Some of the most impressive coins of the ancient world were struck
at Cyzicus, a port city ideally located between the Black Sea and the
Cyzicus was founded in the seventh century B.C. on an island along
the southern shore of the Propontis, which at some point was linked to
the mainland. Its coins were well known to merchants who sailed the
Aegean and Black seas, notably along the trade route from the Crimea
Most cities along the Black Sea coast were exotic by Greek
standards. Many different people lived in the region: Thracians to the
west, Scythians and Asiatic nomads to the north, people of the
Caucasus Mountains in the east, and still others from the Anatolian
plateau in the south. Many valuable products were imported from the
coasts of the Black Sea to the heart of the Greek world. Foremost
among them was grain, which Athens heavily relied upon to feed its
citizens. However, gold, amber, slaves, fish, iron, timber, hemp and
linen cloth, and many other goods all flowed to the Aegean world,
often in exchange for Cyzicene staters.
These coins were struck in electrum, an alloy of gold and silver.
Throughout more than two centuries of production, the formula was
relatively consistent at about 55 percent gold, 40 percent silver and
5 percent copper — even if the color of the metal was quite variable.
The Cyzicene stater is one of the most attractive of all ancient
coinages, featuring many original designs engraved in fine style.
Since researchers have identified more than 290 known designs, the
idea that each type represented an annual emission has been long abandoned.
Coins of many denominations were struck at Cyzicus, five of which
were made of electrum. The most valuable of these was the stater, with
electrum fractions weighing 1/6, 1/12, 1/24 and 1/48 of a stater. With
the passage of time, these fractional issues became less and less
important, and, eventually, only staters were produced. Alongside
these were many types of silver and copper coins, most intended for
The earliest coins of the western world were made of electrum,
which continued to be the metal of choice until about 550 B.C., when
the Lydian King Croesus (circa 561 to 546 B.C.) began to strike coins
of pure gold and pure silver. In doing so, he ushered in a new era in
which silver or gold issues generally were preferred over electrum.
Croesus’ innovation, however, did not deter the people of Cyzicus,
who from about 550 B.C. onward produced their “archaic” electrum
coinage. The city clearly enjoyed a great deal of independence, even
if during that time it was subject either to Persian or Athenian rule.
Indeed, it only stopped coining electrum when the city fell under
Macedonian rule with the arrival of Alexander the Great in 326 to 325 B.C.
Several other cities in Asia Minor also issued electrum coinages
after the time of Croesus, but by the fifth century B.C. only
Mytilene, Phocaea and Cyzicus were still producing large issues — and
only Cyzicus was consistently issuing staters.
Staters of Cyzicus were so familiar that often they are nicknamed
“Cyzicenes” in ancient inscriptions. These coins appear to have been
struck mainly to support trade, but they also were valued by mercenaries.
Xenophon, when writing about events that occurred from 401 to 399
B.C., described Cyzicene staters as being worth a month’s pay for a
soldier. In another passage from that same work, Xenophon describes a
Persian gold daric as a month’s pay for a soldier, which suggests
these two important coinages were essentially of equal value. This
would make sense: the Cyzicus stater weighed about 16 grams, and the
Persian daric about 8.35 grams, with Cyzicene electrum typically being
about 55 percent gold.
The Cyzicenes went to great lengths to make their staters old
fashioned. Not only did they use electrum — an archaic choice — but
they clung to other archaic traditions: thick, chunky planchets (when
most coins were being struck on broad, thin planchets), a utilitarian
“punch” for the reverse (when most coins had artistic designs on both
sides), designs that often were purposefully engraved in an archaic
style, and — barring one exception — no inscriptions (when most other
coins bore inscriptions that identified the issuer).
Even though the Cyzicene stater had no inscription or recurring
main design type, the coin’s distinctive features made it
unmistakable. Furthermore, it had one consistent design element: the
tunny (tuna fish). This fish must have been a very familiar sight to
local merchants, as great shoals passed by en route to the Aegean.
The precise chronology of these coins is not known, though good
efforts to organize them have been made based on evolution in style of
the obverse designs and of the formatting of the incuse punches. Other
tools, if fully exploited, might help to establish order, including a
die link study of the incuse punches, a fine-tuning of the historical
context for some designs, and perhaps an exhaustive study of the
composition of the electrum, including its lead isotopes.
The artists who engraved dies for Cyzicene staters were especially
conscious of the shapes of the planchets, which sometimes were round,
but most often were oblong. Human forms usually are shown crouching,
bending, kneeling or in a running-kneeling position rather than
standing in full-figure. Some of the design usually is missing due to
an imperfect strike.
Finally, if these coins are any measure, the people of Cyzicus had
a robust sense of humor. There is a great deal of levity in some of
their designs, as their artists would engrave the most extraordinary
beautiful figures and yet show them holding a tunny by its tail as if
it was being taken to the kitchen. Few ancient Greek mints engaged in
any humorous treatments of their coin designs, and none to the extent
of Cyzicus. ■