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Money and its Uses in the Ancient Greek World

This chapter discusses the significance of money in ancient Greece. It argues that economies managed by using reciprocity and redistribution, special-purpose money, credit, and most importantly, economies managed because of the way they were embedded in the social system in ancient Greece.

However these were not the dominant factors organizing the economy. Inflation and deflation, the integration of markets, the creation of money through credit, and the influence of business-produced wealth on the state also could be seen in Greece, but they were on a scale much more modest than that known to us. For over a hundred years, the most thoughtful writers about Greek money have tried to free themselves from modern preconceptions.

As long ago as , Sir William Ridgeway proposed the theory that the Greek system of measures was based on the amount of gold that was equivalent in value to a cow. There comes a time, however, when people who have been looking for something must admit that their failure to find it is not just a lack of results, but a negative result: they are not finding what they are looking for because it is not there. When we realize that, we will generally discover that our search, though unsuccessful, has not been wasted.

Geometers who tried valiantly to discover a proof for Euclid's parallel postulate eventually realized that there was no such proof; but on the way they had discovered non-Euclidean geometry. They have not rejected Darwinian evolution, but the thousands of fossils they discovered in their quest have provided the basis for new theories of how evolution can be thought to have worked. It behoves us, too, to clear off the table a bit, to see what has been found and what has not been found, and to try to move forward with the results of our century-long investigation.

One distinction that has been developed over this time, and that I believe must now be taken into account in any discussion, is the p. Among primitive peoples, there is not necessarily any single item that fulfils all the functions that we identify as being monetary. The most accessible example, for a classicist, is the economy glimpsed in the background of the Iliad and the Odyssey. There prices are quoted in terms of oxen, as we quote prices in terms of dollars; but trade is simple barter, mediated neither by oxen nor by anything else.

For storing value bronze tripods are the most popular item, though when one wants to state the value of a tripod one evaluates how many oxen it is worth. For paying damages there is no single medium, but the guilty party must estimate what sorts of gifts will appease the victim, or will at least be considered by others to have been an appropriate offer.

The distinction between these two sorts of monetary system is chiefly a matter of how the society imagines itself. In actual fact we, too, use coins for small transactions, paper money for larger transactions, cheques and credit cards for still larger ones; the American government, as far as I know, still stores at least some of its treasure in the form of bullion at Fort Knox, but most of us store it in banks where no physical entity corresponds to the wealth we think we have there.

In spite of these differences in which form of money we use, in all matters we think of ourselves as storing, giving, and receiving pounds and pence, dollars and cents, and in that sense we are using modern money. For the period when the Greeks used special-purpose money, the list of monetary items is restricted. For the storage of wealth the Homeric heroes used utensils, chiefly bronze tripods; on Crete and elsewhere in the archaic period we also find cauldrons and iron p. Archaeology has produced nothing to suggest that sickles, 13 arrowheads, 14 knives, 15 or beads 16 —all items that had monetary uses in other societies—were ever used as money by Greeks.

Even where utensils were used, their monetary function was secondary: the Greeks did not develop, as other societies did, simplified utensils that were produced specifically for monetary use. Nobody doubts, nor do I think that it can be doubted, that Athenian society at least passed from the use of special-purpose money to the use of all-purpose money somewhere between the Dark Ages and the classical age. Certainly by the age of the orators, and almost certainly by the age of the tragedians, Athenians thought of all wealth as being a matter of minae , drachmae , and obols, and regularly expressed themselves that way.

Recent books by Richard Seaford and myself have attempted to trace that development, my own book dealing with the economic effects and Seaford's with the philosophical. In my book I held that the transition to all-purpose money came about with the adoption of coinage; Kroll has argued that the transition began earlier, and was based upon the use of bullion. Another uncontroversial matter is that from the classical period onward, the chief way that goods circulated throughout the society p.

Gabriel Danzig and I have tried to show that as early as Plato's Laws the Greeks could not even conceive of any other way of distributing goods, as much as some of them might disapprove of the market as an institution. The other section gives an inventory of the temple, listing large numbers of items, mostly silver, whose weight is always recorded; it is obvious that these are considered the god's assets, but not his money.

The Persian king's practice of cutting off an appropriate amount of bullion for expenses is recorded by Herodotus as a curiosity; 29 it was not a form of payment that was common in Greece. Finley's statement, however, can be taken much more dogmatically than it should.

Payment in bullion, and even bribery in bullion, undoubtedly took place even in the classical and Hellenistic periods, though it did so on the fringes of an economy that was generally transacted in coin. People or polities might get what they wanted by offering honour, love, or any of the other non-monetary currencies on which scholars and lawyers generally put a price tag. None of these practices was so widespread as to invalidate Finley's claim, though they do indicate something of its limitations.

Much more damaging, because it applies to regular transactions in the centre of the economy, is the banking activity that had been documented well before Finley's time and that has not disappeared from the evidence, despite Finley's dismissive attitude towards it. Cohen has shown before and discusses again in the present volume, was from the point of view of an economist or a financier nothing less than the creation of money 34 —money that can only be considered coin if one is willing to grant that a single coin may be in many people's hands, performing many different functions, at one and the same time.

But here, too, we have to be aware of the limitations of the phenomenon being described. To this extent I suspect that Finley is still right, that the concept of money as coin held such sway over the ancients that it put a real limit on the sophistication of their credit instruments.

We ourselves think of the payment as having been made the moment we write the cheque; p. We certainly do not consider that our debt is paid only when the payee presents the cheque at the bank. To us, transferring the cheque transfers the money; to the Greeks, writing the order to the bank only directed that the transfer be made.

When people thought that way, they were not likely to think of telling the bank to pay whoever might happen to show up there carrying this slip of papyrus. In so far as the ancients thought as Finley claimed they did, that money was really coin, they were limited in the sophistication of their credit arrangements. But the absence of sophisticated credit instruments put a real limit on the creation of money by credit—a limit much broader, indeed, than an uncritical acceptance of Finley's claim would have led us to believe, but still much more restricted than what we take for granted today.

The fact that credit was much less sophisticated also meant that its most professional practitioners, the banks, never dominated the Greek financial world as banks and brokers dominate the modern.

Businessmen rarely, and states apparently never, borrowed from banks. That bankers and businessmen did not dominate Greek public policy, as Cornford imagined they had, 42 was due not only to Greek class prejudice, but also to the much more limited resources Greek bankers and businessmen could command. Throughout the history of coinage two contradictory concepts have competed with each other.

According to one concept, a coin is a piece of precious metal whose value is essentially equivalent to the value of the bullion from which it was made, and the stamp on its face is merely a guarantee that it has or had when minted a particular weight and purity.

According to another, a coin is a token whose value depends entirely on people's willingness to accept it in exchange for other items. Its weight and fineness are of no intrinsic interest, except for the fact that if a coin is too valuable people will be tempted to melt it down for bullion. The ancient Greeks were not unaware of the possibility of issuing coins that had only a token value. They did so in times of emergency—most famously, the Athenians after the Sicilian catastrophe—and the Ptolemies did so as a regular practice, though they also minted gold and silver coinage for foreign trade.

The things we have learned from the anthropologists—economies managed by reciprocity and redistribution, special-purpose money, credit independent of the profit motive and even of money, and most importantly, the embedding of the economy in the social system—existed in ancient Greece, but they were not the dominant factors organizing the economy.

The things we have learned from the economists—inflation and deflation, the integration of markets, the creation of money through credit, and even, Finley to the contrary, the influence of business-produced wealth on the state—also existed in Greece, but they were on a scale much more modest than that known to us, and there is a point at which quantitative differences become qualitative differences: phenomena that were restricted, rare, or difficult become secondary factors where in other circumstances they might be dominant.

Sometimes, as I am walking in the street, I see on the ground something that looks like money. On closer examination it may turn out to be an advertisement, or a button, or a wad of chewing gum. I have now been spending more than two decades—more of my life than I ever intended to devote to such a topic—studying the money of the ancient Greeks.

I would have liked to believe that my insights, along with those of others in the field, had revealed an utterly new truth of which earlier scholars had been unaware, and I am disappointed that this is not the case, but I do not think anything is to be gained by pretending otherwise. I do think that we have learned a lot more about the details of what money and coinage meant to the Greeks and Romans and how they worked. But in the end, no matter how carefully I look at the money of ancient Greece and Rome, I do not see a cowrie shell, nor a token of an embedded transaction, nor a transient marker in a vast system of credits and debits.

I think I know much better than I used to what a coin is, but after more than twenty years of looking at Greek money, I still see a coin. Rostovtzeff, review.

Marcone Bari, , — Einzig, Primitive Money , 2nd edn. Oxford, , 29— Kaplan Bellingham, Wash. Thierry, Monnaies chinoises i. Kroll, above, Ch. Two talents of gold were offered as a prize on Achilles' shield Hom.

The major remaining difference between Kroll and myself is the question of whether weighed silver was ever a significant medium of domestic trade in Athens. The question is not relevant to my claim that the modern concept of money first arises with Greek coinage; the peoples of the Near East certainly used bullion or, more generally, Hacksilber in all the ways that we use money, but there was still a difference between the way they thought of silver and the way classical Greeks thought of coin: see Schaps, Invention [n.

The same could conceivably have been true of the Greeks, but I do not see that either archaeology or history has yet demonstrated it. Nor does the question bear upon my claim that it was the structural inadequacy of the Greek economy that made coinage so attractive to the Greeks: however developed early archaic Greek commerce may have been—and it is becoming increasingly clear that it was much more developed than had once been thought see e.

Nevertheless, it is true that their taxes and feudal dues were determined by the size of their herds H. Morgan, The Mongols Oxford, , To this day Mongolia, the only country in the world whose horses outnumber its people, has almost six sheep per person: C. Balmuth ed. Berkeley, Temin, below, Ch. This brings a new level of statistical sophistication to the statement of F.

Danzig and D. Lisi ed. This was especially the practice of Persian diplomacy: L. Mitchell, Greeks Bearing Gifts Cambridge, , — Andreau, Banking and Business in the Roman World , trans. Lloyd Cambridge, , — The Roman state, unlike modern states, did not resort to credit as a usual means of finance: R.

Greek poleis often did, though not as a matter of routine: L. Internationalen Papyrologenkongresses: Berlin, 13— Bagnall and R. Bogaert, Trapezitica Aegyptiaca Florence, , 20—4, — There is no evidence for any ancient bank performing at this level of abstraction, treating loans as a commodity that could be bundled and sold, and it is hard to imagine one doing so.

Cornford, Thucydides Mythistoricus London, , 15— Badian, Publicans and Sinners Oxford, , 67—, cf. Andreau, Banking [n. Frogs —37; O.

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Oxford: Oxford University Press, Reviewed for EH. NET by David M. In Moses Finley gave a series of Sather lectures that were published the following year under the title The Ancient Economy. It was a book quite unlike previous descriptions of its subject.

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Handbook of the History of Money and Currency pp Cite as. Coined money was first invented in the Greco-Roman world. The monetization of Greek and Roman societies was a complex, dynamic, and often experimental process in which the economics of money were inescapably connected with cultural, political, and social developments. How did money contribute to the spread of market exchange and the development of sprawling territorial empires? Certainly, the rise of Greek democracy coincides with the adoption of coinage.

This chapter discusses the significance of money in ancient Greece. It argues that economies managed by using reciprocity and redistribution, special-purpose money, credit, and most importantly, economies managed because of the way they were embedded in the social system in ancient Greece. However these were not the dominant factors organizing the economy. Inflation and deflation, the integration of markets, the creation of money through credit, and the influence of business-produced wealth on the state also could be seen in Greece, but they were on a scale much more modest than that known to us.

The Role of Money in the Economies of Ancient Greece and Rome

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Money and its Uses in the Ancient Greek World PDF. Download PDF. The papers in this volume reassess the role of coined money in the ancient Greek world.

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