The Ancients First Use of Money

What Would an Ancient Coin Buy?

The question of how much an ancient coin was worth "back then" often comes up when this author shows his coin collection to friends, acquaintances, and young people in a classroom where history is being studied. Although the answer to this question is not simple or easy to explain, the process of digging out answers to questions like this is one of the things that gives this author the greatest satisfaction in the study of history.

As I sit here and attempt to do a thorough job of writing this article, I am looking at a stack of eighteen books, only four of which are coin collecting or numismatic books. The rest deal with daily life and customs of the ancient Romans, archaeology of the Roman economy, and graffiti found on walls in the destroyed cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. I could add in about eight or ten books dealing with the Roman Army and about twelve dealing explicitly with the decline and fall of the empire. This simply demonstrates the complexity of the question we are considering. It cannot be adequately answered without research into these topics. As if this were not enough, there are very few surviving documents in which specific prices are mentioned.

First, we must realize that during the period when Athens and Sparta were busily creating Greek civilization and Hellenic culture, the very idea of money was a brand new one that people were only then getting used to. Even today and in the recent past, money is an idea and a tool almost all civilized people and the majority of primitive people use but each one of us has a hard time really understanding. Let’s look at a few examples.

To a modern family struggling to get by in today’s world, money is what pays the bills and keeps the credit card companies from calling you in the middle of the night. If there were a little more of it, it might be called buying power, but the current paycheck or welfare allotment is seen as just a club (and a pretty puny one at that) used to defend the family against the snarling jaws and snapping teeth of economic disaster. If you are a young professional, money is not seen as a fixed amount here and there to make payments, but is more of a rate. Notice how professional people talk about salaries of "$63 K a year" and their house payments of $2700.00 a month. They strive not simply for more money, but a higher rate at which dollars come waddling in like so many sleepy turtles. Then they can afford a nicer car or house or college for the kids, each of which is a monthly rate at which dollars go stampeding out like wild mustangs with the scent of fire in their nostrils. If your name is Bill Gates, money is a measurable economic something. This something bestows the power of economic freedom of action. With money, Mr. Gates can buy more companies and lure talent away from competitors. With it he can also wage other kinds of economic warfare against rivals and build a financial empire by conquering and either eliminating or absorbing the competition. If your name is Alan Greenspan, money is the stuff of a nation’s economic life. He has to control its flow so that it not only keeps flowing rapidly (a healthy economy) but does not flow out of the United States too much faster than it flows in. Notice that not once have I mentioned silver, gold, currency or coins. In today’s society, I have my paycheck automatically deposited into my Wells Fargo account. I have a little piece of plastic and the supermarket has a little interactive terminal. I put my groceries in a cart, then walk up to the checkout line and slide my card through a slot while the clerk moves bar - coded rump roasts past a laser scanner and occasionally types in a few numbers into a register (which was called a cash register in the olden days when I was a boy). After I take my groceries home and unpack them, I sit down at my computer and log onto my on - line banking on the Web. I type in my password and up comes my Wells Fargo Bill Pay service. Click, Click, type, type, a few numbers and a couple of mouse clicks and I pay four bills. One pile of numbers gets littler and another gets bigger. Have I seen any of my money? No, because it’s little electronic ones and zeros that are represented by iron oxide molecules embedded in a vinyl or glass medium going right side up or upside down depending on how many ones and zeros I have in my bank account. The little weasels are so tiny I couldn’t see my money if I wanted to. I could, of course, go to an ATM machine and put in a card. The machine starts blinking and beeping and looks as if it is about to hurl its breakfast. Sure enough, a couple of seconds later it chunks up a wad of twenty dollar bills. I don’t often do this, of course, as it is a highly inconvenient way of handling money. I can even trade my twenties for little metal slugs with portraits of dead people on them, but that is even more inconvenient unless I need to stop at a soft drink machine for an emergency Diet Pepsi. Again, I have not mentioned gold or silver.

Return to The Roman Economy Table of Contents

The Ancients' First Use of Money
What are the Functions of Money?
Some Different Economic Systems in History