Early gold coinage: Precious metals basics

A 32 to 29 B.C. gold aureus of Octavian (Augustus) marks the beginning of the Roman Empire, and was a sharp departure from coins issued in the late republic.

Gold, the precious and magical yellow metal, has been known and valued by men and women since the dawn of civilization. Egyptian, Etruscan, Assyrian and Minoan cultures all valued gold. Production of gold coinage began in Lydia (modern-day Turkey) in 700 B.C.

Early gold coinage

The first gold coins were not struck from pure gold, but from a gold and silver alloy called electrum, found in Lydia. In addition to hosting the earliest gold coins made from electrum in 700 B.C., Lydia was also the site of the first pure gold coinage, struck during the sixth century B.C. Lydia was followed in the same century by gold pieces created by Persian rulers. These were called darics, after King Darius I.

Other rulers of the ancient world, such as Philip and Alexander the Great of Macedon, as well as Lysimachus of Thrace issued widely circulating gold coins. The Romans issued gold coinage, the aurei, beginning about 83 B.C.

After the fall of Rome, the Byzantine Empire became the important outlet for gold coins. The Byzantines struck their coins in more than 10 mints throughout the empire.

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The early Middle Ages saw the decline of gold coinage in the West. Monetary gold came back into use with the Crusades; the most notable example of the revival is the augustalis, issued during the 13th century by Frederick II of Hohen­staufen. In 1252, Florence issued the gold florin, followed by gold coinage issued in France, Bohemia, Hungary, the Low Countries and Spain. In 1284, Venice issued what became the most popular coin for more than 500 years, the ducat, or zecchino.

In 1343, England issued its first major gold coin, the florin, followed in 1344 by the noble. The English later struck the angel and the crown, in 1663 the guinea, and in 1816 the sovereign. Germany struck the gulden, Spain the excellente and France a variety of gold coins.

The first federal gold coins in the United States were authorized in 1792 after the Republic was formed, with the first pieces struck in 1795. Before the federal issues were authorized, a goldsmith and jeweler in New York, Ephraim Brasher, struck two different styles of gold coins in 1786 and 1787 that are the approximate equivalents of Spain’s gold 8-escudo coins; the reason the Brasher doubloons (as the coins are called) were issued is unclear.

The Egyptians obtained gold from the earliest times in Nubia, a region in northeastern Africa, modern-day Sudan and Egypt. The Greeks went as far away as India, the Urals, and the mountains and rivers of Asia Minor to obtain gold. Most of the gold used in the Roman Empire came from Spain, then Hungary and Transylvania, and finally Dalmatia (located in Croatia, on the Adriatic coast) and the eastern Alps.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, gold circulation was greatly diminished in the West. From the 10th to the 15th centuries, the gold that was used came from Bohemia (part of the Czech Republic), Silesia (part of modern Poland), Trans­ylvania and Hungary. In the 18th century Siberia and the Urals became important gold-producing regions.

The first half of the 19th century was marked by a large production of gold in Russia and by gold discoveries in the United States in Georgia, North Carolina, and finally, in 1848, the extensive finds in California. Gold production in Australia began around this time as well, followed in 1885 by finds in South Africa, and in 1897 by production in the Klondike, a gold-rich region in northwestern Canada.

The above is an excerpt from the eighth edition of the Coin World Almanac, published by Amos Media Company in 2011.

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