Tuesday, May 29, 2007

And You Think Your Ancient Coin Is Old?

Money And Its Origins

Do you know what the world’s oldest coin is? If you’re not sure, don’t feel bad — the book is still open on what exactly represents the “first” money. Some early forms of primitive money were mostly objects used to barter for other goods. These included such things as bronze necklaces, pieces of gold and silver, gold dust and nuggets, sea shells, pressed blocks of tea, rings of silver, slaves, tobacco, cattle and much more. As far as money made from precious metals is concerned, ring money, developed by an Egyptian Pharaoh thousands of years ago, was the first. This Pharaoh made sure his “money” was made of gold and was relatively uniform in size and weight. Most importantly, especially if you were some poor granite carver working on a pyramid, was that the Pharaoh said that it was money and his subjects either had to accept it or they ended up on the wrong end of a spear.

Electrum and the First Coins

What’s generally accepted as the world’s first coins were struck more than 2,500 years ago in the kingdom of Lydia, a small but wealthy state in Asia Minor, in what is today part of modern-day Turkey. The reason for Lydia’s prosperity was its vast amounts of electrum, a very scarce natural alloy that is essentially the combination of gold and silver found in the silt along the shores of the Pactolus River. In fact, according to legend, these special gold deposits originated when King Midas washed his hands in the river to rid himself of his “golden touch.” It was Electrum that made the kings of Lydia the richest and most powerful rulers of the ancient world. King Croesus of Lydia was the first person to mint gold and silver coinage and played a pivotal role in developing the world’s first monetary system based upon precious metals. Electrum was the key instrument in this development. Croesus had his underlings shape electrum into bean-shaped lumps each with a fixed weight and purity. Then, each was stamped with an official symbol. By 550 BC, the practice of striking coins was established in all the important trading cities throughout the known world.Electrum remains a rare metal alloy today that’s even scarcer than platinum. Although very rarely used in the striking of coinage, it’s no stretch to say that every coin collection around the world is based on electrum, the first precious metal used to strike coins. If it weren’t for electrum, we might not be collecting coins today! More importantly, this first coinage allowed mankind to move away from barter and to expand throughout the known world. No other invention can compare to this one, for without coinage, we’d still be stuck in a barter economy. Bartering may be all right for trading a sandwich for a bag of cookies in grade school, but not for a civilized global economy!

Enter the Greeks

The rise of the Greek city states brought with it a marvelous development in coins. The Greeks took striking coins to a whole new level. Featuring exotic images of gods, goddesses and winged creatures, Greek coins had a beautiful visionary quality that would not be matched for another thousand years. The coins of Greece, and in particular those of some of their city states, such as Syracuse, are amazingly beautiful miniature works of art. No people in the history of the world have ever truly exceeded the beauty of their coins. When Alexander the Great conquered the known world from 336 to 323 BC, he not only spread the Greek Hellenistic culture throughout his empire, he also spread the concept of coinage. It was an idea that lived on even after his death as his generals and successors founded the great Hellenistic empires. These successors introduced realistic portraits as a regular feature of their coinage. The true visages of world rulers were recorded for posterity. Many of these rulers are unknown to history except through their coin portraits.

When in Rome

The Roman Empire continued the Hellenistic tradition of realistic portraits on coins. The emperor’s family was also frequently depicted on the coinage — the ancient world’s version of the newspaper tabloid that kept track of the royal family. In this way, the progression of some emperors can be seen on their coins from boyhood through maturity. With no television, newspaper or internet to spread news, Roman coins were frequently the main propaganda tool used by the emperors. Besides telling citizens in no uncertain terms who was in charge, Roman coins also publicized the achievements of the emperor, such as key military victories and important architectural works like the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus. Even important events such as the assassination of Julius Caesar or an alliance between cities, were recorded on the coinage. Unsurpassed in their quality and completeness, Roman coins are like a portrait gallery that tells the long history of the world’s greatest empire. These coins were so important that even usurpers to the throne, who would otherwise be unrecorded in history, struck coins with their names on them as their first rule of business after seizing power. Besides needing the coins to pay their army, which allowed them to proclaim themselves emperor, the coins bearing their image legitimized their rule to the masses. Today, many of these usurpers are known today only through their coins.

How the Fall of Rome Affected Coinage

One can see the decline of the Roman Empire on its coinage. In the time of Emperor Trajan (98-117), the standard monetary coin was a large Silver Denarius. In the mid-200s, the coins shrunk in size to a small Silver Antoniananus. By the late 200s, the coin became a Bronze Antoniananus, which was silver plating over bronze. Finally, by the 300s and 400s, the coins became solid bronze, indicating the depths to which the Empire had fallen.When the Roman Empire collapsed in 476, most of Europe was thrown into the era known as the Dark Ages. Yet many of the barbarians who conquered Rome were half Romanized. The remains of Rome’s greatness were all around them. They strode along her roads. Many became Christians. Roman law, literature and architectural remains are still studied, and our calendar is based on the Julian calendar of Julius Caesar. Roman roads paved the way for the spread of these ideas. The roads traveled to foreign lands and established cities that are still in existence today — London, Istanbul, Paris and Lisbon to name just a few. In the East, Constantinople kept Roman ideas, culture and laws alive well into the Renaissance. Though the Roman Empire was no more, the mints it had established in the far-flung corners of the world lived on. No longer glorifying the “Eternal City” of Rome, these now served their tribal leaders and warlords for several centuries until a renaissance in thought, culture and technology could effect a change.

At a later date I will add date about the Byzantine Empire and Subsequent coinage. The information I am sharing can be found at the following URL: govmint.com I give full credit to the site and to the writer of the article. Thank you for reading and God Bless.. Jerry..

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