Money in Classical Antiquity

Peter Jones appreciates a new survey of ancient coinage

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Reviewed by: Peter Jones
Author: Sitta von Reden
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Price (RRP): £18.99

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From 600 BC to AD 300, money – by which one means coinage – came to play an increasingly important part in ancient economic systems.

Barter, or unminted precious metals like gold and silver, for example, had limited uses, but officially authorised coinage opened up a whole new range of possibilities as a means of exchange, payment, store of value, unit of account, and so on, which could also (critically) be negotiable across different states.

Professor von Reden’s central argument is that the ‘connectivity’ of markets created by empire contributed toward a dynamic of money that made complex transactions possible while also reducing cost. Combined with local institutional factors – such as friendship, culture and large estates – and the consolidation provided by, for example, imperial taxation and the development of credit and contract law, the result was an increase in general market efficiency.

In particular, she argues that the culture of credit played an important part in all this, against those scholars who assert that Greco-Roman moral reservations about interest-bearing loans hampered the growth of a monetary economy.

She also has much of interest to say about Greek temple culture. With their tithes, dedications, cultic benefactions, religious penalties, rents from sacred property, taxes and fees for services etc, these were guardians of vast stores of public wealth and could advance loans to governments and cities. Cult finance was a dynamic process that further stirred the transactional pot.

A brief review can only skim the surface of a packed, clearly argued and well-written book that makes an important contribution to difficult debates about economic history and will be of great value to advanced students.

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Peter Jones is author of Vote for Caesar: How the Ancient Greeks and Romans Solved the Problems of Today (Orion, 2009)