Abstract: The Origins of Money: Coinage, Art, and the Construction of Value in the Ancient Mediterranean

One of the most critical developments in the course of Mediterranean history was the invention of coinage. The quest for metals – the very commodities that define our periodization of Greece (Copper Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age) – is not simply an issue of technological innovations or the vicissitudes of supply or the mechanics of regional networks, but a real search for structuring commodities of value that ultimately leads to an economic system of exchange not limited to elites. The culmination is the invention of coinage, which first occurs in western Anatolia and east Greece in the cultural milieu of the later seventh and sixth centuries BC, an innovation with global consequences. By focusing on the early coinage of several Greek centers, more particularly on the emblems that certain city-states chose for their coinage, images that hark back to prehistoric measures of value – cattle, bronze tripods, grain – this paper challenges long-held assumptions as to the economic underpinnings of coinage. Struck by the state – the polis – these emblems sought to represent a collective identity. By boldly minting their identity on silver coinage, the Greek city-states chose money, the very vehicle of value, in order to create relations of dominance and to produce social orders that had not existed before.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic (for lay reader):

Williams, J. (ed.), Money: A History. London, British Museum Press: 1997

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