BMCR 2022.02.16

When money talks: a history of coins and numismatics

, When money talks: a history of coins and numismatics. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 272. ISBN 9780197517659. £25.99.

At age eight I collected cents and dimes and pushed them into blue folders, gifts from my dad, a scholar-collector who was also a physician. At age seventy-six, I study, teach, or write about coins every day, although my academic training was in other fields. Am I a coin geek or a coin guru? In When Money Talks: A History of Coins and Numismatics, historian Holt says I am a numismatist—one who studies “coins…perhaps the most successful information technology ever devised.” Coin collectors have included “kings, princes, popes, and emperors” (p. xi).

Holt warns that numismatics, a heralded discipline from at least the Renaissance to the twenty-first century, is becoming academically orphaned, rarely taught at universities, and sometimes shunned because many practitioners are collector-scholars who have “never enjoyed much notice in modern culture” and are thought of as the “stay-at-home, stuck-in-the-mud collector[s]…” (p. 15). Alas, Hollywood has not yet provided a swashbuckling numismatist whose adventures spawn followers among youngsters.

Holt sees money as history. “Thumbing through a wallet of bills is like paging through a textbook; sorting coins seems like scrolling through tiny disks of information technology crammed with words and images. In America today, Johnny cannot pay cash for so much as a soda without connecting his present to a long and eventful past filled with important people, patriotic slogans, a profession of faith, historic events, symbols of power, and even the ‘dead’ language of ancient Rome” (p. 1).

When a perfect author connects with his perfect subject, a book like When Money Talks is born. I found something I wanted to learn (or be reminded of) on almost every page. Holt is a specialist who has written a needed book for generalists. Using popular and academic themes, he explains numismatics in a broader context than it is usually understood. Holt shows us where our money has been and reminds that we can hardly predict what it might become—e.g. bitcoin—yet he argues that “coined money in its original form of stamped metals is likely to endure this challenge” (p. 3). When Money Talks should be required reading for economists, historians, archaeologists, classicists, sociologists, and contemporary scholars, each of whose fields, among others, can benefit from better understanding money and its use.

Holt offers three “truths” about his topic:
1. Money is not simply an object of daily use, but relates to our “cultural, political, artistic, religious, social, and military lives…” (p. 16).
2. “…numismatics has revealed massive amounts of information about world civilizations that could not be obtained by any other means” (p. 17).
3. Coins have often been overlooked, and once we are able to “move beyond neglecting coins, or even collecting coins”, we may find “unexpected avenues for future research” (p. 17).

Chapter two looks at the world “From the Coin’s Point of View.” While man makes coins for his own use, there is “another side to the coin” (p. 19). In Holt’s view, that is the vantage of the coin: it “seems to have a mind of its own.” Holt cites literature that treats coins as living beings; money talks, after all. Money takes key roles in myth and tradition, and there are even nursery rhymes about coins (“Pop Goes the Weasel!”). What is the real story behind the coin tossed to start each football game? Does your money have a conscience? Does your money “work” for you? And because of its familiarity and near ubiquity “money” has accumulated a surprising number of oddly specific colloquial names: “We call it bread, cabbage, clams, bacon, biscuits, cheddar, gravy, and dough, but almost none of it could be mistaken for food” (p. 11).

Holt exposes us as hoarders, calling out our “nuisance jar” of pennies and other small change that gets too troublesome to carry around. If you are an average American, he says, your house contains around $68 in change. But beyond the full jars and heavy pockets they cause, pennies are a real nuisance: one U.S. cent is virtually worthless, yet we pay nearly two cents each to keep manufacturing them, to the tune of more than $700 million per year. In chapters seven and eight Holt discusses the discovery, recording, and understanding of coin hoards over the centuries, from ancient Greece to pirate treasure, and even the thirty million ounces of silver and thirteen tons of gold recovered from vaults beneath the World Trade Center after 9/11.

Each coin is a “memeplex” carrying multiple “memes” to help guarantee that each one survives. Roundness is one of a coin’s “memes”, he explains, which is rooted neither in ease of production nor technical need (coins were round long before vending machines required it). Being round, Holt notes, allows some coins to escape by rolling away when they fall to the ground. Only a few coins need to achieve freedom to insure the transmission of historical knowledge.

In Holt’s view, coins “rely” on humans not only to lose them (American’s lose or throw away around $60 million in coins each year) or keep them, but also to bury some of them. Coins can help narrate human history, and they can be found in museums or collections or at one of the many coin shows held throughout the world, where “old recovered coins have gathered to celebrate; they are the envy of all the workaday currency arriving at the party in pockets rather than fancy containers…” (p. 27), Holt writes.

This attitude is only partly tongue-in-cheek and helps readers understand the complexities behind what seems to be a simple concept. As societies progress they need more  money, which for most of history has been coins. A section on “How Coins Repopulate” (p. 28) even discusses each coin’s parents and relatives. Those seemingly obscure relationships between the dies (parents) and their pairings (couplings) used to create coins have helped establish key historical chronologies.

The “memes” of coins, of course, need not only be replicated by the same dies or even the original coins. Even forgeries help further the “memes,” and some modern coins carry the “memes” of ancient coins. A modern coin “inherits its memetic blueprint through reproductive imitation on modern dies” (p. 31)

Chapter three explores how things were bought and sold before the invention of coinage as well as the heralded first coins, invented in ancient Lydia and copied by the Greeks and Persians. Unlike land or cattle, metal coins were portable, durable, and had a fixed and agreed upon value, at least in the area in which they were issued. Western coins were mostly round, but some were shaped like dolphins, and early Chinese coins resembled knives and plows. Even after the invention of coins, money has also been cowrie shells, wampum, cacao, cigarettes, or even giant stone monoliths in the Yap islands that may never be moved, yet became a method of storing and transferring wealth. The first manufactured coins did not carry a date or denomination. Their value was generally agreed upon–nomos. Herodus was the earliest known writer to use nomismata to mean coins (the money of the time) and thus the study of coins has been dubbed numismatics.

Holt defines numismatics and its potential influence broadly. Many individuals who bought, sold, or studied coins were historians at heart. Seventeenth century numismatist John Evelyn “claimed that coins surpassed all other creations and memorials of ancient times” (p. 55). Evelyn opined that the Egyptian pyramids themselves lacked soul when compared to coins. And 200 years later Oxford scholar Charles Medd wrote that “antiquity could not leave to posterity any memorial of such widely instructive importance as its varied coinage” (p. 55).

At times in the past, coins or money have often been used as  metaphors for morality. On the other hand, coined money is often viewed with a suspicious eye. In Antigone by Sophocles (fifth century BC), the character Kreon says (v. 295-299), “Coinage! Nothing worse for people has ever come into our lives, wrecking nations, emptying households, teaching shameful morals, encouraging crime, and leading to sacrilege!” (p. 57).

Holt’s view of numismatists is broad. He describes Suetonius as a numismatist because he portrays Vespasian as handling a specific coin——one derived from the income of his tax on public toilets—and asking Titus if it smells bad, an exchange that has given rise to the famous adage pecunia non olet. (p. 63). Holt’s sometimes playful narrative offers us a cornucopia of references to coinage, modern and ancient. He calls Jesus the “numismatist from Nazareth” (p. 66) since he used examples of current coinage dozens of times in his stories and parables. One of the most famous involved the poor widow who donated her entire fortune of two lepta—the well-known “widow’s mites”—to charity.

Holt retells the tale of the thirty pieces of silver, not only how they were paid to Judas for betraying Jesus, but where they came from and where they went. Holt even tells us of one fourteenth-century person who “believed that he or she owned one of the thirty pieces of silver and wore it as a pendant. It is, however, the wrong kind of coin for the role, as are all the forty other alleged survivors of the original thirty pieces of silver [italics added]” (p. 69).

Over the years coin “memes” changed from the Greek to the Roman pantheons, from Alexander the Great and his successors to Roman and Byzantine emperors. Jesus began to appear on coins only at the end of the sixth century on Byzantine coins. Coins of the Middle Ages were not produced very well, but they still carried “memes”. Fourteenth-century numismatist Nicholas Oresme was commissioned by King Charles V of France to address the composition of coins, why they were invented, and whether the people or the princes owned them. Oresme sided with the people. He also articulated the theory (later called Gresham’s law after Sir Thomas Gresham) that adulterated (bad) coinage will drive pure (good) coinage out of circulation. This law was recently illustrated when the U.S. ceased minting coins from silver in 1964 and the older silver coins were  already in being removed from circulation, not by any government but by consumers who wanted to profit from the increased value of silver.

Some readers will say that Holt’s tour de force is his anecdotal history of coins and money. However, this reader sees his most valuable contribution to be his discussion of the evolution of “Renaissance antiquarianism” (which was generally recognized as a symbol of connoisseurs and culture) to the coin collector/dealer of today, who has been portrayed by some as a pillager of cultural heritage. Holt says, “Coins have no conscience…” (p. 141). True, but are coins owned by  themselves, or by the people who use them? Should coins belong to museums, collectors, or perhaps the governments of nations that never even existed at the time the coins were minted? Or all of the above? Holt asks critical questions about collecting and studying coins. He discusses the key role that collector-scholars have played, and asks whether their rights are being threatened by some governments and the views of many archaeologists. Should scholars associate with collectors or dealers of coins?

I cannot say that Holt answers these possibly unanswerable questions. In chapter nine, he creates an illuminating dialogue between a coin-collector scholar, who happens to be a retired academic marine biologist, and a group of classics students. Is the collector-scholar a looter or an academic hero? Both sides explore their arguments and each one is countered. Again, no answers, but Holt notes that “Minds may not have been changed in the dialogue, but some may have been opened. That is an important first step.”

What is the future of the coin? It is likely to be as strange to us today as the concept of crypto-currency was just a few years ago. It may involve the trillion-dollar platinum coin that Congress has debated producing at the U.S. mint to  raise the US. debt ceiling. “[Numismatics] may become the unifying language of everyone on Earth…” (p. 182).

Holt advocates for a multi-disciplinary field called cognitive numismatics. “Without abandoning all that coins can teach us as a state-sponsored media, cognitive numismatics…seeks also in coins the lower strata of society [merchants and other just plain people, per Holt] as the next step in advancing our knowledge deeper into history’s darkest chasms” (p. 141). Holt believes that subtleties of history, economics, and other fields can gain a lot from the study of material artifacts such as the coins they used. He also reminds us that our own civilization will someday be judged partly on the coins that we used.[1]


[1] A comment on production: This reviewer has seen or heard about six copies of this book with faulty bindings in which the first 20 or more pages begin to fall out after only opening the book one or two times. This reviewer’s email to Oxford University Press’s customer services department was unanswered after more than one month.