Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Sitta von Reden, Money in Classical Antiquity. Key Themes in Ancient History. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xxi, 237. ISBN 9780521459525. $31.99 (pb).

Reviewed by William E. Metcalf, Yale University (

Version at BMCR home site


This wide-ranging work attempts to survey the whole of ancient money—emphatically not just coinage, for we have moved well beyond Finley's idea that cash constituted money in the ancient world (quoted here, p. 9 and 92). In seven chapters of unequal coverage, the author leads up to an epilogue on "monetary culture."

Monetization is generally taken as an indicator of acculturation; as a consequence its definition is as important as our ability to describe a "monetized" culture. von Reden expands the definition by arguing from the inclusion of bullion, jewelry etc. in early coin hoards that these objects had monetary function as well, and that monetization would have expanded with or without the invention of coinage. This is almost certainly true of bullion, not necessarily so for other objects.

Ch. 2 turns to cases, particularly that of Athens. Here the pivotal role of Solon—not in coinage, but in monetization— is highlighted. It is argued that the abolition of debt-bondage, and its replacement by contractual tenancy, promoted the use of coin; and that monetization was furthered by an increase in output (though not a "massive" one as at p. 39) after the success in the Persian Wars, and again after ca. 450 at the height of the Athenian empire. Certainly there is plenty of evidence for the use of coin (some described on p. 41) in the late fifth century.

The second case is that of Egypt which, as is well known, had no coinage of its own before Alexander. Here it is stressed that the internal economy still operated in kind rather than coin, and that certain taxes came to be paid in the new, large bronze coins issued from ca. 265 B.C. It is arguable whether Ptolemy I diminished the weight of the silver tetradrachm from the Attic weight characteristic of the Alexander coinage to a new standard roughly 3 gm. lighter; but the ultimate effect was the creation of the "closed" economy, in which foreign (heavier-weight) coin had to be exchanged on entry for the new lighter standard, thus insuring profit to the treasury; similarly Ptolemaic coin could hardly be exported, so silver resources were preserved.

The third case is the Celtic world, which has produced many usefully documented finds and has been the object of considerable recent research. It is now possible to lay out a framework for the development of the coinage, but, as the author admits, in the absence of other forms of documentation much remains obscure.

The author derives several conclusions from all of this. It is hard to dispute that where there is written evidence for Greek or Roman conquest or colonization, monetization followed within a century or so; or that developed areas attest, through archaeology, the use of coin. It is more ambitious to suppose that "there was an increasing demand for money that was not always met by an adequate supply of coinage. This led to a thriving culture of credit." One counterexample comes from the later third century, in which an abundance of local imitations of coins were produced in order to meet the shortage of official currency. I cite this as but one instance of many throughout the work in which the evidence is forced, or at least oversimplified, in order to conform to prior assumptions.

Monetary networks. "In this chapter I wish to explore weight standards as a reflection of monetary networks developing within the tension of local and inter-regional systems of exchange and identity. In their capacity to reduce the costs of transactions, monetary networks represent the attempt to enhance monetary integration and circulation, which in turn increases the power of money" (pp. 65-66). What von Reden calls monetary networks are said to be the result of "a complex interplay of political, ideological and economic factors." In practice, "the boundaries of monetary relationships ran somewhere (sic) differently. The transition from bullion money to stamped coinage in the archaic period can be regarded as reflecting a changing balance between civic relationships and the contacts which individuals entertained across polis boundaries. Similarly, the continuing tension between local coinages, on the one hand, and the attempt to lock these coinages into larger networks of common weight standards, on the other, reflects the particular kind of 'connectivity' which marks ancient Mediterranean history" (p. 66).

Unfortunately this whole formulation invites skepticism. It may be that in modern times monetary networks represent an "attempt" to enhance monetary integration and circulation; but whether such an "attempt" would have occurred to any issuing authority in antiquity is questionable. The clearest statement, and one in which the term used as a synonym, monetary domination, seems clearest is in the alleged speech of Agrippa, in which it is recommended that everyone in the empire use Roman coinage and local standards be suppressed. Again, the transition to coined money can hardly have been intended to facilitate inter-polis relationships; such symbols, punches and signatures as were used on the earliest struck coinage smack of local recognizability. Indeed, at p. 69, it is admitted that the first coins in Asia Minor were based on some highly localized weight system(s); the very use of electrum made exchange complicated. The allusion to the work of Horden and Purcell via the term "connectivity" is simply an attempt to integrate this interpretation of coinage into a larger interpretation of Mediterranean history.

On the same page the author casually inserts a remark concerning Rome that is nonsense as it stands; for "even after 296" read "even before 296." This sort of carelessness is evident elsewhere, e.g. at p. 27 the Edict on Maximum Prices is said to date from 305: the correct date is 301. The discussion at pp. 81ff. is chaotic. The statement on p. 82 that "between 332 and 290 B.C. 240,000 tetradrachms of Alexander coinage were struck" is supported neither by the citation of de Callata├┐ 2005 (incorrectly given as 2003) nor by common sense. On some calculations this would represent the output of only about eight obverse dies, but these coins are abundant in any significant collection, and de Callata├┐ posits an average use of some 71 dies per year for tetradrachms and 79 for drachms. Similarly on p. 83 the statement that the posthumous coinage bore "Alexander's portrait" is incorrect: no one has believed this for a long time, content with the recognition of the bust of Herakles. On p. 84 the end of the Second Punic War is given as 214 B.C. when the reference is really to the introduction of the denarius, now placed slightly later on most chronologies.

Cash and Credit. Ch. 4 is a useful summary of the coexistence, indeed codependency, of cash and credit in antiquity; along the way there is a useful summary of the technical terminology for various kinds of loans and credit instruments. The author contrasts the relatively modest beginnings of credit in classical Athens with later developments in the Roman world; expansion of credit was fostered during the Hellenistic period by population increase and movement, access to new sources of metal, increasing monetization and reduced costs of regional and inter-regional exchange, but reached its ultimate development under Rome with her steady expansion of trading contacts with the East (Delos, Alexandria, and elsewhere). Egypt and Rome are singled out for special treatment. There is in addition a section on banking, and again Rome and Egypt are compared.

Prices and price formation. As the author notes (p. 125) we have large amounts of data relating to prices, though it is spotty and scattered over many centuries; and she quotes Scheidel's caution (p. 128) regarding the dubious utility of figures preserved in the literary tradition; documentary evidence has its own problems, focused as it is on specialized circumstances or providing prices for single commodities within a larger price structure that remains opaque. For her only Delos and Egypt preserve large enough amounts of data to be really useable. At Delos prices for some commodities show long-term stability; others are more variable. In Egypt, in spite of the abundance of material, the picture is clouded by our ignorance of the nature of the prices—are they prices for state purchases? internal estate prices (granted by landlords to tenants)? "farm-gate" prices? do they include costs of transport, and if so over what distances? Rental prices seldom say anything about the size of the plot or the quality of the land. And so on.

Similarly supply and demand are difficult to gauge. Ecological cycles meant that rain shortage was a regular phenomenon, but it was seldom wholly disruptive as demand could be fulfilled by dispersed farming or, if necessary, by imports. The author accepts the general plausibility of Finley's peasant model, with monetization decreasing and self-sufficiency increasing with distance from urban centers; the latter were centers of consumption and exchange, with religious and civic requirements beyond mere individual subsistence, and they stimulated the monetized distribution process and contributed to wider economic development around the Mediterranean. Armies on the move created their own (albeit sporadic) demand, and permanent military installations increased it permanently.

Prices and price formation. A case study. This chapter relates to Egypt, and presents some hard data. Most of the prices (60%) are penalty prices, with 15% representing conversion prices and the remainder actual wheat prices. The entire body of price information is presented in Tables 6-7, pp. 200-205). Seasonal variation is also considered, with Egypt and Delos compared; in Egypt it proves to be much more stable. Even with this body of material, there are too few data to manufacture a generalizing model (p. 153).

Sacred finance. This chapter is not entirely about temple wealth and rental of land, two of the salient features of religious financial life. It goes more deeply into sources of income and objects of expenditure again, as in ch. 4, providing a useful introduction to technical terminology. The role of the state in managing cult finance is also discussed; this feature was not unknown at Athens but advanced considerably under the Hellenistic kings. Equally significant were private benefactions and legacies. The author rightly points to the size and versatility of temple treasuries (they could, for example, be employed in time of war) as important to the progress of monetization in the Mediterranean.

In the epilogue (p. 187) the author quotes Leslie Kurke, who distinguishes between literary scholars and some historians on the one hand who see coinage mainly as symbolic token, and ancient historians and numismatists on the other, who focus on the matter of coinage. "It is my contention that we cannot properly understand Greek coinage until we see the two sides together, and the didactic of symbol and matter that takes place between them." She endorses this view. But the book is a curious mix of the kind of positivist approach employed by historians and numismatists (and, as noted above, is none too precise about facts)—evident too in the chapters on Egyptian prices— and the symbolic. The interpretations operate in their respective domains without, I think, satisfying Kurke's proposal that they act together.

The book is not an easy read, and sometimes its direction is unclear. It all but ignores the Roman Empire, with its expanding "monetary network," huge coinage, and repeated reduction in standard and debasement, not to mention the growth of a subsidiary system in the Roman provinces. Its sporadic citation will prove frustrating to advanced students, and beginners are liable to be daunted by the unfamiliarity of the material. But on the whole it is a worthwhile addition to the Key Themes series and should find a home in the libraries of historians and numismatists.

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