BMCR 2003.12.13

La naissance de la monnaie: Pratiques monétaires de l’Orient ancien

, La naissance de la monnaie : pratiques monétaires de l'Orient ancien. Histoires,. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2001. xiv, 286 p. : illustrations, cartes.. ISBN 2130514677 EUR 32.00.

At some point in the career of a person dealing with ancient economics the realization begins to sink in that people have not always used coins, or even money, and that their lives must have been considerably different before they started to do so. Aristotle offered a reconstruction of the process that seems plausible at first glance,1 and his explanation continues to satisfy the limited curiosity that most economists bring to questions about antiquity. In this as in other areas, however, Aristotle’s theorizing will not stand up to closer analysis, and scholars have been at work for more than a century trying to establish just when, where, how, and why people began to use items that we would recognize as money.

The question wears a different aspect depending upon the professional training of the person asking it. To an anthropologist, the question is why and how people came to accept particular items — variable from society to society but clearly defined in any given society — as a substitute for more useful things, and to accept the accumulation of these items as a reasonable goal.2 An archaeologist will be interested in how money came to assume the form of metal disks, and what sorts of items might have preceded it.3 To an economist, the question is how people organized the production and distribution of the necessities of life before the use of money or coinage, and how the innovation changed that.4 A historian asks when exactly the change occurred, what developments may have brought it about and what other developments flowed from it.5 A student of literature will ask how the introduction of coinage reflected and was reflected in the thought of the period.6 A numismatist, finally, will examine the coins themselves for information about their source, date, purpose, and whatever else they may have to tell us; his story will tend to emphasize the motives and intentions of the issuing authority.7 The practitioners of one discipline may occasionally disdain or simply be unaware of the work done in other fields, but taken broadly each of these approaches has a contribution to make.

Georges Le Rider (hereafter LR) is a numismatist of the first rank, and his work would undoubtedly have been most welcome to me had it not appeared when I had just finished a book whose title begins with the words The Invention of Coinage. In fact, his book overlaps with mine only in its first two chapters, and I hope that he will read my book with as much profit as I have read his. His book is that of a numismatist, mine that of a historian; his story takes place chiefly in the Persian empire, mine chiefly in Greece. I offer this review in the hope of bringing his work to the attention of English-speaking readers.

LR writes clearly and engagingly, explaining to the uninitiated the basic concepts of numismatics (see, for example, the description on 17-19 of how coins are struck, with two diagrams to make clear both the process and the terminology) while not glossing over detailed evidence on individual matters, even when it is inconclusive (as 208-213, on the coinage of Cilician dynasts under the Persian empire). Generous use of a smaller typeface alerts the reader to those sections that go into more detail than the non-numismatist may wish to see. There is hardly an outstanding question on the matter that he does not discuss, and his opinions are fair and judicious.

The starting point is the well-known fact that the ancient Near East had been using various currencies and value standards for some two and a half millennia before the first coins were minted, and nevertheless the new invention ousted the more traditional currencies within a relatively short time. “It appears that the new coinage, besides the traditional function of a measure of values, received an additional role, which I will attempt to determine” (XIV).

Since the book is not a whodunit, I feel free to reveal at the outset that he believes that the chief advantages that the King of Persia, his subordinate dynasts, and for that matter the cities of Greece obtained from coinage were two. The first advantage was a markup on the value of the metal whereby the coined metal circulated at more than its bullion value, with the state pocketing the difference (this markup exists to this day even where precious metal is still used for coins, and is called in the trade seigniorage; archaeological evidence, however, suggests that at least in Athens the earliest coins may have circulated at less than their bullion value). The second advantage was advertisement of the power or independence of the issuing authority, whether a local lord or a Greek city-state. Neither of these hypotheses is new: the first was proposed decades ago by Sture Bolin, while the second has been the communis opinio, though it has undergone a spirited attack by Thomas Martin.8 But LR has a good deal to add to the picture. In particular, he brings considerable circumstantial evidence for believing that the coinage policies of Asia were from the very beginning a good deal more sophisticated than has hitherto been believed.

His first observation is that the money of the Near East had been anonymous; no identifiable authority issued or validated the ingots, rings, coils, and grains that served buyer, seller, and hoarder. The state was not involved and could make no profit from the mere use of money, but in Egypt and Babylon it did not have to; it derived its wealth from controlling the produce of vast and fertile lands.

Coins from the very beginning bore an image on the obverse that seem to have identified the authority issuing them or at least guaranteeing their value; the reverse was marked with one or more “incuse squares”. These latter marks have generally been taken to be mere artifacts of the hammer-blow with which the coin was made, but LR, following the work of Liselotte Weidauer, demonstrates that the number of such squares on the coin identifies the weight standard with which it accords (44-5). This observation, if correct, must henceforward be taken into account in any hypothesis, whether or not we follow LR in taking this to indicate “a sort of monetary understanding … among the states using the ‘lydo-milesian’ weight standard” (96). On the common but unprovable presumption that the later golden coins that numismatists call “gold Croesids” were equivalent in value to the earlier electrum stater, he argues that the first electrum coins, whose gold content was artificially fixed considerably lower than that of “natural” electrum panned from the Pactolus, circulated at a considerable markup. The relatively small number of coins minted indicates that they cannot have served for all the transactions within the society; but where they did, they will have given the state a significant profit. The kings of Lydia and their Greek neighbors, who could not grow rich from the produce of the land as did their Near Eastern counterparts, had found a way to turn monetary transactions to their profit.9

LR inclines to believe that the kings of Persia took an interest in coinage from the very beginning. It has often been proposed that the silver and gold coins that numismatists call “Croesids” — the first bimetallic currency — were minted not only under Croesus, but under the early Persian monarchs as well. LR goes further, arguing that the first Croesids were minted not under Croesus, but under Cyrus, to whom the electrum currency that had at first served the Lydians was unfamiliar and inconvenient.

LR has some doubt about this hypothesis, which is (as he admits) apparently contradicted by Herodotus 1.54 and 1.94, and by the Parthenon accounts (IG I(3) 458, line 29) that speak of kroiseioi stateres in a context that suggests gold rather than electrum. But if Cyrus’ claim to be a monetary reformer may be doubted, that of Darius cannot; the darics and sigloi that he introduced remained the coins of the Achaemenids until their final downfall. By a number of impressive calculations, LR gives a good basis for believing that the Persian bimetallic system maintained, from the later Croesids onward, a fixed gold/silver rate of 13.33/1 (with, perhaps, a short period of 13/1 under Darius himself), maintained even as the value of gold in the Attic currency sphere was constantly falling. Again, the calculations are based upon assumptions, by no means self-evident,10 for which no written evidence can be brought; but the elegance of LR’s system lends considerable weight to his assertion that the kings of Persia produced a system “whose originality has too long been underestimated” (164).

The Great King’s coins were not the usual trade medium throughout his empire; the general view has been that the sigloi were a local currency of Asia Minor, while the darics circulated throughout the empire and beyond. LR paints a more precise picture. East of the Euphrates, coined money was not generally used at all; in the west (he discusses the boundary on p. 170), the siglos did indeed dominate on royal territory, and in fact in many hoards it is the only coin. Certain subject states and cities, however, produced and used their own coins as part of the maintenance of local customs and autonomy generally granted throughout the Persian empire. The so-called “satrapal” issues are a special case of these coinages, issued by satraps whose tasks were performed outside of the strictly royal domain. Darics were a limited-use currency, for such matters as paying mercenaries and royal gifts, but they were exported to Greece either in the course of trade or because they commanded a better price there. They became the dominant gold coin in Greece from the late fifth century until the introduction of the philippeioi under Philip II of Macedon.

The broad picture that LR paints, according to which the introduction of coinage is chiefly a matter of appropriation by the state of a resource that had earlier been “anonymous,” requires almost a priori the thesis that coinage was introduced for the advantage of the state itself. This hypothesis obviously fits the Lydian or Persian monarchy better than it does the Greek poleis, where it is not always clear that we can even speak of “the state” as a body distinct from the population itself; but LR finds evidence that in Greece, too — he takes Athens and Sestos as test cases — the same advantages applied. Whether they were the determining factors for the adoption of coinage in the cities of Greece must await further research.

LR’s command of the numismatic evidence is impressive, but much more so is the care with which he has thought about the implications of the various characteristics of each coin, of what can and what cannot be learned from them. Obviously the historical context that the numismatic evidence illuminates can and must be worked out in much more detail than can be done on the basis of the coins themselves. For a different geographical area, I have tried to do that in my forthcoming book. I wish I had had LR’s work in front of me then, and I am glad I have it now.


1. Arist. Pol. I 9.7-8 (1257a 31-41), Eth. Nic. V 5.8-10 (1133a 8-24). The two accounts differ substantially, and the attempt to reconcile the contradictions or to adjudicate between them has continued, in a desultory fashion, over the centuries. See, inter alia, Arthur Eli Monroe, Monetary Theory before Adam Smith (Cambridge, MA, 1923, repr. New York, 1966); Odd Langholm, Price and Value in the Aristotelian Tradition (Bergen, 1979); Scott Meikle, Aristotle’s Economic Thought (Oxford, 1995).

2. This question was pioneered by Sir William Ridgeway, The Origin of Metallic Currency and Weight Standards (Cambridge, 1892), but it was Bernhard Laum, Heiliges Geld (Tübingen, 1924), who broke loose from the Aristotelian tradition with a thesis as bold and fruitful as it was wrongheaded. Wilhelm Gerloff, Die Enstehung des Geldes und die Anfänge des Geldwesens (Third ed., Frankfurt am Main, 1947) put matters on a much more reasonable track, and the cross-cultural survey of Frederic L. Pryor, The Origins of the Economy (New York, 1977) gave a more solid statistical basis from which to judge much of the theorizing. The most essential result of this research was to clarify the distinction between money, a social institution that tends to appear in all societies that have reached a certain level of complexity, and coinage, a specific form of money that appeared in the eastern Mediterranean around the beginning of the sixth century BCE, and in India and China around the same time or somewhat thereafter.

3. The chief proponents of this approach in America have been Miriam S. Balmuth and more recently Marvin A. Powell, who have elaborated the Near Eastern background to coinage; for recent developments see Miriam S. Balmuth, ed., Hacksilber to Coinage: New Insights into the Monetary History of the Near East and Greece ( Numismatic Studies 24) (New York, 2001).

4. The empirical approach to this was taken most thoroughly by Paul Einzig, Primitive Money (Second ed., Oxford, 1966); the theoretical classifications of Karl Marx in Capital, and a century later of Karl Polanyi in Primitive, Archaic, and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi, ed. George Dalton (New York, 1968) and elsewhere remain provocative far beyond the question we are posing here.

5. David M. Schaps, The Invention of Coinage and the Monetization of Ancient Greece (Ann Arbor, forthcoming).

6. Leslie Kurke, The Traffic in Praise (Ithaca, 1991), and Coins, Bodies, Games, and Gold (Princeton, 1999); Sitta von Reden, Exchange in Ancient Greece (London, 1995); Richard Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind (Cambridge, 2003).

7. Many numismatists, not surprisingly, have written on the subject; the most influential, before the appearance of the book here reviewed, were Bolin (see next note); Colin M. Kraay, “Hoards, Small Change and the Origin of Coinage,” JHS 84 (1964), 76-91 and Archaic and Classical Greek Coins (London, 1976); and Liselotte Weidauer, Probleme der frühen Elektronprägung (Fribourg, 1975).

8. Sture Bolin, State and Currency in the Roman Empire to 300 A.D. (Stockholm, 1958), cf. Robert W. Wallace, “The Origin of Electrum Coinage,” American Journal of Archaeology 91 (1987), 385-97; Thomas R. Martin, Sovereignty and Coinage in Classical Greece (Princeton, 1985). Bolin’s observations were contained in a lengthy introduction to a book whose real focus was upon the Roman empire; Martin’s book dealt with Hellenistic Greece.

9. So O. Picard, “Les origines du monnayage en Grèce”, L’Histoire 6 (November, 1978), 16-7.

10. See Robert W. Wallace, “Remarks on the Value and Standards of Early Electrum Coins,” in “From Hacksilber to Coinage” (above, n. 3), 127-34, and John H. Kroll’s review of LR in Schweizerische Numismatische Rundschau 80 (2001), 199-206.