“What we learned about money” from yet another unique guided tour of the Museum of Cycladic Art

The exhibition MONEY, tangible symbols in Ancient Greece at the Museum of Cycladic Art presents a subject that is topical at all times —perhaps even more so in our days— in such a way that the value of money, at least for a while, comes down to what we learn from it; to what people over the centuries chose to imprint on the cold metal of coins.

In the exhibition MONEY we learned that for thousands of years people exchanged goods for goods. In Homer’s times, “bartering” used oxen: the weapons of Diomedes cost nine oxen. Yet this kind of money could be neither stored nor divided. So in the Bronze Age people invent talents, 25-kg lumps of oxen-shaped metal, rather difficult to carry, and cut rods of iron (oboloi = spits), with six oboloi, all a human fist could hold, making one drachma (from dratto [grasp] – drachma = fistful). Yet with talents one could never be sure of their actual weight or the quality of the metal; this is how coins came about.

The money that does not bring happiness

We learned that around 650 BCE the kingdom of Lydia was the first state to mint coins of electron, an alloy of gold and silver. Croesus becomes the richest man in the world, mints coins of just gold or silver (bimetallism), and when he asked the sage Solon to confirm his “happiness” we were reminded that “the happiness of a man’s life cannot be judged until after his death”. Croesus remembered it, too, as Cyrus ordered that he be burnt alive, and cried “Solon, Solon!” — which, according to the legend, may have saved his life as Cyrus spared him, perhaps fearing that he might have a similar end and also invoke Solon’s name. We admired the amphora with the relevant image of Croesus on the pyre, which came out of the Louvre for the first time for the requirements of this major exhibition.

The Greek cities follow after a lag of twenty years

The Greek cities of Miletus and Ephesus near Lydia start their own coinage 20 years later. There follow Aegina in 570 BCE with staters carrying its famous tortoises, Athens with the goddess Athena and her owl, and Corinth with the winged Pegasus. The first king to mint gold coins in Greece is Philip II, while the tetradrachms of Alexander become the first “dollars”, being minted in their thousands in all cities where his power spreads.

Money and Trade

The ancient cities mint coins adorned with their local products: figs for Rhodes which even the Athenians cannot match, little fish for Cyzicus, a fishing hub in Asia Minor near Phrygia, and vines for Chios, which seals its amphorae of wine with the domain, the grower’s name and the year, as we do today, and mints its coins to resemble those amphora seals.

Money and Art

Coins give us a clear picture of famous ancient sculptures which do not survive. The chryselephantine statues of Hera in Argos and Athena in the Parthenon, the statue of Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Cnidus, the roof panels from one of the six famous temples of Apollo in Delphi on one of the ten surviving Delphic three-drachma coins. A tetradrachm shows us that Philip II becomes the first mortal to be featured on a coin before he dies, while on some 2nd c. AD coins Athens, which no longer shines, relies on its old glories (the battle of Salamis) to adorn its coins.

Concepts and propaganda in the past and present

Some coins depict abstract notions such as wealth and fortune or propaganda messages, like the coins minted by all the descendants of Alexander with his head, anxious to show that each of them was the great king’s true successor. Alexander himself minted coins with the head of Hercules, although it happened to be the same as his own — a practice also adopted by king Pyrrhus of Epirus, on whose coins the head of Achilles was much like his own. In a Delian inn destroyed together with the entire island by Mithridates we find an intact hoard of 120 coins from all over the Eastern Mediterranean in the possession of a prostitute who seemed to accept all currencies. Still, every ancient town had a foreign exchange centre where you could check the authenticity of your coinage and measure the volume of what you bought.

500 BCE: the first Banks, sacred or otherwise

People have always been the same at all times: they would hide—bury, actually—their money or entrust it for safekeeping to the sanctuaries which would lend it with interest to the benefit of the god or goddess… Later the super-rich do the same, establishing private banks to keep and lend money. In Hellenistic times it is the state’s turn to found banks, while an inscription on show at the museum shows how lending, interest, loan haircuts and ‘red’ loans have been around for centuries, blurring the distinction between current affairs and ancient history.

Before you go, “mint” your own coin

Choose the coin of your favourite city, the metal you prefer and take your picture which will feature on your own coin. Send it to your email, and you have just issued a new coin.

Museum of Cycladic Art, till April 15, 2018; https://www.cycladic.gr/page/chrima?slide=1#