What currency was used in ancient times?

Monetary History I - From the Beginnings to Classical Antiquity

No one can say exactly when the money was created, and the why is largely in the dark; all attempts at explanation are of a modern nature. The oldest sources for using money come from Mesopotamia. Payments in weighed silver are reported in cuneiform texts. Precious metals play a paramount role in monetary history. In Pharaonic Egypt, too, payments were apparently made in gold. However, there were other means of payment in the early history of money before and in addition to metals, some of which have even survived into modern times. Mussels, for example, were very popular in China, such as the cowrie shells. Many millennia before Christ, however, the Chinese also used pearls, turtle shells, bells or hoes as money. A commodity or the trousseau for the bride was paid for in heels, a method of payment that was still to be found in Africa in the 19th century. In China, pickaxes and other devices used as means of payment have been increasingly miniaturized. The Chinese hoe was, so to speak, a bonsai hoe.

In Mesopotamia, as already mentioned, weighed silver played an important role as a means of payment. Since the decimal system did not yet exist, the units of weight differ considerably from those we know. The value of what we now call money was not expressed in terms of face value, but in terms of weight. Payments were made in talents, mines and shekels, with a talent measuring 60 mines and a mine measuring 60 shekels. (The shekel is the Israeli currency today. Like the mark, it was created from a unit of weight.) If an agreement was reached in Mesopotamia, the silver had to be chopped up for weighing. In order to simplify this process, a preliminary form of the credit system was created.

The first coins made of precious metals were made around 600 BC. In Asia Minor. The Lydian king Alyattes had them made from an alloy of gold and silver. His son Croesus, famous for his proverbial wealth, follows his father's example. For the first time, however, he had pure gold and silver coins minted as a means of payment and thus filled his treasury.

At around the same time as the introduction of precious metal coins in Lydia, there were already coins in the Greek polis of Athens. The currency is called the drachma, and to this day the drachma has remained the currency of Greece. On the origin of metal money in ancient Hellas, Nack Wagner writes in "Hellas: Land and People of the Ancient Greeks" (Carl Ueberreuther Verlag Vienna and Heidelberg, 1975):

“The international economy, which developed in a single century from housekeeping to community economy, required a suitable medium of exchange. As early as the 7th century BC, the original trade in natural was replaced by BC the metal money, the knowledge of which Crete and Lydia conveyed to Greece. At first, silver bars were used, which were often stamped by the state to protect against metal deterioration or weight adulteration. Later one went over to round money minting. The coins were made of electron, an alloy of gold and silver, or of silver. The Laurion mine in Attica supplied sufficient quantities of this metal for Athens. "The coins" initially only had an emblem-like symbol on one side that was characteristic of the individual cities, a turtle, bee, grape, lyre, etc. ... The small silver coins were called obols . Six obols made up a drachma ... You can get an idea of ​​the value of money if, according to Plutarch, Solon equates the drachma to the value of a sheep. "

It was the Attic statesman and constitutional reformer Solon, who in 594 BC. C.E., introduced the silver currency in Athens. Solon is the first Greek statesman whose life and intentions are better known. In 594 he was elected Archon Eponymus by the Athenians, the supreme ruler. In addition to the silver currency, Solon also introduced the timocracy, a division of citizens into four classes no longer according to birth, as before, but according to property. At the center of its currency system is the already known talent (Tälanton), which represents a unit of weight. Each talent counts to thirty mines, which in turn consist of 100 drachmas. The Attic silver currency quickly spread far beyond the Athens polis. A system of coins is created under state supervision, the credit system develops, financial transactions are legally standardized. Loans are granted and interest, but these are hardly or not at all loans for investment purposes. And there are already the first critics who condemn the credit and interest system; one of them is the greatest Greek thinker, Aristotle (money). 428 BC A wealth tax is introduced in Athens for the first time.

“Lending money against interest,” writes Nick Wagner in the book cited above, “was known in the past. The temples served as banks, lending money to individuals and municipalities at moderate interest rates. The Temple of Apollo in Delphi in particular became a central bank for all of Greece. There were also money changers at whose tables (träpeza) you could insert or borrow money. These bankers (trapezitai) became more and more important and made all commercial transactions considerably easier. "

Gods are often depicted on ancient Greek coins. The depiction of people is considered blasphemy, it only comes up later. After the death of Alexander the Great, for example, portraits of the king are struck in coins.

After the Peloponnesian War (431. 404 BC) Sparta ruled the Peloponnese for some time. However, this spartan supremacy only lasted a few years. In 371, Thebes defeated the Spartans at the Battle of Leuktra and became a leading power for a decade. Thebes victory at Leuktra has devastating consequences for the Athenian money economy. The battle and its aftermath lead to the first banking crash in world history, as a number of Athenians withdraw their deposits and thus drive the banks into collapse.

The Macedonian Alexander (called the Great, 356 to 323 B.C.E.) not only smashed the Persian empire and created not only a world empire through extensive military campaigns and clever politics, he also set in motion a comprehensive reform of the monetary system. In his vast territory he introduced a single currency based on the Athenian coin. One could almost speak of a "reserve currency" in the modern sense. In addition to land, which was favored for a long time, owning money is now also becoming a desirable symbol of prosperity, and financial assets are being invested. For the first time, copper coins are also appearing in small change.

The Roman Empire is lagging behind in terms of monetary development. It wasn't until 289 BC. C.E., a coinage is introduced in Rome, but there is still no regular production of coins as an all-encompassing means of exchange and payment. In addition to gold and silver, copper and the copper-tin alloy bronze are used. The currency is the drachma, and of course gods are depicted. Three Romans, the Tresviri Monetales, are appointed to produce, i.e. mint, the coins. As in Greece, money transactions are also frowned upon in Rome. The nobility of Roman society live on land ownership, and as Aristotle said: "The right way of livelihood ... and also natural wealth ... is the art of property management." on the other hand is rightly censured «. It is therefore reserved for lower strata of the population, well beyond antiquity.

In 214 BC BC the consul Flamius introduced a new currency in Rome, the silver denarius. It remained the main currency of the Roman Empire for a long time. Metal money is spreading more and more as a means of payment in Rome and its provinces as well as satellite states. Under Caesar, the portrait of a living Roman was struck on the coins for the first time: his own. The political crises that followed also had an impact on the credit and monetary system. Again and again the Roman economy is on the verge of collapse, until Emperor Augustus (C. Iulius Caesar Octavianus) finally introduces a currency system that will be exemplary and formative well into modern times. After Alexander the Great, Augustus is the second ruler in history who succeeds in creating an international currency - of course international according to the terms and knowledge of the time. Its coin system distinguishes:

The coins of Augustus are not only distributed throughout the Roman Empire, but also as far as northern Europe, China, India and Africa.

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