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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) The Electrum Lion Coins of the Ancient Lydians (before Croesus)

Lydia does not have many marvelous things to write about in comparison with other countries, except for the gold dust that is carried down from Mount Tmolus.

—Herodotus, The History, 1.93

Contents of this page

The earliest coins were not made of gold or silver but of electrum, a naturally occurring gold-silver alloy. The Pactolus River (Sart Çayı) beside the slopes of Mount Tmolus (Boz Dağ) in the kingdom of Lydia was one of the most important sources of electrum in the ancient world, and just as the rulers of the Middle East today have become wealthy from oil, so the ancient Lydian kings became rich by accumulating and minting coins from electrum. The capital city of ancient Lydia was Sardis (Sardes, Sardeis, Sart), and it was a major commercial center linking the Asian kingdoms of the east with the coastal Greek cities of Ionia, including Miletus. It is not an accident that the first coins appeared in the important commercial centers of Lydia and adjacent Ionia, nor that the first system of bimetallic currency—the first system of interrelated gold and silver issues—was also developed there.

The electrum lion coins of ancient Lydia should probably be considered the world’s the first true coins, in the sense of a state-issued quantity of metal impressed with a consistent type. The earliest issues, thought to date from the reign of Alyattes (about 610–560 BC) or perhaps his predecessor Sadyattes—both of the Mermnad dynasty—feature the Lydian kings’ emblem of a roaring lion, almost always with a curious knob, often called a “nose wart,” on its forehead. Reid Goldsborough has written a very thorough review of what is known about the history of these electrum lion coins of Lydia, and his essay includes citations to the relevant technical literature on the subject.

(2) Lydia · Lion’s Head Right with “Nose Wart” / Square Incuse · Electrum · About 610–560 BC

This type is known from electrum thirds (4.70 g), sixths (2.35 g), and twelfths (1.18 g), all with approximately the same design. The larger denominations typically have two incuse punches on the reverse rather than one. Rare examples are known with the lion’s lead left instead of right. Apparently part of the same series are a number of smaller fractions that feature a lion’s paw, although it is possible that these are Milesian rather than Lydian.

(2a) EL Lydo-Milesian 1/12 Stater (1.18 g)

Twelfth-stater specimens are less common than thirds, but are still quite well documented.

[Image: An electrum (gold/silver) lion-head coin of Alyattes, king of ancient Lydia.]

RJO 55. Electrum 1/12 stater (1.19 g), about 610–560 BC. Obverse: lion’s head right with “nose wart.” Reverse: square incuse punch. A clear and well-centered example of Weidauer’s Type XVI, which is distinguished by the large number of chevrons on the lion’s neck (Weidauer, 1975: 24–25, pl. 10).


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