«Traditional Means of Payment»

Impertinently Rich: Croesus‘ first gold coins c. 550 BC – and Persian Numismatic Pragmatism after Conquering Lydia

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The legendary wealth of king Kroesus is still known today. This may be based on the fact that his coins circulated even centuries after his death. After all, he was the first to introduce a bimetallic currency system.  

 

Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Lydia. We are in the year 550 B.C., roughly speaking.

 

A lion and a bull – these two are facing each other on this coin. The lion opens his jaws wide and lifts his paw. He intends to jump at the bull and kill him. The bull, on the other hand, seems to be lacking any aggression. He does not lower his head, and his sharp horn poses no threat to the attacking lion.

 

The lion and the bull are depicted on the world’s very first gold coin, a stater of Croesus.

This powerful leader ruled an empire called Lydia. Its capital city was Sardes, from which Croesus controlled all important commercial cities located at the coast.

 

They all paid taxes to him, and that made the Lydian King become the wealthiest man of the then known world. Up to the present day, Croesus is still a byword for an almost impertinently rich man.

 

Moreover, the Paktolos River, running through Sardes, supplied the Lydians with precious metal. In the past, that metal was believed to be electrum, a naturally-occurring mixture of gold and silver. Today we know that the Paktolos carried pure gold with it, which the King used for his purposes.

 

In doing so, he supported both the Temples of Artemis at Ephesus and of Apollo at Didyma. Even though the remains of the Temple of Artemis, still visible in Sardes today, date from a later time, Croesus certainly did not spend any less money there than in the cities of the Greeks. Time has left us with almost nothing of the grand buildings with which the king adorned his capital city Sardes.

 

As payment, he presumably used coins just like this one. Our specimen most likely belongs to the earliest coinage of Croesus. There are many good reasons for that, in terms of style. One of them becomes immediately apparent when you look at the forehead of the lion. There you see something jutting out, which the numismatists refer to as protuberance.

 

A more elaborated protuberance can be found on earlier coins of the Lydian kings. It is always located above the lion’s forehead and could be interpreted as a symbol of the sun which might well be associated with the king of animals. Traces of this protuberance can be seen on our coin as well.

 

In contrast to later coins exhibiting the same subject where it has disappeared completely.

Our coin, therefore, is a kind of prototype of the first coin emission of the world featuring gold and silver coins in many different denominations.

 

There is, for instance, a gold third stater in the weight of 2.7 grams.

Then we have the gold twelfth stater with 0.7 grams.

In addition, there is the gold twentyfourth stater weighing 0.45 grams.

And there is the same in silver as well.

 

Croesus had many coins struck and spent in the entire Greek world. It is hardly surprising that he sparked greediness.

 

So perhaps Croesus did not cross the Halys to destroy the powerful empire of the Persians but to pre-empt a Persian campaign. Anyhow, Croesus had to face the fact that he, despite all his power, wasn’t able to stand up to Persian King Kyros the Great. Sardes was conquered. Croesus became one of Kyros’ subjects.

 

Centuries later, the Greeks were still impressed by the fate of the Lydian King who fell at the height of his power. They continued to tell the story of Croesus, constantly inventing new details.

 

The Persians, in contrast, had a much more pragmatic approach. They simply adopted the biggest invention of Croesus, his gold and silver coins, and continued minting them for a long time.

 

It was not before Persian King Dareios founded his new capital at Persepolis that he decided to have his own topics depicted on the coinage. His coins no longer show the lion attacking the bull but the Persian king as leader of his army. Nevertheless, the Persian coins were still struck in gold and silver.

 

Thank you for listening. And you can find more podcasts about coins and money on the Sunflower Foundation Web page.