Our reflections on the background of money in ancient civilisations, inspired by some of the most recent modern economic developments.
During the referendum campaign on E.U. membership in the United Kingdom, along with immigration, the hottest issues centered around money and economic strength – whether the country should invest as a member of the Union, while also negotiating arrangements of how it should trade and carry out transactions with its foreign neighbours. But although the U.K. has recently voted to leave, over many years there has been another country on the outskirts of the E.U., within who some have been patiently awaiting a green light for full membership and economic integration within Europe. That country is Turkey.
Interesting, then, that a delve into the history of monetary systems and trading with foreign neighbours, the path takes us back over 2400 years and to what is now the modern western Turkish provinces of Uşak, Manisa and inland İzmir. In the sixth century B.C., it was the one of the wealthiest regions of ancient times, the Kingdom of Lydia. The ruler from 560 to 546 BC was Kroisos, whose name is still uttered today as the synonym of a person of great wealth: “rich as Kroisos”. So, the kingdom’s implementation of a state-run, standardised monetary system was certainly lucrative, but how did this come about? A crucial turning point was the first circulation of pure gold coinage under his rule.
Previous to this important development, coinage was crafted from a locally mined alloy of gold and silver, named electrum. However, the variable proportion of these materials made it difficult to achieve uniformly valued coins, and valuing individual coins was a laborious task. Through technological advances, the gold and silver could be separated, and the first example of pure gold coinage was produced. This state-produced coinage, with a pre-defined and reliable value would help drive the economy, with quicker, safer, efficient and dependable transactions. The Kingdom thrived, and so did the power and influence of its leader.
The stamps on these coins would be not just a marker to guarantee their value, but also gave a powerful opportunity for Kroisos to advertise his own position and influence. The first gold coins depicted the noble lion, and probably as part of a campaign for Kroisos to project an image of power, added the image of the bull. These images would be held in the hands of people across the kingdom, and beyond, as economic trading networks spanned across Asia Minor.
A fine example of one of these ancient coins can be viewed at Kallos gallery as part of the exhibition Horses, Rulers, & Victory. In these modern times, the mechanisms of our now further evolved monetary systems are being so deeply debated; so to hold its beginnings from 2400 years ago in your hand is quite a powerful experience. Particularly for a coin so small, it is incredibly mighty in its influence today.