Ancient Greek Coins of Miletus

The ancient Greek city of Miletus in Asia Minor, on what is now the west coast of Turkey, was the intellectual and commercial center of the Greek world in the century before Athens rose to prominence. It has been called the birthplace of the modern world. These pages discuss the early history of coinage and present a detailed outline of Milesian coin types from the Greek and Roman periods.

PAGES: Illustrated table of contentsIllustrated numerical catalogueHistory and weight standardsChronological tableThe electrum lion coins of the kings of Lydia (1)The enigmatic “geometric” electrum series (1)The sixth-century electrum lion coins of Miletus (2)The electrum and silver lion/scorpion issues (3)The silver eye-swirl/quincunx fractions (12)The dotted lion-mask series (7)The archaic twelfth-stater series (21)The silver Milesian-style lion/bird fractions (14)The lion-head/lion-scalp series (2)Milesian imitatives of Hecatomnus, Mausolus, and Hidrieus (2)The fourth-century bronze lion/sun series (3)The Rhodian silver and bronze Apollo/lion series (7)Early silver and bronze of Alexander the Great (5)The reduced-Rhodian didrachms and their parallel bronzes (3)The later Diadochian and civic Alexander types (2)The third-century Persic silver and bronze Apollo/lion series (2)The bronze facing-Apollo coinage (6)The second-century silver Apollo/lion issues (5)The wreathed bronze Apollo/lion series (8)The bronze Apollo of Didyma series (2)Provincial bronzes of Nero (2)Provincial bronzes of Domitian (1)Provincial bronzes of Faustina the Younger (1)Provincial bronzes of Gordian III (1)The Ottoman silver akçes of fifteenth-century Balad (1)References and literature citedAncient coin resources online.

(1) History of Miletus

According to tradition, Miletus was founded about 1400 BC as a Minoan trading colony which fell under the control of the Mycenean Greeks and then the indigenous Carians after Minoan civilization collapsed. Miletus is mentioned in the Iliad, where its Carian citizens are seen fighting with the Trojans against the Greeks. The city is said to have been refounded by mainland Greeks about 1000 BC when Neleus, son of King Kodros of Athens, murdered its Carian inhabitants. This refounding of Miletus was part of the broader Ionian Migration of mainland Greeks to the eastward, during which the celebrated “Twelve Cities of Ionia” were established on the west coast of Anatolia. From the eighth to the sixth century before Christ all these Ionian Greek cities flourished, and Miletus became a major commercial and colonizing center. Almost 100 Milesian colonies were established all around the Black Sea and as far south as Naucratis on the Nile Delta in Egypt.

The prosperity of Miletus came by virtue of its location: a port city at the mouth of a major river—the Greater Meander, or Büyük Menderes—on the eastern edge of the Greek world. Miletus established commercial ties with the non-Greek Lydians to the east, and the Lydians themselves prospered through trade with the Persians and with other cultures in Asia. But the geographical location of Miletus also made it vulnerable from both land and sea. After the Persians under Cyrus the Great conquered Lydia in 546 BC, Miletus was able to remain neutral through diplomacy and bribery for a time, but when the Ionian cities revolted against Persian overlordship beginning in 499 BC, Miletus was besieged and eventually destroyed in 494 BC, despite the provision of twenty additional ships from Athens to aid the city’s inhabitants.

[Image: 19th-century engraving of the ruins of ancient Miletus.]

The ruins of Miletus

The destruction of Miletus in 494 BC was one of the great catastrophes of early Greek civilization. A play by Phrynichus called The Capture of Miletus, written soon after the city was destroyed, caused so much emotional turmoil in Athens that the playwright was fined and future performances were banned (Rosenbloom, 1993). And it was Athens’ support of Miletus against Persia that touched off the century-long series of Persian wars that engaged the whole Hellenic world and that led to the eventual rise of Athens as the great naval power of the Mediterranean. Herodotus reports that the Persian king Darius, after he had crushed the revolt in Ionia, kept the flames of war alive in his mind by ordering a servant to whisper three times to him every day, “Master, remember the Athenians.”

Darius’ invasion of mainland Greece was beaten back at Marathon in 490 BC, and a second invasion led by Darius’ son Xerxes was beaten back at Salamis in 480 BC. The Ionian coastline was eventually reconquered by the Greeks, but it was then ceded back to Persia, only to be conquered again by Alexander the Great in 334 BC. Miletus later came under Roman domination, and its large theater, which is still visible today, dates from that period. Though in all these later periods Miletus continued to be an important port, it never regained the greatness it had had during the seventh and sixth centuries. As the ages passed, the river Meander silted up the Milesian harbors and the site was eventually abandoned.

But by the time the early city was destroyed by the Persians in 494 BC, the cultural and intellectual accomplishments of the Milesians had already spread through the Greek world. The writer Freya Stark, who visited the ruins of Miletus in 1952, saw that even though the early city had been destroyed materially, its cultural heritage had endured and grown:

Miletus herself had survived her defeats and brought victoriously to port an argosy richer than any that her ships had carried, a history safely landed from the histories that went before it, neolithic and bronze—landed in spite of the Persians, into the Future,—into the waiting arms of Athens and Augustine and Dante, Stratford and Rome.

The real Miletus, invisible and bright and separate from its ruin, appeared to me as a bridge where the heirs of the most ancient Mediterranean were passing safely to our side.… The Persians could now dig away as they liked at our bridge of Miletus, setting their engines to separate them from a world already ancient in their day. When the bridge fell, the discovery of the infinity of man and his universe was safely on our side: Pythagoras and Empedocles, Athens and Rome, the Fathers of the Church and the philosophers, even to the dividers of the atom, were waiting in their turn to receive and transmute it: and we have ever felt that the only thing that matters had become safely ours.

(2) Metals and Weight Standards of Milesian Coins

[Image: Electrum recumbent-lion stater of ancient Miletus.]

An electrum stater of Miletus ca. 600–550 BC that is not, alas, part of this collection. It was offered for sale by Edgar L. Owen, Ltd., for $10,000.

Although many objects had been used as money from the earliest times, coins in the modern sense were invented in the general region of Miletus and adjacent Lydia in the late seventh or early sixth century BC. The idea of coined money spread from the Ionian colonies to mainland Greece about 550 BC, and by about 500 BC it had spread throughout the Greek world. All the coinage of the West is directly descended from the first issues struck in the territory surrounding Miletus more than two and a half thousand years ago.

The earliest coins of Miletus and Lydia were not made of gold or silver but rather of electrum, a naturally-occurring alloy of gold and silver that was especially common in the Lydian rivers. Since the gold/silver ratio in natural electrum is variable, the Lydian kings purposely regulated the proportion of gold in their coinage to guarantee that it would have a consistent value (and almost certainly to guarantee that it would generate a profit for themselves, as well). Although the gold content of the earliest Lydian coins appears to have been closely regulated, at least some of the Ionian Greek cities—including Samos, a few miles off the coast from Miletus—issued early electrum coins that were highly variable in gold content, although this was not readily detectable because copper was routinely added to maintain consistency of color (Konuk, in press). Much remains to be learned, even today, about the details of early electrum coinage production. Progress in this area will certainly depend upon techniques of materials analysis that have only become available within the last few years (Keyser and Clark, 2001).

The economic uncertainties that followed from the use of an alloyed metal for coinage soon led to the widespread replacement of electrum issues with separate series of gold and silver coins, and this innovation was made by the Lydian king Croesus (Kroisos), who ruled from 561–546 BC. Just as the oil of the Middle Eastern countries has made them wealthy today, so the electrum, gold, and silver of Lydia made that country wealthy in the sixth century BC. The expression “as rich as Croesus” has been a by-word for wealth for more than 2500 years.

(2a) Weight Standards Used at Miletus

If you ask him, “How much is the sea-bass?” he answers, “Ten obols,” not saying what kind. Then, when you pay him the silver, he makes you pay Aeginetan; but if he has to give back small change, he pays you back in Attic, and in each case he has the fee for changing.

—Diphilus, Polypragmon (The Busybody), 300 BC (Melville Jones, 1993: 381)

The technicalities of the weight standards used in ancient coinage are very complex and will not be examined in detail here (see Kraay, 1976; Melville Jones, 1986). For our purposes four weight standards are of importance: the early Lydo-Milesian standard, used for the early electrum coins of Miletus and their silver successors; the Chian or Rhodian standard, used for the Milesian silver Apollo/lion issues of the fourth century BC; the Attic-Euboic or Attic standard, used at Miletus mainly for the extensive imperial coinage of Alexander the Great, as well as for a few later large-denomination strikings; and the Persian or Persic standard, used (often in a slightly reduced form) for much of the Milesian silver coinage of the third and second centuries BC.

The Lydo-Milesian standard was likely borrowed from the Near East (Balmuth, 2001), and it was based on dividing a larger unit, the stater or “standard,” into fractions. An electrum stater, weighing about 14 grams, may have represented a month’s pay for a soldier, and electrum fractions as small as one ninety-sixth were commonly issued. At the high end of the scale, not used in regular exchange, was the mina, which equalled 60, or later 50, staters. The earliest electrum staters of Miletus are quite beautiful, and feature a crouching lion with its head reverted—a lion regardant in the language of Medieval heraldry. Smaller fractions in this series feature a lion’s head only, or a facing lion’s mask. The lion was the civic badge of Miletus, and lions in some form appear on nearly all of the city’s coinage, from the sixth-century electrum issues to the first-century bronzes. One of the city’s harbors had two lion sculptures, looking much like the crouching lions on the early staters, flanking its entrance.

The smallest of the small: It has long been said that the smallest Lydo-Milesian electrum denomination was the ninety-sixth stater with a standard weight of 0.15 g. One of the many known examples of this denomination is Kayhan #691 (Konuk, 2002), a minuscule electrum nugget featuring what appears to be a human eye on the obverse. Konuk has recently concluded that this specimen is in fact half of a ninety-sixth stater: “This tiny coin, which is in perfect condition with no sign of wear whatsoever, weighs half as much [as a ninety-sixth] and should perhaps be considered as a 1/192nd of a stater. At just 0.08 g this particular specimen is the lightest electrum coin that we have been able to record” (Konuk, 2003: 33). I believe that some of the smallest Milesian silver fractions may be 1/192nds as well.

A further note: Lot 190 of the Triton XIII sale (4 January 2010) is “apparently the second known” example of a Lydo-Milesian electrum 1/192nd.

In contrast to the Lydo-Milesian standard, which was based on dividing a stater into fractions, the family of weight standards that were more strictly Greek, including the Attic and Rhodian standards, were based on adding small units (obols or iron spits) into groups (drachmas or handfuls). The value of the original 2 kg iron obol (a spit) was translated into a small silver coin of the same value, also called an obol, that weighed, under the Attic standard, about 0.72 g.

The table below summarizes the known denominations of the Lydo-Milesian standard and their rough equivalents under the later Rhodian, Attic, and Persic standards.

Table 1. Principal weight standards of Milesian electrum, silver, and gold coins. Denominations shown in gray are not attested at Miletus, although they were used elsewhere. Excluded from this table are the silver coins belonging to the dotted lion-mask series, which seem to follow a different system of division. All dates shown are approximate. From the fourth century BC onward at Miletus, token bronze coins took the place of the smaller silver denominations (see below).
(before 494 BC)
(4th C.)
(4th–2nd C.)
(3rd–2nd C.)
1 This Rhodian denomination, reduced from the expected value of 7.6 g, was used at Miletus only for a compact group of didrachms minted from about 310–300 BC, during a gap in the emission of Attic-standard Alexanders. Perhaps it was meant to represent 1½ Attic drachms?
2 The Attic didrachm denomination was used at Miletus only for the gold types of Alexander and for a rare second-century autonomous gold emission; these gold issues are usually referred to as “staters” rather than as didrachms.
3 The Persic weights shown here are those characteristic of third-century issues; the second-century Persic silver of Miletus was in fact somewhat reduced from these values.
4 At Miletus this Persic denomination is known only from one specimen (Ashton and Kinns, 2003: 24–25, pl. 5U), although it is well-attested at several other Ionian cities.
stater 14.10 g tetradrachm 15.3 g 17.20 g
1/2 stater 7.05 g didrachm (6.5 g)1 8.60 g2 10.5 g
1/3 stater (trite) 4.70 g drachm 3.7 g 4.30 g 5.3 g
1/6 stater (hekte) 2.35 g hemidrachm or triobol 1.8 g 2.15 g 2.6 g
1/12 stater (hemihekte) 1.18 g 1/4 drachm or diobol 0.9 g 1.43 g 1.3 g4
1/24 stater 0.59 g obol 0.72 g
1/48 stater 0.29 g 3/8 obol (trihemitetartemorion) 0.27 g
1/96 stater 0.15 g 1/4 obol (tetartemorion) 0.18 g

The mid-fifth century BC saw an additional innovation in Greek coinage: the minting of bronze coins (chalkoi) as token currency, a practice that originated in Sicily and soon spread throughout the Greek world. Unlike gold and silver issues, bronze coins were understood to be token or fiat currency that had little intrinsic value but that was nevertheless accepted by all parties as a common medium of exchange (like modern paper currency and most modern coins). In many cases the silver value-equivalent of ancient bronze coins in unknown, though they are likely small fractions (twelfths of an obol, for example). It is conventional to describe them today in terms of their diameter or module, rather than their weight. The first Milesian bronze coins, featuring the city’s familiar regardant lion on the obverse, were issued about 370 BC.

© RJO 1995–2014