[OPE] The origin of money

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@telfort.nl>
Date: Sat Jun 27 2009 - 14:06:53 EDT

Georges Le Rider, La naissance de la monnaie: Pratiques monétaires de
l'Orient ancien. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2001. Pp.
xviii, 286. ISBN 2-13-051467-7. EUR 32.00.

Reviewed by David M. Schaps, Bar-Ilan University (dschaps@mail.biu.ac.il)

(...) 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.

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