Iron Age: Coins & Currency

Instructor: Richard Weil

Richard teaches an online world geography class, he holds a doctorate in the field.

The next time you spend a coin, consider that you're at the end of 2,700 years of money. Coinage was invented in the Iron Age, and it was such a good idea that it spread around the world and has been with us ever since.

What Was the Iron Age?

In Eurasia, the Iron Age started around 1500 BCE and ended about the 1st century CE. The Iron Age began when people learned how to smelt that metal from its ore to extract and work it. Before that people used bronze, a mixture of tin and copper. Iron smelting began about 1500 years Before the Common Era (BCE), in both India and probably near the Black Sea.

The use of iron slowly spread across Africa and Eurasia. Farming got easier because the new harder tools could dig deeper, and better weapons made some tribes more powerful too. Perhaps because of these armies, or climate and environmental changes, most of the Bronze Age civilizations in southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East collapsed around 1200 BCE.

The Invention of Money

Six hundred years later, small cities and kingdoms were growing again. Lydia, in Asia Minor, was a rich kingdom where trade routes met and electrum (a mix of gold and silver) could be easily mined. Maybe people began trading using bits of that metal. Having them standardized and marked as genuine was clearly an advantage, and the historian Herodotus said the people then invented coins.

Around 600 BCE, the king had the image of a lion stamped on each piece. For convenience, fractional sizes of this 'stater' were soon being minted. The image was only on one side, with the reverse having pits where the blank was held for striking with a hammer.

One of the First Coins
Lydian Stater

People liked this idea! Now, instead of arguing over the barter values of things, there was a convenient standard. Governments could keep track of their wealth, and individuals had a portable asset, not just land or animals. Traders quickly spread the idea of money west to the Greek city-states, and as these communities established colonies, coinage went all the way to Spain.

When Persia conquered Lydia, minting coins moved east too. About this time India developed its own coins, apparently evolving from stamped bars of metal. How much this was an independent invention is unknown.

Widespread Production

Tetradrachm coin of Athens
Athenian Owl

Soon, every little kingdom and city was producing beautiful coins. The silver tetradrachm ('owl') of Athens and the gold Persian daric ('archer') became the standards of trade. For centuries these issues had few or no letters. A god appeared on the obverse, while the reverse showed an image symbolizing the issuer, such as a rose for Rhodes and a tortoise for Aegina. When cities leagued together they might use the same obverse and distinctive reverses. Copper and bronze came into limited use for small change.

Variations also developed. Warlike Sparta used little coinage, except what was needed for foreign trade. Its local money was iron bars, used to discourage the citizens from becoming wealthy. Carthage developed promissory notes of leather, a sort of currency, though real paper money did not appear until 9th century China.

But China did have money, which may have been separately invented. The country went from using cowrie shells to engraved bronze tools, and finally cast copper coins in the 4th century BCE.

Chinese knife money
Chinese dagger

Alexander Is Everywhere

While Greece stayed free, the Persian Empire spread across much of the ancient world. Finally, Alexander the Great beat it. Before dying in 323 BCE, he conquered everything from Egypt to the Indus River. About 91 mints made vast numbers of coins, mostly silver, showing his image, with Zeus on the reverse. After Alexander's death his empire collapsed, but for centuries the kingdoms that rose from it continued to mint the coins.

Under Alexander, Egypt got its first coinage. Then people in Arabia and Ethiopia began to trade, and they eventually made coins. For the ancient Greeks, money was now found throughout the known world.

Alexander the Great, Egyptian coin, 3rd Century BCE
Alexander Coin

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