By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
 

The Ancient Coins of KroisosKroisos, King of Lydia

Kroisos, the last king of the Ionian kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor, launched a revolution in coinage when he minted the world’s first gold coins and first silver coins. With his “kroiseids” he also created the world’s first bi-metallic coinage system.

The ancient historian Herodotus tells us that the Lydians were the first people to strike gold and silver coins. He also tells us that the Lydians were the first to sell goods at retail and that young Lydian women acquired their dowries by working as prostitutes. He does not tell us if these three Lydian customs were related.

We do know that Lydia was an enormously rich and powerful state when Kroisos became king in about 561 BCE. According to Herodotus, Kroisos once donated four-and-a-half tons of pure gold to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi; at current gold prices, this gift was worth over $250 million USD. He was indeed “as rich as Croesus”, to use the Latin form of Kroisos’ name.

The Ancient Coins of Kroisos

Electrum Trite. Lydia, c. 620/10 – 550 BCE. Sardes Mint. 11 mm, 3.57 g

Kroisos inherited a coinage system based upon the use of electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver. The best known and most commonly available examples of early Lydian coins are electrum trites (one-third staters) that weigh about 4.7 grams and whose obverses depict the Roaring Lion of Lydia with the royal sunburst on its forehead. These coins were (probably) first struck during the long reign of Kroisos’ father, Alyattes (reigned c. 618 – 561 BCE). Kroisos continued to strike them during the early years of his own reign.

The natural electrum found in Lydia was typically 70-75% gold, with the remainder being mostly silver with trace deposits of copper and other metals. Modern metallurgical analysis of Lydian electrum trites indicates that their gold content is typically about 55%. If the Lydians were using “natural electrum” in their coins, they must have deliberately lowered the gold content by adding silver and copper to the alloy. These coins apparently traded in the marketplace at a value based upon their theoretical gold content; by debasing the coins with silver and thereby reducing their gold content, the Lydian kings increased their seigniorage (or profit).

The kings of Lydia were excellent businessmen.

The First Gold Coins

Kroisos launched his coinage revolution in about 550 BCE by minting nearly pure gold staters and nearly pure silver staters, each weighing approximately 10.7 grams. At the same time, he set a silver-to-gold ratio of 13.3:1 (that is, one gold stater was worth the same as 13.3 silver staters).

Prototype AV Stater. Kroisos, c. 550 BCE. Sardes Mint. 17 mm, 10.77 g.

The obverse of Kroisos’ first gold stater, known as the Prototype stater, depicts the confronted foreparts of a lion with a sunburst on its forehead, at left, and a bull with a band around its neck, at right. The forelegs of each beast are bent at 90-degree angles. The reverse design consists of two incuse square punches of unequal size, with the larger punch opposite the lion.

The device on the lion’s forehead was once identified as a “wart” or “knob” but it is now believed to be a sunburst – a symbol of the Lydian monarchy. This device also appeared on the lion’s forehead on Lydia’s earlier electrum trites, but it does not appear on the later gold coins of Kroisos. This suggests that the Prototype gold stater was the earliest gold kroiseid. In modern terms, the Prototype stater was what we would call a “pattern” coin.

The Prototype stater is extremely rare, with about a dozen known examples. The exceptional specimen shown here sold for $150,000 USD against a $50,000 estimate in January 2012. Attractive examples of this coin typically sell for prices in the high five-figure to low six-figure range, while lesser coins bring prices in the low-to-middle five-figure range.

The Heavy Gold Coins

Kroisos struck gold coins under two different weight standards after the Prototype issue. His first series of coins used the same “Heavy Standard” as the Prototype stater, based upon a stater weighing about 10.7 g. In addition to the stater, the Heavy Standard series includes a trite (one-third stater) of about 3.57 g, a hekte (one-sixth stater) of about 1.78 g, a hemihekte (1/12 stater) of about .90 g, and a myshemihekte (1/24 stater) of about .45 g. Heavy Standard coins range in size from about 17 mm for the stater down to about 5.5 mm (less than one-quarter of an inch) for the myshemihekte.

Heavy Standard AV Trite. Kroisos, c. 550 BCE. Sardes Mint. 11 mm, 3.57 g.

The Heavy Standard gold coins share a common obverse design that closely resembles that of the Prototype stater; each denomination depicts the confronted foreparts of a lion at left and a bull at right. Unlike the design on the Prototype stater, however, the forelegs of the beasts are nearly straight and there is no sunburst at the lion’s forehead.

The reverse design of the stater, of the trite (shown above), and of the hekte consists of two incuse square punches of unequal size, with the larger punch always directly opposite the lion.

Heavy Standard AV Hemihekte. Kroisos, c. 550 BCE. Sardes Mint. 6.5 mm, .90 g.

The reverse design of the smaller hemihekte (shown above) and the still-smaller myshemihekte consists of a single incuse punch.

All denominations of the Heavy Standard series are rare; the Heavy Standard hemihektes and the myshemihektes are very rare.

The Light Gold Coins

Kroisos replaced the Heavy Standard gold coins with a series of Light Standard gold coins, based upon a stater of 8.05 g (some sources indicate that the Light Standard coins used an 8.15 g standard, but that is incorrect). At the same time, Kroisos apparently reduced the silver-to-gold ratio from 13.3:1 to 10:1.

The reason for the change in the weight standard is not known for certain. One theory is that Kroisos used the Heavy Standard coins to redeem and retire the existing electrum coinage on a one-to-one basis. This theory suggests that Kroisos switched to the Light Standard when the redemption program was complete.

A major problem with this theory is that the actual gold content of the electrum trites was significantly less than the actual gold content of the Heavy Standard trite, so if Kroisos exchanged Heavy Standard gold trites for electrum trites on a one-for-one basis, he would have lost money on every transaction.

As it happens, the gold content of the Light Standard trites is very close to the actual gold content of the electrum trites, so perhaps Kroisos replaced the Heavy Standard with the Light Standard in order to facilitate the redemption program without losing money on the deal. This could account for the fact that the Light Standard coins are more common than the Heavy Standard coins. Astute businessman that he was, Kroisos must have seen that the Heavy Standard was costing him money, and he either stopped minting coins under that standard very quickly, or he pulled as many of the Heavy Standard coins from circulation as he could find and melted them.

Heavy Standard AV Stater. Kroisos, c. 550 BCE. Sardes Mint. 17 mm, 10.71 g.

Light Standard AV Stater. Kroisos, c. 550 BCE. Sardes Mint. 15 mm, 8.03 g.

 

The designs of the Light Standard coins closely follow those of the Heavy Standard coins. The style of the lion’s mane evolved over time, as did the folds along the bull’s neck, but otherwise, the basic designs of the coins struck under the two weight standards are virtually identical.

Kroisos’ moneyers sometimes struck Light Standard coins using Heavy Standard coin dies. In each case, the Light Standard coins show evidence of greater die wear than the corresponding Heavy Standard coins, indicating that the Heavy Standard coins were struck earlier. Also, the planchets for the Light Standard coins are slightly smaller than the planchets for the Heavy Standard coins, and in every known instance where coins of both standards were struck with the same die, the die fits the Heavy Standard coin better than it fits the Light Standard coin.

The First Silver Coins

The Ancient Coins of Kroisos

“Prototype” AR Stater. Kroisos, c. 550 BCE. Sardes Mint. 20 mm, 10.51 g.

The obverse design of what has been identified as the Prototype silver stater (also known as a double siglos) closely follows the design of the Prototype gold stater, except that the lion on the obverse does not display a sunburst.

The Prototype silver stater’s design does not differ significantly from that of the standard silver coins that followed. While the style of the Prototype coins may be a bit “lighter” than the style of the standard coins, the difference – if it is a true difference – is very subtle. This has led some commenters to suggest that there was no “prototype” in the silver series–or, if there were one, it has not yet been found. The subtle stylistic differences between the “Prototype” silver stater and the standard-issue silver stater may signify nothing more than that different celators cut dies differently. The fact that Prototype silver staters do not include the sunburst that appears on the Prototype gold staters adds weight to the argument against these being true “prototypes”.
The Standard Silver Coins

The current consensus is that Kroisos did not mint separate Heavy and Light silver coins and that the silver coins attributed to him were struck pursuant to a single weight standard where one stater was equal to about 10.6 – 10.7 g.

The Ancient Coins of Kroisos

Standard AR Stater. Kroisos, c. 550 BCE. Sardes Mint. 20 mm, 10.60 g.

vAR Half Stater (Siglos). Kroisos, c. 550 BCE. Sardes Mint. 20.5 mm, 5.30 g.

Silver equivalents are known for each denomination of Kroisos’ gold coinage. Kroisos also minted a silver half stater, or siglos, which weighs half as much as the standard silver stater.

The Ancient Coins of Kroisos

AR Tetartemorion (1/48 Stater). Kroisos, c. 550 BCE. Sardes Mint. 5.0 mm, .20 g.

There are a few rare silver coins attributed to Kroisos that weigh about .20 g and measure about 5 mm in diameter whose style and design are identical to those of Kroisos’ larger silver coins.

These coins weigh about 1/48 as much as Kroisos’ stater and are considered to be tetartemoria (1/48 staters). There are no known gold tetartemoria in either the Heavy or the Light series, perhaps because a tetartemorion in gold would have been impractically – if not impossibly – small.

Some Non-Standard Silver Coins

There are three known groups of silver coins whose design and style match that of Kroisos’ silver coinage but whose weights do not fit within the standard denomination structure of Kroisos’ coinage.

The coins in one group weigh about 1.35 and have been identified as hektes, although they weigh about .35 g less than the expected weight of a kroiseid hekte–a discrepancy greater than 20%.

Coins in the second group weigh about .65 g and have been identified as hemihektes, although they weigh about .20 g less than the expected weight of a kroiseid hemihekte.

The coins in the third group weigh about .3 g and have been identified as myshemihektes, even though they weigh about .1 g less than the expected weight of a kroiseid myshemihekte.

The Ancient Coins of Kroisos

AR Eighth Stater (?). Kroisos, c. 550 BCE. Sardes Mint. 11.0 mm, 1.33 g.

If these coins are official products of the Lydian mint, and if they were minted in accordance with the official standards of the mint, then there are (at least) two possible explanations for the weight discrepancies.

The first is that the range of silver coin denominations under Kroisos was much greater than we thought. In that case, the 1.35 g “hektes” (one-sixth staters) are actually one-eighth staters; the .65 g “hemihektes” (1/12 staters) are actually 1/16 staters; and the .3 g “myshemihektes” (1/24 staters) are actually 1/32 staters. This would account for the weight discrepancies, but it does not fit in with the usual arithmetic of ancient coinage. Most coin denominations of the ancient world were based on the number 12 and its divisors and multipliers – that is, units of 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 12, 24, 48, etc. – and units of 1/8, 1/16, and 1/32 do not fit that system.

An alternate theory is that Kroisos’ silver coinage like the gold coinage included both a “Heavy” series and a “Light” series: hektes weighing 1.35 g, hemihektes weighing .65 g, and myshemihektes weighing .3 g would all fit very well into a “Light” weight system based upon a stater of 8.05 g. But if this were the case, then there would be no need to find an explanation for the change of the silver-to-gold ratio from 13.3:1 to 10:1 – the ratio need not have changed at all. The unearthing of a kroiseid silver stater weighing about 8.05 g or a kroiseid silver half stater weighing about 4.02 g – or a kroiseid silver trite weighing about 2.68 g – would provide powerful support for this theory.

Whatever Happened to Kroisos?

Cyrus the Great became king of Persia and ruler of the Achaemenid Empire about the same time Kroisos came to the Lydian throne. While Kroisos was busy launching a coinage revolution, Cyrus was busy conquering the world: by 547 BCE he had incorporated all of the Ionian city-states into his Empire.

All, that is, except for Lydia.

Kroisos sent a message to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, asking what would happen if he went to war against Cyrus. The oracle told Kroisos that if he attacked Persia he would destroy a great empire. Kroisos launched his war and, as the oracle foretold, he destroyed a great empire: his own.

Cyrus captured Kroisos and ordered that he be burned alive on a giant pyre. As it happens, Cyrus was rather merciful for an absolute ruler; Herodotus tells us that as the flames rose, Cyrus decided to spare Kroisos. Unfortunately, by this time the flames had risen too high for the Persians to extinguish them. Kroisos then began praying to Apollo for deliverance. Perhaps out of gratitude for the four-and-a-half tons of pure gold that Kroisos had gifted to him a few years before, Apollo sent a torrential thunderstorm that quenched the flames. Kroisos then became a trusted advisor to Cyrus and lived happily ever after.

Persian Kroiseids

Some writers have suggested that most if not all of the silver coins that have been attributed to Kroisos were actually minted under Persian rule. A few even credit the Persians with the invention of bi-metallic coinage.

This seems most unlikely. The Persians had not yet begun minting coins when they conquered Lydia and it is difficult to see how people who had no experience with coinage could have suddenly developed a coinage system as complex and complete as the kroiseid program. Further, when the Persians did begin issuing truly “Persian” coins in the last quarter of the sixth century BCE, they largely limited their production to just two denominations – the gold daric and the silver siglos – and this coinage seems to have been limited almost entirely to paying the foreign mercenaries who served in the Persian armies.

We also have the testimony of ancient authors, as early as Herodotus himself (c. 484 – 425 BCE), crediting the Lydians rather than the Persians with the invention of gold and silver coins, and the coins were known in ancient times as “kroiseids”, not “cyriads” or “perseids”. The evidence is clear that the first “kroiseids” were Lydian, not Persian.

The Ancient Coins of Kroisos

Lydia. AV Stater. Cyrus – Darios I, c. 550/39-520 BCE. Sardes Mint. 16 mm, 8.02 g.

The Ancient Coins of Kroisos

Lydia. AR Half Stater. Cyrus – Darios I, c. 550/39-520 BCE. Sardes Mint. 15.5 mm, 8.02 g.

There is no question that Cyrus and his immediate successors did strike large quantities of kroiseid-like coins. However, the Persian issues give every appearance of being imitations of earlier coinage – the coinage of Kroisos himself. The Persian kroiseids typically present a less naturalistic and clumsier style than the kroiseids of Kroisos himself– a state of affairs that is to be expected when someone with no experience with coins attempts to imitate a sophisticated coinage system. The later Persian darics and sigloi are similarly unnaturalistic, which links them to the Persian kroiseids but distinguishes them from the coins of Kroisos.

A collector interested in acquiring a true kroiseid rather than a Persian copy would do well to become fully informed about the coins and to work closely with a knowledgeable, trusted dealer.

Collecting the Coins of Kroisos

van Alfen and Wartenberg (2020) focuses on electrum coinage, but it also includes a wealth of information on the coins of Kroisos. This is a magisterial work and belongs in the library of anyone seriously interested in early coinage.

Harlan J. Berk is probably the leading authority on the coins of Kroisos – he formed the first and probably the only complete collection to date of the coins – and his online article (available on his website) updating his earlier article in The Celator presents an excellent overview on the subject.

The Ancient Coins of Kroisos

Light Standard AV Myshemistater. Kroisos, c. 550 BCE. Sardes Mint. 4.5 mm, .35 g.

“Size” is a major determinant in the pricing of kroiseids – collectors prefer coins they can see without having to resort to high magnification. The Light Standard myshemihekte is a rare coin–the first example becoming known only in 1998–but it is also a tiny coin, less than one-third the diameter (and of course just 1/24 the weight) of a Light stater. The Light Standard myshemihekte shown above sold for $6,500 in May 2018; if this coin were the size of a stater it would likely have brought a strong five-figure price.

Heavy Standard gold staters tend to be worn or struck off-center, but examples of high-grade coins do appear in the market at prices that range from “high” to “ouch”. The specimen shown in this article realized $70,000 against a $30,000 estimate at auction in January 2019. Attractive examples of the lower denominations of the Heavy Standard coinage, and of most denominations of the Light Standard coinage, can generally be obtained for mid-four to low-five figure prices. It is sometimes possible to find low to mid-grade (F to VF) gold kroiseids in some of the smaller denominations priced in the high three figures.

Prices for silver kroiseids are much more moderate in most denominations than prices for gold kroiseids. Very nice specimens are often available for $1,000 or less, and even exceptional examples can be found for low four-figure prices.

Silver kroiseids are somewhat plagued with granularity (crystallization). This is a common problem with ancient coins made with almost pure silver, and collectors should examine a prospective purchase carefully to avoid disappointment.

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Sources

Berk, Harlan J. https://www.hjbltd.com/#!/article/51-the-coinage-of-croesus

Berk, Harlan J. “The coinage of Croesus: New types support traditional theories”, The Celator 4.10. (October 1990)

Berk, Harlan J. “The Coinage of Croesus”, 100 Greatest Ancient Coins. Atlanta. Whitman. (2008)

Cahill, Nicholas D. and Kroll, John H. “New Archaic Coin Finds at Sardes”, American Journal of Archaeology 109.4. 589-717. (October 2005)

Glanfield, Ross. The Coins of Croesus (Kroisos): https://glebecoins.net/electrum/The_Coins_of_Croesus/the_coins_of_croesus.html

Head, Barclay V. Historia Numorum: A Manual of Greek Numismatics. London. Spink. (1963)

Herodotus. The Histories (Robin Waterfield, transl.). Oxford. Oxford University Press. (1998)

Van Alfen, Peter, and Wartenberg, Ute. White Gold: Studies in Early Electrum Coinage. New York. American Numismatic Society. (2020)

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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.
 

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