The History & Origin of Coins

Old Coins


The Origin & History of Coins

It is probable that the earliest coins were made in Asia Minor, an area which had been extensively settled by the Greeks. The medium of exchange was a natural alloy of gold and silver, which was particularly abundant in that quarter of the world, and it is of this alloy, "electrum", that the oldest known coins were made. It is generally considered that these coins were minted about 700 B.C. There is, however, a difference of opinion as to who were the pioneers of this development, the colonising Greeks or the Lydians indigenous to the area.  This subject was keenly disputed amongst the ancients themselves. Herodotus, however, definitely assigns the honour to the Lydians: he states, "the Lydians were the first people to strike and use gold and silver coins"


Croesus, who ascended the throne of Lydia in 561B.C, struck electrum coins at the beginning of his reign but subsequently abandoned them in favour of a double system of gold and silver, with weights so calculated that the two metals could be readily exchanged. This double system of Lydia (though not its weights) was adopted by the Persians and thereafter vast quantities of “darics” in gold and silver “shekels” were issued in the name of their great King, Darius. The Persian coinage, on account of its greater purity of metal and its regularity, replaced the Lydian coins of inferior weight, and this continued till the Persian Empire was overthrown. Greek influence, nevertheless, on design and inscription was strongly present in all these Persian coins, as it was on the Lydian coins, probably because of the very high artistic standards then current in Greece.

Though the coinage movement had spread by this time throughout the Mediterranean world, silver was still the only metal minted in Europe. Supplies of the more precious metal were apparently too limited to justify any European state in making it the basis of its currency. If gold was struck it was either at some moment of exceptional prosperity, as at Syracuse after the siege, or under pressure of dire necessity, as at Athens during the latter part of the Peloponnesian war. Gold and electrum coins were freely used in commerce but they were minted in Asia, as shown above. The minting of gold in Europe started when Philip of Macedon began to develop the gold mines of Thrace about 350 B.C.


The earliest coins were no more than pieces of metal punched on one side. During the 5th century B.C. designs on the punch mark were introduced incuse at first, but later on in relief, until, eventually, a complete double-sided coin was developed.

It seems probable that the much greater convenience of this “counted” money, as compared with the older forms of "weighed" money, caused a widespread demand, and more and more communities began to make coins for local use. A new type of craftsman came into prominence who could cut the dies, and often design them, in accordance with communal sentiment, and who could effectively stamp the metal discs. In consequence of this expansion, towns and provinces soon came to realise that there was need for control and that the making of money should be subject to appropriate regulations to ensure that the intrinsic value of the coins was correctly maintained. This may be looked upon, possibly, as the beginning of autonomous currency when each city made its own coins according to chosen design. The profit-making aspect appears to have become increasingly important as the coinage movement spread, and with the assumption of control by higher authorities (e.g. conquerors, kings, or powerful groups in a country or district) the period of regal coinage was inaugurated. .

At this time the influence of the Greeks, in the field of metallic art as in architecture, sculpture and thought, was evident throughout much of the Mediterranean world, carried by Greek traders and by emigrating Greeks, such as those who left the city of Athens in 430 B.C. after it had endured an outbreak of bubonic plague. Thus we find some of the most outstanding coins and medals of this period made by Greek artists in Sicily and southern Italy. However, the men chiefly responsible for the spread of Greek culture to the Near East, Egypt and the Middle East were Macedonians-Philip, who united his own country and conquered much of the Greek world, and his son Alexander the Great welded an empire which spanned the Middle East from Egypt to India. In so far as the story of coins goes, therefore, the spread of Greek style in metallic art as well as the spread of minting techniques owe much to Alexander, and autonomous coinages were everywhere replaced by regal issues testifying his triumphs.

After Alexander's death his empire gradually disintegrated, and Greek influence in all arts, including medallic art, declined. The Roman Empire preserved certain Greek traditions, but medallic art, as well as the other art forms-sculpture, painting and architecture tended to become somewhat decadent during the latter years of Roman rule. The Dark Ages, thus named for the eclipse of art and learning, were also “dark” in medallic art, and though mints in western Europe were plentiful, their products were technically poor and artistically void.

A technical development, the printing press, is often said to have sparked off the revival of learning which culminated in the Renaissance in Europe. A similar technical advance, the development of the screw press, played a major part in the revival of medallic art which coincided with the Renaissance in the other art forms. Coins could now be struck evenly and symmetrically, and this new technique was used to give expression to the rediscovered art" of die-cutting. The further technical developments associated with the industrial revolution of the 19th century completed the transformation of coinage manufacture into a "mass production" process.


Thus, present-day mints, except on special occasions, do no more than carry on a process of "mass production". In view of the immense quantities of small denomination coins which are required under modern conditions it is essential that pieces be in low relief and small in size. This requirement is of such major importance that in order to make production economically possible the actual cost of the material used in anyone coin must be appreciably less than its face value. The recent tendency is therefore to make coins of small value not only non-metallic but of such material as is sufficiently low in first cost to leave a margin in production cost to cover seigniorage and manufacturers' profit.


As in other fields, one cannot refrain from regretting the technical developments which have caused the “mass produced” to oust the “handmade”. It is impossible not to be impressed by the early diesinkers-by their skill in working with crude gravers and punches, by their patience since the “life" of the dies they produced must have been short, by their artistry which continues to command admiration, and last but by no means least by the great numbers of men thus talented in so many countries. While there seems to be no lack of technical or artistic skill capable of exploiting the techniques of the present day there are relatively speaking far fewer people required to produce far greater numbers of coins or medals. Master dies can be cut by reducing machines from large size relief models and have largely displaced the traditional die-cutter. The larger number of coins with less variety means that fewer designers are required to turn their talents to coin design. The present-day challenge would thus seem to be to maintain artistry in coinage which, by very reason of modern minting techniques and modern social developments, could be an “art form” for every man to appreciate whenever he dips his hand into his pocket for change.