A New Look at the Origin of Coinage

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A New Look at the Origin of Coinage

Post  Gantor on Wed Aug 04, 2010 5:20 pm

A New Look at the Origin of Coinage
Copyright 1993, 1994, 1995 by Michael E. Marotta
[Note: This version was created specially for this Internet mailing list. The complete manuscript is with The Numismatist.]
[The article was published in the August 1995 issue of The Numismatist. --Numismatica]
The Encyclopedia Britannica claims that the first coins bore a primitive punchmark, "certifying to either weight or fineness, or both." This view is commonly shared by other writers. The trustees of the British Museum concur by claiming that, "Lydians saw the advantage of stamping such pieces guaranteeing their value when used as money."
This theory is probably the most compelling to us today. However, the first coins were electrum, a naturally-occurring alloy of gold and silver. No one could have guaranteed the fineness of an electrum coin. Archimedes of Syracuse discovered how to assay an alloy by weighing it under water, about 250 BC, 400 years after the electrum coins of Lydia.
Another problem with the commercial theory is that no one has ever suggested a meaning to the punch marks which appear on the earliest coins. There is no known way to see in the impressions the name of a merchant or the weight of the ingot [dump] or its fineness. The punchmarks ("windmill", "swastika", etc.) are there, to be sure. What they mean is not clear at all.
Furthermore, those unsurpassed traffickers, the Phoenicians, were among the very last, not first, ancient people to mint coins. If coinage were invented to facilitate trade, it didn't impress the greatest traders of the day.
The earliest coins are never found far from home. If coins were invented to facilitate trade and commerce, they would have travelled along the same paths as grain, lumber, and hides. They did not. As yet, no known hoards of the earliest coins have been found in Egypt, Tyre, or other centers of commerce.
The historical evidence is that the first coins were overvaluable, and they were anonymous, and they never traveled far from home. Therefore, as useful as coins later proved to be in commerce, they cannot have been invented specifically to support trade.
Tyrants and Mercenaries
In 1920, P. N. Ure suggested that the 7th century BC saw the birth of both a "new form of government and a new form of wealth." According to Ure, the emergence of a mercantile class along the Ionian coast led to conflicts with the agrarian class which ruled from Lydia. In the words of historian C. J. Emlyn-Jones: "The economic and social pressures of the late seventh and early sixth centuries led to violent revolution almost everywhere."
Ure pointed out that tyrants were not necessarily oppressors. That is a modern view. To the people of the time, tyrants were merely rulers who did not have hereditary authority. They were self-made men. The word tyrant only became negative when tyrannies were replaced later by oligarchies and democracies.
This idea was also offered in 1958 by the classicist Robert M. Cook. He cited five known facts:
1. The earliest known coins are stamped electrum of uniform weight.
2. Each piece was very valuable, worth many sheep (or several cows).
3. Many types of these earliest coins have been found.
4. They can be dated to the late 7th century.
5. Herodotus who lived much closer to the event says that the Lydians invented coins of gold and silver.
Therefore, according to Cook:
". . . it may be reasonably inferred that coinage was invented to make a large number of uniform payments of considerable value in a portable and durable form, and that the person making the payments was the king of Lydia. One solution suggests itself, that the purpose of coinage was the payment of mercenaries."
An interesting variant to this theory comes from Martin J. Price. In 1986, Price claimed that the first coinage was not payment per se, but a bonus.
". . . it is clear that the theory proposed by R. M. Cook and now widely accepted, that coinage was to provide payments for mercenaries does not fit the facts. . . . At this stage in the economy payments in metals for service was not normal. We can gain some idea of the practice of employment from [the Iliad and the Odyssey], and it would seem that employees were normally given board and lodging in return for service, and 'payment' was received at the end of service by way of a bonus, which could presumably, but not necessarily be given in metals. . . . [As] bonus payments, the coins are more akin to gifts (or medals) than to coins as we know them."
In other words, the Lydian king, Alyattes, (or the Lydian tyrant, Gyges) would have promised payment in kind. After a successful battle, or at the end of the campaign, the sovereign would have issued electrum nuggets as a special reward, like a medal of honor. This spin does explain how over-valued coins would be introduced into the stream of commerce.
The Tyrant theory could also explain the first coins as anonymous badges of conspiracy. Melting and casting electrum created natural-looking lumps that mimicked the nuggets found in local streams. Stamping a rude mark would identify the ingot to the select few and yet would be meaningless to the authorities. The earliest coins would then have had a purely local use in buying loyalty.
Michael E. Marotta
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Gantor

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