Coinage and the State: The Lydian Empire’s Transformation of Money

The first nation to coin metal into standardized money at scale was the Lydian Empire, a state in Western Asia Minor around the turn of the sixth century BC. The first of the Lydian kings to strike large quantities of standardized coinage was Alyattes, ruler of the kingdom from ca. 630 – 585 BC. Prior to his reign, coinage had existed along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, but it was largely unmarked and issued in small quantities. The Greek city states on the Aegean littoral, notably Miletus, Cyzicus, and Ephesus, had started to experiment with standardized chunks of electrum (a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver found in the region of western Turkey) as early as the beginning of the 7th century BC. But the issues of these Ionian city-states, though rare and prized by collectors today, were not minted in large quantities and thus did not fundamentally change the conduct of commerce in the Aegean world. It would take the introduction of Alyattes’ lion series of trites to permanently establish coined money as both a core medium of exchange and a projection of state and dynastic power.

Above: Electrum (gold and silver alloy) trite struck by an uncertain Ionian Greek city-state, ca. 600 BC, purchased by Miller Ancients in September 2023. Though these unmarked issues were remarkably standard in terms of weight (4.65-4.75 gm), they bore no markings of the state or king who issued them.

Estimates vary as to when Alyattes began to strike coins with a lion head, but most center around the end of the seventh century BC (ca. 610). He retained the two incuse punches on the reverse, meant to help citizens and those engaged in commerce trust the purity of the coins they were trading. The need for these punches on nearly all the earliest coins indicates just how fragile the experiment of coined money was, at least in its early stages. But Alyattes saw the other side of the coin, which the Ionians had simply left blank, as a place to not only distinguish his issues but also to project state and personal power. His design was to feature two lion heads facing each other, with his name in Lydian script (“WALWEL”, or sometimes, “KULAKIM”) in the middle. However, the flans were almost invariably too small to accommodate the full design. A vast majority of surviving Lydian trites, of which there are many, depict only the left lion. A far smaller number depict only the right lion, and a tiny fraction, probably only a handful of examples, show the full design with both heads and the name. These ‘full design’ types are without question the most valuable today, often selling for about ten times that of the left-lion types in similar grade.

A ‘full design’ trite of Alyattes featuring both lion heads and the Lydian script in the middle, sold by Heritage Auctions in 2022 for a record price of $75,000. This particular specimen is perhaps the finest known of the type today.

These facing lions’ somewhat primitive features and the general roughness of the flan suggest that it was struck earlier in Alyattes’ reign, likely at the tail end of the seventh century BC. But most Alyattes trites feature only the left lion, and were clearly struck later than the issues above, due to stylistic differences. These later trites boasting a more sophisticated lion comprise the vast majority of examples in existence today and are struck on crisp, well-made flans. It is this later type of trite that spread far and wide across the Aegean region, becoming the world’s first international currency (though on a much smaller scale than the Athenian owl, which usually is given that title).

Above: Later issue (probably ca. 590-570 BC) of Alyattes, purchased by Miller Ancients in September 2022 and later sold for over $7,000. The specimen is one of the finest surviving examples, having graded Choice AU at NGC and boasting perfect centering.

For Alyattes, coinage was not merely a way to stimulate commerce within his kingdom and beyond. It was a means of expressing his personal power and that of his state. The lion featured on all Alyattes’ coins was the symbol of his family, the Mermnadae, and the issuance of large amounts of coins with it would have served to increase the fame of the Lydian kingdom’s power and wealth. Though these trites obviously do not bear Alyattes’ portrait, they set in motion the process that would lead to royal portraiture on coins. Before Alyattes, it was not clear nor inevitable that money would become an instrument of political power or messaging. The Ionians were more partial to either blank coins, as seen above, abstract and geometric types, or issues featuring animals. Alyattes decisively tied coined money to the power and symbols of the state, a true watershed moment in history. In a sense, all subsequent coins bearing the portrait or symbols of monarchy, from the busts on Roman coinage to the depictions of St. George on British silver crowns, can be traced to this important development by Alyattes. He is often cited as the “founder of coinage,” a title that is accurate but requires some additional context. However, Alyattes unquestionably deserves credit for fusing the designs on money to the power of the state and its ruler, a development that may seem obvious now but was without precedent in this formative time.