BMCR 2002.07.24

Money and its Uses in the Ancient Greek World

, , Money and its uses in the ancient Greek world. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xx, 167, [19] pages : illustrations ; 29 cm. ISBN 0199240124. $85.00.

Most of the nine papers in this elegantly-produced, large-format volume were originally delivered at two conferences held in Oxford in 1995 and 1997. The aim then and for this collection was to bring historians, especially of the ancient Greek economy, and numismatists together to explore, the Preface states, “new approaches to an important area of Greek economic history — the use of coined money — and suggest new lines of enquiry.” On the whole this collaborative enterprise has proved to be remarkably successful: the papers cover an interesting mix of social, political, and economic aspects of money and coinage and demonstrate the richness of first-rate numismatic and epigraphical scholarship when directed to large historical ends.

The collection begins with Henry Kim’s “Archaic Coinage as Evidence for the Use of Money,” a review of the current state of scholarship on the adoption and early spread of silver coinage. The invention of coinage is not at issue since this was a development specifically connected with electrum money. But for the silver coinage that succeeded electrum, Kim has pages of important, frequently new observations to offer. Several of these point to the conclusion that silver coinage was preceded in the Greek world by a money of weighed silver bullion, with the result that “the use of silver and money was already quite advanced by the time that coinage was invented.” Another of Kim’s observations is that there is now fairly strong evidence (including an intriguing 6th-century silver hoard from Western Asia Minor, which he summarizes and illustrates with a few photos) that small-denomination fractional coins were a common feature of many silver coinages from their beginning around the middle of the 6th century. Apparently, by this time monetization had advanced far enough in many Greek communities that small, sometimes tiny, fractional coins for routine daily transactions were required at least as much as the larger, showy denominations with which most of us are familiar. Kim writes, “[w]hen we think of the monetization of the Greek world and the development of moneyed economies, coinage should not be seen as the starting point so much as a milestone along a much longer road in the use of money. . . far from being a radically new invention, coinage should be viewed as a simple convenience . . . as a formalization of the use of silver bullion.”

Because of their revisionist character and the fact that they greatly strengthen the economic explanation for the phenomenon of coinage, Kim presents these views cautiously, perhaps excessively so given the coherence and strength of the evidence. Nevertheless, over the past decade empirical and economic approaches to money had been falling out of favor under the influence of cultural historians’ speculations about coinage from political and social-anthropological perspectives. Although not uncritical, Kim expresses considerable enthusiasm for their work, writing that “[i]t should be conceded that economic explanations cannot explain fully why coinage was invented and why so many cities adopted it.” In fact, there are easy economic explanations for both of those questions,1 and one has to wonder why Kim equivocates when he is doing as much as anyone to revive understanding of early coinage in terms of monetary efficiency.

In contrast, the second paper, “Coinage and Democracy at Athens” by Jeremy Trevett, provides a textbook case of what can go wrong when a coinage is discussed without sufficient attention to its economic and monetary aspects. Paraphrasing Moses Finley, Trevett announces at the outset that “coinage is after all nothing if not a political phenomenon” and goes on to argue that the rigorous conservatism of Athenian silver coinage was caused not, as conventionally (and economically) understood, in order to maintain the ready acceptability of Athenian silver in foreign markets but as a means of (politically) advertising Athens’ constitutional stability in the 5th century and of projecting “to the wider Greek world an image of self- confidence and continuity” after democracy was restored in 403.

Although this may be the way that coins in library books might look to a student of Athenian political history, the discussion as presented reveals no awareness of the unique role that the Athenian tetradrachm played as the unrivaled international silver currency par excellence throughout the 5th- and 4th-century Eastern and Central Mediterranean. It was the most sought-after, imitated, and hoarded coinage in Egypt and the Levant; and, because its high-grade silver was the most profitable surplus commodity that Athens had to export in foreign trade (cf. Xenophon, Poroi 3.2), probably a majority of the owls were struck specifically for this export market. In view of the insatiable demand everywhere for these familiar owl tetradrachms, Trevett cannot be right that their familiar appearance was parochially maintained for symbolic, non-monetary reasons. Indeed nearly all of the arguments he advances in support of this and other points that purport to connect features of Athenian coinage with “Athens’ democratic ideologies and practices” strike me as numismatically unconvincing or irrelevant.2 At first I thought that the editors must have included this essay to expose and discredit it and the popular kind of coinage-as-political-message thinking it represents. But no: in their Introduction they recommend it; and this is worrisome since the discussion is bound to have a great appeal for unsuspecting historians of Athenian democratic ideology, who can be expected to cite it over and over again.

Fortunately, the notion of Greek coinage as political expression comes in for much more informed examination in two other papers: Graham Oliver’s “The Politics of Coinage: Athens and Antigonos Gonatas” and Andrew Meadows’ “Money, Freedom and Empire in the Hellenistic World,” both of which expand upon the argument in Tom Martin’s Sovereignty and Coinage in Classical Greece (1985). Martin questioned whether the Greeks ever regarded the minting of coinage as an expression and prerogative of a free state, since states in the 4th century often continued to coin even after they fell under the political control of another power. Oliver finds this same pattern holding true at Athens near the middle of the 3rd century, when for six years Antigonus Gonatas had deprived the city of eleutheria but not, according to Oliver, of any putative “right” to coin money. By now this is not an altogether new conclusion, but Oliver puts it on a much firmer foundation by reviewing the current scholarship on 3rd-century Athenian coinage in unusual detail and linking it to the broader question of what the loss of political freedom actually meant for cities like Athens at this time. It clearly meant military occupation and the meddling of the Macedonian king in local decision-making, but Oliver argues that it did not extend to any revision of the city’s constitution nor with a city’s ability to mint if it chose to do so.

Yet by the lst century AC, the striking of local civic coinages had become subject to the centralized oversight of the ruling power — as “permission” inscriptions on a number of city coinages of the early Roman Empire attest — and the daunting task that Andrew Meadows takes up in his chapter is to determine when and how this shift from non-interference to imperial control took place. In what can only be described as a tour de force of wide-ranging numismatic erudition, he surveys a host of coinages of Hellenistic cities that were or had been politically subject to one imperial power or another and finds that such political domination, or the removal of it, had no demonstrable impact on the decisions of any of the cities to coin as they saw fit, the decisions in all cases being economically motivated.

Change, however, did come in the Seleucid Empire in the 2nd century BC, when Antiochus IV had cities within his realm mint bronze coins according to a common format with the king’s portrait on the obverse. Other instances of centralized regal control over local coinages show up in Syria (and nearby Pontus) thereafter, including Antiochus VII’s (probably unfulfilled) permission to the Jews of Jerusalem to strike their own coins as a free state (I Maccabees 15.6). Meadows attributes this unprecedented appropriation of authority over local coinages to the impact of Rome, for the shift occurs as Roman military pressure was putting the Hellenistic kingdoms on the defensive. Antiochus IV, Meadows emphasizes, grew up in Rome and was known for emulating the Romans’ meddling ways. Yet it is doubtful that Rome at this time could have furnished anything like a model for centralized control over the production of money by subordinate communities. And since the model does appear to have emerged out of the later Seleucid monarchy, it can be plausibly understood as just one more imperial institution of Eastern Hellenistic kingship that, like ruler cult, the Romans conveniently took over and made their own.

Of the four contributions that are concerned specifically with coin use, two deal with the most potent advantage of metallic money: the fact that it can be made to multiply through investment or lending at interest. Thus in “Money and the Élite in Classical Athens” Kirsty Shipton explores “the effect of monetization on . . . ideology about the use of wealth, viz. the high status of investing in land and the disdain of the wealthy élite for cash-based activities which aimed at profit.” Employing the same kind of prosopographcial and cautious statistical analysis that she introduced in her recent Leasing and Lending: the Cash Economy in Fourth-century BC Athens (2000), she categorizes the Athenians who are known to have obtained silver-mine and land leases from the state according to their social and economic status, so far as such status can be identified, and concludes “that the wealthy élite dominate in the mine leases and that they prefer investing their money in the silver mines to investing it in public land.” Such men invested in the mines heavily and often, whereas “the leasing of public land is heavily dominated by men who are not otherwise known, and who appear to invest on single rather than multiple occasions.” Since these conclusions run counter to those that ancient agrarian ideology — and modern historians who argue from it — would lead one to expect, it is all the more important that they are grounded in unassailable empirical data, however incomplete such epigraphically-derived data may be.

“Temples, Credit, and the Circulation of Money” by John Davies is another gem. Neatly constructed around ten epigraphical texts pertaining to temple treasuries, the paper traces a progressive change in attitude towards the stewardship of cult wealth from piously preserving it untouched in the religious sphere to lending it out, as any secular entity would, to utilize its asset potential for creating still greater wealth. Davies observes that it was the adoption of coinage that made this movement towards increased economic rationality possible. But while he is surely right about the general cause and effect, the initial stage of the monetizaton of temple wealth should be equated not with coinage but, as is clear from Henry Kim’s paper earlier in the volume, with the adoption of money in precious metal long before coinage. Indeed, the list of gold and silver assets inscribed on a silver plaque from beneath the Croesus temple at Ephesus that Davies associates with the financing of the temple’s construction almost certainly consisted of weighed bullion entirely, the staters mentioned being weight staters rather than (as Davies assumed) coin staters. Looking beyond stewardship to the exploitation of sanctuary wealth, Davies observes that certain Greek states like Athens and Corinth were more comfortable about “borrowing” or simply removing sacred funds for military purposes than other, more traditionally-minded states. Since Athens and Corinth happened also to be naval powers, he speculates that “it was the horrendous costs of naval warfare in the new, trireme-based era which led the Greek powers which were most aware of them to view temple resources in a more detached and manipulative way,” thus again linking increased experience of money with radical ideological change.

Jane Rowlandson’s engaging “Money Use Among the Peasantry of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt” is likewise concerned with the impact of money on human experience, but she is interested in the farming villagers at the bottom end of the social spectrum instead of the moneyed élite of the urban investment class. In this world the collection of many taxes and private rents in kind, particularly wheat, persisted alongside other taxes, obligations, and payments that were transacted in coin. Coins in precious metals become a standard item of wealth in marriage contracts alongside jewelry and fine garments. But the larger social and cultural result is one of continuity, as this rural society “assimilated the concept and . . the actual use of money into its pre-existing culture and traditional practices, without being significantly transformed by them.” Rowlandson suggests that this is because money use in rural Egypt “does not seem to have produced any clearly differentiated category of social relationships or activities.” Contrast with the monetized activities examined by Shipton and Davies could not be greater.

In “The Coinage of Rhodes 408 – c. 190 BC,” Richard Ashton approaches the function of coinage through the familiar numismatic procedures of compiling a massive record of a mint’s output by dies, comparing the relative volume of the separate coin issues over time through the number of dies employed in their manufacture, and then matching this pattern with the historical record of the relevant state. Ashton’s achievement, which draws on nearly a lifetime of compilation and study, is a model survey of over two centuries of Rhodian (mostly large-denomination silver) coinage, whose production appears to have been very closely tied to state expenditure, rising during historically exceptional times of foreign wars, public rebuilding after earthquakes, and the like, but otherwise operating at a steady moderate level for routine civil and military expenses. Small denominations were minted only near the beginning and the end of the period, leading Ashton to comment that the coinage does not seem to address any provision for everyday domestic currency, but perhaps it did not need to if old small-denomination pieces remained in circulation for generations. The notion that Greek states minted coins primarily for discharging their public financial obligations has been around for some time, but I doubt if it has ever been supported with a greater degree of numismatic and historical detail than Ashton has marshalled here.

I have saved Sitta von Reden’s “The Politics of Monetization in Third-Century BC Egypt” for last because I found it frankly baffling. Despite a title that suggests comprehensiveness, the paper actually discusses only three very loosely connected aspects of money in early Ptolemaic Egypt: the distribution and display of coinage for the expression of royal power, a presumed shortage of coinage in the Egyptian countryside, and the relationship of Egyptian banking institutions to earlier Athenian banking. None of the discussions is successful. The one on banking is much too brief for the complex institutions and technical banking vocabulary the author brings up; and her elliptical exposition makes it difficult to follow the argument or really be certain that there is one. As documentation of cash scarcity she cites a number of accounts on papyri that pertain to debts, deferrals of payment, consolidations and discharging of obligations through paper or bookkeeping transactions, and the like, without explaining why such actions necessarily implied a shortage of available currency. Whether or not there happened to be a shortage, one can think of plenty of other reasons why an ancient Egyptian, like anyone today, might be unable to meet his contractual or tax obligations or would prefer to have payments settled on account rather than through repeated physical transfers of cash. Her disquisition concerning the display of power through coinage draws mainly on Athenaios’ description of the extravagant festival procession put on by Ptolemy II, which included a crown that was “made of ten thousand chrusoi“. Von Reden takes the phrase literally as denoting a crown “adorned with . . . a large number of gold coins” in “the ritual display of [these] most splendid coins in a dynastic festival.” But as is clear from numerous inscriptions that make mention of honorific gold or silver crowns and routinely specify the weight of the crowns in coin weight-units, the Ptolemaic stephanos in question ought rather to have been a gold crown that weighed 10,000 chrusoi. Even in the unlikely event that a myriad of coins actually did go into its manufacture, they surely would have been melted down first. Either way, her entire argument on “the particular meaning attached to coinage in this procession” is rendered invalid.

Not that this diminishes the overall importance of the volume. However much each may differ in topic, material, and methods, all of the papers take on a greater significance by appearing here together than if they had been printed alone, as the reader is continually encouraged to reflect on the multiple ways that money and coinage operated in the Greek world. As in most current scholarship on ancient economic matters, the specter of M. I. Finley hovers in the background. Finley’s (and J. M. Keynes’) notorious dismissal of “the Greek passion for coins…[as] essentially a political phenomenon…with no far reaching importance” is quoted by the editors at the top of their Introduction and is separately referred to again in several of the papers. What the present collection reveals, however, is that the passion that Finley disparaged was less the passion of the ancients than that of modern students and collectors who value Greek coins for their appearance as objects in museums and books while overlooking their fundamental, functional purpose as money, i.e., why they were made and used. The publication of this book suggests that the tide of scholarly interest is at last turning and that numismatists and historians are coming to understand coins and money in far more sophisticated ways than Finley could have ever imagined.


1. See. e.g., R.W. Wallace, “The Origin of Electrum Coinage,” AJA 91 (1987), 385-397; G Le Rider, La naissance de la monnaie (Paris 2001); and my review of the latter in Revue Suisse de Numismatique 80 (2001), 199-206.

2. In his discussion of the importance of pay to dikasts and other participants in democratic government, Trevett concludes that “[w]ithout [coined money], it is hardly an exaggeration to say that democracy could not have existed.” But were there not other, earlier means of compensating individuals? Even small daily earnings could be cumulatively recorded in “slate” accounts to be paid later in large lump sums of weighed bullion or even in kind. In the 4th century BC before Rome had coinage, Roman soldiers were paid their stipendium militare in bronze by weight (presumably aes rude that was pre-weighed and bound in individually labeled bags). As for Athenian compensation in kind, one needs only to think of the jars of olive oil received by victors in the Panathenaic games. It is true that coinage made the functioning of a salaried democracy easier, or as economists say, more efficient; but the same is true of course for all institutions, like mercenary armies, that had to meet a payroll. I find it hard to think of any institution that actually owed its existence to coinage.