Coinage to the Greeks was one of the forms of money available to measure value, store wealth, or facilitate exchange. Coins were made from precious metal such as gold or silver, or from a copper alloy; they were of regulated weight and had a design (type) stamped on one side or both. Lumps of bullion too could be weighed to a standard and stamped with a design, but the stamp on a coin indicated that the issuing authority, normally a state or its representative(s), would accept it as the legal equivalent of some value previously expressed in terms of other objects, including metal by weight. Merchants and others therefore were expected to accept it in payment.
In the Archaic and Classical periods many of the Greek communities established around the Mediterranean and Black (Euxine) Seas produced coins, and they often influenced their neighbours to do the same: Persians (see persia) in western Anatolia, Carthaginians (see carthage) in North Africa and Sicily, Etruscans in Italy, Celts in western Europe. The coins of these peoples, although they usually bear images and inscriptions appropriate to their traditions, were in general inspired by Greek models. After 334 the conquest of the Persian empire by Alexander (2) the Great inaugurated a massive extension of the area covered by coinage, esp. in the Successor kingdoms (see diadochi), Syria, Egypt and so on. In effect the term ‘Greek coinage’ includes most of the non‐Roman coinage of the ancient world issued between the Straits of Gibraltar and NW India.
Coinage began in western Anatolia, at the point of contact between Greek cities on the Aegean coast and the Lydian kingdom in the interior. The first coins were of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver occurring naturally in the river Pactolus, which flowed into the Hermus to the west of Sardis. A date of c.600 bc or a little later for their introduction fits their appearance in a miscellaneous deposit of jewellery and figurines discovered in the foundations of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, and also the subsequent development of coinage in Anatolia and the wider Aegean world. The first coins of electrum were followed in Lydia by coins of pure gold and silver, with the type of confronting foreparts of a lion and of a bull. Such coins have traditionally been attributed to the Lydian king Croesus (c.560–546), but hoard evidence suggests that most, if not all, are later than his reign and were part of the coinage issued in the area by the Persians.
Given the nature of the earliest coins—esp. their standardized weights and the lion's head that features on many of them—it is a plausible hypothesis that they were issued to make a large number of uniform and high‐value payments in an easily portable and durable form, and that the authority or person making the payment, perhaps to mercenaries, was the king of Lydia. For the original recipients coins were simply another form of movable wealth, but many pieces might thereafter be exchanged for goods or services and so pass into general circulation as money.
Subjects: Classical Studies.