From bes to Bitcoin: alternative currencies in the ancient Roman world

Be it Bristol or Brixton, in recent years a number of cities in Britain have developed their own alternative, local currencies. Intended to support independent businesses, these currencies work alongside pounds sterling to encourage more money to be spent in the local economy. But, as historian Clare Rowan explains, the concept is anything but modern – in fact, alternative currencies date back as far as ancient Rome…

Roman silver denarius coins. (PRISMA ARCHIVO/Alamy Stock Photo)

From David Bowie on the Brixton Pound to Isambard Kingdom Brunel on Bristol’s equivalent, today’s local currencies tend to carry images of notable local individuals and landmarks. The decision to decorate local currencies with such statements of regional identity and culture – just as nation states decorate their currencies with imagery deemed culturally significant – reflects the ideological nature of money. This is an aspect of the medium that is often overlooked as coins and notes pass seamlessly from hand to hand.

The creation of alternative currencies also demonstrates another fact about money that we rarely consider: in essence, money – the notes and coins we use on a daily basis – has value because the government decrees it has value, or because a community agrees on a particular value. That is, a pound coin is valuable in the sense that you can pay fees to the government with it, or that someone else will agree to take it for a pint of milk, or another product. Much money in the modern world is in this sense a ‘token’, a physical symbol of the transactions and relationships between people.

A person who chooses to pay their local grocer in Brixton pounds, for example, is making an ideological decision that values local community. Similarly, a person who decides to make a purchase using Bitcoin – a decentralised non-governmental digital currency created by computers ‘mining’ data – may do so in order to retain anonymity.

 

The denarius

Alternatives to governmental currencies have existed throughout history, including ancient Rome. In the third century BC, Rome introduced a new currency system based around a silver coin called the denarius. The growth of the Roman empire meant that Roman money was used across the Mediterranean – the only currency to be employed across Europe until the introduction of the euro in 1999. Alongside the denarius, local cities might strike their own coins (often small change), which often bore imagery of local cultural significance.

In addition to these governmental currencies, there were other forms of money – gold, for example, likely acted as a form of money for large transactions. Other money-like objects have been found in many regions throughout the Roman world: thousands of small lead coin-like objects were found during building works in Rome in the 18th and 19th century, which are roughly the same size and bear similar designs to the smallest Roman coin – the quadrans, for example. Historians believe these must have acted as community or alternative currencies.

Alongside the denarius, there existed many forms of community currency that facilitated transactions at a local level and contributed to a local sense of community. The bronze coins of Carthage continued to be used as money in Roman Africa for more than 100 years after Rome conquered the region in the second century BC, and Ptolemaic coins were used in Egypt well after the Roman conquest as well. These coins would have provided small change for these communities, but meant that the imagery of old, now defeated powers was used in a new context and invested with new meaning. Roman coinage was even used as small change in Africa as late as the 19th century!

 

‘Pseudo-mint’

Excavations at Pompeii have revealed that a significant quantity of alternative currencies in the form of small aes (bronze) coins were in use in the city. Indeed, 45 per cent of the coinage found during recent excavations of a tenement was of this kind, which indicates that alternative currency played a prominent role in the city.

The high volume of these coins in Pompeii has given rise to the idea that there was a ‘pseudo-mint’ in the town producing currency. This workshop was likely in operation in the first century BC, and produced alternative coinage that could act as change and be used for the payment of small, everyday transactions. Two different designs were produced, both adapted from the official currency of other cities. One type was adapted from the coinage of Ebusus in Spain (modern-day Ibiza). These coins are characterised by the image of the god Bes with hammer and snake, who is accompanied by other designs including a bull or a horse. Bes was an Egyptian god associated with the household and childbirth, but over time he came to be associated with protection from evil more generally; ancient Ebusus was named after him.

The Pompeiian ‘pseudo-mint’ also produced coinage adapted from the currency of Massalia (modern Marseilles, France). These coins carried the head of Apollo on one side and a butting bull on the other.

Why these particular coin types were chosen over others remains a mystery (perhaps Ebusan and Massalian coins entered the city with foreign traders, and was adapted from there). But the use of these coins from a ‘pseudo-mint’ in daily transactions must have meant that, over time, the images of Bes or the bull came to be associated with the city of Pompeii and its inhabitants, contributing to the formation of local identity. In a similar way, we today use coinage in Britain that carries the portrait of the queen. The existence of a currency likely only accepted in Pompeii and its surrounding areas would probably have benefited the local marketplace.

The Bristol Pound – a £5 note. (World History Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

Egyptian lead

We find a similar phenomenon in Egypt in the second and third centuries AD. Here, lead tokens have been found throughout the Nile valley region. These tokens are often found in contexts where coins also appear (eg in tombs, in rubbish dumps), and they have been found in hoards alongside coins. Lead tokens are thought to have appeared at a time when the official Roman mint at Alexandria dropped production substantially, creating a shortage of small change. It is very likely then that these pieces, like those in Pompeii, functioned as an alternative currency, providing small change with which citizens could carry out daily transactions.

Unlike the local currency of Pompeii, these pieces carry the names of individual cities (Memphis, Oxyrhynchus, Arsinoe, Athribis, although many are anonymous), and bear designs that reflect local Greek and Egyptian culture. For example, Oxyrhynchus, a city located in Egypt with a significant Greek population and famous for the papyri which have been found in the town, had tokens that bore images of the Greek gods Athena and Nike. Other tokens from other areas, however, carry images of Egyptian culture (eg Horus, Thoth, a baboon, the Nile). These lead tokens would also then have contributed to the particular identity of a settlement and its economy.

In conclusion, then, Bitcoin and the Brixton pound, as well as other modern alternative currencies, are part of a tradition of local monetary production that stretches back to antiquity. Alternative currencies have long existed alongside governmental money like the pound or the euro. Through history, they have benefited local economies and contributed to local identities – just as they do today.

Dr Clare Rowan is an assistant professor in numismatics – the study of coins, banknotes and medals – at the University of Warwick.

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