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Thracian Or Scythian Coson After 54 BC AV Stater Obv Procession Rv. Eagle Wreath Scepter NGC MS Thracian Or Scythian Coson After 54 BC AV Stater Obv Proce...
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Byzantine Empire Gold Maur. Tiberius 582-602 AV Solidus Angel Hldg P-Cross NGC MS 5/3 Clipped (Serial 8035) Byzantine Empire Gold Maur. Tiberius 582-602 AV Solidus An...
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Twelve Caesars Claudius AD 41-54 AV Aureus Rv. Agrippina Jr. NGC F 5/3 Twelve Caesars Claudius AD 41-54 AV Aureus Rv. Agrippina J...
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Twelve Caesars Domitian AD 81-96 AV Aureus As Caesar Rv. Captive NGC CH F 5/3 Twelve Caesars Domitian AD 81-96 AV Aureus As Caesar Rv. C...
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Twelve Caesars Nero AD 54-68 AV Aureus Rv. Jupiter NGC VF 5/3 Graffito Twelve Caesars Nero AD 54-68 AV Aureus Rv. Jupiter NGC VF ...
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Byzantine Empire Gold Maur. Tiberius 582-602 AV Solidus Angel Hldg P-Cross NGC MS 4/4 Clipped (Serial 8034) Byzantine Empire Gold Maur. Tiberius 582-602 AV Solidus An...
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Thracian Or Scythian Coson After 54 BC AV Stater NGC MS Thracian Or Scythian Coson After 54 BC AV Stater NGC MS
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Ancient Gold

Coins as we know them were invented in the seventh century BC. Like all great inventions, the idea of precious metals of a standard size, shape and weight, stamped with the image of the State, spread in two ways: Trade and conquest.

The First Coins

The first known coins in the world came into being in the ancient Anatolian kingdom of Lydia. Using the abundant supply of naturally occurring electrum (a blend of gold and silver) as a base, Lydian kings struck thick, round-ish pieces of electrum of a uniform weight to facilitate trade. Until then, trade was conducted using gold dust, or random-sized nuggets.While ultimately portable across kingdoms, it was bothersome to weigh and estimate the purity of each nugget or bar.

The Lydian Lion

The kingdom of Lydia began on the Asian side of the Straits of Bosphorus, which separates Europe and Asia, and allows ships to pass from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Consequently, traders from Carthage to Egypt were exposed to this new idea of bits of precious metals made with standard weights and purity.

The Kings of Lydia marked the first coins with the royal symbol of a roaring lion’s head. This of course led to the coins being called “Lions”. Using electrum to mint the coins meant that there was no easy way of testing their gold:silver ratio. The earliest Lydian kings used that to their advantage to debase their coins in relation to the naturally occurring electrum nuggets, thereby inventing seignorage at the same time as inventing coins.

King Croesus

Lydia grew to be a great empire, encompassing most of Asia Minor (Anatolia). The last and greatest of the Lydian kings was Croesus, who minted the world’s first fine gold and fine silver coinage. Stories of his great wealth are still echoed in modern times by the phrase “as rich as Croesus”. The Lydian Empire was destroyed when Croesus attacked his regional rival Persia in 547 BC. The king of Persia was Cyrus II, known to history as Cyrus the Great.

The Spread of Coins Through Conquest

The Lydian/Persian war lasted little more than a year, resulting the death of Croesus and the complete subjugation of Lydia. The legendary treasures of Croesus now belonged to Cyrus. The Persians could not help to notice how the Lydian idea of gold coins promoted trade. In the tradition of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”, Cyrus decided to continue production of Lydian coins using the same imagery, to smooth the transition of Western Anatolia to Persian rule. This move came to be copied by subsequent conquerors of antiquity, until the rise of the Roman Empire.

Ancient Persian Gold Coins

The first Persian gold coins used the preceding Lydian designs until the reign of Darius I (also known as “the Great”) 45 years later. He commissioned the first true Persian gold coins, and decreed that they be minted in a very pure .958 (95.8% pure) fineness. Known as the daric, it was the most important gold coinage of Western civilization for nearly 200 years, until the Persian Empire fell to Alexander the Great in 330 BC.

The Spread of Coins Through Trade

The Greek city states may have been the first culture outside of Lydia to adopt gold and silver coins. Greek colony cities along the southwestern coast of Asia Minor quickly took to the idea of standardized bits of gold and silver for use in trade. The practice rapidly spread across the Aegean Sea to the Greek mainland.

Ancient Greek Gold Coins

Major city states saw the spread of their coinage as a projection of their power, and started using certain images as a motif. For example, the coins of Larissa, capital of Thessaly, used the image of Larissa the nymph, the city's namesake.  Athens used the owl, symbol of their patron goddess Athena, to identify their coins.

Due to Athens' power during the following Classical Age, their Owl coins are the most recognizable ancient Greek coin by the public. The care and artistry with which Greek gold coins were struck in the Classical Era make them as much works of art as they were items facilitating commerce.

By the time Alexander the Great conquered Greece in 330 BC, ushering in the Hellenic Era, many Greek cities had grown into large metropolises. This required mass production of coins, compared to the careful striking of the Classical gold coins. The results can be seen in the reduced detail and frequent off-center strikes.

The Influence of Alexander The Great

At its height, the Empire of Alexander the Great ranged from Greece, through the entire Middle East to Egypt, and eastward through Persia to northwest India. To the Greeks, Alexander had literally conquered the known world. With this conquest came the active “Hellenization” of all the subject peoples. The spread of Greek ideals and philosophy included Alexander’s Greek Imperial coinage. Successor kingdoms after Alexander’s death heavily copied these designs in their own coinage.

Roman Gold Coins

The Romans were late-comers to the idea of minting coins, minting their first coins around the time of Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC.

The early Roman republic first used bars of different, unwieldy weights as currency. The Romans were first exposed to gold coins in a major way when fighting against Greek colony cities in southern Italy. These cities had long used them in trade, and more importantly to the Romans, to pay for mercenaries for protection. Soldiers native to this area who began fighting for the Romans demanded to continue being paid in coins. The supply of captured coins quickly depleted, the Republic began minting coins of its own.

Roman gold coins had an even later beginning, not seeing wide circulation until victories against Carthage in the Punic Wars supplied Rome with a large quantity of gold. The tradition of Emperors using their own faces on gold coins in Rome started with Octavian and Marc Anthony, while locked in a war over who would succeed Julius Caesar. These coins were minted mainly to pay the troops under their respective commands. Notably, the coins of both generals carried the image of Julius Caesar on the reverse, to reinforce their claims as the true leader of Rome.

As happens with all great empires that incur war debts just as great, the gold coinage of Rome was debased fairly early in the history of the Empire. Occasional efforts by reform-minded Caesars to redeem the purity of the currency was swiftly undone by their successors.

Over the 500 years between the ascension of Augustus as the first Roman emperor to the fall of Rome in 476 AD, untold millions of gold coins were minted. That said, nearly as many were melted down through the following millennia. Ancient Roman gold coins are still being discovered today, in buried hoards found by metal detecting hobbyists and during archaeological digs. Gold coins of the Roman Empire remain one of the most popular ancient coins to collect.

Byzantine Gold Coins

By the third century AD, the Roman Empire had grown too large to be ruled by any one man. The emperor Diocletian decreed in 285 that the empire would co-ruled by two emperors: One in the East, based in Byzantium, and another ruling over the West from Italy. Technically, there was still only one “Roman Empire”, and both halves were ruled by one Emperor at various times.

The Western Roman Empire, overrun by Goths and other Germanic tribes, ceased to exist in 476 AD, when emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by the Germanic general Odoacer. The eastern half of the empire remained intact, and took sole use of the name of the Roman Empire. Known today as the Byzantine Empire, it remained a major power in the eastern Mediterranean for nearly a thousand years afterward.

The signature gold coin of the Byzantine Empire was the solidus. Introduced by Emperor Diocletian in 301 AD, it did not see widespread use until the reign of Constantine I (Constantine the Great). Since the Byzantine Empire existed for 1100 years after its introduction, a nice solidus is not hard to find. The solidus was the only major gold trade currency of Europe, Mediterranean Africa, and Western Asia from late antiquity unless the Medieval era. Many millions of solidi were paid by Constantinople in tribute to buy off various invaders from the East, notable Attila the Hun. These gold coins then traveled far into the interior of Asia.

Gainesville Coins carries only certified genuine gold and silver ancient coins, graded by the highly trusted Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC).


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