By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
The Persians did not have a coinage system of their own until about 546 BCE when Cyrus the Great conquered Lydia and adopted elements of the previous Kroiseid coinage system (developed by Kroisos, the last king of Lydia). When the Persians began minting coins, they not only used Kroiseid coinage standards but also coin designs and struck the coins at Kroisos’ mint in Sardis.
The First “Persian” Coins
The first Persian coins were minted around 545 to about 520. These coins consist of two denominations, a gold stater and a silver half stater. The obverse of each coin depicts the confronted foreparts of a lion and a bull, while the reverse consists of a double incuse punch. The gold stater contains about 8.05 g of nearly pure gold and is struck to the same standard as the Kroiseid “light” gold coinage, while the silver half stater contains about 5.05 g of silver and is struck to the same standard as the Kroiseid silver coinage.
These early Persian coins imitated Kroisos’ coins so closely that it is often difficult to distinguish between them. The difference between them is largely impressionistic; the images on the coins of Kroisos tend to be more “naturalistic”, while the images on the Persian coins are said to be more “dynamic”.
Some writers have suggested that most if not all of the gold and silver coins generally attributed to Kroisos were actually struck by the Persians, but this is most unlikely. The gold coins were already known to the Greeks as “Kroiseids” in the sixth century BCE and the Greeks specifically attributed the coins to Kroisos.
There is a stronger argument that the silver half staters attributed to Kroisos were actually minted by the Persians: the silver half stater is the only one of Kroisos’ large silver coins that does not have a counterpart in his gold coinage.
The First True Royal Persian Coins – Type I
Royal Persian coins are arranged according to a roughly chronological four-tiered “Type” system developed by Ian Carradice. This system holds that Darios I launched the first non-imitative Persian coinage around 520 BCE with the Type I silver siglos, which he minted for about 20 years.
The siglos takes its name from a Semitic word usually rendered in English as shekel. At that time, “shekel” referred to a unit of weight rather than a coin. The Persian siglos is slightly heavier than the Kroiseid half stater, weighing about 5.4 g. The obverse of the Type I siglos depicts a half-length bust of a Persian king (or hero; it is clearly not a personal portrait of any Persian king) facing right, holding a bow and arrows. This was probably intended as a hunting image rather than a military one. The reverse consists of a single incuse punch, a modification from the Kroiseid pattern that used a double punch.
Nice Type I sigloi can be obtained for high three-figure prices, but particularly nice specimens can sell for more than $10,000 USD. The siglos shown here sold for $650 at a January 2004 auction.
No Type I gold coins have been found. If Darios minted any gold coins at this time, then they would have been more of the imitative Kroiseid gold staters.
Royal Persian Coins from the Persian Wars – Type II
Darios I began minting the second of the four Persian coin types in about 505 BCE. These are the coins that Darios would have used to pay his soldiers during his invasion of Greece, 492-490 BCE (noted for the Persian defeat at Marathon). His son Xerxes II may also have used them to pay his soldiers during his invasion of 480-479 (noted for the battles at Thermopylae, Artemisium, Salamis, and Plataea). The obverse of the Type II coins depicts a Persian king or hero in what is described as a “kneeling-running stance,” preparing to shoot an arrow, while the reverse consists of an incuse punch.
Type II included the first truly Persian gold coin, the daric. The Greeks called it dareikós statḗr (“daric stater”) and many writers have suggested that the coin took its name from that of the Persian king, but it more likely derives from the Old Persian *daruyaka, meaning “golden”. The daric weighed about 8.33 g, the weight of a Babylonian shekel.
Type II darics usually grade at VF, with very few any better. The coins are rare in any grade, and their prices reflect this. A nice specimen will cost at least $3,500 at auction, with most examples selling for about $6,000, but prices can go much higher. The daric shown here, one of the finest known, sold for $27,500.
The daric was equal in value to 20 sigloi, which gives a gold to silver ratio of about 13:1. Most of the Type II silver coins found are full sigloi, but some fractions are known. The sigloi are commonly available and nice examples can be obtained for mid-three-figure prices. The exceptional siglos shown here sold for $1,300 at an auction in 2015.
Royal Persian Coins – Type III
Xerxes II launched the Type III coins in about 485 BCE; there was probably some overlap between Type II and Type III. The Persian kings struck these coins for well over a century. The king or hero on these coins holds a bow in his left hand and a spear in his right.
Type III darics are the most common of the series; for every Type II or Type IV daric in the market there will be several dozen Type III darics. Nice specimens can sometimes be obtained for about $1,000, although prices in the $2,500 – $4,000 range are more typical. The exceptional specimen shown here sold for $12,000 at auction in January 2018. There are also a few fractional Type III darics known, but these are rarely encountered.
The daric served as an international trade coin. Hoards have been found as far west as Sicily, as far east as Afghanistan, as far north as the Balkans, and as far south as Nubia, well outside the zone of Persian control.
Type III sigloi are very common. Nice specimens can be obtained for less than $250, but you can spend much more if you are willing to do so. The exceptional specimen shown here sold for $6,500 at auction in September 2016. Fractional silver coins are also known, but they rarely appear at auction. When they do, however, they tend to bring prices comparable to those for full sigloi.
The sigloi do not seem to have enjoyed the same widespread use as the darics. Most hoard finds of sigloi are in Asia Minor, in relatively close proximity to Sardis, the mint atn which they were produced.
Royal Persian Coins – Type IV
Persian Type IV darics and sigloi began to appear in the middle of the fifth century BCE and were struck until Sardis fell to Alexander the Great in 334 BCE (a few may have been struck later, at regional mints). The king or hero on these coins holds a bow in his left hand and a dagger in his right. The dagger is usually weakly struck, and at least part of it is often missing from the coin. The darics are usually better preserved than the sigloi.
Type IV darics were minted for more than a century but are rare today. This daric shows the entire dagger, but the front of the bow is missing. Attractive Type IV darics can be found for prices in the $2,500 – $5,000 range, but Gem coins will cost over $10,000. The coin shown here sold for $18,000 against a $5,000 estimate at a January 2020 auction.
This Type IV daric has a weakly struck but nearly full bow, but the entire dagger and most of the king/hero’s right arm are missing. The coin was struck using the same reverse punch as the first Type IV daric shown above, but the punch was modified after the first daric was struck, adding the small lion head which appears at the lower right of the image (which is actually the bottom left of the coin’s reverse). The reason for this modification is unknown. The lion head resembles the “roaring lion of Lydia” motif that appeared on Lydian coins before the Persian conquest. This coin sold for $15,000 in the same January 2020 auction as the previous coin.
This Type IV daric was struck using the same reverse punch as the first two, shown above, but the punch was modified again, this time to remove the small lion head that had been added. The reason for this second modification is also unknown. This coin sold for $4,250 at a January 2016 auction.
Type IV sigloi are common, but they usually bring prices a bit higher than those for Type III sigloi. The average condition of these coins tends to be a bit lower than for Type III sigloi, but some nice specimens are available. The coin shown here is quite exceptional and sold for $2,250 at auction in January 2020.
Fractional sigloi are also known but rarely encountered. When they do appear, they seem to be heavily worn and sell for less than $200.
Alexander the Great defeated Darios III, the last Persian King of Kings, at the Battle of Gaugamela on October 1, 331 BCE. After the battle, Darios fled the scene while Alexander marched on to Babylon. Mazaios, the commander of the Persian cavalry guarding the right flank of Darios’ army, was also the Persian satrap (governor) of Babylon; he raced to the city ahead of Alexander. When Alexander and his army arrived at Babylon, Mazaios met him outside the city and surrendered it without a fight. Alexander rewarded Mazaios by allowing him to remain as satrap.
Alexander authorized Mazaios to mint coins for him in Babylon. Unlike the Royal Persian coins, all of which had been struck in Sardis (until Sardis fell to Alexander in 334 BCE), the coins Mazaios struck for Alexander bore control marks, which included Mazaios’ name in monogram form. Mazaios’ Alexandrine coinage included darics and double darics; these follow the format of the Royal Persian Type IV coinage minted in Sardis, except that the reverse displays a patterned incuse punch.
There are six known double darics that were struck in Babylon that do not bear the customary control marks associated with Mazaios’ Alexandrine coinage. It has been suggested that Mazaios struck these coins for Darius III before the Battle of Gaugamela. The double daric shown here is one of the six. It sold at a September 2019 auction for $10,000 against a $2,500 estimate.
Collecting Royal Persian Coins
The most thorough and widely used technical reference is Carradice (1987). Alram (2012) gives a more general history and context for the coinage. The Sunrise Collection Part I (2011) is an expert record of an outstanding collection of Persian coins and coins related to the Persians; several of the coins pictured or described in this article came from that collection.
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Alram, Michael. “The Coinage of the Persian Empire”, The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage. William E. Metcalf, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (2012)
Carradice, Ian. Coinage and Administration in the Athenian and Persian Empires: Ninth Oxford Symposium on Coinage and Monetary History. Oxford: B.A.R. (1987)
Herodotus. The Histories. Robin Waterfield, transl. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (1998)
Nelson, Bradley R., ed. Numismatic Art of Persia: The Sunrise Collection Part I: Ancient – 650 BC to AD 650. Lancaster, PA: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (2011)
All coin images courtesy and copyright of Classical Numismatic Group, LLC (CNG).
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About the Author
Michael T. Shutterly is a recovering lawyer who survived six years as a trial lawyer and 30 years working in the financial services industry. He is now an amateur historian who specializes in the study of ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, with a special interest in the art and history of the coins of those periods. He has published over 50 articles on ancient and medieval coins in various publications and has received numerous awards for his articles and presentations on different aspects of the history of the ancient and Medieval world. He is a member of the ANA, the ANS, the Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors, and numerous other regional, state, and specialty coin clubs.