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The Lydian Lion and Other Lions

The Lydian Lion and Other Lions

There are many claimants to the title of 'world's first coin' – even dispute of what actually constitutes the definition of coin. Among the contenders are the electrum coins minted in Lydia, some of which date as early as 650 B.C. In fact, many scholars of numismatics and coin history are convinced that the earliest coins were the Lydian lions, minted in Sardis. They base the contention on the definition of 'coin' that is found in Webster's – a piece of metal on which certain characters are stamped by government authority, making it legally current as money.

Lydia was an ancient country in a region of the country we now call Turkey. The region of Lydia was exceptionally rich in metal deposits, in particular a naturally occurring mix of gold and silver known as electrum. Sometime between 660 and 600 B.C., Alyattes, the king of Lydia, had coins minted of electrum, which is harder and more durable than gold.

The most commonly known Lydian coins are the Lydian Lion trite, one-third of a stater (a measurement standard for metal). The lion trite weighed approximately 4.76 grams. It first appeared around 610 B.C. and was believed to have been minted with the authority of Alyattes or Sadyattes of the Mermnad dynasty. The coins bear the roaring lion that was the symbol of the Lydian kings, always with a curious 'knob' on its forehead. The reverse of these early coins bear a 'punch' rather than an image – the impression left by the hammer used to force the minted coin into the die that shaped its face.

While the trite is the most common of the Lydian lions, there are other denominations as well, both larger and smaller. The Lydian stater, weighing a full 14 grams, is a very rare coin, though there are some examples of it. Those bear not just the lion's head, but the full body of a lion 'regardant' – looking backward over his shoulder. The reverse of the coin bears three incuses on the back – one oblong depression inscribed with a running fox flanked on either side by a square depression inscribed with a stag's head. The third-stater, the Lydian trite, bears a smaller version of the lion regardant, with only two square incuses on the reverse. Both the sixth-stater (2.35 grams) and the twelfth stater (1.18 grams) also feature the lion's head on the front, generally facing right. Larger denominations bear two squares, either joined or separate. Smaller ones generally show only one strike mark.

One of the most famous names in the history of money is believed to have been the son of Alyattes, the first king in whose name coins were minted. Croesus, who was the king of Lydia from approximately 560 B.C. to his death in 546 B.C. By that time, the wealth of Lydia was so well known that the name of its king became synonymous with great wealth. To this day, everyone knows what it means when a man is rich as Croesus.