Lepsius has maintained (Ueber die Metalle in den ägypt. Inschriften
Appendix) that the early Greek usage was to employ the masculine form when the mixture of gold
and silver was intended; the neuter form when the mineral which we call amber was meant. It is
likely that the Greeks were acquainted in very early times with the use of amber, trade in
this mineral having taken place in pre-historic days between North and South Europe. They must
also have been early acquainted with the compounded metal, since gold alike in Asia and Europe
is commonly found mixed with silver. Which of the two substances, therefore, was first called
electrum is a matter quite open to dispute. They will be spoken of in turn.
Beads of amber were found in the royal tombs at Mycenae, and chemical analysis (Schliemann,
, p. 370) has proved that this amber came from the Baltic and not from
elsewhere. Similar beads have also been found in the very early tombs at Ialysus in Rhodes.
At a later period amber is mentioned in the Odyssey
(xv. 460, xviii. 295) as a
material of necklaces. In one of these passages the necklace is spoken of as an import from
Phœnicia. It is also stated (iv. 73) that the walls of the palace of
Menelaüs were adorned with amber, as well as with gold, silver, and ivory. The
author of the Shield of Heracles
, ascribed to Hesiod, speaks of that shield
(141) as adorned with electrum, in which case, however, the metal may be meant. In South
Italy amber was used in the archaic period as a material for statuettes and reliefs; many
specimens of this kind of work are in the British Museum. It is probable that the amber of
early Greece was imported by the Phœnicians who sailed round the coast to the north
of Europe, especially in view of the fact that after the Homeric Age amber disappeared from
Greek tombs, and does not again figure until Roman times, when a regular trade with the
Baltic coast had sprung up.
2. Mixed Gold and Silver
The earliest certain mention of this mixed metal as electrum (rather ἤλεκτρος
) is in Sophocles's Antigone
where the substance is said to come from Sardis; for Sardis by the Pactolus was noted in
antiquity as the place whence came the river-gold, mixed when found with a considerable
percentage of silver. Herodotus, however, speaking of this same Sardian metal in connection
with the donaria of Croesus to Delphi (i. 50), calls it white gold, λευκὸς χρυσός
. Pliny remarks (Pliny H.
N. xxxiii. 80
) that gold is invariably found mixed with silver (which is
true), and that when the proportion of silver reaches a fifth the metal is called electrum.
He adds that electrum was made by art as well as found.
This white gold or electrum is used on the sword-blades found at Mycenae for purposes of
inlaying. In later times it was used, as being a harder material than gold, for objects in
which hardness was desirable. By far the most important use to which it was put was as a
material for coins.
In the seventh century B.C., or possibly late in the eighth, the kings of Lydia began to
issue stamped money of electrum, using probably the metal in its natural state, and the
maritime cities of the Asiatic coast and of Euboea adopted the idea. (See Pondera
.) For some time, until silver
Early Electrum Stater, probably struck at Miletus before B.C. 623. (British
was first minted at Aegina, all the coinage of the world consisted of stamped
pellets of electrum, though no doubt unstamped bars of gold and silver circulated with them.
It is observed by Mr. Head (Numismatic Chronicle
, 1875, p. 254), in his
account of early electrum coins, that the mixed metal had two advantages over pure gold in
- 1. it was more durable;
- 2. the proportionate value of gold to silver being 13 1/3 to 1 (Herodotus says 13),
and electrum being of three-fourths the value of gold, each coin of electrum would pass as
the equivalent of ten silver bars of equal weight.
Croesus is believed to have first introduced into Asia coined money of gold and silver in
place of electrum. See Numismatics