You’ve probably heard the phrase “He’s as rich as Croesus” at some point in your life and didn’t give it much attention. After all, there are so many phrases and sayings that it’s hard to keep up with them. But this one is important because it has to do with the money, or the lack of it, in your pocket.
You see, Croesus was a real person, and he very well could have been the richest man in the world during his lifetime.
Croesus was the king of the ancient Kingdom of Lydia (located in what is now central Turkey) from about 560 to the 540s BC. He was known for a lot of things. But, above all, he was known for putting on ostentatious displays of wealth. In fact, he liked to show off his wealth so much that he’d probably make rappers blush. According to Greek historian Herodotus, Croesus donated a large supply of gold, silver, and animals to the Oracle of Delphi in Greece in order to get a reading of the signs that were in his favor.
Talk about buying influence!
Croesus was the beneficiary of a wealthy kingdom that was created by some pretty forward-thinking rulers, at least in terms of economics. The capital city of Lydia, called Sardis, was located on the Pactolus River. The river was a source of electrum, a naturally occurring gold-silver alloy that could be traded as is or refined to separate the metals.
The Lydians preferred to separate the gold and silver and mint coins. Since we live in a society where paper and coin currency is ubiquitous, the use of coins for currency may not seem like a big deal. During the time of Croesus, however, it was actually a revolutionary step in world economics. Though gold and silver had been used in trade before the Lydians, they had assumed the form of clumsy, heavy ingots or dust. People before the Lydians, such as the Egyptians, had standardized prices for certain things, but they never had a standardized currency. The Lydians took the idea of standardized price and combined it with the inherent value of gold and silver to make the first circulating coins in the world. Lydian coins were standardized in basic weight and given specific values, thereby making all transactions simple and fairly honest.
Although the Kingdom of Lydia was conquered by the Persians and Croesus was probably killed, the conquerors continued the use of coins as currency and spread the idea throughout the Near East.
The Greeks, who were already quite familiar with the Lydians, also began using coins as currency by the sixth century BC, although the values differed from city-state to city-state.
By the time Alexander the Great conquered the Persians in 330 BC, coins used as currency was standard in most kingdoms and city-states in the Mediterranean and the Near East. The acceptance of coins for currency made things easy for the Romans when they took over the entire region in the first century BC—they simply adopted the existing economic system and gave it a different name.
None of this would’ve been possible, though, without the efforts of Croesus and the Lydians. As for paper money, that’s a different story…