Ancient Money: The Long and Illustrious History of Silver

Silver’s seniority is solidified well past its use in our everyday lives (no, it’s not just our grandmother’s flatware sets that are composed of silver). As one of the first five metals ever discovered by humans, silver is one of the oldest and most treasured of earth’s precious metals. Its applications have acted as fuel for entire civilizations, forging the path to life as we know it.

Rare Silver Roman Coins. Source: Daily Mail

Silver Use Cases For Early Civilizations

Silver, discovered by ancient Greeks as early as 5,000 B.C., allured civilizations and popularized quickly because of its many practical attributes.

The magnetizing twinkle of silver is perhaps what drew in a curious eye. But beyond its smooth finish and lustrous aesthetic, silver’s resistance to corrosion, brilliant polish, and elasticity made it an early artisan’s delight.

Silver is an ancient form of hand soap. The ions in silver are toxic to bacteria, destroying their cell walls in even negligibly low concentrations—proving to be an invaluable resource to ancient stores of water supplies. During the bubonic plague, people warded off disease by eating with all-silver flatware.

In terms of metals, silver is akin to butter. It ranks 2.5 on the Mohs hardness scale, which ranks it similar to that of a fingernail. With gold weighing in at 2.5-3.0, silver is softer than gold, and you can hammer silver so thin that 100,000 sheets wouldn’t stand taller than an inch. Silver scrolls, rolled up as a sheet of paper would be, were some of the oldest known artifacts tooled by silversmiths, dating back to 600 B.C.

Source: Comparative Hardness

Finally, The rarity of silver made it of great value to ancient civilizations. To Egyptians, silver was more precious than gold due to its rarity in the region, and silver wasn’t (and still isn’t) easy to come upon. All of the silver historically mined would fit inside a 52-meter cube.

History of Silver as Currency

On the throne of the currency realm in ancient times sat gold. But with gold being of such worth that small coins were too valuable for everyday purchases, silver came in to save the day. Silver emerged to be the best choice for smaller denomination purchases and trades, effectively partnering with gold to build the foundation of today’s economies.

Silver was first minted as a coin in Lydia in 564 B.C. by way of electrum—a natural alloy of gold and silver—which was found in generous quantities in the area. Agenian regions adjacent to Lydia adopted the practice of stamping small buttons of silver with insignia, and soon the practice spread like wildfire through Greece and the entire Mediterranean.

In 482 B.C., a silver deposit unlike any other was discovered in ancient Greece. Instead of exposing their own people to the ore, which typically would tend to contain toxic lead deposits, the Greeks forced enemy soldiers to mine the metal. The ore, which at one time was mined with upwards of 20,000 slave soldiers, brought a considerable amount of wealth into the Mediterranean and changed the course of entire civilizations.

Silver’s influence carried on to the Americas, where Columbus, upon stepping foot in the New World, immediately took to directing silver exploration. The stores of silver in Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia reshaped the wealth of the Spanish Empire and allowed them the monetary (and thereby military) power to control wide territories of land for hundreds of years.

New England Shilling and
Willow Tree Threepence coins. 
Source: Littleton 

In 1792, the United States, which had newly declared independence, based its currency on silver—one dollar measured out to 24.056 grams of silver. Over the next few hundred years, silver, along with gold, was removed and repositioned in the currency system until America landed on the fiat system in the 1970s. In Australia, following Federation in 1901, British silver and bronze coins continued in use, but in 1910, Australian Commonwealth silver coins were introduced.

Silver’s hold over currency is not what it once was, but its resistance to corrosion, title of the world’s most sheen, lustrous metal, and resilience as an investment makes silver a metal that will be forever highly sought after. Furthermore, silver’s demonstrated value over more than 7,000 years is what makes modern investors return to the precious metal during times of economic weakness. A large percentage of current silver production is focused in jewelry, but silver’s use in aerospace, automotive industries, dentistry, and much more is not set to waver.


Curious about silver as an investment? Reach out to us at Jaggards—we’re the numismatic experts.