Monday, March 5, 2018


For about 200 years, from about 520 to 320 BCE, the Greek towns of Phokaia and Mytilene, both along the Ionian coast of what is today western Turkey, issued a remarkable series of coins. Each town took turns–regulated by treaty—issuing small coins of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, widely used in commerce across the Helliadic cultural complex.

(An earlier version of this article first appeared in The Classical Numismatic Review, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Vol. 20 No. 2, Summer 1995. Other facts here first appeared in “Electrum,” The Celator, Vol. 17, no. 8, August 2003, p. 25-31: ill.)

From Ancient Coins auction database.
Gorny & Mosch Giessener Münzhandlung,
Auction 253 5 March 2018, Lots 207, 208, and 209.
Numismatists firmly believe that the first coins were made of electrum, a naturally-occurring alloy mostly of gold and silver, with traces of other metals. Despite the suggestion of Demokritos of Abdera that matter is composed of the tiniest uncuttable particles, the ancients lacked an atomic theory of matter. Electrum was found naturally; and it could also be made by mixing gold and silver. It was a separate metal in its own right. Over one or two generations from about 600 to 550 BCE, the first coins evolved from nuggets of electrum, panned from the Pactolus river (Sart Çayı in modern Turkish).

Those first coins were eclipsed by coins of gold and coins of silver first issued by Kroisos (Croesus) of Lydia. Silver became the metal of everyday commerce. Gold usually served state purposes. However, electrum still circulated, easily for another 300 years, perhaps for 1000, and maybe even into our own time.

Numismatists identify the electrum coins of Phokaia and Mytilene as one-sixth staters, or hektai in Greek. The one-sixth staters of Phokaia and Mytilene weigh about 2.5 grams, about the same as a U.S. dime, though they are of smaller diameter and greater thickness.

In America of the 1800s, you could exchange a silver dollar coin for a gold dollar coin. In ancient Athens, no such exchange was possible because there was no abstract unit of account. Also, the relative values of gold, electrum, and silver fluctuated over time and across geographies. An electrum one-sixth stater from Phokaia and Mytilene was worth about 10 Athenian drachma. When the Persians were first defeated in 480, in Athens a silver drachmon was a day’s wages for a citizen at assembly, a soldier in the field, or a rower in a galley. By 400, that was two drachma. So, a sixth-stater from Phokaia and Mytilene represented about a week’s wages for a common laborer.

We know from the treaty that the magistrate’s job changed every year and moved between the two cities. The German Archaeological Institute at Istabul has identified 25 Phokaian die engravers by their styles. This series of Phokaian hektai begins at 535 BC. From 509 to 491, the “Master of the Natural Lion” (Der natüralistischer Löwen-Meister) was also cutting dies for Mytilene. From 535 to 327, at least eight die engravers worked for both cities. Also, study of the minting techniques and artistic styles indicates that at Mytilene at about 450 and again about 430, at least two different engravers were working at the same time. These facts underscore the assertion that one motivation for the joint coinage was to pool the resources of production.

The treaty was discovered in 1852 by Charles T. Newton, while serving as vice consul in Mytilene. Newton found the treaty in a home on the site of the ancient Mytilene acropolis. He published his transcription of the stone in the Transactions of the Royal Literary Society, VIII in 1866. The stone was left at a school and then was lost until it was rediscovered in 1939. Authorities such as Friedrich Bodenstedt place the date of the treaty at BCE 400 and perhaps at 394, following the naval encounter off Knidos. It is possible, however, that this treaty merely formalized a tradition of co-equal coinages going back all the way to the fall of the tyrant Polykrates of Samos in 521. Considered in this light, the coinage is unparalleled, running from 521 until 326, a feat not attained again until Roman times and rare in the modern world. That the treaty allows for additions and erasures supports numismatic evidence that Phokaia and Mytilene had long before agreed at least ad hoc on a common coinage.
From “Electrum Sixths and the Treaty of Mytilene”
The Classical Numismatic Review, Lancaster, Pennsylvania,
Vol. 20 No. 2, Summer 1995.
One reason for the consistency of composition is that the treaty provided death as the penalty for anyone who debased the metal of the coins. However, the exact nuance here is important. John Wickersham and Gerald Verbrugghe give this translation for the opening lines:

... whatever both cities ... write on the stele or erase, it shall be valid. Anyone who debases the gold shall be subject to prosecution in both cities. However, a closer consideration indicates that the prohibition against “debasement” occurs later in the treaty and not in the place indicated by that translation.

I believe that the word kernan means only “to make” or “to mix” and not “to dilute” or “to debase.”  First of all, the root word kern* appears twice more in the stone. The second time, it refers to the make-up of the juries. The third time, it refers to “making the gold diluted.” We might believe that gold would be debased by silver, but we cannot expect that the courts of Mytilene would be debased by the presence of native jurors.

The third occurrence is the phrase “chrysion kernan hydaresteron.” Mixing the gold to “hydration” or “dilution” brings the death penalty.

Note that the treaty allows for the changing of office. Suit could be brought for up to six months, because the job changed each year. However, to avoid the obvious temptation to pin the blame on the other fellow, each city tried its own moneyer. It is most likely that any wrong-doing on the part of the moneyer would be discovered indirectly: if he and the gold disappeared, for instance; or, if he gave evidence of new wealth, perhaps. Until Archimedes watched the bath overflow about 250 BC, there was no scientific method for assaying an alloy. If assaying were possible, the hektai would have been made to even closer tolerances.

Just what purpose did these sixth-staters serve? We can accept that they were payment for mercenaries, the most common use for high-denomination coinages, though we have no epigraphic evidence to support that. We can only let the coins speak for themselves.


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