For several centuries prior to the invention of coined money the Greeks, then emerging from the dark ages following the destruction of Mycenaean civilization, had been engaged in colonization. The pressures created by an expanding population, together with the desire to foster trade led to the establishment of settlements far from the mother cities. Southern Italy and Sicily, and the northern coastline of the Aegean were areas particularly popular with the settlers, but colonies were also established in Spain, southern Gaul, north Africa and along the Black Sea coastline.
Prior to the advent of coinage, then, the Greeks were already widely scattered throughout much of the Mediterranean world, so it is hardly surprising that the new invention, once established, spread so rapidly over a large area. It is doubtful if we shall ever know the precise origin of the first coins but we can feel reasonably sure that this remarkable development occurred in the latter part of the 7th Century B.C., in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Whether it was the Ionian Greeks or their eastern neighbors, the Lydians, who made the first crude attempts at coinage it is impossible to say. But examples of these primitive pieces— globules of electrum without obverse or reverse design—have been found at the Ionian city of Ephesos; whilst the metal of which they are composed occurs as a natural alloy in the silt of the river which passes through the Lydian capital of Sardis.
Electrum sixth-stater of Ionia, late 7th Silver stater of Aigina, circa 530 B.C. Cent. B.C. / Silver stater of Aigina, circa 530 BC
In 560 B.C. Kroisos (Croesus) came to the Lydian throne. His reign was significant for the development of coinage, as he was responsible for the introduction of the first bimetallic currency—coins struck in both gold and silver, instead of the alloy electrum alone. This provided a much greater range of denominations and is evidence of the important part coinage was already playing in the economic life of the Lydian kingdom. In 546 B.C. Kroisos was defeated by Cyrus, King of the Medes and Persians. The Lydian kingdom ceased to exist and the Greek cities of Asia Minor were obliged to acknowledge Persian suzerainty. This was the beginning of the long struggle between Greeks and Persians which culminated in Alexander’s epic eastern campaign more than two centuries later.
The second half of the 6th Century witnessed the westward expansion of coinage from its origins in Asia Minor. Probably the first European city to issue coins was Aigina, situated on an island between Attica and eastern Peloponnese. Soon after followed the earliest coins of mints such as Athens, Corinth and the Euboian cities of Chalkis and Eretria. All of these mints were active from the middle of the century, or within the following decade. From these beginnings originated two of the important weight-standards to which many later Greek coinages adhered.
The Aiginetic standard, based on a silver didrachm-stater of about 12 grams, became very widespread in central Greece, Peloponnesos and the Aegean islands, including Crete. The Attic weight, with a didrachm of about 8.5 grams and, later, a tetra- drachm of 17 grams, was to become the principal standard of a later period, following Athens’ domination of the Aegean world throughout the latter part of the 5th Century. In the west the closing decades of the 6th Century also saw much activity in coin production at the colonies in southern Italy and in Sicily. A unique type of coin production was used at some of the Italian mints, in which the obverse type was ‘mirrored’ on the reverse, though incuse instead of in relief. This peculiar technique was abandoned in the early part of the 5th Century.
Silver stater of Poseidonia in Italy circa 530 BC Silver siglos of Darius I of Persia circa 500 BC
The conflict between Greeks and Persians which had been threatening in the closing decades of the 6th Century, suddenly erupted in 499 B.C. with the revolt of the Ionian cities of Asia Minor against Persian domination. Despite Athenian help the rebellion collapsed in 494 B.C., but there was only a short respite before hostilities recommenced. This time (490 B.C.) Darius of Persia sent a naval expedition against Athens, but after initial successes the Persian forces were decisively beaten at the battle of Marathon and were later obliged to return home. Darius died five years later and his son and successor, Xerxes, resolved to avenge the Persian humiliation by a full-scale invasion of Greece. This eventually took place in 480 B.C., after much preparation, when an immense Persian army crossed the Hellespont and advanced through Thrace and Macedon into Greece, supported by a large fleet.
Against all the odds the Greeks first checked the enemy at Thermopylai, then destroyed the Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis and, finally (in 479 B.C.), defeated the invading army at Plataia. This brought the conflict to an end and the Persians never again intervened directly in the affairs of mainland Greece.
These momentous events were to have far-reaching effects on the subsequent history of Greece. Athens emerged as the ‘saviour of the Greeks’ and capitalized on this to extend her influence throughout the Aegean world. The Confederacy of Delos, constituted soon after the victory over the Persians, was ostensibly an Athenian-led alliance of independent maritime states, dedicated to freeing the Ionian cities of Asia Minor from the Persian yoke. In reality, it quickly developed into an Athenian maritime empire, the annual contributions of the member-states being paid to Athens, making her the richest and most powerful state in main¬land Greece.