The earliest coins, issued by the Ionians or the Lydians in western Asia Minor in the latter part of the 7th Century B.C., were produced in only one metal, electrum, a naturally- occurring alloy of gold and silver. They were based on a stater weighing a little over 14 grammes, and although various fractional denominations were struck from an early date (half, third, sixth, etc.) the relatively high intrinsic value of the metal precludes the possibility that these coins enjoyed a wide everyday circulation. The truth of the matter would seem to be that the earliest coins provided a convenient means of paying quite large sums (possibly to mercenary soldiers) rather than to facilitate the day-to-day commerce of the ordinary citizens. The electrum stater, in fact, probably represented a month’s pay for a soldier.
Silver half-stater of Kroisos of Lydia (.561-546 B.C.) Gold daric of the Persian Empire, 5th-4th Cent. B.C
This state of affairs continued until the Lydian King Kroisos (Croesus), who reigned 561-546 B.C., introduced a new monetary system based on coins of gold and silver instead of electrum. The gold stater, although still of the same value as its electrum predecessor was necessarily of lighter weight (a little over 8 grammes) and fractional denominations down to one-twelfth (hemihekton) were produced in the same metal. Silver denominations, now issued for the first time, bore the same design as the gold and provided a much greater range of values at the lower end of the scale. In these times the ratio of silver to gold was 13,’: l and the weight of the silver stater was fixed so as to make it the equivalent of one-tenth of the gold stater (almost 11 grammes).
The smallest coin in this series, the silver hemihekton, was 1/120th of the gold stater, which gives some idea of the wide range of values obtainable under this new bimetallic system. The main disadvantage was the inconvenience of handling such tiny coins in everyday transactions—the silver hemihekton was less than half the diameter of our modern £ New Penny. This was a problem which was not finally solved until the 4th Century B.C., when token bronze coinage largely replaced the smallest silver denominations.
The Lydian Kingdom ceased to exist in 546 B.C. when Kroisos was defeated by the Persians under King Cyrus. But coinage, on the same standard and with the same types, continued to be issued from Sardis under the new regime. Towards the end of the 6th Century the old Lydian type (foreparts of lion and bull) was replaced by a Persian type showing an archer (sometimes described as the King) in a kneeling-running pose.
The gold stater, now called a ‘daric’ (after Darius), was initially the same weight as Kroisos’ coin, whilst the’silver ‘siglos’ was the equivalent of the old half-stater and worth one-twentieth of the ‘daric’. Subsequently, slight adjustments had to be made in their weights to maintain the correct ratio when there were changes in the relative values of the precious metals. These coins continued in issue with only minor modifications, for almost two centuries, until the Persian Empire was overthrown by Alexander.
Electrum stater of Chios, circa 550 B.C.
When the Lydian Kingdom fell in 546 B.C. the Greek cities of Ionia were obliged to acknowledge Persian overlordship, though this seems to have had no effect on their output of coinage. Unlike the Lydians, the Greeks had continued using electrum for the majority of their coins, issued as staters and fractions right down to ninety-sixths. Silver was introduced in the closing decades of the 6th Century, though it seems to have played only a subsidiary role to the more important electrum issues.
Quite a large number of mints would seem to have been at work—Ephesos, Phokaia, Miletos, and others—though it is difficult for us now to attribute most types to their cities of origin. The picture is further complicated by the existence of several different weight-standards for the electrum coinage, and we find staters weighing 17.2 grammes (‘Euboic’ standard), 16.1 gm. (Phokaic) and 14.1 gm. (Milesian). Of these, the Phokaic standard was ultimately adopted for the extensive electrum coinages which the Asiatic Greeks produced in the 5th and 4th Centuries B.C., down to the time of Alexander.
Three mints were principally involved in the production of this fascinating and beautiful coinage. Kyzikos, a Milesian colony on the sea of Marmara, issued a series of staters (weight 16.1 gm.) of which more than two hundred different types are known. The Ionian mint of Phokaia, and Mytilene, the chief city of the island of Lesbos, produced long series of hektai (sixth-staters, 2.6 gm.), possibly striking in alternate years. The products of the two mints are easily distinguished—those of Phokaia are without reverse type, whilst the examples from Lesbos always have a reverse design, sometimes in intaglio.
Electrum sixth-stater of Phokaia 4th Cent. B.C. Electrum sixth-stater of Lesbos 4th Cent. B.C.
Around the middle of the 6th Century the practice of issuing coined money spread to Greece itself and a number of mints commenced operations in the decade following 550 B.C. Electrum was foreign to the European Greeks who never adopted this metal for their coinage. In its place silver was employed right from the start. The first issues of Aigina, Athens, Corinth, and the Euboian cities of Chalkis, Eretria and Karystos all belong to this time. Important weight standards, which were destined to play a leading role in the development of Greek coinage, now appeared for the first time.
The Attic standard, based initially on a didrachm of 8.6 gm. but later on a tetradrachm of 17.2 gm., was adopted at Athens and later spread to Sicily and the northern Aegean area. The great prosperity and political importance of Athens in the 5th Century contributed to the widespread popularity of this weight standard and it was later adopted by Alexander the Great for his vast imperial coinage.
Silver stater of Corinth, circa 525 B.C.
The Corinthian standard was closely linked to the Attic in that it was based on a stater of 8.6 gm., the same weight as the Attic didrachm. However, the Corinthian stater was divided into three drachms of 2.9 gm. Coins on this standard were produced over a long period at Corinth, with smaller and mostly late issues coming from her numerous colonies in north-west Greece, Italy and Sicily.
Silver Aiginelic stater of Naxos, late 6th Cent. B.C.
The Aiginetic standard received its name from the maritime state, situated between the coastlines of Attica and Argolis, which was in all probability the earliest mint in European Greece. The Aiginetic stater, normally weighing about 12.3 gm., was widely adopted in the Peloponnese, in Central Greece, and especially in the southern Aegean area (the Cyclades group of islands, Crete and south-west Asia Minor). Politically and economically Aigina was eclipsed by Athens in the mid-5th Century B.C. though her weight standard remained in use in many places.
Other important standards in use from early times include the Achaean (silver stater of 8 gm.), used by the Greek colonies in southern Italy; and the Euboic (stater of 17.2 gm.), employed by colonies from Euboia situated in the northern Aegean area and in Sicily. In the East, the Persian standard, derived from the bimetallic coinage of Kroisos, was adhered to by many of the mints of Asia Minor under Achaemenid domination, including those of Cyprus. After circa 400 B.C. the Chian (or Rhodian) standard achieved considerable popularity in Asia Minor, and was also adopted at Ainos in Thrace. It was based on a tetradrachm of 15.6 gm.
Thraco-Macedonian dodekadrachm of the Derrones, circa 475 B.C.
The table below shows the large number of denominations which were produced under the Attic weight system. Not all of these denominations would have been in regular issue—the dekadrachm, for example, was only struck on special occasions—and some mints never pro¬duced the tiny fractions of the obol. The weights given are approximate, and reflect the figures actually achieved rather than the ideal.
Denominations of silver drachmaImageDenominationValueWeight
Dekadrachm10 drachmae43 grams
Tetradrachm4 drachmae17.2 grams
Didrachm2 drachmae8.6 grams
Drachma6 obols4.3 grams
Tetrobol4 obols2.85 grams
Triobol (hemidrachm)3 obols2.15 grams
Diobol2 obols1.43 grams
Obol4 tetartemorions0.72 grams
Tritartemorion3 tetartemorions0.54 grams
Hemiobol2 tetartemorions0.36 grams
Trihemitartemorion3/2 tetartemorions0.27 grams
Tetartemorion1/4 obol0.18 grams
Hemitartemorion½ tetartemorion0.09 grams