Aeginetan Silver Standard

Aegina was the first Greek city-state to make use of techniques for coining precious metals developed on the Asian side of the Aegean Sea. In the ninth and eighth centuries b.c. Aegina was the leading trade center in Greece proper, and carried on a lively trade with the cities in Asia Minor that first developed methods of coinage.

Whereas the cities of Asia Minor coined a metal called electrum, a mixture of silver and gold, Aegina coined silver exclusively. Silver was readily at hand from the Greek islands and the mines of Laurium in the south of Attica. As the premier commercial power on the west side of the Aegean Sea, Aegina monopolized the shipment of silver and was the logical place for minting silver for the export trade. The value of silver coinage rested on the importance of trade with Egypt, where silver was valued above gold.

Aegina probably began striking silver coins around 750 b.c., and its coins bore an image of a turtle or tortoise, the symbol of Aegina. The opposite side had only a punch mark. Greek tradition bestows the credit for this first Greek coinage on Pheidon, tyrant of Argos, whose rule cannot be precisely dated.

Aeginetan silver coins superseded an iron spits currency that circulated in ancient Greece. Aristotle, writing in the fourth century b.c., gives the following account of the development of money:

As the reciprocity in importing articles that were wanted and exporting those that were surplus spread more widely, they were obliged to employ coin. For it is not easy to value the necessaries of life one against another: so, for purposes of exchange it was agreed to give and receive some commodity that was readily adaptable for practical use, such as iron and silver and so forth: this was first regulated simply by bulk and weight, but finally had a stamp impressed on it, to save measuring it: for the stamp was meant as an indication of quantity.

(Aristotle, 1952)

Aegina gave to Greece two denominations of coinage that were to outlast the Aeginetan standard—the obol, derived from the Greek word for “spits,” referring to iron spits, and drachma, equal to six obols, or a “handful” of six spits. The standard coin of Aegina, called a stater, equaled two drachmas in value.

Aegina seems to be the first state to coin money and stand ready to maintain its value in terms of an objective measure, such as six spits. The cities of Asia Minor contented themselves with letting their currency fluctuate in value with the market for precious metals.

In the seventh century b.c. the Greek city of Corinth introduced its own coinage, improved in many respects and rivaling Aeginetan coinage as the favorite medium of Greek commerce. The Aeginetan coinage was losing ground to Corinthian coinage in the sixth century b.c. when Athens began its own coinage, which soon dominated Mediterranean trade.