A Brief History of Gold Coins

Posted - October 12, 2023
history of gold coins

Gold coins have been one of humanity’s favorite collectables for hundreds of years. But the real history of gold coins goes back even further. Ancient civilizations understood the value of a quality gold coin. After all, it’s impossible to imagine an Ancient man or woman failing to realize the beauty of a shining gold coin. 

Coinage has also played an important role in making empires and documenting history. When historians attempt to track the earliest days of human civilization, the history of gold coins provides us with clues into what life was like for our ancestors. Coins have been used to commemorate rulers, celebrate important military victories, and more. 

In other words, the history of gold coins is really the history of us. In today’s Bullion Academy guide, we’re walking readers through 10,000 years of gold coins. By the end of this page, we think you’ll have a good understanding of just how much history is hidden underneath the shiny veneer of a modern gold bullion coin. 

The Birth of Gold Coinage

To really trace the Ancient history of gold coins, we have to start with the history of gold itself. Gold coins are now a foundation of the global trade of gold. In fact, it’s unlikely Hero Bullion would even be around without the advent of gold coinage! 

Ancient Beginnings

Before we had actual gold bullion coins, most gold was traded as a commodity as early as the Bronze Age. Archeological evidence suggests that humans really began using gold to trade back in 4,000 BC. Gold was traded in the area we now know as Eastern Europe. But the earliest uses of gold look nothing like the modern gold coins and bars we’ve come to know and love. 

Traders would usually use small chunks of gold to facilitate their transactions. Some evidence suggests that early humans in 4,000 BC made decorative objects like jewelry or statues using gold bullion. 

The First Gold Coin

As far as we know, the very first gold coin as we know it today was created in around the 6th century BC. Although historians disagree on who came first in the history of gold coins, most believe that the creator of the world’s first gold bullion coin was Croesus, King of Lydia. He created a small number of gold coins to commemorate his rule and help him trade large quantities of items. 

The Invention of the First Coinage in Ancient Lydia - World History  Encyclopedia
Ancient Lydia Gold Coin

Gold coins didn’t really take off in popularity until the king was captured by Persia. Persians immediately took a liking to his coins and quickly adopted gold for use in their own coins. The gold dram is the most popular Ancient Persian coin. It was minted way back in 1 AD by Vonones, the Persian King at the time. 

Coins and the Ancient World

After the Persians began bringing gold coins to the forefront of their economy, the beautiful currency really started to explode in popularity. Throughout the early history of gold coins, a number of powerful empires started using gold to make their coins. Once we let the genie out of the bottle, there was no putting it back in. Humanity was – and still is – hooked on gold coinage. 

Greek and Roman Influence 

Both the Greek and Roman empires used gold to make beautiful coins. Even today, we can note the influence of the Greeks and Romans on modern coinage. The Gold Britannia, for example, features the Roman female personification of the British Isles on its reverse. The original Greek and Roman gold coins typically featured the depiction of a leader on their obverse or reverse. 

For the Greeks and Romans, gold coinage was serious business. Throughout history, rulers from around the world have worked to fight against counterfeit or fake gold coins. The Greeks even instituted laws to combat overzealous coin makers who had begun striking their coins with cheap metals instead of gold. 

Without the Ancient Greeks and Romans, we wouldn’t have the coins we have today. The history of gold coins is really the history of the Western world. 

Byzantine Brilliance 

Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantines leveraged gold coinage to help their economy stay afloat. Throughout its history, the Byzantine Empire started a variety of mints all over its territory. Coins were primarily made using two main metals: bronze and gold. The gold coins, also known as the Gold Solidus, were exceedingly popular among traders. Today, these coins are extremely rare and beloved by numismatic rare coin collectors. 

Because of the Eastern Roman Empire’s explosive economy and various international connections, this helped gold coins to make their way around the world. As the history of gold coins continued to develop, it was the brilliance of the Byzantine Empire that helped gold coinage to take center stage in the expanding global economy. 

Islamic Gold Coins 

Western countries like Greece and Rome were not the only influential players in the early history of gold coins. Arabic Caliphates also used gold to mint beautiful coins for trade and collecting. Their Gold Dinar is particularly popular. First minted during the Islamic medieval period, it served an important function in international trade. While the Byzantine Gold Solidus was indeed used in foreign countries, laws from the Byzantine Empire made the trade of them illegal outside of the Eastern Roman Empire. 

Gold dinar - Wikipedia
Islamic Gold Dinar

Islamic leaders needed to introduce their own gold coins to help replace the Byzantine Empire’s popular Gold Solidus. Some historians refer to the Islamic Gold Dinar as an answer to the Roman coin that dominated the Eastern Roman Empire. The coin features Arabic phrases, as well as minimal artwork on the reverse. 

The Medieval and Renaissance Period

As we move forward in the history of gold coins, it’s time to address the Medieval and Renaissance periods. If you know anything about history, you should know that this time period was characterized by art and beauty. While Renaissance men were creating incredible paintings and designing governments that would one day change humanity, coin artists were having a revolution of their own. 

Medieval Europe

Gold coins had become the currency of choice for people in Europe. In addition to silver, gold was primarily used to create beautiful coins throughout the history of gold coins in Europe. But something happened in the 15th century in Europe that put the entire gold coin industry in jeopardy. 

Historians refer to this event as the “Great Bullion Famine.” Europe’s quickly growing economy had led to a shortage in gold, which was used to create the lion’s share of their coinage. European gold mines existed, but their supply had been depleted by centuries of aggressive mining for more gold bullion. 

Eventually, a solution arrived. Countries in Europe struck gold when they finally discovered the Americas, which held massive underground supplies of gold, silver, and platinum. In addition, European countries like Portugal gained access to the thousands of gold mines in Africa. These discoveries kicked off another important era in the history of gold coins: the “Age of Exploration.” 

The Age of Exploration 

Historians who write about this period of time generally refer to it by the moniker “Gold, God, and Glory.” This is definitely a solid nickname for the era. In short, European explorers were motivated by three main things as they explored an uncharted world: god, glory, and gold. We’re focusing on the third one in this guide on the history of gold, and there’s quite a bit to cover. 

Because of the European shortage of gold, some explorers boarded ships to search for vast riches in the Americas. Hernan Cortes was a Spanish Conquistador famous for his search for riches in South America. 

Spanish Doubloons 

Moving forward in the history of gold, it’s time we gave some attention to one of the most beautiful historical coins we’ve come across. The Spanish Doubloon features an obverse depiction of one of Spain’s leaders. One popular coin from this series comes from the Mexico City Mint and was released in 1798. On its obverse, you’ll note Charles IV, the King of Spain at the time. 

Doubloon - coin, public domain photograph - PICRYL - Public Domain Media  Search Engine Public Domain Image
Spanish Gold Doubloon

Spanish Doubloons were minted and traded in countries around the world. The coins played an important role in the history of gold coins. Their intricate obverse and reverse designs helped to establish the Spanish Empire as a formidable leader in the global economic market. 

The Gold Rush and Modern Era

Step by step, we’re taking you from the Ancient history of gold coins to the modern era. The real modern era of gold coinage begins with the California Gold Rush and ends with the decline of the gold standard. In between these two eras, we have the introduction of the gold standard and multiple World Wars. If this sounds like a lot, it’s because it is! The modern history of gold coins is complex and important for bullion collectors who really want to understand the origin of their favorite coins. 

The California Gold Rush 

Most bullion collectors know all about the California Gold Rush. During the mid-1800s, the discovery of gold under the hills of California led to the migration of over 300,000 people into the state. But the gold rush had a much more significant impact than most armchair historians understand. The history of gold coins took an exceptional turn with the discovery of gold in California. 

Following the California Gold Rush, the U.S. Mint was inundated with a surplus of gold bullion. For the experts in charge of the U.S. Mint, gold coins were the perfect way to turn this surplus into a popular currency. 

The Gold Standard

The international gold standard began in the 1870s. For readers who are paying attention, this means that the international community really started to adopt a gold-backed standard for their currency following the success of the California Gold Rush. All around the world, gold coins from government mints became an exceedingly popular way to invest money and conduct business. 

World Wars and Gold Coins 

The outbreak of World War One and World War Two also had an enormous impact on the history of gold coins. Some countries faced shortages of bullion, while others had an influx after the conclusion of the war. Some of the most creative and interesting gold coin designs from history come from this time period. 

The Decline of the Gold Standard

Some collectors view the collapse of the gold standard as a quick, instantaneous process. This isn’t the case. A “Gold Standard” refers to currencies backed by actual gold bullion. The first end to the gold standard began with Britain in 1931. It was only two years later when the U.S. abandoned the gold standard. In 1973, the system was all but gone from the international community. 

The gold standard’s collapse is one of the most important moments in the history of gold coins. Because money was no longer pegged to the value of gold, gold bullion’s value was able to skyrocket. For some experts, the collapse of the gold standard means that currency is no longer pegged to a consistent, non-correlated asset. 

Contemporary Gold Coins 

We’re finally caught up! This guide has spanned thousands of years of the history of gold coins, and it’s time to address what the gold coin industry looks like today. While old gold coins were minted using a lower gold bullion fineness, modern minting technology allows people to create beautiful coins with highly pure gold. 

Bullion Coins 

Bullion coins refer to coins that are primarily valued for their precious metal content. Gold bullion coins are usually minted with a purity above .90. In fact, many of the gold bullion coins Hero Bullion has in stock actually include a fineness of .9999! 

2024 1 oz British Gold Britannia Coin Angle
2024 Gold Britannia Coin

Final Thoughts: A Brief History of Gold Coins 

Our ancient ancestors would never believe what we can do with gold today. The history of gold coins is really the history of humanity, spanning tens of thousands of years and countless empires that rose and fell on their ability to create beautiful, stable currencies out of the world’s most precious metal. 

Hero Bullion sells a wide range of gold coins from around the world. Whether you’re looking for rare coins or modern bullion pieces with a high purity, we’ve got something for you! 

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About The Author

Michael Roets is a writer and journalist for Hero Bullion. His work explores precious metals news, guides, and commentary.