The Coins of Lydia

by | Dec 23, 2020 | Blog

Legend has it that Lydian gold came from the river in which King Midas washed away his power to turn all he touched into gold

The kingdom of Lydia reigned over (present-day) western Turkey more than 2500 years ago. The region was a meeting point for traders coming from the East and the West, and Lydia grew fat from the profits of this trade. The kingdom was already wealthy with fertile land and natural resources, such as gold and silver found in the Pactolus River, as well as the production of fine textiles, and leather goods.

Some of the oldest coins in the world have been found in the region of the former empire and is believed to be the place where the coin was first metal coins were created. Likely minted in Sardia from about 550 BCE, the coins feature a lion, seen as a symbol of strength, and a bull, a symbol of virility – although the symbology is a point of some contention. The coins were minted from gold, with the two impressions punched into the blank coin. The “true gold” coins were minted from standardized purity and weight, making them the first bimetallic monetary system.

It is this feature, the standardized value of each coin, that is most important about the Lydian coins minted under King Croesus. Before Croesus, his father, King Alyattes, minted non-standardized coins from electrum – a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver – that did not have a standardized value. While these coins were in circulation, it was the issuing of the Croeseid that changed the way that people did trade.

Why did people invent money?

Before coins, payments were made with bullion or by bartering. To determine the value of bullion it had to be weighed and tested for purity, a time-consuming and perhaps unreliable way for traders to make a profit. While touch tests were the basis for determining the purity of the precious metal, coinage removed the need for such a system with the innovation of the bimetallic monetary system.

Coins were introduced as a method of payment around the 6th or 5th century BCE, although there is some doubt as to the exact origin of the invention of coinage. The ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, contented that coins were first minted by the Lydians, while Aristotle claims that the first coins were minted by Damodice of Kyrme, the wife of King Midas of Phrygia. Many numismatists assert that the first coins were minted on the Greek island of Aegina, either by the local rulers or by King Pheidon of Argos.

What historians can agree on is that when Lydia was conquered by the Persians in 546 BCE, coins were in circulation, and Persia adopted the system. It was perhaps the first pricing metric innovation in history. The introduction of a coin with a royal guarantee not only sped up transactions but also introduced a more reliable value system.

The First Coins

The first electrum coins, issued by King Alyattes, were guaranteed by the crown to have a specific value. However, they were unreliable as the real value of each coin fluctuated greatly due to the variables in the alloy used to mint each coin. It wasn’t until a coin of consistent weight and purity was introduced that the innovation became a widely advantageous practice for trade.

Coins were not adopted in general trade immediately. Even the smallest-denomination electrum coins would have been too valuable for general use, where bartering was the normal practice. The first coins to be used for retailing were likely smaller silver fractions, Hemiobol, minted in Kyme (Aeolis) under Hermodike II (the Ionian Greeks) in the late 6th century BCE.

Of the electrum coins, the largest denomination found is a one-third slater (a Greek term for standard and applied to coinage) which weighed about 4.7 grams. It is believed that this coin, called a trite, was equivalent to the value of about 11 sheep or even as little as three jars of wine. No full slaters of electrum coins have ever been found. The electrum coins were minted in large quantities with thirds, sixths, and twelfths, as well as lion paw fractions. The denominations include a hekte (sixth), hemihekte (twelfth), and even a 1/96 slater, which weighs only about 0.15 grams, although numismatists disagree about whether the fractions below the twelfth were minted by Lydians.

Lydian Lion Design

The Lydian Lion is one of the most remarkable coins ever minted. It features the profile of a lion’s head, roaring with bared teeth and thick mane. The triangular eye gives the lion a powerful expression, while the significance of the starburst to the top right of the coin above the lion remains a point of much contention. The Lydian Lion features on the reverse an incuse punch created during the minting process. The hammer action forces the blank planchet into the anvil die. The trite features two squares that are joined or separate, created with two punches. The punch on smaller denominations consists of a single square.

There is more than one incarnation of the design, some with greater detail and others with larger starbursts, but the general design remained consistent throughout time, even as the minting of the first pure gold and silver coins took place.

Today’s Values
worn:US$100 approximate catalog value
average circulated:US$250
well preserved:US$1000


The Fall of Lydia

While it is said that Croesus was a wealthy king and that Sardis was a beautiful city, the kingdom faced an abrupt defeat. In about 550 BCE, Croesus ordered the construction of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, now known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but he was defeated in battle at Halys by Cyrus II of Persia in 546 BC, and the Lydian kingdom was forced to become a Persian satrap.

Croesus was thrown to his death on a funeral pyre, but legend claims that the king was saved by Apollo and delivered to the land of the Hyperboreans.

Coins traveled through the many ancient empires, from the Greeks, the Romans, and the Persians to various parts of the world. Indo-Greek kingdoms often minted bilingual coins in the 2nd century BCE, while the most beautiful classical-era coins are said to have been minted by Samudragupta (335-376 CE), who portrayed himself as a conqueror and musician.