What were the first coins of Ancient Greece?
The first coins actually came from Lydia sometime before 600 BC. The Lydians’ coin system inspired the Greeks to start making their own coins. They didn’t create the same coins for the whole country, however. Instead, each Greek city-state (of which there were more than two thousand) issued its own coins.
Lydia electrum coin
Of course, the coins sometimes wandered far past the boundaries of their city-state in inter-city trade. These coins were usable anywhere in Greece, however; as a result, coins with plenty of different designs and styles circulated their way around Greece.
The Greeks made many of their coins out of silver. They struck small lumps of silver with a hammer that had a mold on it, flattening the silver into a coin while imprinting the design on it at the same time.
So how were denominations judged if different city-state coins circulated all over Greece? They were minted to an “Aeginetan” weight standard by which everyone could judge the value of the coin. But Athens struck a different standard and slowly developed a dominance in trade, making Athenian coins another weight standard through the Classical period.
An Athenian coin.
Greek coins from the archaic period had a cruder, less polished look to them, but the design and production of the coins evolved over time into a more elegant look. Often, larger cities designed their coins with their patron god or goddess or a famous hero. For instance, Athenian coins featured the owl of Athens and a portrait of Athena.
When Greek culture expanded geographically in the Hellenistic period, the coins themselves also found their way into other countries in the Western world. Some of these newer coins had portraits of living people; kings wanted to celebrate their divinity by putting their own portraits on coins. This is where the tradition of showing royalty on currency began.
What’s your favorite ancient Greek coin?
We’re used to them now, but how did humans move from the bartering and trading system to the use of coins?
Before coins other pieces were used as a kind of currency. The ancient Chinese used shells and ancient Mesopotamians used a banking system of grains, livestock and other valuables that they could trade.
But eventually, money for the sake of money came around. No longer were otherwise valuable items used for trade. Gold and silver coins began to gain value.
Lydian coin with an archer. (Via dynamosquito on Wikimedia)
The first-ever coins likely originate from Lydia (an ancient kingdom in where modern Turkey is now). The coin materials came from a natural mix of gold and silver called electrum and the coins featured the head of a lion. Their value was determined by their weight. One “stater” weighed about 14.1 grams; other denominations included half-staters, thirds, sixths, twelfths, and 1/24ths through 1/96ths. Maybe not the straightforward numbers we’re used to today, but at the time the system was quite innovative.
An ancient Lydian coin. (Via Jastrow on Wikimedia)
The first Lydian coins have the names Walwel and Kalil inscribed on them; however, historians don’t know who these names refer to. They could be the names of kings or the men who produced the coins.
Lydia succeeded in their coin system, and soon the coinage spread to Greek and Mediterranean cities. Their material also consisted of electrum. One early Greek coin reads “I am the badge of Phanes”, possibly an early stamp of guaranteed quality.
The major cities, including Athens, started to make their own coins by the 6th century B.C. All this local pride made the system complicated at first – how did a Persian coin’s value stack up to an Athens coin?
The earliest dated electrum coin hoard was found at the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in 1904-5. A pot of 19 coins had been buried near 74 other coins in the temple’s foundation.