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Money in Classical Antiquity,  Sitta von Reden, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 237 pages


Prior to reading the current volume I had merely glanced through some of von Reden’s early work.  It  had seemed to me that she was part of a somewhat post-modern movement, trying to wring insights about the ancient economy from very diverse literary sources, alongside such as Kurke and Seaford. 

This post-modern approach paid dividends for Kurke, her somewhat obscure prose seemed to me to serve as a kind of ‘tortoise’, protecting her valuable attack upon some rather misguided academic positions regarding coin origins, positions that rather favoured anti-commercial elitist prejudices.  Seaford however seemed to use the post-modern tack to push rather in the opposite direction.  But I confess I formed no strong opinion of the direction of von Reden’s work from that period.

Thus the style of the current work came as a very pleasant surprise, being rather the work of a mature orthodox historian, with a very broad understanding of current research.

The memorable achievement of the work for me came early; in its display of moral courage, (page 11).  In the 1990’s Howgego initiated the charge against some rather strange biases that have associated themselves with later 20th century academic accounts of the ancient economy.  But this work brings to print matters that I have only previously heard muttered in the dark corners of numismatic academia:  an acknowledgement of the extent to which these biases were ideologically rather than factually driven.  (We have to look outside classical studies to find the cutting edge of such revelatory work concerning ideological bias and the funding foundations however, for instance in Jeff Pooley’s recent account of the doings of Shils and Lazarsfeld on behalf the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations during the Cold War.)

I found a great deal else to admire in this work, and if in the following paragraphs I focus upon criticism of the author this is not intended to denigrate this excellent book, but rather, because criticism is the life blood of scholarship.

In the chapter on monetization there is a tendency to associate the copper coinage exclusively with fiat issue, (eg p. 33-4) rather than bring out the sliding scale that should be erected between full blooded coin in all metals, and (near) fully fiat base issues.  A sliding scale of seigniorage which might vary continuously from zero up to near 100%.  For all its other shortcomings, that aspect of seigniorage was clearly brought out in the recent work on medieval monetary economic by Sargent and Velde.

More than a century has passed since Del Mar revealed the way the imposition of a relatively small seigniorage, of c. 6%,  protected the population from the worst influences of plutocratic control of the money supply, in connection with what he called “the crime of 1666”.   Von Reden (eg p 72),  draws our attention to the way coins, first to the Aiginetan, and later to the Athenian standards, circulated far beyond the boundaries of these issuing states, when other coin stayed within local circuits.  But she explains the matter merely with reference to trade agreements.  The possibility that ancient Angina, like medieval Venice, or early modern Britain, sought to dominate international finance by subsidising coin production for export at its own mint, ought, I think, to be considered.  Not least because the curious lack of small denomination coinage found from Ancient Athens cannot but bring to mind the parlous state of the petty currency of England in the 18th century.

Previous numismatic treatments of ancient money matters , for instance that by Howgego (1995) have tended to say very little indeed concerning  weight standards.  Von Reden is to be congratulated for  plunging into these waters,  and it was this that originally drew my attention to the book.  In general her presentation is rather light on numbers.  For instance, the Chian weight standard is interestingly discussed in the text, yet nowhere did find a definition of what the Chian weight standard was – even in the appendix at the rear of the volume.  Lacking also was a systematic presentation of the articulated weight systems within which the coin standards were derived.  This is important for two reasons. 

Firstly, as already pointed out, deviations from the primary weight systems in order to impose even quite small seigniorage charges might have very important consequences in determining who controlled the money supply.

Secondly, and perhaps more important still, an investigation of the primary metrological systems would highlight the ancient and enduring traditions which lie behind the actual coins weights, and would dispel the rather misleadingly ephemeral  impression given by the coin weights alone.  Taking this road would highlight the extent to which the weight systems themselves are readily interconverted, when the coin weights are not.  For instance, the attic mina seems to be pitched at 7/8 (14oz) of the Persian mina of c. 500g.  Thus giving 8 Attic minas to settle a debt of 7 Persian minas is relatively easy to mentally calculate.  But the ratio of the Attic drachm to the Persian siglos comes out at 63/80, a tough bit of calculation in most instances for anyone hampered by ancient numerical notation systems. 

Thus by focusing upon the coin weights, in a literary rather than numeric manner, von Reden draws attention to the relatively uncontroversial matters to do with the politics of ancient international trading cartels.  Extending the analysis numerically, to take in the more fundamental, and more enduring weight systems, draws our attention to the ways in which wealthy elites were empowered, and the ordinary citizen hindered, by the coin weight systems we see.  This approach would in some ways be natural development from the earlier work of Kurke.  Kurke saw coin as empowering the ordinary citizen, giving her ready access to precious metal for the first time.  The complexity of the coin weight systems that then appear, seem to embody the antithesis of this move, assisting the free movement of large sums, and ease of comparison of international price structures for elite groups, whilst obscuring these facts from all but the most numerate amongst the lower orders.

In the subsequent chapter von Reden introduces the reader to the technicalities of ancient banking systems, a matter I would no presume to comment upon.  Just one matter troubles me in the presentation, and that is to do with modern interpretations of the matter: ( pages 94-95).  I seem to read arguments here what might be taken as an endorsement of borrowing for consumption, in that it assists a the positive matter, the monetisation of the economy.  If the suggestions are read that way, then anyone sharing my own perhaps simplistic view of economics might fear in her rejection of neo-classical models, von Reden is jumping out of the Hayekian fire, into a Keynesian frying pan.  There are plenty of points in the text which the author could point to in defense of her balance in addressing this matter, for instance p. 39 regarding debt bondage etc.  However, there are other matters of importance, then and now, completely missing from this study.  For instance the human catastrophe of the Civil War at the close of the Roman republican period is directly blamed by Petronius upon borrowing for consumption. 

A chapter on sacred finance usefully rounds up the evidence we have on these matters.  There seems to be a profound relationship in almost all cultures between religion and high finance, we only scratch the surface in mentioning the activities of Templars and Jesuits, Jews, Sufis and Jains, and also the role Protestant missionaries in Western Colonialism.   There seems to me something profound about these patterns which eludes von Reden.  It eludes me too.

The final chapter sees the author return somewhat to her post modern roots, in a piece about the negative moral associations of (metallic) money and mining.   Missing from the her suggestions in this connection is the influence of mining communities within the political lives of states.  Miners share with ploughmen and fishermen the rigours of hard physical toil, yet the nature of intensive mine working inevitably welds together quite large and tight knit groups living cheek by jowl, with shared economic interests, welding them  into politically cohesive units.  Almost a century ago Ure put mining interests at the center of his explanation of monetary development is Early Athens, in a work (Origins of Tyranny) which repays re-visiting.  Ure semi-humorously makes the links to the mining interests associated with William Jennings Bryan.  .Even more relevant are medieval Chinese texts which, as I seem to recall,  complain simultaneous about evil subterranean spirits released by mining, and the social disruption of the miners themselves.  But these sort of studies, though fascinating, lie worryingly at the very fringe edge of what can be reasonably corroborated or refuted, and it is all too easy in handling them to slip from scholarship to covert or even unconscious forms of propaganda.  Thus I again register my pleasure that von Reden has now focused her energetic reading and considerable talents more upon mainstream matters to the assistance of us all.

Robert Tye  15th Nov  2011