The Lydian Empire has the distinction of producing the world’s first government-backed coinage. The Lydian stater was invented by King Alyattes and helped quickly build Lydia into a dominant mercantile force.
The coins, which began production around the middle of the 7th century BCE, were innovative because they displayed an official stamp, or “state seal” on the coin’s face, which proved its authenticity and demonstrated that its value was supported by the full faith of the minting authority.
This stamp, showing the head of a lion on the left side of the coin and a bull’s head on the right was a common symbol in the ancient Aegean world, but it was the Lydian stater that made it famous.
Early Stater Composition
Early staters were made from electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver, as were most other contemporaneous currencies. This presented a problem for the intrinsic value of the coin, as naturally occurring electrum had a variable ratio of gold to silver, making it difficult to know for certain how much of each metal a given coin contained.
Lydia worked around this problem by standardizing the value of a stater and its smaller denomination coins (a third of a stater, a sixth of a stater, a twelfth of a stater, etc.). But this created a disconnect between perceived value and actual value.
The First Bi-Metallic Coinage System is Created
The Lydian King Croesus, who succeeded his father Alyattes in 560 BCE solved this problem by minting coins of pure gold and pure silver. These new coins had the advantage of a more standardized intrinsic value, based entirely on the known composition and weight of the underlying precious metals.
Before Croesus’s bi-metallic innovation, the stater was mostly a local currency, used primarily within Lydia’s borders. With the introduction of a truly standardized value, the stater became widely traded all around western Asian Minor, granting the stater the further distinction of being one of the world’s first international currencies.
So influential was Croesus, and his standardized gold and silver coins that staters produced during his reign were colloquially referred to as croesids.
The Stater After Lydia’s Conquest
Croesus was by far Lydia’s most famous king. But he also turned out to be the last. Around the middle of the 540s, Lydia was conquered by the Persian Empire and completely absorbed. But as a testament to the popularity and utility of the Lydian stater, Persia’s king, Cyrus the Great, continued to have staters minted with the same lion and bull design, for 30 years after Croesus’s death. They became the official coinage of the Persian Empire, lasting until 515 BCE when Cyrus was succeeded by King Darius, who retired the lion and bull motif in favor of an image of himself holding a bow and arrow.
There have been many coinage systems and currencies since the Lydian stater first began circulation, but none have been as influential. Lydia created the coinage model that has echoed forward in history ever since.
About Rory Brown: Mr. Rory Brown is a Managing Partner of Nicklaus Brown & Co., the Chairman of Goods & Services, Nearshore Technology Company, and a member of the board of directors of Desano. He is passionate about delving into the history of money and how our modern currency has evolved into what it is today. In his spare time, he writes about the history of the Lydians - the first civilization to use gold and silver coinage.