The Origin of Money – 5: Money and the Classical World

Depiction of ritual sacrifice from the Parthenon

The First Global Economy

During the Bronze Age trade expanded across the eastern Mediterranean to such an extent that that some historians refer to this as “The first age of globalization.” The ancient palace civilizations achieved maturity—Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, Mycenaeans, Persians, Canaanites, and many others developed vast and complex trade and exchange networks with neighboring cultures large and small. Cargo ships plied the seas, rivers and canals, transporting goods from as far afield as India and the British isles. Yet this was still accomplished not through monetary exchange networks or banks, but rather through gift exchange carried out primarily by ruling elites. Rulers attempted to cultivate artificial family ties with other rulers, or sometimes literal ones through intermarriage (the exception being Egypt, which never intermarried), as Eric Cline explains in 1177BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed:

[The Amarna letters]…provide us with insights into trading and international connections in the time of Amenhotep III and Akhenaten during the mid fourteenth century B.C. It is apparent that much of the contract involved “gift giving” conducted at the very highest levels–from one king to another.…Another royal letter, from Akhenaten to Burna-Buriash II, the Kassite king of Babylon, includes a detailed list of the gifts that he has sent…Similar detailed letters with comparable long lists of objects, sometimes sent as part of a dowry accompanying a daughter and sometimes just sent as gifts, come from other kings…We should also note that the “messengers” referred to in these, and other, letters were often ministers, essentially sent as ambassadors, but were frequently also merchants, apparently serving double duty for both themselves and the king.

In these letters, the kings involved often referred to each other was relatives, calling one another “brother” or “father/son,” even though they were usually not actually related, thereby creating “trade partnerships. ” Anthropologists have noted that such efforts to create imaginary family relationships happen most frequently in preindustrial societies, specifically to solve the problem of trading when there are no kinship ties or state-supervised markets. It is not always clear what relationship merits the use of the term “brother,” as opposed to “father’ and ‘son,” but it usually seems to indicate equality in status or in age, with “father/son” being reserved to show respect..[1]

This “global sphere of trading” fell apart during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries B.C., during a period referred to by historians as the “Bronze Age Collapse” Societies all around the Mediterranean region became less complex and decentralized. Many different factors contributed to the collapse; so many that historians tend not to refer to a single cause, but rather a “perfect storm” of events which precipitated the collapse. Among them are:

-Climate change
-Environmental destruction
-Resource depletion (e.g. topsoil, timber)
-Volcanic eruptions
-Disease epidemics
-Military invasions of the so-called “Sea Peoples”

The Palace Economies of the Minoans and Mycenaeans faltered and disappeared. In their place, landed estates, often controlling large herds of livestock, became the new centers of power. The Dorian invaders came down from the north and colonized Greece, ushering in a tribal society ruled by an aristocratic warrior elite. This was an early regime of privatization as Michael Hudson describes:

From 1200 BC to about 750 BC in the Mediterranean you have a Dark Age. Apparently you had not only very bad weather around 1200 BC – maybe a small Ice Age and drought – but the weather and crop failures led to mass migrations and invasions. The palaces of Mycenaean Greece were burned and syllabic writing disappeared for nearly 500 years.

Then, when you have alphabetic writing emerging, the person whose title originally meant “local branch manager” of the palace workshop suddenly appears as the basileus, the ruler. But mostly you have landholding aristocracies holding the population in debt serfdom (like the Athenian hektimoroi, “sixth parters” liberated by Solon in 594 BC). It was much like the post-Soviet kleptocrats when Red Managers gave themselves control of their companies. When central power falls apart, local headmen take over. The dissolution of royal power led to privatization – including the privatization of credit, taking it and its rules out of royal hands. So Clean Slates stopped.[2]

Dark Age Greece

This is the culture that is depicted in the foundational tales of Western Literature—the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Greek warrior aristocracy was based around certain key principles:

1.) Absolute loyalty to one’s chief/ruler/king.
3.) Reciprocal gift exchange among aristocrats, especially upon parting.
1.) The sharing out of booty to warriors after the successful sack of a city or the defeat of one’s enemies.
2.) Ritual sacrifice to the gods, especially of oxen, and the partitioning out of roast meat to all adult male members of the tribe.

Greek oligarchs would commonly exchange “prestige goods” such as sacrificial tripods in a form of ceremonial gift exchange. The would also often exchange brides. Bride exchange, reciprocal gift giving among chieftains and distribution of booty to warriors in raids formed the basis for economic life in Dark-Age Greece. In these institutions, we see the same basic mechanisms at work in tribal societies studied by anthropologists today:

These three simple mechanisms for organising society in the absence of money-the interlocking institutions of booty distribution, reciprocal gift-exchange, and the distribution of the sacrifice-are far from unique to Dark Age Greece. Rather, modern research in anthropology and comparative history has shown them to be cypical of the practices of small-scale, tribal societies.

Of course, such pre-monetary social institutions have assumed many forms, reflecting the peculiar circumstances and beliefs of the peoples in question. But the anthropologists Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry have identified a widespread twofold classification. Comparative studies a similar pattern of two related but separate transactional orders: on the one hand, transactions concerned with the reproduction of the long-term social or cosmic order; on the other, a sphere’ of short-term transactions concerned with the arena of individual competition. The premonetary institutions of the Homeric world conform to the scheme.

On the one hand, there was the primeval institution of the sacrifice and the egalitarian distribution and communal consumption of its roast meat-a ritual expression of tribal solidarity before deity probably inherited from the most distant Indo-European past. This was the institution that governed the long-term transactional order. The other, there were the conventions of reciprocal gift-exchange and of booty distribution. These were the rules that governed the “short-term transactional order,” concerned not with cosmic order and harmony between the classes but with the more mundane matter of ensuring that the everyday business of primitive society-drinking and hunting when at peace; rape and pillage when at war-did not dissolve into chaos.[3]

The ritual sacrificial meal was particularly notable. Unlike the more hierarchical societies of the Near East, the sacrificial meal enforced a more egalitarian social order in which every individual member of the community had value in relation to their status. There was also the notion of debt to the gods and redistributive justice. Such rituals were under the control of the warrior aristocracy and were conducted in their estates, which also functioned as early temples. Meat was distributed on metal spits, called obols, and ownership of the spit was to affirm one’s status as an adult male member of the tribe:

…the most important redistributive activity was…a highly ritualized communal sacrificial meal. Conducted in honor of a commonly-worshiped divinity, the tradition consisted of a public killing, roasting, and eating of sacrificial animals. The objective of the ritual was to establish solidarity and social cohesion among the members of the community.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of the communal sacrificial model was its egalitarian emphasis, manifest in “just” and “equal” distribution of roasted bull’s meat among the ritual participants…While the ritual employed the principles of collective participation (koinōnia) and “equal distribution to all”, one’s equal share corresponded to one’s social status…The just shares allocated to ritual participants differed not only in quantity, but in quality as well. The more honored parts of the sacrificial animal, such as the limbs, were customarily allotted to religious officials…

…Purporting to allocate just and equal shares to the members of the not-so-equal community, the all-inclusive rituals of communal sacrificial meals aimed to create an appearance of harmonious and consensual social relations, thus concealing the underlying reality of social hierarchies and economic inequalities…

To service the ritual, sacrificial offerings were made, mostly in oxen, whereby religious officials stipulated the precise quality, type and quantity of cattle to be contributed, thereby establishing the first standardized unit of account guaranteed by the authorities… [4]

This “ox-unit standard” resembled the silver standard used in Mesopotamia insofar as the religious authorities determined the “standard of value” by which everything else was measured. This was the origin of pricing systems – ranking values of disparate things against each other, as David Graeber points out:

Why were cattle so often used as money? The German historian Bernard Laum long ago pointed out that in Homer, when people measure the value of a ship or suit of armor, they always measure it in oxen-even though when they actually exchange things, they never pay for anything in oxen. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this was because an ox was what one of­fered the gods in sacrifice. Hence they represented absolute value. From Sumer to Classical Greece, silver and gold were dedicated as offerings in temples. Everywhere, money seems to have emerged from the thing most appropriate for giving to the gods. [5]

Meat-sharing is an ancient concept which goes back to the hunter-gatherer origins of humanity (and earlier). The offering of specially-selected parts of the sacrificial animal to elites is reminiscent of the “thigh-eating chiefs” of the Kachin hill tribes in Burma studied by Edmund Leach, and the role meat distribution played in their society. Such rituals both reaffirmed the tribe’s debts to their ancestral spirits, and reinforced the status hierarchy in the material world. In these cases, the sacrifice indicated a debt was owed to the spiritual world of the gods and ancestors:

The animal sacrifices of the Kachin, called nat galaw, or “spirit making,” were built on the age-old principle of reciprocal gift-giving. One sacrificed to a nat (a nature spirit) to put him in one’s debt, expecting him to return the favor. The nat took only the nsa, “breath or essence,” from the sacrificial animal, leaving the meat to be shared by humans at a feast…When the Kachin were in rank mode, the ritual required an additional step: one hind leg from each animal sacrificed was given to the hereditary chief. This was a form of tribute, justified by the chief’s genealogical relationship to Madai (a highly-ranked nat). The high nat partook of the essence of the animal, while the chief’s family ate the meat. As some Kachin expressed it, they were ruled by “thigh-eating chiefs.” [6]

It’s worth pointing out once again that distinction between religion and the state which is common in our own modern cultures was nonexistent in past societies. Societies were bound by concepts like kinship, tribal affiliation, geographical origin, language, custom, and religion. The impersonal nation-state which binds strangers together through bureaucracy and the rule of law is an imaginary concept which was yet unknown.

Due to the fact that possession of the sacrificial spits–the oboloi–affirmed one’s membership in the tribe, they acquired a certain value as currency. They were commonly placed in tombs and acquired a symbolic value in exchange apart from their metal content:

In contrast to most ancient near-eastern societies, the Greek polis had retained sacrificial ritual that embodied the principle of communal egalitarian distribution. The fact that the Greek word for this distribution (moira) came to mean ‘fate’ indicates the importance of the distributional imperative. Citizenship was marked by participation in communal sacrifice, which also provided a model for the egalitarian distribution of metallic wealth in standardised pieces.

Probably the spits were distributed with meat on them. They were dedicated in sanctuaries and placed in tombs, because they had communal prestige deriving from their role in the communally central ritual of sacrificial distribution. It was because they had this communal prestige that they could work as proto-money. Greek money (in contrast to say Babylonian silver) was not just a generally exchangeable commodity: rather, it had a conventional value that depended on communal confidence (and in that sense was a kind of IOU), and so prefigured modern money, which is merely transferable credit. [7]

From the spits by which sacrificial meat was distributed, it appears that bronze, copper and iron ingots determined by weights were utilized as a form of proto-currency as early as 1100 BC in Greek culture. Sparta maintained its currency in the form of metal ingots and never made the transition to coinage in order to preserve the hierarchical non-monetarized relations of its society: “Plutarch states the Spartans had an iron obol of four coppers. They retained the cumbersome and impractical bars rather than proper coins to discourage the pursuit of wealth.”[8] The use of money would have engendered unacceptable levels of inequality and undermined the esprit d’corps required for Sparta’s distinctive warrior society to function.

The Rise of the Greek Polis

As the Dark Ages waned and the Classical World dawned, a new form of social order emerged: the Greek polis, a self-governing community of landholders centered on a city-state. Victor Davis-Hanson, in his book,The Other Greeks, attributes this development primarily to Greek farming practices.

The Greeks had developed a highly efficient method of mixed farming centered around the cultivation of barley, grapes, and olives, supplemented with gardening and animal husbandry (especially of sheep and goats). Grapes and olives were well-suited to the rocky soil of Greece, and allowed farmers to produce a consistent surplus. While large landowners grew cereals (mainly barley) on level, fertile land using many slaves, the hillsides were terraced and intensively cultivated and irrigated by small landowners in order to grow grapes and olives in small plots of 10 to 20 acres using 1 or 2 slaves.

Over time, this marginal land became highly productive, and the independent small landowners became the center of the political life rather than aristocrats with large estates. This led to a much more egalitarian social structure. Small farms fed by rainfall meant that key resources could not be put under the centralized control of a bureaucratic elite, unlike the irrigation agriculture systems of the Near East. The power of the old warrior aristocracies, with their large herds, landed estates, raiding parties, gift exchange, and ancestral temples, gave way to a different social order–the polis. The relative equality in wealth led these middling yeoman farmers (the ‘Other Greeks’) to create a political structure which protected their common interests–i.e. democracy, where leaders were chosen from among the general (male) population, and key decisions were made by citizens. Rather than justice being meted out by a semi-divine king, justice would be dispensed by an assembly of the people, with fines assessed according to the unit of account and paid with the common currency of the polis:

How would the polis affirm the equal worth of its members? It took the idea of sacrificial meat distribution and extended it, distributing standardized lumps of metal in place of the spits with roast meat on them. These metallic pieces could be used in exchange, much as the handfuls of spits were. As with the spits, the value would derive from the communal confidence of members of the polis, and would circulate as token money with values determined by the civic body.

At first, the pieces of metal distributed were the iron spits utilized for the roasting of the sacrificial animals. The production of such spits began on a large scale during the late eighth century BC (or around 700 BC) leading to their mass production during the entire seventh century BC. The roasting spits continued to circulate, though in smaller quantities, until the first half of the sixth century BC. During this period, the roasting spits (which were destined for communal distribution) came to be standardized in size, reflecting the old sacrificial tradition of “equal portions to all”.

Gradually then, the distribution of roasting spits came to be replaced by the allotment of coinage, which likewise came to be standardized. It is no wonder, then, that obolos, a sixth century BC silver Greek coin, derived its name from obelos meaning an iron spit. Another sixth century BC Greek coin of a larger denomination, drachma, originally meant a handful of six spits…the earliest Greek and Lydian coins did not begin as media of exchange in commerce, but functioned “in the same fashion as the portion of food distributed at the sacred meal”…coinage was distributed by the polis to its male citizens. It has also been established that some of the earliest monetary “transactions” were carried out among unequal social partners, and included sexual “exchange” between men and women…the use of coinage in payment for goods evolved out of its use in payment for personal services.

The administration of distributive justice is…key to understanding the origins and functions of early Greek money and coinage…The unequal distribution of wealth prompted a “decline of faith in the reliability of divine justice”, thereby creating a new social problem of instituting “a political means of payment controlled by humans so that they would not have to rely on the uncertain rewards of the gods”

…Introduced by the city-state as a unit of account for expressing the worth of its male citizens, the purpose of coinage was to resolve the crisis of distributive justice…Rather than facilitate trade, whether foreign or domestic, the initial purpose of coinage was to “(re)establish social justice within the polis”. In contrast to the uncertainty associated with divine justice, coinage could compensate virtue “immediately and precisely”, and payment in “stamped tokens” came to be associated with “just recompense”. Possession of coinage came to signify the acceptance of the civic authority of the polis.

In establishing its own model of distributive justice, the emerging authority of the polis adopted the idealized model of communal egalitarian distribution, but substituted durable metal objects for perishable pieces of meat…The emerging authority of the polis, then, attempted to dismantle the aristocratic model of power by distributing metal pieces to those who accepted the political authority of the polis instead. The distribution of metal pieces into the hands of the citizens would subvert the aristocracy’s monopoly over the use of (precious) metal in the closed sphere of aristocratic gift-giving.[10]

The first coins were issued by civic temples, which functioned as the first treasuries. The public temple usurped the role of the landholder’s private estate and ancestral temple and created a radically new egalitarian social structure which facilitated the use of money. They also reaffirm the link between money and the sacred:

…the temple-state was at the center of the polis and its priests mediated the relationship between subjects and deities. Deities were owed sacrifices and the temples who received these goods and services as sacrifices eventually came to replace the cooked flesh of bulls–which was originally given as a gift for contributing to the temple–with coins made of electrum (a natural gold and silver alloy). Coins essentially represented a receipt that subjects had contributed to the temple…Thus…the origins of money can be found in religious sacrifice and recompense mediated by priestly authorities.[11]

Indeed, contributions to religious societies have been offered as another source of the origins of money, going back to the work of Bernard Laum in the 1920’s:

Bernard Laum…traced money back to the contributions of food and other commodities to guild organisations of a religious character. In his view, their root is to be found in the communal sacrifice. Members of temple brotherhoods were obliged to make ceremonial contributions or kindred payments to the temples or other redistributive households. Laum interpreted these payments as early food money, for whose value the monetary metals later were substituted. But although food contributions bore an administered price in the sense of being standardized in amount, it would be a quantum leap to deem them ‘money.’ Along with injury fines these formalities represent personal liabilities, mainly for restitution or, in time, tax assessment, but not yet the freely negotiated market exchange of commodities.

The media for tax payments would seem to be the bridge concept. The German word for money, Geld, derives from Gothic gild, ‘tax,’ but an early connection to paying fines is indicated by Old Icelandic gjald, ‘recompense, punishment, payment’, and Old English gield, ‘substitute, indemnity, sacrifice’. The idea combines the ethic of mutual aid with the idea of a standardized equality of contributions.

In the first instance religious institutions would have sanctified these contributions and given them the connotation of fixed obligatory payments. Such payments to the community’s corporate bodies appear to have been transformed into tributary taxation when cities were conquered by imperial overlords and turned these institutions into collection agents. This inverted the traditional relationship of voluntary gift givers or sacrificers gaining status by their contributions reflecting openhandedness and wealth. As taxes were coercive levies, their payers lost status by submitting to a tributary position. [12]

The issuance of an official currency stamped with the government’s “seal of approval” (e.g. Lydian lion, Athenian owl, Corinthian horse) was an activity that affirmed the identity and independence of the city. As historians Austin and Vidal-Naquet put it, “In the history of Greek cities coinage was always first and foremost a civic emblem. To strike coins with the badge of the city was to proclaim one’s political independence.”

These coins came to acquire value throughout the Greek world, facilitating trading and markets. Their value derived from the faith placed in the polis, the community of equals. In turn, the issuance of money and the rise of markets came to influence the political development of Greek society:

Besides its egalitarian effects, coined money also promoted individual autonomy, which would tend to dissolve the vertical lines of patronage (based on reciprocity) that we find for instance in Homer (e.g. Odysseus and Eumaios). This was, I suspect, a precondition for democracy, which at Athens arrived a mere generation or so after coinage.

Moreover, control of the central supply of money was (in contrast to now) visible and simple. It was usurped first in various cities by the ‘tyrants’ and then, at Athens, by the people (demos), and remained essential to democracy. Many of the numerous city-states minted their own coinage, and so had this potential for democracy. But Athens was a special case, not least because (almost uniquely) it had its own supplies of silver, and then came in the fifth century to control the money supply of most of the Aegean Sea.

Coinage arrived in Attica later than in the cities of the eastern Aegean, where philosophy originated in the early sixth century BCE. Athens was culturally insignificant until the late sixth century BCE, by which time it finally had coinage en masse and moreover had begun to extract much silver from the mines at Laurium in south-east Attica. In a newly monetised world this silver (together with gold and silver from Thrace) was crucial for the development of festivals and of temples, for the origin and splendour of drama, for the building of a fleet, and eventually for Athens as a cultural center to which (as we see in the dialogues of Plato) philosophers were attracted from various parts of the Greek world.[13]

This strongly affirms the idea that money is a creation of the state, or whatever we wish to term the collective entity to which everyone owes a social obligation which exists in every society over band level (often referred to as the ‘sovereign’ by monetary theorists). Monetary theorists point out, for example, that the prime way for a fledgling political entity such as the Islamic State (IS) to define itself as a “legitimate” government is to issue its own “official” currency which is legal tender in the areas under its control. It then assesses taxes in this unit of account. The unit of account must be established by a supra-market entity before monetization of the economy and internal trading can take place.

Coinage and Metals

It is well-known that the first “official” stamped coins (in the West) were minted in Lydia and Ionia on the coast of present-day Turkey. Metal deposits of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, were under the control of the royal household. This substance was issued in lumps by the government with stamps certifying the government’s authority. It was illegal for any other entity to issue these stamped coins.

It is often stated that what gave the coins their value was the certification by the state of their metal content. Because they were issued by an “official” government mint, it is claimed, a trader or merchant could be assured that he or she was getting the “correct” amount of metal in the coin without the costly and time-consuming process of weighing the coins. He could be assured by the “seal of approval” that coins did indeed contain the quantity of metal that they desired. In this view, issuing standardized “official” lumps of metal greased the wheels of commerce which had existed long before then, but were encumbered by uncertainty. Put another way, “coins were simply the form in which precious metal traveled.”

This fits with the “metallist” doctrine that markets are spontaneous and self-regulating, and that issuing currency is merely a ‘convenience’ on the part of governments. Even without such issuance, the argument goes, “free” markets would muddle along just fine, just with the added inconvenience of having to weigh out the gold and silver everyone is exchanging goods for. Furthermore, changing the “official” metal content in any way is “debasing” the currency, and should never, ever be done, because the amount of metal in the coin is fixed for all time, and it is this metal which gives the coin its value. Furthermore, paper money is just a promise to redeem a certain amount of precious metal in some form.

The problem with this is that throughout history, there has been no consistent metallic standard for coins. While later Lydian coins eventually became standardized in weight and composition, this was more for convenience of manufacture rather than adherence to some sort of standard (defined by whom?). The early coins were amalgams of gold and silver, with no way of determining the proportion of each:

Evidently, the value of the earliest coins could not derive from their metal component: the earliest Lydian coins were made of electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver, the internal composition of which is highly variable by nature. This means that a coin’s weight, purity and fineness could not be standardized…the final choice of silver as the minting metal for coinage was a political decision and had little to do with the intrinsic properties of the metal…

Given the association of gold with the old aristocracy, and the crisis of redistribution as manifest by unequal distribution of metallic wealth (most importantly, gold and gold artifacts), the polis chose silver as the minting metal, and silver coinage aimed to represent “the community of citizens” who were all equal as they were made of “the same noble substance”.

Rather, it appears that the nominal exchange value of metal coins was set by governments, and always has been. This value was assessed according to the prevailing unit of account. Coins circulated at a value higher than their commodity value, otherwise they would simply have been melted down. In fact, this has happened throughout history when the commodity value of the coin has risen above its nominal value. The commodity value of the metal functions as a “floor” underneath the value of a coin–a level beneath which it will not fall, encouraging its use.

The reason we tend to think that precious metal is what gave the coins value is because coins are what have survived. They are what sit in museums and what are found by the thousands at archaeological sites. Meanwhile, the systems of credit clearing, taxation, and establishment of monetary value by state authorities have long since vanished. So we mistakenly assume that people were exchanging coins for their metal content, despite the fact coins have a dizzying array of metal quantities and standards throughout history, often even in the same time period and geographic location, as Alfred Mitchell-Innes writes:

…throughout the whole range of history, not only is there no evidence of the existence of a metallic standard of value to which the commercial monetary denomination, the “money of account” as it is usually called, corresponds, but there is overwhelming evidence that there never was a monetary unit which depended on the value of coin or on a weight of metal; that there never was, until quite modern days, any fixed relationship between the monetary unit and any metal; that, in fact, there never was such a thing as a metallic standard of value…

The earliest known coins of the western world are those of ancient Greece, the oldest of which, belonging to the settlements on the coast of Asia Minor, date from the sixth or seventh centuries B. C. Some are of gold, some of silver, others are of bronze, while the oldest of all are of an alloy of the gold and silver, known as electrum. So numerous are the variations in size and weight of these coins that hardly any two are alike, and none bear any indication of value. Many learned writers…have essayed to classify these coins so as to discover the standard of value of the different Greek States; but the system adopted by each is different; the weights given by them are merely the mean weight calculated from a number of coins, the weights of which more or less approximate to that mean; and there are many coins which cannot be made to fit into any of the systems, while the weights of the supposed fractional coins do not correspond to those of the units in the system to which they are held to belong.

As to the electrum coins, which are the oldest coins known to us, their composition varies in the most extraordinary way. While some contain more than 60 per cent of gold, others known to be of the same origin contain more than 60 per cent of silver, and between these extremes, there is every degree of alloy, so that they could not possibly have a fixed intrinsic value. All writers are agreed that the bronze coins of ancient Greece are tokens, the value of which does not depend on their weight. All that is definitely known is that, while the various Greek States used the same money denominations, stater, drachma, etc., the value of these units differed greatly in different States, and their relative value was not constant—in modern parlance the exchange between the different States varied at different periods. There is, in fact, no historical evidence in ancient Greece on which a theory of a metallic standard can be based…[15]

Coinage and Mercenaries

It is thought that minting coins eventually evolved into a way for the “state” (i.e. the  sovereign) to procure the resources it needed, and as a way to transfer private goods and services to itself as required.

One of the biggest requirements was paying for professional soldiers in place of the landholding citizen-soldier to facilitate external military conquest. These soldiers were transient, so a form of portable, anonymous wealth was needed. It furthermore appears that sex was one of the first services on offer using coins—women would work in brothels of Sardis to earn money for their dowry– with other services soon following in its wake (mercenaries and prostitutes may tie as the world’s oldest professions). The earliest “free” markets to spring up in coin appear to be for the slaves produced by such conquest.

The way it worked was this: The ruling class required mercenaries, and since they controlled the metal deposits, they issued lumps of metal stamped with the ruler’s insignia, signifying their “official” capacity. They then demanded these coins back from producers, and the only way to get their hands on them was to sell something to soldiers, allowing the soldiers buy the things they wanted and needed from the conquered population. Tim Johnson writes:

Around 4,000 years ago, people started making ornaments out of electrum (an alloy of gold and silver), copper and gold, metals found naturally (i.e. without processing) in nature. Metals have an almost unique, natural, physical property; they reflect light. The only other material that stone-age humans would have come across that reflected light would have been water, so to these people gold would appear to combine the essence of both water and the sun, the basis of life.

Imagine the awe that humans would have felt the first time they spotted a nugget of gold sparkling in a river bed, here was an object that seemed to captured and store life-giving sunlight, the ‘tears of the Sun’ as the Incas said. In the medieval period, European alchemists believed that metals were produced by some mechanism involving rays from different ‘planets’: gold from the Sun, silver from the Moon, mercury from Mercury, copper from Venus, iron from Mars, tin from Jupiter and lead from Saturn.

In ancient Babylon, Egypt and Greece, temples became associated with stores of metals, gold for the Greeks, silver for the Babylonians and copper for the Egyptians. It seems that these metals had developed a religious significance and become important as temple offerings. Consequently followers of the religion would look to acquire the metal, to enable them to make an offering, and so the metal became the commodity in the most universal demand. Athens treasury was in the Temple of Athena, and Jesus cast the money-lenders, exchanging worldly Roman money for divine shekels, out of the Temple.

The earliest tokens used as ‘money’ were not specific weights of a certain metal but roughly cut pieces of metal with an official stamp on them – monopoly money as it were. The emergence of money, in the sense of coins, in Greece coincides with the emergence of mercenary troops, the term ‘soldier’ is derived from the word for a Roman gold coin, solidus. A simple economic model developed, states paid soldiers in gold, who then spent it in the community. The government then recovered the gold by taxing the merchants and innkeepers that the soldiers had paid for food and lodgings.

This model would survive and drive colonialism until the modern age. A power, such as Alexander’s Greece, Imperial Rome, Napoleonic France or Industrial Britain, would take control of a region through force of arms. They would then demand tax from the conquered nation, which would have to be paid in currency specified by the coloniser. The conquered nation could only obtain the currency by exchanging their produce for the specified currency…

Why magic? ⇔ Why gold? (Magic, Maths and Money)

David Graeber describes this as a “military-coinage-slavery” complex, and sees this as a defining feature of the Axial Age. With coinage, slavery becomes a much greater factor in the economy of the Classical world than it ever was in the ancient Near East (inverting the “conventional” view of history as a contest between the “freedom” of the Classical World versus “Oriental Despotism”).

This strongly fits with the idea that supplanting the traditional relations of reciprocity, redistribution and householding with impersonal markets mediated by money was not a spontaneous development based on human instincts to “truck, barter and exchange,” but a top-down project facilitated by ruling elites. All of this is tied to the emergence of inequality and class-based society rather than freedom and egalitarianism. Markets did not emerge out of simple barter. Rather barter occurs after organic social relations have been dismantled and monetized, and the quantity of money becomes curtailed, such as by economic collapse.

The use of coinage was spread by Greek mercenaries throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. Although coinage spread east to the Persian empire, it appears that older credit/debit systems and householding continued to prevail as the dominant economic paradigm. That changed with the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great. Alexander melted down Persian gold and silver and used them to pay his troops. This spread both Hellenic culture and markets throughout the East. Greek silver and coins would find their way as far east as China:

Although silver, by becoming a medium of exchange, must have acquired a value higher than its intrinsic value as a not very useful commodity, the Babylonians did not invent anything like modern coinage, which has…a value in exchange even further above its intrinsic value as metal. Even after the people of Asia Minor had invented coins and they had been adopted by the Greek world, the Babylonians still preferred to measure silver by weight, under the illusion no doubt that that mattered! It was not until Alexander the Great conquered the region that coins were commonly used. It seems quite likely that in the area which was the heartland of the great Persian Empire, documentary credits were used in preference to physical silver.

Was the silver merely stored as a reserve, just as in the modern era gold has been accumulated in the Bank of England and in Fort Knox in the USA? Alexander certainly found vast hoards of gold and silver in the palaces and temples of Persia, and the Greeks thought it was odd it had just been stored…The Greeks probably did not realise that the Babylonians had found a convenient way of monetising precious metals, and had minimised the expensive and risky movement of precious metals by the use of an accounting system.

But with the conquest came no doubt the breakdown of the legal system, together with its religious backing, on which the documentary credits were founded. Alexander coined (monetised) the gold and silver he found, no doubt to pay his soldiers who would have had little use for documentary credits issued by foreign merchants or strange temples. It appears that trade increased dramatically between the nations in the eastern part of Alexander’s empire after the monetisation by coining of the precious metals he found. This and other experience suggests that coins which contain a high proportion of the precious metals did facilitate foreign trade, even though they are unnecessary in a more parochial society. Modern communication systems have made it possible to use documentary credits worldwide, and the case for coins made of precious metals hardly now exists.[16]

This is the “state theory” of money creation. Jack Goody argued that the state made war and war made the state. But we can update that to say that the state made money, and money made markets, and markets are what allowed for the bureaucratic state to form. The state, by issuing currency, could transfer “private” resources to itself via taxation. It could also hire expertise, at first in war, and later in technocratic management. Issuing currency money gave the state the power to transfer resources to itself and pay for armies. This paper describes the process in more detail:

A stylised story based upon the use of stamped metal might go as follows; a ruler might decide what she or he desired, for example, palaces, amphitheatres and an army of conquest. She or he could utilise their monopoly power over the monetary system to obtain what they desired.

They would first define the unit of account and then decide upon the money things acceptable in payment of debts denominated in this unit, say, stamped metal discs clearly marked with her or his head. The disc may contain precious metal. This precious metal content (if any) would be decided upon by the state (the mint standard). The use of precious metal may help prevent counterfeiting and raise the prestige of the issuer but the intrinsic value of the coins provided only a floor value for the currency. The nominal value would be higher and determined by decree.

She or he then imposed a tax on her or his subjects denominated in its chosen standard, payable by the surrender of the stamped discs. The ruler decided the nominal value of the coins and how many each person must pay to satisfy their tax bill. This process gave the coins value. They were tokens showing the holder had a credit on the state. They were really ‘tax credits’.

The ruler could now spend these tokens on whatever she or he wished as long as it was available in her or his own domain –or ‘monetary space.’ The private sector suppliers of goods accepted the tokens, not because they were made of precious metal but rather because the population needed them to pay taxes. The rulers then paid their soldiers with the stamped metal discs and the soldiers, in turn, were able to go to the villages and buy whatever they wished, provided of course it was available! The populace sold the soldiers real goods to obtain the discs to meet tax liabilities. Clearly, the empress or emperor had to spend before she or he could collect. A private agent minting discs with the ruler’s head on without her or his permission would soon be put to the sword. It may appear that the ruler needed to tax before spending but this is an illusion![17]

Money needs to be spent before it can be collected. It is not something “out there” that the government needs to procure from the “private” sector. Rather, it is a social technology which is issued by the government, and given value by collective confidence in the ruling body ,and its ability to make payments, redistribute, and collect taxes and fines. It is then transferred hand-to-hand, facilitating trading among unrelated strangers. How much of this was ‘planned’ and how much accidental is a matter of speculation.

The Emergence of Markets

As Greek society became increasingly monetized, traditional social obligations were transformed into money relationships. The public spaces of the Greek polis, where debate was conducted, started to double as the place where monetary exchanges took place: the market, such as the famous Agora in Athens. Over time, every Greek polis would come to possess its own market along with its own mint. David Graeber describes the transformation:

The world of the Homeric epics is one dominated by heroic warriors who are disdainful of trade. Money existed, but it was not used to buy anything; important men lived their lives in pursuit of honor, which took material form in followers and treasure. Treasures were given as gifts, awarded as prizes, carried off as loot.

All this was to change dramatically when commercial markets began to develop two hundred years later. Greek coinage seem to have been first used mainly to pay soldiers, as well as to pay fines and fees and payments made to and by the government, but by about 6oo BC, just about every Greek city-state was producing its own coins as a mark of civic independence. It did not take long, though, before coins were in common use in everyday transactions. By the fifth century, in Greek cities, the agora, the place of public debate and communal assembly, also doubled as a marketplace.[18]

As city-states minted money, the traditional social obligations of tribal society were now transformed into very different social obligations mediated by the new invention of money:

Everywhere, traditional social obligations were transformed into financial relationships. In Athens, traditional agricultural sharecroppers were converted into contractual tenants paying money rents. The so-called “liturgies”-the ancient, civic obligations of the thousand wealthiest inhabitants of the city to provide public services ranging from choruses for the theatre to ships for the navy-were now assessed in financial terms. By the last quarter of the fifth century BC, not only military stipends, public and private wages, rents and commodity prices, but also social payments such as dowries, regularly appear as sums of cash. The city states of classical Greece had become the first monetary societies. p. 62

Several characteristics of Greek society helped foster the development of money and markets.

As we’ve seen earlier, Greek diversified farming practices ensured that small farmers were relatively equal during the Dark Ages. The mainland of Greece is rocky and mountainous, preventing the large-scale plantations so common in later Roman Italy and North Africa. This is in contrast to the Near Eastern cultures where all land was owned by the gods/potentates, and administered by palaces and temple bureaucracies. Unrelated people had to deal with one another on more-or-less equal terms.

As we saw last time, in Greek culture, writing and numeracy were democratized. The alphabet, transmitted through the Phoenicians, allowed reading and writing to be easily learned and done by the average person, rather than an priesthood which kept such administrative skills to themselves and transmitted them only through esoteric channels. The departure from exclusively oral communication meant that myths gave way to recorded history, causing a questioning of old social forms.

The Greeks were geographically separated, yet there was a shared conception of what it meant to be Greek. The Greek peoples were scattered across hundreds of islands in the Aegean Sea, the Grecian mainland, the coast of Asia minor, and numerous colonies throughout the Mediterranean (“like frogs around a pond,” in Plato’s famous phrase). This alone would require trading. Greek culture was intimately tied with the ability to cultivate olives, and the ability to speak the Greek language (others’ tongues were just gibberish–“bar-bar-bar,” i.e. barbarians).

So we have decentralization, egalitarianism, individualism, and yet shared cultural notions and concepts. This created a need for trade, but without the necessity of mediation by a centralized governing bureaucracy as seen in Near Eastern redistributive economies. Several other distinct aspects of Greek culture and thought also contributed to the development of abstract, impersonal money and markets.

The first was the concept of a universal standard of value derived from the sacrificial feast, as Felix Martin describes:

…the idea of the equal worth of every member of the tribe was a social constant: a standard against which social value could be measured. At the heart of Greek society, in other words, was nothing other than a nascent concept of universal value and a standard against which to measure it, pret-a-porter.

Here was an answer to the question begged by the new perspective on society and the economy. Where the new understanding of physical reality had man, the observer of an objective universe, the new understanding of the social reality had the idea of the self, separate from society, an objective entity consisting of relationships measurable in a standard unit on the universal scale of economic value. It was a critical conceptual development-the missing link, on the intellectual level, in the invention of money. p. 59

Mesopotamia had for millennia possessed one of the three components of money-a system of accounting, based upon its discoveries of writing and numeracy. But the immense sophistiction of Mesopotamia’s bureaucratic, command economy had no need of any universal concept of economic value. It required and had perfected a variety of limited-purpose concepts of value, each with its respective standard. It therefore did not develop the first component of money: a unit of abstract, universally applicable, economic value.

Dark Age Greece, on the other hand, had a primitive concept of universal value and a standard by which to measure it. But the Greek Dark Ages knew neither literacy nor mimeracy, let alone a system of accounting. They had, in nascent form, the first component of money, but lacked the second. Neither civilisation had all the ingredients for money on its own.

But when the ultra-modem technologies of the East-literacy, numeracy, and accounting-were combined with the idea of a universal scale of value incubated in the barbaric West, the conceptual preconditions for money were at last in place…

This spread of money’s first two components-the idea of a universally applicable unit of value and the practice of keeping accounts in it-reinforced the development of the third: the principle of decentralised negotiability. The new idea of universal economic value made possible the offsetting of obligations without reference to a centralised authority. And the new idea of an objective economic space created the confidence that this possibility would exist indefinitely.

Markets require people to be able to negotiate a sale or agree a wage on their own, instead of feeding their preferences into a central authority in order to receive back a directive on how to act. But successful negotiation requires a common language-a shared idea of what words mean. For markets to function there needs to be a shared concept of value and standardised units in which to measure it. Not a shared idea of what particular goods or services are worth-that is where the haggling comes in-but a shared unit of economic value so that the haggling can take place at all. Without general agreement on what a dollar is, we could no more haggle in the marketplace over prices in dollars than we can talk to the birds and the bees. pp. 61-62


Other ideas that were unique to Greek society included the idea that the abstract was more important than the real, derived from philosophy, and the absolute isolation of the individual from one’s close kin, as seen in Greek tragedies such as Oedipus.

There is also evidence that the adoption of money was critical to the development Greek ideas about democratic political governance and scientific thought, as Tim Johnson explains in this excellent blog post (emphasis mine):

Greek culture that emerged around 600 BCE became known for being distinctive in its attitudes to politics and science. Greek science developed a non-mythical cosmology. The central idea emerged in Miletus, in Anatolia, and was apeiron (‘without limit’), something boundless, homogenous, eternal and abstract yet it held and motivated all things. Simultaneously, across the Aegean in Athens, Greek ideas of democracy were codified.

The standard explanations used to argue that the non-mythical cosmology originated in the polis where citizens were equal and ruled by an impersonal law: democracy generates science. This account did not acknowledge the temporal simultaneity of the origins of the ideas but there geographical separation. There needed to be something that preceded democracy and science common to both Athens and Miletus.

A more empirical explanation for origin of the distinctive nature of Greek politics and science lies in the Greek adoption of money in everyday use. Money can be seen as a prototype for the apeiron. Money is ‘fungible’, meaning one money-token is indistinguishable from any other, it is an empty signifier, like a word used in everyday language. The impersonality of money means that it is universal and makes no distinctions; it is used by rich and poor uniting opposites. There is a discrepancy between the value of money and its commodity value because money an abstract concept signified by a concrete token. Because it is abstracted, unlike any substance, money is unlimited. It has the power to transform objects, being able to turn wheat into wine in the market. Together, these properties enable money to perform multiple functions simultaneously. It is used to meet social obligations, such as tribute, legal compensation, and is the dominant means of conducting exchange; it stores value and is the unit of account. Money’s myriad uses means that it becomes a universal aim of all members of the community using it.

Money centralised social power in a single, abstract and impersonal entity. In monetised, Greek, economies personal power arose from the possession of impersonal and non-substantial money. The impersonality of Greek money nurtured the concept of equality, which is the foundation of democracy. The Greek word nomos, associated with ‘law’, is the root of the Greek word for money, nomisma. When combined with ‘auto’ – self – it gives autonomy, the idea that people can govern themselves and out of it, the concept of the individual emerges.

The foundations of Athenian democracy where laid by Solon (c. 638‒558) when he instituted several legal reforms. These sought to address instability created by conflicts in society caused by growing inequality created by the financialisation of society. Solon’s reforms solved the problems by substituting judicial violence with fines, something that was only possible because money was widely used. In the process, justice was depersonalised so that hostility between people was replaced by an impersonal quantification between an injury and its compensation. While money was disruptive of society it was also integral to Solon’s reforms that created a political system in which all citizens were equal.

Greek’s [sic] highlighted how their culture was distinctive from that of their neighbours, notably those in the civilised East…The essential difference was that Greek society was monetised and operated through inter-personal exchange where as that of the neighbouring societies were re-distributive.

In re-distributive societies, power originated in the gods. Priests (or a king, the distinction was often blurred) were the direct servants of the gods who mediated between the population and the divine. All that the community produced was owned, exclusively, by the gods and managed by a hierarchy of priests/kings. Produce was delivered to the temple (or palace) and the priests, from behind closed doors, would re-distribute the aggregate production per their own rules, taking a cut for their own use. In return, the priest/kings were expected to provide material and social security: food stores, walls, law and order. These societies maintained themselves so long as the priest/kings prevented famine and ensured peace and justice. It was passed through the priests/kings into the community through a clear hierarchy. The transference of power was often done through seals (amulets, talisman) that magically carried the power of the god.

Greek religious practice diverged from this standard model. The Greek gods lived on ambrosia and nectar, not on mortal food. When Homeric Greeks, in around 800 BCE, performed an animal sacrifice the smoke ‘honoured’ the gods, who were not located in their icons but ‘somewhere else’, alienated from the people. The sacrificial meat was then shared out amongst the community. The fairness of this sharing was fundamental to Greek culture, with both the Iliad and the Odyssey resting on problems resulting from unfair distribution. Consequently, the wealth of the Greek temples was owned and managed, inclusively, by the community in an egalitarian manner, in contrast to the wealth of temples in re-distributive societies.

There is a relationship between these Greek religious practices and the emergence of money in Greek society. The lowest value Greek coin was the obolos that took its name from the cooking spits (obelos) that were used to distribute sacrificial food and it is almost certain that the word drachma comes from obeliskon drachmai ‒ handfuls of spits.

A Financial Approach to the ‘Clash of Cultures’ (Magic, Maths and Money)

One deleterious result of the money economy was people falling into debt and relinquishing their freedom. This led to steep class divisions, as those who defaulted sold themselves into slavery (debt serfdom). Debt serfdom several times threatened the security of the polis, as debt serfs were unable to maintain military training to help defend the city-state (one reason why Sparta steadfastly refused to use coins). Rather than regular Clean Slates as in the Near East, periodic debt cancellations were legislated under rulers like Solon. The debt serfs would then be shipped off to found colonies across the Mediterranean. This dynamic drove Greek expansion and colonization, as David Graeber explains:

One of the first effects of the arrival of a commercial economy was a series of debt crises, of the sort long familiar from Mesopotamia and Israel. Revolutionary factions emerged, demanding amnesties, and most Greek cities were at least for a while taken over by populist strongmen swept into power partly by the demand for radical debt relief. The solution most cities ultimately found, however, was quite different than it had been in the Near East.

Rather than institutionalize periodic amnesties, Greek cities tended to adopt legislation limiting or abolishing debt peonage altogether, and then, to forestall future crises, they would turn to a policy of expansion, shipping off the children of the poor to found military colonies overseas.
Before long, the entire coast from Crimea to Marseille was dotted with Greek cities, which served, in turn, as conduits for a lively trade in slaves. The sudden abundance of chattel slaves, in turn, completely transformed the nature of Greek society.

First and most famously, it allowed even citizens of modest means to take part in the political and cultural life of the city and have a genuine sense of citizenship. But this, in turn, drove the old aristocratic classes to develop more and more elaborate means of setting themselves off from what they considered the tawdriness and moral corruption of the new democratic state…[20]

The decentralization of economic life and establishment of self-rule had dramatic effects. According to Josiah Ober, at the bottom point of Iron Age circa 1000 B.C., the Greek world was sparsely populated and living near the subsistence level. Almost 700 years later, in the age of Aristotle, the population of the Greek world had increased twentyfold and per capita consumption had doubled, achieving growth rates comparable to those of England or Holland in Early Modern Europe. Ober attributes this growth to low levels of inequality (which Davis-Hanson attributes to farming practices), which led to investments in human capital, economic and political stability, non-authoritarian political structures, and high levels of social trust:

In the 12th century BCE, the palace-centered civilization of Bronze Age Greece collapsed, utterly destroying political and social hierarchies. Surviving Greeks lived in tiny communities, where no one was rich or very powerful.

As Greece slowly recovered, some communities rejected attempts by local elites to install themselves as rulers. Instead, ordinary men established fair rules (fair, that is, for themselves) and governed themselves collectively, as political equals. Women and slaves were, of course, a very different story. But because these emerging citizen-centered states often out-competed elite-dominated rivals, militarily and economically, citizenship proved to be adaptive. Because participatory citizenship was not scalable, Greek states stayed small as they became increasingly democratic. Under conditions of increasingly fair rules, individuals and states rationally invested in human capital, leading to increased specialization and exchange.

The spread of fair rules and a shared culture across an expanding Greek world of independent city-states drove down transaction costs. Meanwhile competition encouraged continuous institutional and technological innovation. The result was 700+ years of world-class efflorescence, marked by exceptional demographic and per capita growth, and by immensely influential ideas, literature, art, and science. But, unlike the more familiar story of ancient empires, no one was in running the show: Greece remained a decentralized ecology of small states. [21]

Greek colonization spreads ideas of democracy, science, religion, money, markets, slavery and debt to other cultures, including the militarized cultures of the Italian peninsula. Eventually, these ideas gave rise to two great powers who fought over control of the Mediterranean: the Latin empire centered in Rome, and the Phoenician-derived colony of Carthage. With the victory of Rome, the entire Mediterranean becomes a giant free-trade zone, and the coinage-mercenary-slave complex expands to an unprecedented degree. We’ll take a brief look at that next time.

[1] Ernest Cline; 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed


[3]Felix Martin; Money: THe Unauthorized Biograhy, p. 38

[4] Semenova and Wray; The Rise of Money and Class Society: The Contributions of John F. Henry. Levy Economics Institute Working papaer no. 832

[5] David Graeber; Debt: The First 5000 Years.

[6] Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus; The Creation of Inequality, pp. 193-195

[7] Radical Anthropology; Interview with Richard Seaford:

[8] Semenova and Wray; The Rise of Money and Class Society: The Contributions of John F. Henry. Levy Economics Institute Working papaer no. 832

[9] Not Used


[11] Tim Di Muzio, Richard H. Robbins; An Anthropology of Money: A Critical Introduction, p. 48

[12] Wray et. al.; The Credit and State Theories of Money, pp. 96-97

[13] Radical Anthropology; Interview with Richard Seaford:

[14] Semenova and Wray; The Rise of Money and Class Society: The Contributions of John F. Henry. Levy Economics Institute Working papaer no. 832

[15] Wray et. al.; The Credit and State Theories of Money, pp. 96-97

[16] hWray et. al.; The Credit and State Theories of Money, p. 138,

[17] Phil Armstrong; Heterodox Views of Money and Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

[18] David Graeber; Debt: The First 5000 Years.

[19] Felix Martin; Money: The Unauthorized Biography, p. 60

[20] David Graeber; Debt: The First 5000 Years.


4 thoughts on “The Origin of Money – 5: Money and the Classical World

  1. Lecture based on the book.

    1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Eric Cline, PhD)

    “From about 1500 BC to 1200 BC, the Mediterranean region played host to a complex cosmopolitan and globalized world-system. It may have been this very internationalism that contributed to the apocalyptic disaster that ended the Bronze Age. When the end came, the civilized and international world of the Mediterranean regions came to a dramatic halt in a vast area stretching from Greece and Italy in the west to Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia in the east. Large empires and small kingdoms collapsed rapidly. With their end came the world’s first recorded Dark Ages. It was not until centuries later that a new cultural renaissance emerged in Greece and the other affected areas, setting the stage for the evolution of Western society as we know it today. Professor Eric H. Cline of The George Washington University will explore why the Bronze Age came to an end and whether the collapse of those ancient civilizations might hold some warnings for our current society.”

  2. “… money seems to have emerged from the thing most appropriate for giving to the gods.”

    Well that jumps out!

    Makes me think of the money-changers in the Temple – you couldn’t just use that dirty Roman money.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.