Our knowledge of earlier civilizations has been greatly improved by direct examination of those artifacts that have survived the ravages of time. Unlike most animal and plant tissues, which undergo rapid or gradual decay, metal objects, particularly of the less reactive or precious metals, can remain preserved intact underground or underwater for centuries, even millennia. Included among such objects are the earliest examples of ancient coins. Coins themselves are actually a relatively recent historical development; the first specimens date back to the 7th century BCE. Most such coins were metal tokens, usually in the shape of a disc, that represented a specific value based upon metal composition, weight, or assigned value. On at least one side, coins had an image— and later an inscription—representing the authority that issued the coin.
History of Development
Trading based upon a bartering system using objects, such as shells, skins, salt, grain, cattle, and precious metals such as silver and gold, predates the first coins by millennia. When people began using metal for bartering, value was based upon the weight and purity of the metal, not the form or shape of the metal. An early standard of value was based on the price of cattle, such as an ox. Over time, people came to prefer to exchange metal because it did not wear out as easily as other materials and generally remained stable in value.
The first coins were struck in the 7th century BCE in the kingdom of Lydia, a region corresponding to modern western Turkey. These coins were made of electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver; however, electrum quickly ceased to be used in preference to gold and silver. These coins were of an oval shape and had a lion figure stamped on one side and one or more punch marks on the other (what historians call punch-mark coinage). Due to close ties with and influence from Greece, coin usage speedily spread throughout the Greek colonies and into the larger Mediterranean world by the mid-6th century BCE.
Greece quickly developed a preference for silver coins and issued few gold coins. Although Athens and Corinth had the first mints, silver coins became so popular that they began to be minted in areas all around the Mediterranean Sea. By 500 BCE, these mints were using dies—striking a blank disc between two die—to stamp out coins rather than using single punches. The obverse die was seated in the anvil and the reverse die was on the base of the punch. The craftsman placed a blank piece of metal and struck the punch several times, thus making a coin.
Because of the existence of many mints, a custom developed that a particular mint would stamp its own design on a coin to identify the location where the coin was made; hence, the first mint marks. In the 200s CE, Roman mints began using standardized mint marks for their coins; these were located at the bottom of the reverse side.
The Romans began producing coins early in the 3rd century BCE, being highly influenced by Greek coins. About this same time (289 BCE), coins began being used for the first time as money, that is, having an exchange value not based on metal or weight. Initially, the Romans minted only coins of silver but by the late 3rd century BCE had begun issuing large quantities of bronze coins. After the unprecedented financial demands of the wars with Carthage (264-241, 218-201 BCE), Rome standardized its coin values based upon the denarius for silver coins and the as for bronze. Because Rome took booty and tribute from the people it conquered, silver and gold became scarce in the provinces, and coins made of those metals petered out by the middle of the first century BCE except in Rome. Throughout the first centuries CE, coin usage vastly expanded throughout the empire, mainly via the army. This trend continued to the end of the empire. Roman coins had become so common in usage for purchasing goods or paying laborers that their impact continued to influence the coins of European groups well into the Middle Ages.
Just as the Greeks spread coin usage in the Mediterranean basin, the Persians spread its usage in the East (as far east as modern Afghanistan and Pakistan). Cyrus the Great (550-530 BCE) introduced coins to the Persian Empire after he conquered Lydia in 546 BCE. His grandson Darius I (521-486 BCE) introduced a thick gold coin he named after himself, the daric, which weighed 8.4 grams. He is pictured on the daric holding a bow and arrow. Because of Persian influence in the Far East, coins began to be used in northern India by 400 BCE. These early coins, made of silver, seem to have been an adaptation of Greek prototypes, with an image on one side and up to five punch marks on the other.
China developed coins independently of Greek and Persian influence. The first coins date to the Zhou kings (late 7th or early 6th century BCE) and were in the shape of a knife or spade. These bronze coins contained an inscription of the clan name, place name, or weight. In the late 3rd century BCE, Qin Shi Huangdi unified the Chinese states and issued round coins with a square hole in the center. These coins contained a two-character inscription indicating their weight. This coin continued until the Tang Empire, when the emperor Gaozu redesigned the coin, adding a four-character inscription that gave the weight and the period of issue and designated the coin as money. Coins of the Tang Empire spread throughout the Far East, with similar designs being adopted in other nations. The Japanese introduced coins in 708 CE, the Vietnamese in 970 CE, and the Koreans in 996 CE. Eastern Asian coins followed the Chinese design until influenced by European nations in the 18th century.
Early bartering in Mesopotamia placed a value on precious metals based upon their weight in shekels (11.5 grams). The first coins in Lydia had value based upon their weight—the stater (a word meaning “standard”) weighing about 14.1 grams. The smallest Lydian coins were as tiny as 1/96 of a stater (0.147 grams). The largest weight was one mina, equaling 50 staters.
Within a century of their introduction, coins became standardized by one of three standards: Athenian, Persian, or Phoenician. Greece (the Athenian standard) used the stater early and then the tetradrachma, which weighed 17.5 grams, as its standard. These were divided into the smaller drachma coins of 4.2 grams. The Persians used the 8.4 gram gold daric and 5.6 gram silver siglos (Persian variant of the shekel) as their standard for coins. One daric equaled 20 sigloi. The Phoenicians used a silver stater coin of 13.9 grams as their standard, which they subdivided into 24 parts. However, the main coin they used was the half-stater of 6.5 grams. By the 5th century BCE, coins began to have a designated value assigned by the issuing authority, apart from the net worth of the material of which they were made.
The Romans’ standardized silver coin was the denarius, which was the equivalent of one Greek drachma. The standard for bronze coins was the as, which equaled a fraction of a denarius (one denarius equaled 10 asses before 140 BCE and 16 asses after 140 BCE). In the first century BCE, the Romans introduced the gold aureus, equal to 25 denarii. This coin became fairly common, an indication of the wealth of the early Roman Empire. In the 3rd century CE, corruption and inflation plagued the empire. The value of gold coins reverted to being based solely upon their weight in order to correct the problem; however, this did not work. As inflation grew, silver coins were made containing a lower percentage of pure silver until they contained almost no silver (less than 1%).
Before the invention of coins, some merchants used dishonest scales to cheat people out of their valuables. Evidently, the invention of coins did not solve the problem. Some ancient coins have chisel cuts in them where someone sliced the coin to check its purity. Furthermore, Rome had problems with coin forgery at times when there were shortages of official coins (the 40s, 270s, and 340-350s CE).
From the first coins, designs varied by mints and included images of animals, plants, persons, mythic beings, deities, city symbols, and so on. Later scenes depicted rulers, significant events, patron deities, and the like. Each mint designed its own coins. However, in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, the Romans made all of their coins uniform so that all their mints made coins of the same designs, metallic quality, and size—a first in history. The only variant was the mint mark, which remained unique for each mint.
Terry W. Eddinger
See also Economics; Egypt, Ancient; Rome, Ancient; Values and Time
Howgego, C. (1995). Ancient history from coins
(Approaching the Ancient World series). London: Routledge.
Klawans, Z. (2003). Handbook of ancient Greek and Roman coins (K. E. Bressett, Ed.). Atlanta, GA: Whitman Publishing.
Williams, J. (Ed.). (1997). Money: A history. New York: St. Martin’s.