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The History of Gold Coins

Learn the history of gold coins; from Asia Minor, to Rome, to U.S. Bullion

Gold Rush | Gold Coin History
This article is from Gold Rush,
by Arlyn Sieber & Mitchell A. Battino

Gold has been a valued substance for as long as history can determine, and it was used in some of the first coins struck, in Asia Minor in the 600s B.C. The Persian Empire (546-334 B.C.) owned much of the world’s gold at the time and struck large quantities of gold coins called “darics.” Few of them, however, survive today. Carthage, a powerful city and state in North Africa, also was a major player in gold coinage at the time. The Phoenician empire took advantage of gold deposits on the Iberian Peninsula and struck coins called “staters” in electrum – an alloy of gold and silver.

After its origins in Asia Minor, the concept of coinage spread throughout Europe, but it took a while for gold to catch on as a coinage metal on the continent. Greece mined little gold compared to Persia’s vast holdings, and what gold it did own was held in reserve rather than turned into coins. Persia’s prolific daric was the primary gold coin circulating in Greek city-states. Most Greek coins were silver; gold was used for coinage only when silver supplies were depleted.

Rome, Augustus Caesaer | Gold Coin History

Rome, Augustus Caesaer | Gold Coin History
Rome, aureus, Augustus Caesaer

Rome, Emperor Nero | Gold Coin History
Rome, aureus, Emperor Nero

Silver continued to be the focus of European coinage as the Roman Empire ascended to power in the late fourth and third centuries B.C. Rome accumulated great wealth in gold through its conquests, including the vast deposits of the Iberian Peninsula, formerly held by Carthage. But like the Greeks, the Romans held most of their gold in reserve and struck gold coins only in emergencies. The first Roman gold coin was a stater struck in 215 B.C. to help finance the Second Punic War against Carthage.

In the second and first centuries B.C., the Roman senate granted Roman generals the right to strike coins from captured silver and gold so they could pay their soldiers. A Roman general in Asia Minor, L. Cornelius Sull, struck a gold “aureus” to commemorate a victory – the first Roman gold coin struck in quantity.

Julius Caesar continued his military right to strike coins after becoming dictator of the empire in the late first century B.C. His aureus was the first Roman gold coin not struck out of necessity and made circulating gold coinage more common. In the first century A.D., Emperor Nero further expanded gold coinage by continuing to strike an aureus and adding a gold quinarius, which was half the value of an aureus. Both coins used almost pure gold and were issued in large quantities.

Gold coins continued to go through various debasements and reforms over the next 200 to 300 years, but they now enjoyed widespread circulation in the Roman empire and found their way to other lands through trade. After the empire was split, its eastern faction, the Byzantine Empire, continued to supply Europe with gold coins as the metal became scarce in western Europe. Officially, the Byzantine gold coin was called a “nomisma,” but in western Europe, it was commonly called a “bezant,” or “coin of Byzantium.”

In time, however, the nomisma also fell victim to debasement, which reflected the declining state of the Byzantine Empire. The empire officially ended when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453.

As the modern map of western Europe started to take shape during the Middle Ages, gold coins were an important part of the continent’s development. In the 1200s, Venice and Florence in Italy were important cities for world trade. Venice issued a gold “ducat” coin, and Florence issued a gold “florin” coin. Both coins were known for their purity and were widely accepted in international trade.

In France, Louis IX started the country’s first regal gold coinage with the introduction of the “ecu” in 1266. His successors followed with similar gold coins struck in larger quantities. In England, Edward III, who ruled from 1327 to 1377, started the country’s first regular gold coinage when he introduced a “florin” in 1344. A heavier “noble” gold coin followed shortly thereafter, and a smaller “angel” gold coin was introduced in 1464. They were followed by the famous and intricately designed “sovereign” gold coin, introduced by Henry VII (1485-1509).

Other lands followed with their own versions of gold coins – the “gulden” in present-day Germany, the “cavalier d’or” in The Netherlands, among others.

The Renaissance years of the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries saw advances in coin production and design. Previously, all coins were hand struck. A worker placed a planchet on top of a die and hammered away until a suitable design impression appeared. It is believed that the Italians were the first to use some type of machinery in coin production. Water or horses powered machinery that rolled metal into an even thickness so consistent planchets could be produced. Donato Bramante (1444-1514) is believed to have invented the screw press, which pressed the die into a planchet to produce the image on the coin.

Great Britain, Henry VIII | Gold Coin History

Great Britain, Henry VIII | Gold Coin History
Great Britain, sovereign,
Henry VIII, ruled 1509-1547

Henry II (1547-1559) of France installed machinery at the Paris mint to produce coins. He was also the first monarch to place his portrait on a gold coin. Portraits and other images on coins became more natural and realistic as design methods advanced. All English coins were struck by machine beginning in 1662.

In the 1500s, gold and silver from the New World flowed into Europe. Spain in particular benefited from its colonial riches. Its mint in Mexico City produced the first coins struck in the New World in 1536 – several smalldenomination silver pieces. Spain’s Charles I, however, prohibited the striking of gold coins in the New World. Gold was shipped back to Seville, where it was struck into coins bearing an “S” mint mark. The 22-karat gold Spanish “pistole” became the new standard for international trade.

The Spanish ban on minting gold coins abroad ended in 1675. The Mexico City mint was the first to produce gold coins; Lima followed shortly afterward. Meanwhile, the flow of gold from the New World to the Old World slowed greatly in the 1600s.

In the 1700s, ducats, issued by various European countries, became the most prominent gold coins. Late in the century, the French republic, after the 1792 revolution, issued few gold coins. But Napoleon Bonaparte changed that after taking power. He issued large numbers of gold 20-franc and 40- franc pieces.

Check the mint marks
Many Spanish colonial mints struck coins similar to regular Spanish issues until the 1820s. The colonial issues are distinguished from the regular issues by their mint marks.

A wealth of mints
Mexico’s first republic, established in 1823, used 14 different mints to strike coins. All the mints used the same basic designs but many variations exist depending on the mint.
The marks of the French
In addition to the dates and mint marks customary on western coinage, French coins also contain two or three small privy marks. One is for the engraver general, who was responsible for the dies that struck the coins. The second is for the director of the mint that struck the coin. A third mark for the local engraver may also appear.

Some have called the approximately 100 years from Napoleon’s downfall to the outbreak of World War I the golden age of gold coins. They circulated widely in many countries as commerce flourished for many of those years and the world was at relative peace.

In 1817, Great Britain introduced a new sovereign that was 0.917 fine and contained 0.2354 ounces of gold. A half sovereign containing 0.1177 ounces of gold was introduced the same year.

Switzerland, 100 francs, 1925 | Gold Coin History
Switzerland, 100 francs, 1925.
The Chinese coinage crises
China nearly ceased the striking of coins in the 1930s and ’40s because of war and uncontrollable inflation. The land relied on large amounts of paper currency issued by nationalist, communist, and Japanese occupation authorities.

Coins as awards
Russian gold ducats struck prior to Peter I (1689-1725) are believed to have been awards for military personnel rather than coinage intended for circulation. The higher the rank of the person receiving the award, the bigger the coin.

Gold coinage played varying roles in the development of other lands. For centuries, China relied on cast coins made from base metals. Locally produced gold coinage did not appear in the country until the late 19th century. Chinese cash coins also circulated in Japan, which was a relative latecomer to coinage. A uniform coinage, which included some gold, did not appear in Japan until the 16th century.

Some German coins had taken on commemorative qualities by marking royal events starting in the 17th century. That continued into the 19th century. Among the gold commemoratives was an 1841 4-ducat marking the 25th anniversary of King Wilhelm’s reign.

In contrast, Russia took advantage of its large gold deposits to produce more than 50 million 5-rouble coins during the reign of Nicholas I (1825-1855). The Arab empire introduced the “dinar” in the 7th century. It emulated the Byzantine gold solidus, a stalwart of the Mediterranean economy. In the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire rose to power in the region after the Byzantine Empire fell. The Ottomans struck their first gold coin – the “altun” – in 1478. Their coinage emulated the size and weight of Europe’s most popularly circulating coins.

India has a long coinage history that some believe dates back as far as the early Greeks. The country’s Gupta kings of the late third century produced mostly gold coins along with some silver and bronze. India’s gold-coinage tradition continued for many centuries later.

In the 20th century, circulating gold coinage fell victim to modern economic pressures and was discontinued. Remnants of various nations’ gold coinage heritage, however, can still be found in modern-day bullion coins and commemoratives. Great Britain, for example, still issues gold sovereigns in traditional weights and specifications as bullion coins and commemoratives. Among them was a 2002 issue to mark the golden jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.

Few common citizens of the Middle Ages or Renaissance years, or even into the 19th century, may have actually possessed a gold coin of their era. But the examples of these coins that still survive today are important artifacts of the world’s economic development and the lands and leaders that participated in it.

More in this Section:

  • History of Gold >>
  • Collecting Gold Coins >>
  • Collecting World Gold Coins >>
  • The Jefferson Plan (U.S. Mints) >>
  • Collecting U.S. Gold Coins >>
  • << Back to Precious Metals (Gold & Silver)


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