NGC Ancients: What Does It Mean to Be “As Rich as Croesus?”

Posted on 11/10/2015

Can any collection of ancient coins be complete without at least one of the earliest coins ever struck?

Coinage was invented in present-day western Turkey, seemingly in the mid-7th Century B.C. The earliest coins were made of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver. After about a century of electrum being the metal of choice, the Lydian King Croesus (561-546 B.C.) revolutionized things in the mid-6th Century B.C. by introducing the first coins of pure gold and pure silver.

Before Croesus ruled, a series of Lydian kings issued electrum coins.
This electrum Trite (1/3rd -Stater) seemingly was stuck c.610 to 546 B.C.

In his play The Persians, Athenian tragedian Aeschylus presents the city of Sardes, capital of the Kingdom of Lydia in Western Turkey, as polykhrusos – or “rich in gold.” This is neither the first nor the only time Sardis was held up as symbol for great wealth. Today, we use the idiom “as rich as Croesus” – referring to the infamous Lydian king- to describe a wealth that is, by all accounts, extraordinary.

So what exactly makes Sardes so...polykhrusos?

Sardes was blessed with a wealth of electrum that flowed down from Mount Tmolus in the River Pactolus. Electrum was important to the Lydians not only for its monetary value, but for its place in a prominent Greek myth: that of King Midas. According to the myth, the Phrygian King Midas discovered Silenus, a companion of the god Dionysus, sleeping in his rose garden. Upon returning Silenus to Dionysus, Midas was rewarded with the ability to turn anything he touched into gold. However, Midas soon discovered that his power was a curse, and Midas pleaded with Dionysus to reverse it.

The earliest Croesid 'prototype' stater. They were struck to the heavy weight standard,
and are of slightly different style and fabric than the later Croesid gold coins.

Dionysus advised him to rinse his hands in the River Pactolus. When he did, his power flowed into the river and turned the sands into gold. This myth featuring King Midas offers an explanation for the electrum-rich shores of the Pactolus. Even to this day, small amounts of electrum are found in its sands. The myth also illustrates the legacy of wealth in the region that the Lydians inherited.

Like the electrum-rich sands of the Pactolus, the world’s first coins, minted around 650 B.C., are steeped in myth and history. Much later, in the fifth century B.C., Herodotus wrote that the Lydians were “the first people we know of to strike gold and silver coins and use them.” These coins were minted from electrum, an alloy of silver and gold that occurs naturally.

These electrum coins, like all ancient precious metal coins, were issued according to weight standards. In Lydia the largest denomination for electrum was the stater, which weighed about 14.1 grams. The smallest, a 1/96th stater, weighed about 0.15 grams. Since the denominations sometimes were difficult to tell apart with the naked eye, Lydian merchants likely relied on the weights of coins to assess their value.

Along with gold, Croesus struck companion issues of silver coins.
This is an example of the largest denomination, a Stater or Double-Siglos.

Electrum was ideal for coinage because of its value and durability. However, its proportions of gold and silver vary, making the intrinsic value inconsistent from coin to coin. Having coins of pure gold and pure silver made it easier to assess value. Historians today can only speculate as to why, in about 560 B.C., Croesus broke with tradition and began to produce coins of pure gold and pure silver, but it may have been for exactly that reason.

Croesus struck his gold to a heavy weight standard and a light standard.
This fractional gold piece, a 1/6th-Stater, was struck the light standard; it weighs 1.33g.

Croesus’ coins are small and oval shaped. On the obverse, they portray a fierce lion confronting a bull. The reverse is formed by the deep impressions of two rough punches. The meaning of the design is the source of debate. Some believe the royal Lydian lion represents the sun and the bull the moon; others suggest the lion symbolizes gold and the bull silver – appropriately emblematic of the world’s first bi-metallic currency.

This post-Croesid gold stater, issued under Persian rule c.545 to 520 B.C.,
is distinguished by its schematic style.

Soon after these coins appeared in Lydia, gold and silver coins began to be issued throughout the Greek and Persian worlds. Even after Croesus was defeated, his conquerors, the Persians continued to issue coins of the types and weights that had been introduced by Croesus. While archaeologists have confirmed that Lydia was very prosperous, the coins of Croesus are relatively scarce. But in their day they must have been struck in enormous quantities, with their populations in modern times being the result of a low survival rate. Not surprisingly, Lydian coins minted in the 7th and 6th Centuries B.C. remain among the most sought after coinages by museums and numismatists alike.

Interested in reading more articles on Ancient coins? Click here

Images courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group.

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