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The E-Sylum: Volume 12, Number 36, September 6, 2009, Article 27

ANCIENT GREECE: WHEN MONEY WAS NEW

Arthur Shippee forwarded this article about a 2004 book about the significant of money in the development of ancient Greek culture. Here are some excerpts. -Editor

In the ongoing reconstruction of twenty-first century finance, ancient Greece may seem an unlikely place to turn to for guidance. Then again, why not? For it was in the little city-states around the Aegean Sea that coined money first appeared in the seventh century B.C., and, in the sixth century, came into widespread use.

The emergence of this first thoroughly-monetized society in history precipitated two further developments for which the Greeks are much better known – "philosophy," meaning the conception of the cosmos as an impersonal system, and tragedy, or the self divided against kin, nature, the gods themselves.

That's the story according to Richard Seaford, professor of Greek Literature at the University of Exeter, in England. In Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy, he argued that the invention of money thus sent shockwaves through Greek culture and down the ages to the present day.

When it appeared in 2004, Seaford's book was startling and controversial. Specialists had long supposed that alphabetic literacy, not currency, was the great breakthrough in classical Greece – that, everywhere and always, the text was the thing. But Seaford has since won many of his points. Money clearly mattered to the Greeks, in deep and troubling ways.

Once the basic technological problems were solved, the use of coins spread rapidly. The whys and wherefores of how this happened are intricate and imperfectly understood. But the key to the transition from the use of relatively few coins made of the naturally-occurring but highly-variable gold/silver alloy of electrum to large numbers of coins of refined metal seems to have been the discovery stamped by governments to guarantee their value. Virtually always minted by the state, the new coins were counted, not weighed.

What's really interesting is what happened next, as the Greeks began to grapple with the system they had invented. Money was homogeneous and impersonal, they discovered, abstract and concrete, an end in itself and a means to universal aims, different from everything else. The most unsettling thing about it was the recognition that its possessor could buy his way out of all other (pre-monetary) forms of social relationship, at least in principle: violence, reciprocity, redistribution, kinship, ritual, and so on. No wonder some people would do anything for money!

The recognition that money could dissolve these bonds worried the Greeks. "Hence the focus of much Athenian tragedy on the extreme isolation of the individual – from the gods and even (through killing) from his closest kin," writes Seaford. "I know of no precedent for this in literature, certainly not in the pre-monetary society depicted in Homer." The figure of the tyrant preoccupied Athenian society, he writes: absorbed by money as the means to power, violating the sacred and murdering his kin, never more memorably than in the dénouement of the Oedipus saga in Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes, in which the king's sons kill each other battling over their inheritance. The words "hero" barely appears in Athenian tragedy, but "tyrant" (turranos) occurs more than 170 times.

The most peculiar novelty of money, Seaford says, was that it was unlimited. As a case in point, he cites Aristophanes' last play, Wealth, almost certainly the earliest surviving text on economics. The whole play revolves the leveling powers of money, but Seaford describes the key exchange: "whereas one can have enough sex, or loaves or music, or honor, cakes or manliness and so on – money is different: if somebody obtains thirteen talents (a lot of money), he is eager for sixteen, and if he obtains sixteen he swears that life is unbearable unless he obtains forty."

To read the complete article, see: Learning from Ancient Greece: When Money Was New (seekingalpha.com/article/159183-learning-from-ancient-greece-when-money-was-new)

Wayne Homren, Editor

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