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Money and Its Uses in the Ancient Greek World

Author(s):Meadows, Andrew
Shipton, Kirsty
Reviewer(s):Schaps, David M.

Published by EH.NET (April 2004)


Andrew Meadows and Kirsty Shipton, editors, Money and Its Uses in the Ancient Greek World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xx + 187 pp. ?65 or $98 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-924012-4; ?30 or $45 (paper), ISBN: 0-19-927142-9

Reviewed for EH.NET by David M. Schaps, Department of Classical Studies, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel

In 1972 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. It did not simply collect information about ancient agriculture, craftsmanship, and production; that job had been done already. Instead it offered a new conceptual model for understanding the economy of ancient Greece and Rome, one in which status and social organization loomed large and the traditional categories of markets, exports, and economic choice took a back seat.

Finley’s work, though it dominated the field for decades, has not gone unchallenged; nor, surely, would he have wanted it to. But it ended forever the certainties by which ancient historians, economists, and numismatists could take the conceptual framework of their own discipline for granted and import from the others “the basic facts.” Since The Ancient Economy, and particularly in the last decade, members of these discrete disciplines have been speaking to each other more and raising questions of principle. (Professional economists, unfortunately, have not yet been integrated fully into this debate.) The ground is rumbling beneath us, and we do not know yet where matters will settle.

The volume here reviewed is chiefly the result of conferences held at Oxford in 1995 and 1997. The editors are Andrew Meadows, Curator of Ancient Greek Coins at the British Museum, and Kirsty Shipton, Lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Leicester; the contributors include numismatists, historians of the ancient economy, and at least one (Jane Rowlandson) who considers herself neither. The subject of the conferences was the use of coined money, and the questions dealt with are those that have come to the fore in recent years. How straightforward a process was monetization, and how thoroughly did it succeed? How did ideologies of sovereignty and democracy affect the minting of coins, and vice versa? How much control, and what sort of control, was exercised by dynasts over the coinage of polities under their sway? Why did cities mint coins in the first place?

Space permits only a brief summary. Henry Kim begins the volume with “Archaic Coinage as Evidence for the Use of Money,” a contribution valuable not only for its thesis (that the invention of coinage is only a stage in the gradual monetization of Greek society) but also for a summary of recent numismatic discoveries that render obsolete a number of common generalizations. Jeremy Trevett, in “Coinage and Democracy at Athens,” argues that although coinage undoubtedly existed in non-democratic states as well, there was a certain linkage between the use of coinage and democratic ideology, and it was not accidental that Athenian coins were both stable in design (maintaining the “owls” that had symbolized the city since the beginning of the democracy) and lackadaisical in execution (since no body was responsible for, or stood to gain from, the aesthetics of their production).

Graham Oliver (“The Politics of Coinage: Athens and Antigonus Gonatas”) and Andrew Meadows (“Money, Freedom, and Empire in the Hellenistic World”) both follow up the thesis of Thomas Martin (Sovereignty and Coinage in Classical Greece, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985) that expression of sovereignty was not a factor in the decision of Greek states to issue coins. Both find that although previous scholarship has tended to associate the issuance of coins with political autonomy, there is in fact no independent evidence of this for the areas they consider; Meadows shows that there was demonstrably a certain amount of royal interference, but it was neither uniform nor absolute.

Sitta von Reden deals with “The Politics of Monetization in Third-Century BC Egypt”: she finds that the Ptolemies’ coinage was promoted by the state as part of its “imagery of power,” but never achieved a sufficient volume to overcome a relative shortage of precious-metal coinage, with the result that credit transactions were much more developed than they are usually thought to have been at Athens — a conclusion that warns against the temptation to lump Athenian and Hellenistic evidence together into a homogenized “Greek Law.”

R. H. J. Ashton’s “The Coinage of Rhodes 408-c. 190 BC” offers a brief but thorough catalogue of Rhodian issues, finding that peaks in the volume of coinage issued apparently correspond with major construction work or with military crises, a finding strongly suggesting that not market needs but state needs determined the production of coins. John K. Davies’ “Temples, Credit, and the Circulation of Money” defines a five-stage process in the monetization of temples — a process that works itself out in different ways in different places, by no means always reaching stage five from stage one. Kirsty Shipton (“Money and the Elite in Classical Athens”), doing the best she can with the very small statistical sample that is the bane of all ancient economic historians, does offer at least suggestive evidence that prominent Athenians were more likely to invest in leasing the mines at Laureion than they were to lease agricultural land from the state. Jane Rowlandson (“Money Use among the Peasantry of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt”) returns us to Egypt with an interesting complement to Sitta von Reden’s contribution. Focusing on the countryside, she documents the slow penetration of money among the peasantry as some taxes, but not all, required them to accumulate enough coin to satisfy their rulers.

The volume is well-produced and the articles are thoughtful, each in its way moving us forward toward a deeper understanding of one of the most profound economic revolutions the world has known.

David M. Schaps is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Bar-Ilan University, and the author of The Invention of Coinage and the Monetization of Ancient Greece (University of Michigan Press, 2004).

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Ancient