The Coins of Sardis

John H. Kroll

Introduction

The Lydians were justly famous for their coinage. Apart from this statement of Herodotus, an earlier Greek authority, Xenophanes of Colophon, explicitly attributed the very invention of coinage to the Lydians,1 and this is borne out by the evidence of the coins themselves. The earliest coins made of solid gold were known throughout the ancient Greek world as “Croeseids,” after the Lydian king who introduced them.2 All earlier coins had been made exclusively of the gold-silver alloy known as electrum. Since a number of these earliest coins were inscribed with Lydian names in the Lydian alphabet, it is perfectly evident that they, too, were minted in Lydia by Lydians.

This historical linkage between Lydia, electrum, and the beginning of coinage is not hard to understand.3 To begin with, the electrum itself was Lydian. An alloy in which gold occurs naturally in stream-bed deposits, electrum was indigenous to the region and, by the seventh century BCE, was being panned and dug from the Pactolus River and other Lydian streams and mines in legendary quantities, producing the fabulous wealth of the Lydian royal dynasty (see Greenewalt, “Lydian Gold and Silver Refining”). As the most abundant precious metal in the land, electrum in the form of nuggets, weighed ingots, and bags of electrum “dust” must have been put to use in all sorts of payments for goods and services, at least for a time. But because it was a mixed metal whose gold-silver proportions varied in nature and could be artificially manipulated by adding refined silver to dilute the gold content, it was poorly suited as a dependable means of exchange.

Testing Coins for Metal Content

When offered in a transaction, the quality of the metal first had to be tested visually from the color of streaks made on a touchstone (No. 16), and while such testing presented no problems with larger lumps of electrum, it would have been practically impossible to test a bagful of dozens of small nuggets and crumbs of the metal. Even if each small piece were separately tested, it would have been exceedingly difficult to determine with any accuracy the value of an entire bag of pieces, each with a different weight and fineness. Over time, as the complexities and unreliability of electrum bullion became widely recognized, Lydians and their Greek and Carian neighbors who had accumulated large stocks of this metal must have found it increasingly difficult to utilize it in payments that others would accept.

One way out of this dilemma would have been to avoid dealing in electrum bullion altogether and, if possible, separate it metallurgically into its pure gold and silver components, whose exchange use was straightforward. But, despite written evidence for gold-refining in second millennium Mesopotamia and Egypt, it is not certain whether a technique for fully parting silver and gold (as opposed to removing base metal impurities) from electrum had been developed before the sixth century.4 In any case, authorities in seventh-century Asia Minor hit upon a much simpler solution for making acceptable payments with electrum, namely by making them in the form of small, stamped ingots of uniform weight—that is, coins—the value of which was set and guaranteed by the authority whose stamp it bore. By effectively transferring valuation from the metal itself to the issuing authority, this solution hugely simplified the use of electrum in exchange transactions. Instead of having to weigh out each piece of electrum and test it for fineness, stamped, pre-weighed, and guaranteed units of the metal could be exchanged instantaneously at sight. Total sums could be determined quickly and exactly by the simple counting out of coins and by the fact that these earliest electrum coins were issued in small, fractional denominations as well as in larger weight units.

Early Coins

The most important finds of these early electrum coins come from excavations. In the 1904–5 excavations beneath the great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, archaeologists from the British Museum discovered ninety-three electrum coins that had been deposited as offerings during the latter part of the seventh century BCE.5 Recent excavations in the Temple area have recovered more coins from late seventh-century contexts, including the exhibition’s Nos. 19 and 21.

Nine of the Ephesian specimens were typeless electrum “proto-coins,” some marked with a square punch, that belonged to an early stage of development, before such pieces came to be stamped on their upper faces with a symbol of the producing authority. The rest of the coins were stamped with over a dozen different symbols or coin types. At least one type, the profile head of a lion accompanied by a Lydian inscription, belongs to coins that are clearly Lydian in origin (Nos. 19, 20, 21; Figs. 1, 2,3, 4, 5, 6). Other symbols identify coins that were minted at nearby Greek cities, like Phocaea (head of a seal) and, probably, Ephesus (forepart of a stag). Still other symbols (two roosters, human head, horse’s head, beetle, goat’s head, for example) are of uncertain origin. Indeed, the profusion of type symbols is a puzzling characteristic of the early electrum coinage as a whole. Dozens upon dozens of different coin types are known,6 suggesting that in addition to the coins that were minted by Lydian monarchs and Greek city states, much early electrum may have been struck by local dynasts, large landholders, and other petty rulers in Lydia and neighboring regions—anyone, in short, with wealth in electrum and a need to spend it.

  • Fig. 1

    Electrum twelfth-stater from Ephesus, lion head with wart on the nose, No. 19, obverse (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 2

    Electrum twelfth-stater from Ephesus, lion head with wart on the nose, No. 19, reverse (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 3

    Electrum twelfth-stater from Ephesus, lion head with Lydian inscription “WALWET” (No. 20), obverse (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 4

    Electrum twelfth-stater from Ephesus, lion head with Lydian inscription “WALWET” (No. 20), reverse (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 5

    Electrum third-stater from Ephesus, lion head with Lydian inscription “KUKALIM” (No. 21), obverse (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 6

    Electrum third-stater from Ephesus, lion head with Lydian inscription “KUKALIM” (No. 21), reverse (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

Lion Head Coinage

The most numerous coins found in the Ephesus excavations were those stamped with the head of a lion in profile (Nos. 19, 20, 21; Figs. 1, 3, 5). Six of them bear the Lydian inscription WALWET, which, according to many scholars, probably records the name of the great Lydian king known to the Greeks as Alyattes (ca. 610–560 BCE; No. 20).7 A few other lion-head coins are inscribed with a Lydian name KUKALIM, “Of Gyges” (No. 21, Fig. 5). Because he lived much earlier than these coins, this cannot be the name of the famous king, but it could be the name of a treasury or other royal official with a responsibility for minting.8 However the names are interpreted, all of this lion-head coinage, with and without inscriptions, is understood to be the royal coinage of the Lydian monarchy. A large hoard of some forty-five of these royal lion-head coins, slightly later than the ones at Ephesus, was excavated at the Phrygian capital city of Gordion in 1963 (Nos. 24.1-24.26, 24.27, 24.28-24.45, Figs. 11, 12).9 This eastern-most find of Lydian coins tangibly documents how fully Phrygia had been incorporated into the Lydian empire by the early sixth century.

The lion-head coins were minted in graduated denominations, the largest weighing 4.7 grams (= 1/3 of a Lydian weight stater), the smallest (1/48th of a stater) a mere 0.29 g. Remarkably, these were accompanied by still tinier fractions (1/96th of a stater) that had the type of a lion’s paw, the weight of 0.15 g, and a diameter of only 4 millimeters (No. 23, Figs. 9, 10). Inasmuch as half of the electrum coins in the Ephesus deposit weighed less than 1.2 g, it is obvious that these earliest coins were not minted for use in high-value payments alone, but were employed in a broad range of economic activities, including transactions as modest as these extremely minuscule coins would allow. Because of their substantial component of gold, these small fractional electrum coins were nevertheless a good deal more valuable than their diminutive sizes might suggest. For example, indications are that a 1/24th stater electrum coin was worth enough to purchase a sheep or a bushel of grain.10

Another notable monetary aspect of the royal lion-head coins is that they were highly overvalued. There is fairly decisive evidence that they were officially valued as if they were made of unadulterated Lydian electrum as it occurs in nature (on average about 73% gold and 27% silver). Yet laboratory analyses have shown that their actual metal content had been artificially debased to 54% gold, 44% silver, 1 or 2% copper, meaning that the Lydian state apparently could not resist the temptation to take advantage of its monopoly over the production and valuation of the coinage. The extraordinary profit realized by making payments with such adulterated electrum coins was in the area of 15 to 20%.11

  • Fig. 1

    Electrum twelfth-stater from Ephesus, lion head with wart on the nose, No. 19, obverse (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 3

    Electrum twelfth-stater from Ephesus, lion head with Lydian inscription “WALWET” (No. 20), obverse (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 5

    Electrum third-stater from Ephesus, lion head with Lydian inscription “KUKALIM” (No. 21), obverse (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 11

    Hoard of Lydian electrum coins from Gordion No 24, as found (Photograph by Crawford H. Greenewalt, jr.)

  • Fig. 12

    Hoard of Lydian electrum coins from Gordion, No. 24 [Gordion inv. 1078-1182] (Photograph by Crawford H. Greenewalt, jr.)

  • Fig. 9

    Electrum twenty-fourth stater from Ephesus, with lion paw (No. 23), obverse (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 10

    Electrum twenty-fourth stater from Ephesus, with lion paw (No. 23), reverse (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

King Croesus and Coinage Reforms

Such an overvalued currency, of course, could not last. Eventually people would have caught on and refused to accept it in payments. Thus, around the middle of the sixth century, by which time the cementation process for parting electrum into silver and gold had certainly become available, the reigning Lydian king Croesus reformed the currency by calling in the electrum coins of the realm and exchanging them with a bimetallic coinage of pure gold and pure silver.12 The fact that the new solid gold coins were called “Croeseids” is proof enough that Croesus was the author of this bimetallic reform, but further proof that the reform must be dated no later than his reign turned up in 2002 during excavations of the city wall of Lydian Sardis.13 Beneath the debris from the wall, which was demolished during the Persian capture of Sardis in the mid-540s BCE, the excavators discovered two small specimens of the reformed coinage, a 1/12th stater of gold and another 1/12th of silver (Nos. 27, 30, Figs. 13, 14, 15, 16, 17). A third specimen had been found in 1988 in the destruction debris itself, with the skeleton of a young man, probably a casualty of the battle with the Persians. When cleaned, this coin proved to be a silver 1/24th stater (No. 31, Figs. 18, 19). The fighter had probably been carrying the coin in his mouth—a common custom at the time—for the coin was found lying just in front of his skull. The gold Croeseid staters (No. 28.1-28.2, Figs. 20-21, and 22-23) are part of a hoard of thirty in a small clay jar that was found during the earlier American excavations at Sardis in 1922;14 it is thought that this hoard may have been buried also at the time of the Persian attack on Sardis in the 540s.

Like the electrum coins that preceded them, the gold and silver coins of Croesus are relatively thick and globular in shape and very simply designed. The device stamped on them—the confronted heads and extended single legs of a fierce lion and a bull in combat—is a traditional Near Eastern motif, and it may have been adopted by Croesus as his royal personal badge or signet. Or were the two animals here intended to symbolize the two complementary metals in which the coins were struck? Since the device itself identified the coins, the coins did not need an accompanying inscription. The rough punched squares on the coins’ undersides—two squares on the large stater denomination, one square on the smaller coins—continue an element that goes back to the earliest electrum “proto-coins.” Unlike the earlier Lydian electrum coins, whose overvaluation kept them from circulating outside of Lydian territory, the pure metal coins of Croesus traveled widely; this was especially true of the gold Croeseids, which gained popularity as a kind of international trade currency in the Aegean world. An Athenian-inscribed financial account of the year 440/439 attests that, among other miscellaneous coinages, gold Croeseids were still being saved in one of the treasuries of fifth-century Athens.15

  • Fig. 13

    Group of three croeseid coins (one gold, two silver) from sector MMS (placed on finger for scale), obverse (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 14

    Gold coin from under a pavement of the Lydian fortification at Sardis (No. 27) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 15

    Gold coin from under a pavement of the Lydian fortification at Sardis (No. 27) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 16

    Silver coin from under a pavement of the Lydian fortification at Sardis (No. 30) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 17

    Silver coin from under a pavement of the Lydian fortification at Sardis (No. 30) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 18

    Silver 24th stater found with a casualty of the Persian sack of Sardis (No. 31) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 19

    Silver 24th stater found with a casualty of the Persian sack of Sardis (No. 31) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 20

    Gold croeseid stater from hoard of 30, found at Sardis in 1922 (No. 28) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 21

    Gold croeseid stater from hoard of 30, found at Sardis in 1922 (No. 28) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 22

    Gold croeseid stater from hoard of 30, found at Sardis in 1922 (No. 28) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 23

    Gold croeseid stater from hoard of 30, found at Sardis in 1922 (No. 28) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

Croeseid Coins and Their Persian Legacy

Because of their success, these influential coins of Croesus enjoyed a much longer life than Croesus himself. When the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, defeated Croesus in the mid-540s and added the Lydian kingdom to the Persian Empire, Cyrus not only retained Sardis as a major administrative center by making it the seat of the local Persian satrap or governor, but he also saw to it that the minting of the established lion-and-bull coinage was continued. Thus, for a period of about thirty years, from the death of Croesus down to near the end of the sixth century, the coinage remained the coinage of Croesus in name only. In terms of its actual production and official use, it had become the money of Persian rule in western Asia Minor. While the coins remained physically unchanged over this extended period, the artistic style of the lion-and-bull design went into decline. In contrast to the subtle, naturalistic rendering of the animals in the initial, Croesus phase of the coinage, the animals took on a hardened, more mechanical or stylized appearance during the mass production of the coins under the Persians (Figs. 24, 25, 26, 27). Under the Persians, too, the smaller fractional denominations were abandoned, and the coinage became essentially a coinage of two large denominations: the gold stater, or Croeseid (8.06 g), and the silver siglos, or shekel (5.35 g), worth one-twentieth of a gold stater.

Around 515 BCE the Persian King Darius I (522–486 BCE) finally brought this coinage to an end by replacing the Lydian lion-and-bull type of Croesus with an explicitly Persian royal image: the schematic representation of the Great King himself, crowned and holding or shooting with a bow.16 In general, the new coins—the gold stater, popularly called the Daric after its creator, and the silver siglos (Figs. 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33)—retained the rudimentary form and lump-like character of the Croeseids they replaced. They were struck with the same weights and circulated generally in the same orbits. Doubtless minted at Sardis, the silver pieces served the as the primary coinage of the Persian administrative and military system in western Asia Minor, where the use of coinage was an established convention. (They did not circulate in the rest of the Persian Empire, where coinage was not commonly employed.)

Four such Persian silver sigloi (No. 32.3 and 32.4-32.6) are part of a modest hoard from ca. 500 BCE that was recovered in a small, clay lydion vessel (No. 33, Fig. 34) in the excavations at Old Smyrna (Bayraklı); accompanying them were two late Lydian lion-and-bull sigloi (32.1-32.2) and twenty silver 1/6 staters from the nearby coastal city of Phokaia (No. 32.7-32.20): altogether a rather typical mixed hoard of western Asia Minor silver with the local Greek silver providing the fractions and the Lydian and Achaemenid sigloi providing the higher-value pieces.

The gold Darics seem to have functioned mainly as a high-value international currency used for Persian payments to Greek and other foreign governments and agents. Privately, they were highly prized throughout the Aegean world for storing wealth in savings accumulations.17 The coins in both of these metals were minted in vast quantities with hardly any change in design or style for nearly 200 years, until Alexander the Great took over the empire of the Persian kings and transformed it into a Greek and Macedonian empire.

Even at this juncture, however, Sardis did not cease to be a major mint. Just as the city had produced coins for Lydian and then Persian monarchs, after Alexander the city coined money for Alexander’s Greek successors. In particular, it served as one of the westernmost mints of the vast Seleucid Empire. Even under the Roman Empire, Sardis, like the other great urban centers of Asia Minor, produced a rich series of bronze coins that celebrated the gods and festivals of the city.18 Altogether, the history of coinage produced at Sardis stretched from the seventh century BCE to the third century CE, a period of roughly 1,000 years. Still, the most important centuries were the earlier ones of the Lydian and Persian empires: when first the very idea of coinage was conceived for making workable payments in electrum; when Croesus pioneered the practice of coining gold and silver in place of electrum; and when Darius and all later kings of Persia issued coins from Sardis with a Persian stamp. During these first several centuries, the stream of precious metal money that flowed out of Sardis was a powerful factor in these empires’ political, economic, and military might.

  • Fig. 24

    Late croeseid half-stater from hoard found at Old Smyrna (No. 32.1) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 25

    Late croeseid half-stater from hoard found at Old Smyrna (No. 32.1) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 26

    Late croeseid half-stater from hoard found at Old Smyrna (No. 32.2) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 27

    Late croeseid half-stater from hoard found at Old Smyrna (No. 32.2) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 28

    Silver siglos from hoard found at Old Smyrna (No. 32.4) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 29

    Silver siglos from hoard found at Old Smyrna (No. 32.4) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 30

    Silver siglos from hoard found at Old Smyrna (No. 32.6) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 31

    Silver siglos from hoard found at Old Smyrna (No. 32.6) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 32

    Silver siglos from hoard found at Old Smyrna (No. 32.3) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 33

    Silver siglos from hoard found at Old Smyrna (No. 32.3) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 34

    Lydion No. 33, from Old Smyrna, which contained the silver coin hoard (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

Notes

  • Fig. 7

    Electrum third-stater from Ephesus, boar head with Lydian inscription “…LATE…” (No. 22), obverse (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 8

    Electrum third-stater from Ephesus, boar head with Lydian inscription “…LATE…” (No. 22), reverse (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)