To describe a person of fabulous wealth and means in the ancient world, the saying went, "as rich as Croesus."
The Lydian King Croesus, who ruled the Kingdom of Lydia from 560 BC until the mid-540s, took advantage of his inherited position passed from his already wealthy father, and the plentiful electrum deposits that literally rinsed down the mountains and flowed plentifully along the reach of the river Pactolus. He built Lydia into the trading capital of ancient Western Asia Minor, making its capital Sardis, and himself obscenely wealthy in the process. In this article, Rory Brown, Managing Partner of Nicklaus Brown & Co., shares how King Croesus achieved prosperity.
He Had a Little Help From History and Geography
Croesus ruled near the middle of the sixth century BC, but Lydia was already a fairly wealthy country a century before. The river Pactolus was the primary source of that wealth. Electrum, a naturally occurring silver and gold alloy, could be found in great quantities in its waters and the sediment below.
Collecting the electrum dust and small nuggets was a fairly simple process. Lydia's capital city Sardis became the home of one of the world's first gold and silver refineries, and these precious metals built Lydia into an economic powerhouse.
By the time Croesus' father King Alyattes came to the throne, Lydian merchants were well-known around the Near East. But it was Alyattes's innovative coinage system that kickstarted a mercantile revolution and firmly placed Lydian culture at the center of the ancient world.
Alyattes created the first currency system that fused coins of a known weight and value with an official imprint that proved their provenance. With Lydian staters, merchants no longer had to guess at the value of a bag of electrum ingots. If they saw the Lydian lion, they knew the currency could be trusted.
As a result, Lydian staters became the preferred currency for trade, significantly boosting the country's fortunes.
Croesus May Have Inherited a Lot, but He Turned It Into a Lot More
It's fair to say that Croesus would never have been the richest man in the ancient Near East without the help of his father, skilled Lydian merchants, and his river of electrum. But it's also true that it was solely through his efforts that he parlayed his inherited benefits into the greatest fortune the world had ever seen.
Croesus recognized the value of conquest and diplomacy. He used his existing fortune to raise an army large enough to overwhelm his closest neighbors, the kingdoms of Urartu, Phrygia, and the Ionian Greeks.
Once these regions were firmly in his pocket, he embarked on a diplomatic campaign to bring some of the region's greatest thinkers and teachers to Sardis, creating an educated populace and a legion of merchants that understood the intricacies of the ancient world.
About: 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.