Lepsius has maintained (Ueber die Metalle
in den Aegypt. 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. We will speak of them in
(1) Amber. Beads of amber were found in the royal tombs at Mycenae; and
chemical analysis (Schliemann, Tiryns,
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 Greek (?) tombs at Ialysus in Rhodes.
At a later period amber is mentioned in the Odyssey (15.460
); 18.295) as a material of necklaces,
which are said to be held together ἠλέκτροισι,
by beads of amber. In one of these passages the
necklace is spoken of as an import from Phoenicia. It is also stated (4.73)
that the walls of the palace of Menelaus were adorned with amber, as well as
gold, silver, and ivory. The author of the Shield of Herakles, 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 in the archaic
period used as a material for statuettes and reliefs; many specimens of this
kind of work are in the British Museum. But the amber used in Italy seems to
differ in many respects from that of the Baltic, and is more like the amber
still found in small quantities in Sicily.
Many writers have maintained that there was a regularly used trade-route
across Europe from the banks of the Baltic to the shores of the Euxine or
Adriatic, by which amber was brought to the south in exchange for other
wares, and that this route was used without intermission from prehistoric
days onwards. But the only facts on which this view is based are the
occasional discovery in Central Europe of the coins and art-products of
Greece and Etruria, and the above-mentioned presence of pieces of amber in
early Greek tombs. These facts are, as Furtwängler remarks
(Goldfund von Vettersfelde,
p. 49) not conclusive. It is
more probable that the amber of early Greece was imported by the Phoenicians
who sailed round the coast to the north of Europe, especially in view of the
fact that after the Homeric age amber disappears 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
1037, where the substance
is said to come from Sardes: for Sardes 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 connexion with the donaria of Croesus to Delphi (1.50),
calls it white gold, λευκὸς χρυσός.
remarks (H. N.
33.80) 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 7th century B.C., or possibly late in the
8th, 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. Information as to the
standards of weight used
Early electrum Stater, probably struck at Miletus before B.C. 623.
in these issues is given under PONDERA
For some time, until silver 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,
p. 254), in his excellent account of early electrum coins, which is mainly
based on the researches of Brandis (Münz-Mass-und
), that the mixed metal had two advantages over
pure gold in circulation: (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. It is considered that
this proportion is shown to have actually held by the fact that everywhere
electrum was minted on the standards of weight in use for silver, and not on
the (different) standards in use for gold, which seems to show that the
proportionate values of electrum and silver were very simple. It must,
however, be cited as an objection to the views of Brandis and Head, that in
the cases in which the proportion of gold to silver in electrum coins has
been determined by chemical analysis or specific gravity, a far less
proportion of gold than three to one has been discovered, a proportion
indeed sometimes less than one to one, so that it is difficult to see how
electrum can have been considered as of three-fourths of the value of gold.
On this subject further investigations are necessary.
It is believed that Croesus first introduced in Asia, in place of the coinage
of electrum, money [p. 1.715]
of gold and of silver. The
conquering Persian kings adopted the Lydian currency and imitated it, and
coins of electrum went rapidly out of use. But at a somewhat later time,
about B.C. 500, electrum was again issued by a few cities, more especially
Cyzicus, Phocaea,and Lampsacus.
Electrum Stater of Cyzicus. (British Museum.)
The staters and hectae (sixths) of those cities were current in the Euxine,
Asia Minor, and Greece. They are mentioned in Attic inscriptions from B.C.
434 onwards. Cyrus the younger paid his Greek mercenaries a Cyzicene stater
a month (Xenoph. Anab.
7.3, 10), and Demosthenes states in
his speech against Phormio (B.C. 333) that in Pontus Cyzicene staters passed
as equivalent to 28 Attic drachms of silver. [See STATER
We possess the text of a curious commercial treaty concluded between Phocaea
and Mytilene, for the issue in common by the two states of hectae or sixths
of electrum. For the details, see Newton in Trans. Roy. Soc.
viii. p. 549. Each of the cities was in turn for the space of a
year to mint these coins, which were to be in both a legal tender, and
provisions were made for punishing any person who debased the currency below
the normal standard. But the paleness of these hectae, which still exist in
large numbers, proves that they did not contain a high proportion of gold.
In the fourth century, electrum coins were largely used at Carthage, and in
the time of Timoleon at Syracuse.