The Lydian Lion, adorning the stater, minted in Sardis, Lydia, near what is now modern Turkey, is considered to be the oldest true coin in the world. But what this means, and how we determine it, isn't as obvious as it might seem.
What Makes a Coin?
There were coin-like objects in use around the world long before King Alyattes started minting Lydian staters, the coin that bears the Lydian Lion insignia. But the general consensus among numismatists is that these coin-like objects while performing the same function as coins, weren't true coins as we define them today.
According to Webster, Second Edition, a coin is defined as, "A piece of metal (or, rarely, of some other material) certified by a mark or marks upon it to be of a definite exchange value and issued by governmental authority to be used as money." Key here are "mark or marks" and "certified ... by government authority."
Most Early "Coins" Were Not Coins
Prior to the stater, many cultures used precious metals as a medium of exchange. Nuggets, rings, and ingots of electrum and other precious metals were common coin-like stores of value. However, these pre-coins lacked any marks to denote value or prove governmental issue.
Besides metals, an almost limitless range of materials have been used in a coin-like capacity throughout history, from shells and stones to jewelry, arrowheads, and bones. Really anything that a culture values can, and probably has been used to fill a coinage role. But these also aren't coins, as they satisfy only the most basic definition of the word, in that they are a means of exchange.
The Lydian Lion Was the First True Coin
When Alyattes first stamped his electrum nuggets with the Lydian Lion symbol, he couldn't have known that he was creating what would become the basis for nearly every system of coinage in history to follow, but that's exactly what happened.
The addition of the Lydian Lion to Alyattes's electrum coins was the first time a piece of precious metal was marked to designate the legitimacy of the coin as a product of a specific governing power. This image, along with precise weights, delineated the value of the coin.
This was a first in the ancient world, and it was an important step in the development of money. With the stater and the Lydian Lion, the value of the coin was known, and its value could be readily ascertained because the lion mark guaranteed provenance. Thus the Lydian Lion marked the world's first, and oldest coin.
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.