginetans were the pedlars of Greece Proper. At the
same time the words of Herodotus are too ambiguous to be pressed.
To say that the Lydians first struck coins in gold and silver is not the
same thing as to say that they first issued money of mixed gold and
silver or electrum. There is thus some justification for those who
have regarded Herodotus as referring to the coins of gold and coins of
silver, issued, as we shall presently see, by Croesus.

Another ancient authority for the Lydian origin of coins has been
found in the phrase of Julius Pollux, 2 who speaks of Tvydhas xpwds in
the same breath with darics and staters of Croesus ; and this passage
has been taken as a proof that the early electrum staters were issued
by Gyges. To this argument, however, there lies an insuperable
objection in the fact that in another passage 3 Pollux speaks of the
gold of Gyges as notable for purity ; it could not, then, have been
electrum. Gyges, as we are told by Herodotus, 4 dedicated at Delphi
many objects in gold. It was from this that his gold had its reputa-
tion ; and Pollux, in bringing it into line with darics and staters
of Croesus, no doubt mistakes his authorities. Certainly no coins
of pure gold of the time of Gyges are known.

The mere fact that Lydia possessed in great abundance the raw
material of the electrum coinage can scarcely weigh very heavily,
since that material was also easily accessible to the Ionians. The
only definite proof of an early issue of coins in Lydia is furnished

1 i. 94. 2 Onomasticon, iii. 87. s Ibid., vii. 98. 4 i. 14.


by the legend F AAFE I in archaic letters read (first by M. Six) on some
electrum coins, as the name of King Alyattes of Lydia. To these
coins I will presently return. Meantime it is clear that, even if
we accept M. Six's reading, all that it would prove would be that
Lydian coins were issued in the reign of Alyattes b. c. 610-561, not
that coins originated with the Lydians. Quite as early as these coins
is the remarkable stater of electrum T which bears the name of
Phanes, and which was almost certainly struck in one of the cities
of Ionia.

Most numismatists, Lenormant, Six, Head, and others are disposed
to assign the earliest electrum coins to early Lydian kings, Gyges
and his successors. But the most recent writer on the subject,
M. Babelon, is disposed, alike from the probabilities of the case, and
the evidence of extant coins, to think that coinage originated with
the Greeks of Asia. I am ready to support this view. It would be
strange if the Lydian horsemen anticipated the quick-witted and
versatile Ionians in so remarkable a discovery as that of striking
coins. Moreover, in addition to the intrinsic probability of this view,
the balance of evidence to be drawn from existing coins is in its

It may well seem strange that the Greek world contrived to do
without coins until the eighth century b. c. We now know what
a highly developed civilization flourished in Crete and in Peloponnesus
at a much earlier time. But there are abundant examples of an
elaborate civilization without money. The great empires of Egypt
and Assyria had no coins. The Phoenicians did not issue money for
centuries after its invention, though they may have used the coins of
Persia and of Greece. It is conjectured from a survey of the places
where Persian gold coins are found, that they were but little used in
the eastern provinces of the Persian Empire, but almost exclusively in
Asia Minor. And we have a modern parallel for indifference to the
use of coin. In China, down to our own days, only copper and iron
coins have been issued by authority, gold and silver still passing
by weight, whether in the form of bars or of foreign coin.

The early electrum coins of the Ionic coast are bean-shaped, bearing
usually on one side a type, on the other punch-marks enclosing
smaller devices. The unit is divided into halves, thirds, sixths,
and so on, down to ninety-sixths. The metal is hard ; the art and
fabric primitive. They present us with a series of problems, which
cannot at present be said to be solved.

In the first place, were they issued by cities or by temples, or
1 Br. Mus. Cat. : Ionia, PL III. 8.


by private persons? It was perfectly natural that numismatists,
accustomed to the fact that in later historic times every Greek city
had one or two easily recognized devices which stamped its coin
as belonging to it only, should have begun by trying to assign the
early electrum also to city mints, by help of the types which the
coins bear. The lion was held to be the mark of Miletus, the lion's
scalp of Samos, the stag of Ephesus, and so forth. But there are
grave reasons for thinking that this procedure was mistaken, or at
least was carried much too far. The lion, the lion's head or his
scalp, appear on a large number of the electrum coins, which differ
so widely in style and in monetary standard that they can scarcely
come from any one mint. To suppose that the lion is always the
regal sign of the Lydian kings is a view which cannot be maintained.
Again, there are on electrum coins many devices, the cock, the
chimaera, the fox, the human head, and others, which cannot be
satisfactorily assigned to any known mint. It therefore seems prob-
able that, to begin with, the custom of issuing money by state
authority, and impressing upon all coins so issued the civic badge as
a type, was not observed with any regularity.

A confirmation of this view may be found in the fact that even in
the case of the later issues of electrum coins, such as those of Cyzicus
and Mytilene, there is no uniform type, as on the coins of most Greek
cities, but an almost unlimited number of devices, which do not
indicate place of mintage, but far more probably belong to the
monetary magistrates.

Thus the types of early electrum coins are no safe indication
of their place of mintage. And since, with one or two exceptions,
they are uninscribed, there is a dearth of clues to direct us to their
place of origin.

It is maintained by M. Babelon that these primitive coins were
not state-issues at all, but struck by the bankers of Ionia and Lydia
for the purposes of trade, and stamped with their private signets. 1
He has several historic parallels to cite. He shows that among the
Franks of the Merovingian age money was issued by private coiners,
and varies remarkably in alloy, and even in weight. And he brings
forward examples in which trading companies in America in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries issued great quantities of coin in
their own name, and on their own responsibility.

It must also be noted that large classes of coins in Persian times,
especially the Persian silver shekels or sigli, and the money of Aspendus
in Pamphylia, bear a multitude of small stamps or countermarks
1 Origines de la Monnaie, pp. 93-134.


which seem to be the marks of bankers, or possibly of local financial
officers, guaranteeing the quality of the coin. This custom might
well be the successor of a system of private coinage. Terrien de la
Couperie observes 1 that on early coins of China we find many private
marks. * The exchange being generally limited to the region of the
issuers, they used on their currency to put as their marks names of
regions, places, families, individuals, or things.' In early India also
small ingots circulated bearing many countermarks, which may have
been stamped on them either by financial authorities or else by
private capitalists. 2

I cannot examine in detail the theories of M. Babelon as to the
way in which the Ionian bankers stamped the coin ; and in that
matter I do not think his particular views can be maintained. But
as regards the probability that many of the types of early coins are
only private marks, I agree with him. Certainty is not to be
attained. It is, however, at the least quite possible that private
issues made their appearance before the rise of the regular civic
coinages. Long ago Professor Ernst Curtius called attention to the
probability that in some cases, at all events, very early issues of coins
may have taken place in connexion with the wealthy temples of Ionia,
where specie tended to accumulate. And this view has been generally
accepted, even by Professor Ridgeway, 3 who is generally disposed to
deny the religious origin of coin-types.

But however much truth there may be in the view that the earliest
coins belong to bankers or temples, we have good reason for thinking
that not later than about b. c. 650 the Greek cities of Asia were
beginning to take the issue of electrum into their own hands, and to
stamp it with an official seal.

It was first clearly set forth by Mr. Head 4 that certain classes of
electrum coins may be distinguished belonging to different districts
of Ionia, and following different monetary standards. M. Babelon
has further developed this view 5 : —

(1) There is a very primitive class of coins following the Milesian
standard of weight (stater, grammes 1440, grains 222). Some of
these have scarcely any type ; and the fabric of the earliest of them is
rude. (See PL I. 2 ; weight 215«3 grains, British Museum.) Their
pale colour indicates, what is confirmed by analysis, that they contain

1 Br. Mus. Cat. : Chinese Coins, Introd., p. 4.

2 Thomas, Ancient Indian Weights, p. 52 and foil.
8 Origin of Currency and Weight-standards, p. 215.

4 Numismatic Chronicle, 1875.

5 Revue Numismatique, 1894-5, four papers.


but a small proportion of gold. They belong to cities in the neigh-
bourhood of Miletus and Ephesus in the south of Ionia. The only
mint which can be identified with high probability is that of Miletus,
to which city we can attribute the coins which bear the type of a lion
recumbent and looking back. The above-mentioned coin of Phanes
belongs to this class, but its mint city is not certain : it was found at
Halicarnassus. To this class also belong the numerous electrum coins
found by Mr. Hogarth on the site of the Artemisium at Ephesus.

(2) There is a class of coins, also of pale electrum, which follows
the Euboic standard (stater, grammes 16-84, grains 260). The types
are very rude, and often unintelligible ; but the lion's scalp, the eagle,
and the ram can be made out on some specimens. Mr. Head
mentioned some coins of this class ; but they are best represented by
a hoard of electrum, found at Samos 1 in 1894. M. Babelon would
attribute the whole of them to Samos ; but of course this assignment
is very uncertain.

(3) There is a somewhat later class of coins, which follow the
standard of Phocaea (stater, grammes 16-60, grains 256). These are
of darker colour, and contain a larger proportion of gold. Indeed,
Mr. Head has suggested that they were intended to pass as gold, not
as electrum. They can be assigned to mints with far greater certainty
than the previous coins ; some, indeed, are of certain attribution,
such as : —

Phocaea. Obv. O Seal (phoca). Rev. Two square punch-marks.

Munich. Weight, 16-50 gr. (PL I. 3).
Cyzicus. Obv. Tunny, bound with fillet. Rev. Two punch-
marks ; in one a scorpion. Brit. Museum. Weight, 16-32 gr.
(PL I. 4).
Lampsacus. 2 Obv. Forepart of winged horse. Rev. Incuse
divided into four ; two divisions deeper struck. Paris. Weight,
14-99 gr.
There is also a stater, with the type of a griffin's head 3 and the
inscription 150 M (Zio? ?), which has been given with great probability
to Teos. Other attributions, of a less convincing kind, to Methymna
and Mytilene in Lesbos, Smyrna, Cyme, and other cities are proposed
by M. Babelon. All of these coins belong, so far as we can judge,
to the cities north of Smyrna ; and they may be mostly assigned to
the period mentioned by Eusebius in his list of thalassocracies as
the time of the greatest sea-power of Phocaea, b.c. 578-34. One

1 Revue Numismatique, 1894, p. 149, PI. III.

2 Babelon, Traite, PI. VIII. 1.

3 Babelon, in Revue Numism., 1895, p. 18 ; cf. Head, Cat. : Ionia, p. xxi.


of the earliest coins of the class of uncertain mint is figured,
PL I. 1.

That the Lydian kings at their capital of Sardes issued electrum
coin is in the highest degree probable, for the Lydians as a people
seem to have possessed the commercial instinct. 1 Yet it is not
possible with certainty to assign to any of the Mermnad kings any
electrum coin. The classification of electrum money to each of them
by Francois Lenormant is little more than a work of imagination.

M. Six has indeed read on some electrum coins, bearing as type
a lion's head, 2 the name of King Alyattes of Lydia. The letters, so
far as they can be made out, seem to be FAAFEI. Whether these
letters can stand for the name of the king is a problem for philolo-
gists. At the same time, the fabric of the coins and the nature
of their incuse connects them closely with the coins of Croesus,
shortly to be mentioned. And, as M. Six observes, the use of the
digamma seems to exclude the notion of an Ionian mint. We may
therefore regard the attribution to Alyattes as not improbable. The
issue, however, was not important, like those of Croesus.

Thus there are few fixed points in regard to the early electrum
coinage. We can identify but a few mints ; nor do we even know
by what authority the coins were issued. Another thing which has
caused the utmost perplexity to numismatists is the very remarkable
fact that the proportion between gold and silver in the composition
of the coins varies greatly, and with it their intrinsic value. It is
possible by weighing, first in air and then in water, to determine the
specific gravity of electrum coins ; and from the specific gravity it
is possible to deduce, within certain limits, their composition, the
proportion of gold and silver which they contain. In 1887 I applied
this method to a number of electrum coins of Cyzicus ; and in the
same year Mr. Head made a series of similar investigations as regards
other electrum coins 3 . The results are extraordinary, and very dis-
concerting. Instead of the proportions of gold and silver being fixed,
they vary in an extreme degree. In the case of a set of electrum
coins of Cyzicus of various ages, I found the percentage of gold to
vary from 58 to 33 per cent. Mr. Head, ranging over a wider field,
found that the percentage of gold in early electrum coins varied from

1 Babelon, Rev. Num., 1895, p. 20. The whole of M. Babelon's two articles
on early electrum coins in this volume is important.

2 Numismatic Chronicle, 1890, p. 204 ; Brit. Mus. Cat. : Lydia, p. xviii ;
Babelon, Traits, p. 227. In his most recent publication, in the volume
published by the British Museum on excavations at Ephesus (p. 91), Mr. Head
allows the probability of M. Six's reading.

5 Numismatic Chronicle, 1887.


72 to 10, and even 5 per cent. That is to say, coins of almost identical
weight might vary in value, so that one should be intrinsically
sixfold the value of another. Now the Greeks, even at an early
period, were perfectly well aware of the methods for mixing gold and
silver ; and they used touchstones, found in the very district of Lydia
where coinage originated, which enabled them to determine with
considerable accuracy the degree of alloy in coins professedly of gold.
How then is it possible that they can have accepted debased coins
of electrum as of equal value with coins of good quality ?

The view of Brandis and Mommsen was that electrum was regarded
as a metal apart, and conventionally accepted as of ten times the
value of silver, or three-fourths of the value of gold, which latter
metal, as we know both from the testimony of Herodotus and from
induction, stood to silver in Asia in the relation of 40 to 3, or
13^ to 1. And, strange as it may seem, this view is after all probably
the true one. For, remarkable as it may be that Greek merchants
should be willing to accept coins not guaranteed by any king or city
at a fixed and conventional rate, it is still more improbable that they
should have to value every piece of money offered them by means of
the touchstone, and make the simplest bargain into a very elaborate
arithmetical problem. In the latter case, one cannot see what
advantage the electrum coinage would possess over bars or rings of
gold or silver, which as a matter of fact it superseded in commerce.

II. Croesus to Darius.

There is no proof that the Mermnad kings of Lydia, whose power
was rapidly increasing in the seventh and sixth centuries, showed any
desire to interfere with the Ionian issues of electrum. If, as is
probable, they issued electrum coin of their own at Sardes, they seem
to have allowed it to take its chance with the rest, and did not stamp
it distinctively as a royal issue. But when Croesus came to the
throne he seems to have determined to take another line. It may be
that the inherent faults in the electrum coinage of Ionia were un-
fitting it for its purpose. It may be that with great sagacity he
grasped the notion that by concentrating the issue of coin in his own
hands he could strengthen his political power. It may be that he
merely wished, with commercial instinct, to make the most of his
great stores of gold. Whatever the motive, he certainly initiated
one of the greatest of all political movements which the world has
known — the issue of a state coinage.

It is true that the proofs that this action was due to Croesus are


not absolutely conclusive. Holm is even disposed to call them in
question. They are circumstantial rather than direct. But in my
opinion they are ample. This is the only view which brings con-
sistency and order into the arrangement of facts. And since Julius
Pollux 1 talks of the staters of Croesus in the same line with the
noted gold staters of Philip and the darics, he bears testimony to
the existence of well-known gold coins named after Croesus. These
can only be the coins long attributed by numismatists to the king ;
which are the following : —

Obv. Foreparts of lion and bull facing each other.
Rev. Two incuses side by side (PL I. 5).

These coins were issued in gold of the weight of a stater of 10-89
grammes (168 grains), with its fractions of a half, a third, a sixth,
and a twelfth; a stater of 8-17 grammes (126 grains), with corre-
sponding divisions, and a silver unit of 10-89 grammes (168 grains),
again with corresponding fractions.

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