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The Monetary Systems of the Greeks and Romans

Author(s):Harris, William V.
Reviewer(s):Engen, Darel Tai

Published by EH.Net (February 2011)

William V. Harris, editor, The Monetary Systems of the Greeks and Romans.? Oxford:? Oxford University Press, 2008.? xiv + 330 pp. $45 (paper), ISBN: 978-0-19-958671-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Darel Tai Engen, Department of History, California State University San Marcos.

Showing that the recent resurgence of interest in the economies of ancient Greece and Rome is still going strong,[1] Oxford University Press has now made available in paperback William V. Harris? excellent 2008 edited volume, The Monetary Systems of the Greeks and Romans.? The collection is the product of an international conference held under the auspices of the Center for the Ancient Mediterranean at Columbia University in 2005, and like several other works in this post-Finley era of scholarship on the ancient economy, the articles of Monetary Systems refreshingly try neither to avoid Finley?s influential model of a ?primitive? and ?embedded? economy nor to take rigid, partisan stances for or against it.[2]? Rather, they acknowledge the model?s pros and cons while moving well beyond it through examinations of the monetary systems of Greece and Rome that present a more nuanced, balanced, and — dare I say — true understanding of the ancient economy.

Monetary Systems begins with a cogent and useful introduction by Harris that sets the articles in their scholarly context while laying out the major questions they address.? Since the 1990s the study of Greek and Roman money has expanded beyond the traditional, narrow focus of numismatists who examined such topics as the origins, weight standards, quantities, and circulation patterns of coinage to include the interests of economic and cultural historians, economists, and more dynamic numismatists who have looked at the broader notion of money (as opposed to coinage alone) within the context of wider historical questions.? Thus, the collection?s articles treat such topics as the use of bullion as money, the reasons for the spread of coinage, the existence and extent of credit-money, the money supply, prices and growth, the extent of monetization, the degree of monetary integration across the Roman Mediterranean, the choice of metals used for money, and the use of money in the Roman provinces.? Taking the debate about the nature of the ancient economy head on, Harris rejects the either-or view, in which one must hold that the ancient economy is best understood either through modern, ?formalist,? economic analysis or through the ?mentalities? of the ancient Greeks and Romans themselves — both approaches are necessary and even compatible, as the articles in this book show.

The articles are arranged more or less chronologically, beginning with those devoted to ancient Greece.? John Kroll?s contribution argues rather compellingly on the basis of both documentary and coin hoard evidence that the Greeks used bullion as money both before and after the advent of coinage and not only as a store of value but also as a medium of exchange.? Thus, it appears that traditional notions of money persisted even as newer forms began to be used that facilitated a more complex economy.? Although Kroll?s contention that the supply of silver was ?probably more influential? (p. 37) for monetization than the introduction of coinage is not entirely convincing, he is probably right to link increasing maritime trade with this monetary transformation.? In contrast to Kroll, David Schaps emphasizes the primacy of coinage as money in ancient Greece.? It was ?all purpose? (p. 42) in that the value of all material possessions was conceived of in terms of coin equivalents and the vast majority of transactions were mediated by coins.? Thus, despite acknowledging the existence of extensive lending and borrowing, Schaps tends to minimize the sophistication of ancient Greek money through normative comparisons to modern-day practice, stating that money-credit, for example, was ?much more restricted than what we take for granted today? (p. 46 and n. 38).? On the other hand, Edward Cohen?s article rather emphasizes the extent of lending and borrowing and the activities of bankers in fourth-century Athens to show how important they were for increasing the money supply.? Easily disproving the long-held notion that a sale was legally binding in ancient Greece only upon the simultaneous payment of the purchase price and delivery of the purchased goods, Cohen demonstrates the significance of vendor-supplied credit for the elasticity of the Athenian money supply.? Perhaps even more significant were the almost equally well-documented banking operations that created money exponentially through a potentially endless chain of deposits and loans.? Moreover, none of these forms of credit-money required the existence of negotiable instruments, paper currency, or fiat money of any kind.? Ironically, the absence of such modern forms of money, which gave the impression of a ?primitive? economy, may have in fact stimulated the creation of credit.? Thus, Athens was neither primitive nor modern when compared to current practice — it was simply different.?

The sole chapter on money in the Hellenistic period by J.G. Manning was not from the Columbia conference but was added to the collection in order to give some exposure to this still-too-often neglected era.? Manning offers a survey of the ?Ptolemaicization? of Egypt, in which monetization played a key role in promoting the authority of the central government of the Greco-Macedonian Ptolemies.? Establishing government mints, creating a closed coinage system, and requiring that the payment (or at least reckoning) of many taxes be made in coin through state banks forced the population to acknowledge the Ptolemies? sovereignty.? Still, monetization appears to have spread only in so far as the government was involved in the economy, since the private economy of the rural masses was still largely characterized by barter while credit was constrained by personal, family, and status relationships.

The majority of the articles in the collection are devoted to ancient Rome.? David Hollander offers an innovative approach to the important issue of economic growth.? He criticizes previous attempts to gauge economic growth through the money supply, which require highly speculative estimates of the velocity of money, and focuses instead on the demand for money.? Although the increasing demand for money for precautionary purposes during the upheavals of the late Republic mitigated the inflationary potential of the (now well-established) rapid growth of the money supply, it also may have had a dampening effect on economic growth.? However, as Harris points out (p. 6), Hollander?s approach minimizes the extent of credit-money, which may have been sizable enough to have a significant impact on the money supply, and through it, economic growth.? Ultimately too, Hollander is limited to providing a set of possibilities for growth based on a range of likely estimates for the demand for money rather than any firm quantities.? Another thorny issue in the debate about the ancient economy concerns market integration.? Finley, of course, denied the existence of any significant integration; however, in their article David Kessler and Peter Temin argue on the basis of the diminishing price of wheat with increasing distance from the city of Rome that markets were integrated to the extent that the demand for wheat in Rome influenced its price throughout the Mediterranean, a situation facilitated by the uniformity of the currency used throughout this region.? Despite the fact that their argument is based on just a handful of attested prices, their conclusions are bolstered by a regression analysis that shows that the inverse relationship between the price of wheat and the distance from Rome is very unlikely to be the product of chance.

Concerning the nature and uses of money in Rome, Elio Lo Cascio concurs with several studies that gold coins were preferred to silver ones as a store of value.? On the other hand, he also attempts to show that gold coins were commonly used for payments as well.? Although his evidence (fictional literary works) has been questioned (by Harris, p. 9, n. 16), the fact that imperial payments to Roman soldiers and largesse to the urban poor were frequently made in gold coin lends support to Lo Cascio?s argument.? Harris? own chapter attempts to show that the money supply in Rome was adequate for economic growth.? He first defines money in the Roman context and argues that although coinage was certainly the most widely used form of money, it was not the only form.? The use of bullion for transactions may have been limited in Rome, but the amount of credit-money was extensive, and this contributed significantly to the money supply and, more importantly in Harris? view, the availability of capital, which could serve as the engine of economic growth, even if its effect was counterbalanced by technological stagnation.?

Peter van Minnen offers a diachronic survey of money and credit in Roman Egypt that covers monetization, price changes, investment, and taxation and their impact on various classes of people from the first through the sixth centuries.? As with Manning?s study of the monetary system of Egypt in the Hellenistic period, van Minnen?s analysis shows that the degree of monetization, while increasing in general, varied according to social class and was influenced both by the government?s need to collect taxes and by particular events, most notably the dampening effect of the Antonine plague in the latter half of the second century, the inflationary crisis of 275, and the introduction of the gold solidus coinage at the beginning of the fourth century.? Constantina Katsari?s study reveals similar complexity.? Her detailed analysis of coin finds in the Balkans, Asia Minor, and Syria shows that monetization was largely a function of the extent of trade and urbanization.? Although urbanization was promoted by the presence of the Roman army, the army itself was not the driving force behind monetization, since large numbers of coin hoards have been found in urban centers along trade routes even where the Roman army was not present but not found around military fortresses in rural areas away from major trade routes.

In the final article Walter Scheidel attempts to explain why Greek and Roman coinages tended to consist of precious metals whereas Chinese coinage featured base metals.? Scheidel identifies key factors, such as the availability of particular metals (pretty obvious), the nature of military service (Western soldiers were often paid after around 300 BC, whereas Chinese ones were conscripted), politics (the conquest of the gold minting Chu by the bronze minting Qin), ?path dependence? (the inertia of long-standing habit), and ideological traditions (that may be the root cause of such path dependence).? While fascinating and an important beginning for a much needed counterexample perspective on ancient Greek and Roman coinage and, conversely, on Chinese coinage, Scheidel?s article is also frustrating in that it raises many important questions (such as why Aegean coinage bore pictorial designs whereas Chinese coinage did not) that it does not attempt to answer.

As with all edited volumes of conference proceedings, Monetary Systems suffers to some extent from disunity in theme and approaches and a disparity in the quality of the articles.? It is certainly weighted toward Rome, to which seven articles are devoted, whereas Greece garners only four, and two concern the Hellenistic World and a comparison of Greco-Roman and Chinese coinage respectively.? However, it has the advantage of providing a variety of perspectives on a number of key issues concerning the money and economy of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.? Moreover, Harris has done a remarkable job both in his introduction and in encouraging the contributors to address common themes to impose a certain degree of unity on the collection.? Monetization is a central feature of all the articles, regardless of their approaches and other concerns.? Also, for the most part, each article meets a fairly high standard of scholarship.? Thus, Monetary Systems serves as an excellent overview of the most interesting topics in ancient monetary history today and provides a valuable contribution to our understanding of the economic history of the ancient world in general.


1.? For bibliography, see n. 1 of my review of T. Amemiya, Economy and Economics of Ancient Greece, for EH.Net (, to which I would now add my own book, Honor and Profit: Athenian Trade Policy and the Economy and Society of Greece, 415-307 B.C.E. (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2010).

2.? For a description of Finley?s model and its scholarly context within the long-running debate about the nature of the ancient economy, see my encyclopedia article for EH.Net on ?The Economy of Ancient Greece? (

Darel Tai Engen earned a B.A. in Economics and a Ph.D. in Ancient Greek History from UCLA.? He is currently an Associate Professor of History at California State University San Marcos.? His published articles and books on the ancient Greek economy include:? “Trade, Traders, and the Economy of Athens in the Fourth Century B.C.E.,” in D.W. Tandy, editor, Prehistory and History: Ethnicity, Class, and Political Economy (Montreal 2001) 179-202; “Ancient Greenbacks: Athenian Owls, the Law of Nikophon, and the Greek Economy,? Historia 54, 4 (2005) 359-381; and Honor and Profit:? Athenian Trade Policy and the Economy and Society of Greece, 415-307 B.C.E. (Ann Arbor 2010).

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