Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Ancient Hellenic currency

So, the reason for the research into this subject is a little grim: I'm looking to buy an ancient Hellenic coin to be buried with when I die. Not the cheeriest topic--and not an event I see happening soon--but I'm a Virgo, and I like things planned; I want that little coin filed away with my insurance company, along with my burial wishes. When that's done, I can put it out of my head and fully enjoy the rest of my--hopefully--long, long life.

As my research comes to a conclusion, I have learned a good few things, and I want to share these with you. The first is that it's possible to obtain an authentic Hellenic coin no matter the size of your wallet. They range from about €10,- to about €5000,- on the public market. For €10,-, you get small, often a little bit vague, coins made of copper or silver, coming from some of the smaller city-states; and in the higher price range, you get large silver or gold coins with beautifully detailed and preserved images, usually from Athens or likewise better known city-states. Needless to say, my wallet does not allow for one of the latter ones, but around the €40,- to €80,- range, I could fall in love with a few of the coins put up for online auction.

Now onto some historic research: there were many (read: thousands) ancient Hellenic city-states, and about half of them produced their own coins. The first coins are assumed to have been issued in either Lydia or Ionia in Asia Minor around 600 BC, although it's unclear why. Hēródotos (Ἡρόδοτος) wrote, in his Histories (I. 94):

"The Lydians have very nearly the same customs as the Greeks, with the exception that these last do not bring up their girls in the same way. So far as we have any knowledge, they were the first nation to introduce the use of gold and silver coin, and the first who sold goods by retail."

Yet, we know the first coins, from the Archaic period, were often crudely shaped lumps of electrum--a silver/gold alloy--which lacked refinement and were of varying weight. Hēródotos refers here to gold and silver coins and--although the ancient Hellenes called electrum 'gold' or 'white gold' as well--it could be assumed that the Lydians adopted an older practice, and Hēródotos was simply not aware of this. The question of 'why?' could also be posed, as Lydian society was based on agriculture and the pasturing of animals, rather than on commercial activities.

Like all ancient civilizations, ancient Hellenic city-states like Lydia had a bartering system in place, but perhaps those who traveled across Hellas for business wanted something to trade with that retained its value, no matter the city-state they were in. It's also entirely possible that a standardized payment method became desired for local business transactions, like the payment of fines, harbor taxes, and builders of large-scale endeavors like temples. Mercenary soldiers also required payment at the end of their contract, and payment in the form of food or pottery was very much impractical for those who traveled. A system of light-weight tokens with a set value was a good alternative. Yet, how does one establish value?

Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics (V, 5) writes:

"This is why all things that are exchanged must be somehow comparable. It is for this end that money has been introduced, and it becomes in a sense an intermediate; for it measures all things, and therefore the excess and the defect-how many shoes are equal to a house or to a given amount of food. The number of shoes exchanged for a house (or for a given amount of food) must therefore correspond to the ratio of builder to shoemaker. For if this be not so, there will be no exchange and no intercourse. And this proportion will not be effected unless the goods are somehow equal. All goods must therefore be measured by some one thing, as we said before. Now this unit is in truth demand, which holds all things together (for if men did not need one another's goods at all, or did not need them equally, there would be either no exchange or not the same exchange); but money has become by convention a sort of representative of demand; and this is why it has the name 'money' (nomisma)-because it exists not by nature but by law (nomos) and it is in our power to change it and make it useless. "

Eventually, the various city-states developed a system of coins with varying values, which could be compared to, say, shoes, a house, or the day wage of a soldier. The value of the currency of the ancient Athenians spread across Hellas--as the ancient Athenians were some of the best at making coins which were of almost identical weight--and as Athens' influence spread, the following values became universally know, and used in many of the smaller city-states near Athens who did not mint coins of their own. The Athenian base currency was the Tetradrachm. Other city-ctates had other base currency, like the stater at Corinth and Aigina, the litra in Sicily, and the shekel of Sidon, Tyre, and Byblos. Conversion was often possible, as can be seen to the side.

Like in current times, special coins were minted for special occasions from the fourth century BC on; some city-states only minted coins for these occasions, using the currency of other city-states if need arose. The famous athenian owl design (depicted to the side) was created after the victory in the Persian Wars, and serves as a prime example of a 'special occasion'-coin (most often used as propaganda). On these coins, the owl of Athens--the Theia Athena's sacred bird--was depicted front-facing, with wings outstretched, holding a spray of olive leaves--the olive tree being Athena's sacred plant and also a symbol of peace and prosperity--to show Athens' dominance but also its peace-loving nature. Only about thirty of these coins have been found, and they aren't for sale in the public market. If they were, you would have to spend about a million dollars to get your hands on one of the coins.

Like the owl and the Theia Athena, many city-states fell back on telling designs for their coins, which conveyed something important about them. Silver coins from Corinth had a picture of the flying horse Pegasus; coins from Thebes show a special Theban shield, a trident and a fish, and/or a kantharos; the coins of Aegina almost always showed a turtle; etc. The map below shows some of the many images used throughout the ancient Hellenic world. If you have a special bond with any of these places, you might want to look for a coin with the design favored by the people who lived in that area, should you ever wish to undertake a quest like mine. I might actually purchase one of the turtle-coins--as the owls are a little above my pay-grade--although I also like the coins from Kebren and Terone.


Comparative coins image credit: classicalcoins.com.
Table credit: greekcoinvalues.com
Owl coin image credit: counterfeitcoins.reidgold.com

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