Guide Money over Two Centuries: Selected Topics in British Monetary History

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Download Citation on ResearchGate | On Jul 4, , Ranald Michie and others published Money over two centuries: Selected topics in British monetary history.
Table of contents

In early civilizations a temple is considered the safest refuge; it is a solid building, constantly attended, with a sacred character which itself may deter thieves. In Egypt and Mesopotamia gold is deposited in temples for safe-keeping. But it lies idle there, while others in the trading community or in government have desperate need of it. In Babylon at the time of Hammurabi, in the 18th century BC, there are records of loans made by the priests of the temple. The concept of banking has arrived.

The earliest known coins in the western world come from the city of Ephesus in Ionia in western Turkey in about BC.

Modern monetary systems

The metal used is electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver found locally. The coins are bean shaped and are struck on one side with a distinguishing mark, such as the image of a lion. The underlying purpose is to ensure a stable value in this variable metal of exchange, previously traded by weight alone. A century later Croesus , king of neighbouring Lydia and famous for his wealth, becomes the first ruler to mint coins in pure gold and pure silver. Like the earlier coins, his are still stamped on just one side.

They show the facing heads of a lion and a bull. Greek cities, to the west of Lydia, and the great Persian empire to the east are quick to adopt the useful new technique of metal currency. By the end of the 6th century coinage is common throughout the region. In distant Rome, as yet more backward, unworked lumps of bronze are now in use as currency.

Their value is expressed in terms of sheep and cattle, a concept reflected still in the word 'pecuniary' in languages influenced by Latin. The Roman word for money, pecunia , derives from pecus , meaning cattle. Bronze coins in China: 7th - 3rd century BC. By one of the strange coincidences of history, the idea of coinage occurs at the same period in two far separated parts of the world.

While the craftsmen of Ephesus are striking coins in Asia Minor, the skilled casters of China are making coins by a different method - pouring molten bronze into moulds. The results look very different.

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The Chinese bronze-casters, accustomed to turning out elaborate shapes for ritual vessels, incline to something more complex than a simple round coin. Two shapes in particular are characteristic of the first Chinese coins. Coins of one type resemble the metal part of a spade, while others are like a knife blade with a handle. In both cases the flat surfaces are decorated with Chinese characters. These designs are copied in nearly all the states of China during the later centuries of the Zhou dynasty. Shi Huangdi , the first emperor of China, introduces the more rational round coin in the late 3rd century BC.

Still cast in bronze rather than struck, they have a square hole in the middle - a shape characteristic of far eastern coins for the next two millennia. Greek and Roman financiers: from the 4th century BC. Banking activities in Greece are more varied and sophisticated than in any previous society. Private entrepreneurs, as well as temples and public bodies, now undertake financial transactions.

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They take deposits, make loans, change money from one currency to another and test coins for weight and purity. They even engage in book transactions. Moneylenders can be found who will accept payment in one Greek city and arrange for credit in another, avoiding the need for the customer to transport or transfer large numbers of coins. Rome, with its genius for administration, adopts and regularizes the banking practices of Greece. By the 2nd century AD a debt can officially be discharged by paying the appropriate sum into a bank, and public notaries are appointed to register such transactions.

The collapse of trade after the fall of the Roman empire makes bankers less necessary than before, and their demise is hastened by the hostility of the Christian church to the charging of interest.

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Usury comes to seem morally offensive. The type of money introduced by Rome was unlike that found elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean. It combined a number of uncommon elements. One example is the large bronze bullion, the aes signatum Latin for struck bronze. It measured about by 90 millimetres 6. Although similar metal currency bars had been produced in Italy and northern Etruscan areas , these had been made of Aes grave , an unrefined metal with a high iron content.

Along with the aes signatum , the Roman state also issued a series of bronze and silver coins that emulated the styles of those produced in Greek cities. The designs on the coinage of the Republican period displayed a "solid conservatism", usually illustrating mythical scenes or personifications of various gods and goddesses. The imagery on coins took an important step when Julius Caesar issued coins bearing his own portrait. While moneyers had earlier issued coins with portraits of ancestors, Caesar's was the first Roman coinage to feature the portrait of a living individual.

The tradition continued following Caesar's assassination, although the imperators from time to time also produced coins featuring the traditional deities and personifications found on earlier coins. The image of the Roman emperor took on a special importance in the centuries that followed, because during the empire, the emperor embodied the state and its policies.

The names of moneyers continued to appear on the coins until the middle of Augustus ' reign.

Although the duty of moneyers during the Empire is not known, since the position was not abolished, it is believed that they still had some influence over the imagery of the coins. The main focus of the imagery during the empire was on the portrait of the emperor. Coins were an important means of disseminating this image throughout the empire.

Coins often attempted to make the emperor appear god-like through associating the emperor with attributes normally seen in divinities, or emphasizing the special relationship between the emperor and a particular deity by producing a preponderance of coins depicting that deity. During his campaign against Pompey, Caesar issued a variety of types that featured images of either Venus or Aeneas , attempting to associate himself with his divine ancestors. An example of an emperor who went to an extreme in proclaiming divine status was Commodus.

In A. Although Commodus was excessive in his depiction of his image, this extreme case is indicative of the objective of many emperors in the exploitation of their portraits. While the emperor is by far the most frequent portrait on the obverse of coins, heirs apparent, predecessors, and other family members, such as empresses, were also featured. To aid in succession, the legitimacy of an heir was affirmed by producing coins for that successor. This was done from the time of Augustus till the end of the empire. Featuring the portrait of an individual on a coin, which became legal in 44 BC, caused the coin to be viewed as embodying the attributes of the individual portrayed.

Dio wrote that following the death of Caligula the Senate demonetized his coinage, and ordered that they be melted. Regardless of whether or not this actually occurred, it demonstrates the importance and meaning that was attached to the imagery on a coin. The philosopher Epictetus jokingly wrote: "Whose image does this sestertius carry?

The Stories We Tell About Money

Give it to me. Throw it away, it is unacceptable, it is rotten. Unlike the obverse, which during the imperial period almost always featured a portrait, the reverse was far more varied in its depiction.


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During the late Republic there were often political messages to the imagery, especially during the periods of civil war. However, by the middle of the Empire, although there were types that made important statements, and some that were overtly political or propagandistic in nature, the majority of the types were stock images of personifications or deities. While some images can be related to the policy or actions of a particular emperor, many of the choices seem arbitrary and the personifications and deities were so prosaic that their names were often omitted, as they were readily recognizable by their appearance and attributes alone.

It can be argued that within this backdrop of mostly indistinguishable types, exceptions would be far more pronounced. Atypical reverses are usually seen during and after periods of war, at which time emperors make various claims of liberation, subjugation, and pacification. Some of these reverse images can clearly be classified as propaganda. An example struck by emperor Philip in features a legend proclaiming the establishment of peace with Persia ; in truth, Rome had been forced to pay large sums in tribute to the Persians. Although it is difficult to make accurate generalizations about reverse imagery, as this was something that varied by emperor, some trends do exist.

An example is reverse types of the military emperors during the second half of the third century, where virtually all of the types were the common and standard personifications and deities.

Currency - Wikipedia

A possible explanation for the lack of originality is that these emperors were attempting to present conservative images to establish their legitimacy, something that many of these emperors lacked. Although these emperors relied on traditional reverse types, their portraits often emphasized their authority through stern gazes, [8] [ citation needed ] and even featured the bust of the emperor clad in armor.

Unlike most modern coins, Roman coins had at least in the early centuries significant intrinsic value. However, while the gold and silver issues contained precious metals, the value of a coin was slightly higher than its precious metal content, so they were not, strictly speaking, bullion. Also, over the course of time the purity and weight of the silver coins were reduced. Estimates of the value of the denarius range from 1. The coinage system that existed in Egypt until the time of Diocletian's monetary reform was a closed system based upon the heavily debased tetradrachm.

Although the value of these tetradrachmas can be reckoned as being equivalent in value to the denarius, their precious metal content was always much lower.

Clearly, not all coins that circulated contained precious metals, as the value of these coins was too great to be convenient for everyday purchases. A dichotomy existed between the coins with an intrinsic value and those with only a token value.


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  6. This is reflected in the infrequent and inadequate production of bronze coinage during the Republic, where from the time of Sulla till the time of Augustus no bronze coins were minted at all; even during the periods when bronze coins were produced, their workmanship was sometimes very crude and of low quality. The type of coins issued changed under the coinage reform of Diocletian , the heavily debased antoninianus double denarius was replaced with a variety of new denominations, and a new range of imagery was introduced that attempted to convey different ideas.

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