Coinage: notes for younger pupils


Who invented the small ingots of metal that have fascinated people ever since?

It was the Lydians, whose kingdom occupied most of western Asia Minor before it became part of the Persian empire: they had the richest supply of gold and silver in the ancient world. Here, at some time in the eighth century BC, coins were first minted. Until then, buying and selling was done by barter, or exchange of goods.

The last king of Lydia, before the Persians conquered it, was Croesus, proverbial for his wealth.

A coin was a disc of precious metal, whether gold, silver or bronze. By stamping it with the king’s official design, the Lydians guaranteed two things:

  • That the metal was genuine;
  • That the coin was the weight that it purported to be.

Further notes of possible interest:

  • Coinage in the ancient world was of intrinsic value: each coin was a commodity of value in itself, rather than only the promise of it, as with modern currency.
  • For example, a Roman denarius contained silver that was worth one denarius.
  • A modern coin or banknote is worthless in itself, and has value only if someone is prepared to give a commodity in exchange for it.
  • Some coinage was of intrinsic value until last century. Gold sovereigns were still in circulation after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, and silver shillings until the 1920s. But the First World War put and end to intrinsic currency in Europe.
  • Nonetheless, the British half-crown was 50% silver until 1946.
  • In America until 1972, every dollar bill was equivalent to gold, because each bill printed was backed by one dollar’s worth of gold held by the government in the United States Bullion Depository (Fort Knox). This was why, until that date, the dollar was the measure for other currencies in the western world.
  • The invention of coinage began a social revolution in the cities of Greece. Once riches became portable, a mercantile class arose whose wealth rivalled that of the aristocratic landowners.
  • Bronze is an alloy, of copper (cuprum) with at least 10% tin (stannum), and sometimes smaller amounts of zinc or other metals.
  • In the earliest days, the Lydians made some coins of electrum—an alloy of gold (aurum) and silver (argentum).
  • A £1 coin is of nickel-brass: 70% copper, 24.5% zinc, 5.5% nickel
  • Our ‘silver’ coins are of cupro-nickel: 75% copper, 25% nickel, and a trace amount of manganese.
  • The reason why Greek coins remain the finest ever minted is that the dozens of Greek cities (poleis) for centuries competed to produce the most beautiful designs. See under the menu Texts etc for an example.

Next post: Arches: some notes.


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