Much more so than today, whether or not a city minted coins depended upon the supply of bullion. Not all cities or states minted coins, and sometimes it was the availability of bullion itself that led a city to issue coins. The supply of bullion could also affect the value of silver or gold coins.

One of the main sources of bullion was mining or collecting surface deposits. The natural electrum used in the earliest coins was found among river gravel deposits in Lydia (western Turkey), the region of the states that issued them. The few later electrum coins, for example those from Carthage (see no. 21), were not natural electrum, but man-made alloys. Of the three Greek cities that first issued silver coins -- Aegina, Corinth, and Athens -- only Athens had a source within its territory, the silver mines of Lavrion. The discovery of an especially rich silver vein there c. 500 B.C. made possible the minting of the famous Athenian "owls" (see no. 30). Silver was also mined in northern Greece, in Thrace and Macedonia, and on the Aegean islands of Thasos and, until its mines were flooded in the late sixth century B.C., Siphnos. These sources were used both by local cities (see nos. 23-27) and by the many cities with no mines of their own, who purchased the silver. Greeks would also have had access to silver sources in Asia Minor and in Spain, the source of most of the silver used by South Italian and Sicilian cities and by Carthage (see nos. 2-20).

Gold sources existed in all these regions as well, yet they were rarely exploited until the Hellenistic period. In Hellenistic times not only were rich Macedonian sources exploited, but as Alexander expanded his rule eastward, more sources of both gold and silver became available throughout the Middle East and as far away as India and even Siberia. A prospector even accompanied Alexander expressly to look for new sources. Egypt under the Ptolemies was in the unusual position, with the rich gold mines of Nubia (southern Egypt/Sudan) at its disposal, of having more gold than silver, and the Ptolemies based their coinage on gold (see nos. 55-58) rather than on both gold and silver, as was most common at the time. The Carthaginians continued to have access to Spanish sources, but they and the Kyrenaicans (see nos. 22 and 39) may have also obtained gold from the "Gold Coast" of sub-Saharan West Africa, either with ships sailing through Gibraltar or by caravan across the Sahara. Many of the Middle Eastern sources were at times closed to the Romans. They obtained much of their gold and silver from the rich sources in Spain, but they also had access to mines in Gaul, Dalmatia, Dacia (in the Carpathian mountains), Britain, the Near East, and Africa.

Of the less precious metals, copper was relatively easily available to both Greeks and Romans from important sources on the Greek mainland, on Cyprus, in Spain, and in Britain. Tin, however, was rare in the eastern Mediterranean area. The main source for the Greeks seems to have been Cornwall in England; some also came from Brittany, Spain, and perhaps from the Middle East. Rome obtained most of its tin from increased exploitation of Spanish mines. Zinc and lead were not difficult to find; various sources were located in Europe, Britain, and Asia Minor.

Metal from freshly mined ore was not the only source of bullion, even for those states possessing their own mines. Booty taken in war, payments made to governments by other states, accumulated wealth stored in a state's treasury, and existing coinage, usually that of foreign states, were other sources. The war-time need for such secondary sources is well documented at Athens, where emergency issues were minted from treasure stored on the Acropolis. In 407/6 B.C., near the end of the Peloponnesian War, Athens' enemy Sparta occupied Attica, rendering the Lavrion silver sources inaccessible. To meet its military expenses, Athens melted down seven gold statues of Nike to mint 84,000 staters (1 gold stater = 6 silver tetradrachms). One hundred years later, gold from the shield of the chryselephantine statue of Athena in the Parthenon was used for coinage to pay foreign mercenaries. Part of the gold for the coinages of Alexander and his successors came from the vast wealth of defeated Persian rulers. Roman emperors seized much booty during their military exploits; Trajan's defeat of the Dacians (see no. 90) flooded Rome with their gold. Often, conquered states were forced to pay duty or fines to the victors. Whether in the form of coin or uncoined metal, these payments could be melted down and reminted, or sometimes the coins, if of appropriate weight, would simply be restruck, the new types impressed over the old. Foreign coins came into the states' treasuries in the normal course of trade. Some of these would be kept as "foreign reserves," but many could be used to mint new coins.


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