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Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy

Author(s):Seaford, Richard
Reviewer(s):Tandy, David

Published by EH.NET (March 2005)

Richard Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xii + 370 pp. $80 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-83228-4; $29.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-521-53992-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Tandy, Professor of Classics, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Richard Seaford, Professor of Greek Literature at the University of Exeter and author of the very important Reciprocity and Ritual: Homer and Tragedy in the Developing City-State (Oxford 1994), has given us a powerful and valuable set of observations on the impact of the introduction of coinage on the early Greek world. Part One, The Genesis of Coined Money, will be of interest especially to economists and economic historians. Part Two, The Making of Metaphysics, which makes fascinating arguments about the role of coinage in the invention and development of philosophy and abstract thought in general, will be of interest especially to classicists. This reviewer found the book exceptionally difficult and supposes that the best review would be a largely descriptive one.

In his introduction, Seaford offers some necessary preliminaries by discussing the differences between “primitive” and modern money — he situates Greek coinage “between commodity and sign, between ‘primitive’ and modern money” (6). Building on his Reciprocity and Ritual, Seaford insists that we ask the question, why do people begin to trust money? Part of his answer is that coinage has a strong connection with ritual, especially civic ritual. He promises a very humanistic and nuanced analysis of coinage in Part One. He further predicts that in Part Two readers will learn that money led to metaphysics, which led to tragedy. He concludes his introduction with a list of seven characteristics of money that stand as an answer to the question, what is (modern) money? He offers the “characteristics the possession of which by something (x) inclines us to call x money” (16; all the following italics are original):

1. x has the “power to meet social obligations
2. It “tends to be quantified
3. It “may provide a measure of value
4. General acceptability
5. Exclusive acceptability
6. Fiduciarity
7. “The state may be involved in issuing money, controlling it, guaranteeing it, enforcing its acceptability, and so on.”

Chapter two looks at economic transactions in Homer (eighth century BC), observing the marginalization of trade in Homer as well as the absence of money. Homer’s world has plenty of gold and silver and there is no shortage of exchange (although markets are for the most part absent). One of the more common exchanges in the Iliad and Odyssey is the distribution of booty and of sacrificial meat. But there is no money.

Chapter three focuses on Homeric sacrifice and durable wealth. He concludes that Homer idealizes gift-exchange and undervalues commodity-exchange.

In moving to the Near East in chapter four, Seaford offers valuable comparisons between Greek epic and Mesopotamian epic, as well as similarities between Mesopotamian and Homeric sacrificial offerings. Much of this will be pretty heavy slogging for non-classicists. Seaford argues that the similarities between second-millennium Greece and Mesopotamia help us to recognize the changes that have occurred later as the polis comes into being. What is most striking is how the Greek cults, the religious centers of the Greek world, depended on money for their operations, and how for the Greeks, in contrast to their eastern neighbors, “The role of the god is not to demand food for the centre, for himself and his household, but rather to require a human feast, whose vital political importance is a symbolic expression of communality, participation, koinonia (87).” The indirectness of civic feasting leads participants “towards the symbolic.”

In chapter five, Seaford reviews the literary references to money. Archilochus (ca. 650 BC) may refer to money and Alcaeus (ca. 600) certainly does. It is clear that by the fifth century in Athens money possessed all seven of the characteristics identified in the introduction.

Chapters six and seven should be of great interest to economists because, finally, Seaford takes up the preconditions of coinage and the earliest coinage. Chapter six reviews the long understood transition from spit (obelos) to coin (obolos), adding the careful observation that while spits (obeloi) were regularly left as dedications, there remains the mystery of why a statue would be called an obelos (108), unless one offers the rather easy explanation of the presence of substitutability, a key to the development of fiduciarity.

Chapter seven, “The Earliest Coinage,” contains at first glance nothing new, but Seaford is able to sift through the standard evidence and get a new twist accommodating his social and ritual approach. The Lydians (inland western Anatolia) developed coinage from an existing system of weights, as Seaford properly follows Miriam Balmuth in talking about coinage as a development rather than an invention. What about when? It is difficult to push the first coins to earlier than 600 BC and most Greek states waited at least fifty years and in many cases nearly one hundred to adopt this innovation.

In chapter eight, Seaford describes “several salient features of Greek money that are also features of modern money”:
1. Money is homogeneous;
2. Money is impersonal;
3. Money is a universal aim;
4. Money is a universal means;
5. Money is unlimited;
6. Money is both concrete and abstract; and
7. Money is distinct from all else.

Part Two of the book will either not interest most readers of this review or especially interest them since it is not particularly “economic.” What Seaford does in this part is argue and speculate about the role of coinage in the invention of aspects of Greek culture. In chapter nine, Seaford wonders about how coinage affected public space and the earliest philosophical thought in Miletus in Ionia. Miletus in the early sixth century was easily the most monetized city-state in the Greek world. Chapter ten addresses the work of Anaximander (of Miletus, ca. 610-546) and Xenophanes (of Colophon [near Miletus in Ionia], ca. 570-ca. 480).

The remaining chapters will interest classical philologists and philosophers, as Seaford takes up money and religion and mystery cult, Heraclitus and Parmenides and the development of “abstract being,” and Pythagoreanism and Protagoras.

His concluding chapter takes up some final points about some uses of the language of monetization (e.g., incommensurabilities, equivalencies, self-sufficiency) in tragedy. His explanation for why modern westerners feel a kinship with the classical Greeks that we don’t for the civilization of the ancient Near East is exceptionally provocative: “However fascinating for us is the culture of premonetary Egypt and Mesopotamia, it remains irreducibly alien. The earliest Greek poetry and wisdom, we citizens of a thoroughly monetised society recognise as alien and yet somehow more akin to us than anything from those earlier civilisations. This is, I suggest, in part because Greek poetry and wisdom sprang from a society that was about to be — or was already – monetized” (316).

In conclusion let me emphasize yet again that this is not the book to open if one wants to find out what we think we know about the earliest money because that is not what it is about, as even the title makes manifestly clear. Readers interested in the specific matter of early coinage should go to David M. Schaps’s excellent The Invention of Coinage and the Monetization of Ancient Greece (2003) (reviewed by Morris Silver for EH.Net), which focuses primarily on the introduction of coinage and the function of coinage in early Greek society. Not all agree with Schaps, and the contributions by Schaps and Jack Kroll to Miriam Balmuth’s edited From Hacksilber to Coinage: New Insights into the Monetary History of the Near East and Greece (2001) illustrate the absence of unanimity regarding the details of the earliest coinage.

David Tandy’s current project is Sappho’s Brother, a study of Greek economic development ca. 700-575 BC. His most recent publication related to the project is “Trade and Commerce in Archilochos, Sappho, and Alkaios,” in MELAMMU V, edited by Robert Rollinger and Christoph Ulf, 183-194. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2004.

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