Object Report 1: The Gold Coin of Croesus
This coin, found in room 13 of the British Museum, was made in the Kingdom of Lydia (modern-day Turkey) and it’s minting has been dated to around 550 BC in the Lydian capital city Sardis under the reign of King Croesus. The vast wealth of this kingdom arose partly from the Pactolus River that flowed past Sardis, which contained large gold and silver deposits as well as electrum, a rare, naturally-occurring alloy of gold and silver. While this electrum was used to produce earlier Lydian coins between 650-600 BC, King Croesus, who inherited his kingdom around 560, is credited with the creation of the first gold coins.
The coin is very small, only 2 cm long by 1 cm high, and weighs only about 8 grams. On its surface is the image of a lion (the symbol of the Lydian king) facing a bull, while the reverse side merely consists of a few grooves made by hammer blows. A mint of similar silver coins has been discovered in association with these gold ones, indicating that King Croesus’ reign may have marked the beginning of a gold and silver standard in currency. This find is also significant in that it gives a date by which metalworkers had learned to work pure gold.
These gold coins of Croesus may also represent the Lydian coins that were recorded by the treasury at the Parthenon in Athens, and to which Herodotus refers: “[Croesus] sent once again to Pytho and endowed the Delphians, whose number he had learned, with two gold staters apiece” (Herodotus 1.54); “They [The Lydians] were the first men whom we know who coined and used gold and silver currency” (Herodotus 1.94). Whether or not these references truly apply to this coin, we do know that King Croesus was renowned for his legendary wealth, so he had the resources to make a new gold and silver currency. Furthermore, in 546, only a few years after this coin was minted, Lydia was conquered and absorbed by the Persian Empire. At this point, the Persians began to mint their own gold and silver coins, and from there the practice quickly spread through the Mediterranean and beyond.