Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy

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How were the Greeks of the sixth century BC able to invent philosophy and tragedy? Richard Seaford argues that a large part of the answer can be found in another momentous development, the invention and rapid spread of coinage. By transforming social relations, monetization contributed to the concepts of the universe as an impersonal system (fundamental to Presocratic philosophy) and of the individual alienated from his own kin and from the gods, as found in tragedy.

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"A powerful and valuable set of observtion on the impact of the introduction of coinage on the early Greek world."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521832281
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 3/31/2004
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 9.02 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Seaford is Professor of Greek Literature at the University of Exeter. He is the author of commentaries on Euripides' 'Cyclops' (1984) and 'Bacchae' (1996) and of 'Reciprocity and Ritual: Homer and Tragedy in the Developing City-State' (1994).

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Cambridge University Press
0521832284 - Money and the Early Greek Mind - Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy - by Richard Seaford




Money is central to our lives. But what exactly is it? A definition is surprisingly elusive. Money is, puzzlingly, both a thing and a relation. And the relation - because it is one of power that is interpersonal and unspecific, over the labour not of another but of others in general - tends to be mystified, to be disguised as a thing. Further, different kinds of thing, used in different kinds of transaction in different kinds of society, have all been called 'money': mediaeval coinage, the silver of second millennium BC Mesopotamia, large stone discs on the Pacific island of Yap, the shells circulated on the Trobriand islands, the money used in advanced industrial societies ('modern money'), and so on.

A detailed analysis of 'money' will be provided in due course (1C). I begin here with modern money, which - unlike some other kinds of money - is a mere token, without use-value or even (sometimes) physical embodiment. If imagined nevertheless - as it generally is - as a thing, intangible yet promiscuous, what sort of thing is it? Apparently a token or symbol, commanding the labour of others. But a symbol of what? Not, surely, of all or any one of the numerous goods and services that it can be exchanged for, but rather of the homogeneous, numerical exchange-value abstracted from - so as to embody command over - goods and services.1 And because this value is too abstract to be embodied in money in the way that the abstraction of strength may seem embodied in a symbolic lion, we should perhaps call modern money not even a mere symbol but a mere sign, whose meaning is exhausted in its function as a means of payment or exchange.

But does not modern money have symbolic associations constituting 'meanings' in the broad sense? The pound sterling symbolises - for some - British identity. Less sublimely but more universally, according to Freudian theory money is subconsciously associated with excrement.2 And is not money generally associated with a vague sense of well-being? But whatever the associations of modern money (conscious or unconscious, universal or specific), its central and predominant function - requiring precisely its identity in all contexts, unaffected by any incidental associations - is to embody abstract value as a general means of payment, of exchange, of the measurement and storage of value. It is precisely this absence or marginality of specific symbolic associations or meanings that arose from, and permits, its general effectiveness.

But might not symbolic associations arise from precisely this function? For what it bestows on money - permanent, unique, transcendent, mystified, all-embracing power for good or evil - may seem to associate money with the divine. The metaphor of money as god is sufficiently telling to seem somehow more than a metaphor;3 sociologists have claimed to find sacredness attaching to modern money;4 and in European folklore money often has magical powers.5 But most people would firmly dissociate modern money from sacredness. As transcendent power that is set apart, money resembles the sacred, but it is antithetical to it in the worldliness of its promiscuous6 exchangeability.7

The numerous forms of 'primitive money', by contrast, generally have intrinsic (if only aesthetic) value, are rarely8 universally exchangeable, and are frequently invested with emotions and meanings that may vary according to the context of use, even within the same society. Here, to take an example almost at random, is a (somewhat lyrical) interpretation of the shells used by the Are'are people of the Solomon Islands both in exchange for other goods and in ceremonies such as the funeral.

In their circulation these moneys observe precise rules, and are, together with men, women, and children and all cultural goods, the objects of a system of exchanges which animates and reproduces indefinitely what is established in the life of this society. This implicit immortality of the society is maintained by the mortality of the people and goods which cross its path. Both the living and the dead combine in the progressive wearing out of all things, of which in the end no trace remains except these pieces of money, and the unceasing ballet that they perform. These moneys, the tangible supporters of the law, are all that remains of the ancestors: they are the all-powerful accomplices of time.9

The most famous example of 'primitive money' invested with social symbolism is the 'Kula' system of the Trobriand islands.10 In so far as it is a circulating exchange of items (shells) which have very little use-value (being hardly ever used as ornaments), there is a superficial resemblance with the circulation of modern money, from which however it differs fundamentally. The shells are exchanged only for each other (and so should not perhaps be called money), having instead the role of establishing and maintaining supportive relations between the transactors, and are the object of the kind of admiration that only a lunatic would lavish on a ten euro note.

Among the Baruya of New Guinea salt is on the one hand exchanged with outsiders for all that they themselves lack, and so plays the role of money, and on the other hand, within the community, is never bartered, only given and distributed, and consumed only within the framework of the solemn rituals celebrating birth, initiation, and marriage.11 Even where modern money enters premodern societies, the meanings with which it is invested are, it has been argued, 'quite as much a product of the cultural matrix into which it is incorporated as of the economic functions it performs as a means of exchange, unit of account, store of value, and so on. It is therefore impossible to predict its symbolic meanings from these functions alone'.12 The significance and functioning of money can never be understood separately from the kind of transaction, and indeed the kind of society, in which it is used.13

Where, in all this, does ancient Greek money belong? The first people in history to use extensively something approaching modern money were, I believe, almost certainly14 the Greeks, whose money consisted of metal, coined and uncoined. Their coinage had all seven of the characteristics of money set out below (1C). And there is no evidence that it had different meanings in different contexts. Whatever its specific associations,15 the collective confidence required for Greek coined money to work as currency is confidence in its equal acceptability in a wide variety of contexts.16 There is among the Greeks evidence neither of 'special purpose money' nor of the ritual, known from some societies, of converting money from one sphere to another.17 Indeed, the Greeks were struck by the power of the same one thing - 'wealth', 'money', or 'currency' - to do a wide variety of things.18 In Sophocles, for instance, money is in one passage said to create friends, honours, tyranny, physical beauty, skill in speaking, enjoyment even in illness, and - most significantly - access to things both sacred and profane, and in another passage to destroy cities, drive men from their homes, transform good men into evil-doers, and cause men to know every kind of impiety.19

But what of the symbolic associations of ancient Greek money as a whole? As we have noted of modern money, the marginality of specific associations does not preclude a general association with the divine or the sacred. For modern money such a general association is extremely tenuous, for Greek money only slightly more substantial. Money, coined and uncoined, was stored in huge quantities in sanctuaries, and might be imagined as belonging to deity.20 At least as early as the Classical period some Greek sanctuaries functioned as banks (4D). Coins were often stamped with an image of a deity. Money was often imagined as having a superhuman will of its own.21 It played a part in some religious ritual: for instance, the tribute from the allies was displayed in the procession at the Athenian City Dionysia;22 coins were buried with the dead; and they might be dedicated, presumably not entirely without ceremony, to deity. But in these Greek ritual contexts there is no reason for believing that the money carried any symbolic meaning beyond its monetary value.23 It has been suggested that the profane character of money in Christianity and Islam (in contrast to eastern religions) derives from the Jews, who relegated it to the status of the profane because their first encounter with it was as commercial and exogenous: 'if money is profane, it is because it is exogenous'.24 But this is at best only a small part of the story, for Greek money was neither inherently sacred nor on the whole perceived as exogenous.25 In Aristotle's analysis of currency,26 which along with his disapproval of usury influenced mediaeval Christianity, there is no suggestion of exogeneity or sacredness.

In this analysis Aristotle maintains that currency was created, in the process of trade, out of something that was both useful and easy to handle (metal), defined at first by size and weight, then finally by a stamp to dispense with the need for measurement. But the nomisma (currency, coinage) thereby created, so far from being inherently useful, has a value that, Aristotle notes in the same passage, is merely conventional. In this uselessness Greek coins may seem to resemble both modern money and much 'primitive money' - for instance the shell money of the southern Pacific. But both comparisons require qualification.

It is true that the only use of gold and silver, from which the earliest coins were made, was - like shells but in contrast to most commodities - their aesthetic allurement (and its symbolic associations), a luxurious superfluity that both permits and encourages circulation, which may endow them with further symbolic associations. But the application of the stamp to precious metal introduces radical change. What is unprecedented about Greek coined money is that a substance with ornamental use-value and association with immortality (2C), precious metal, was transformed by a sign into an object which, inasmuch as its conventional was generally greater than its intrinsic value, was unlikely to be melted down to make objects. Precious metal, which had exchange-value based on its ornamental use-value, was in effect deprived of this use-value by being stamped.27 This importance of the sign guaranteeing future acceptability, together with the promiscuous exchangeability that it facilitated, wider than most 'primitive money', meant that - in contrast to much 'primitive money', and despite the beauty and symbolism of Greek coins - any other value the metal may have had (whether beauty, status, social relations, or immortality) seems to have been marginalised by the practical effectiveness of the coins as signs of monetary value. And along with this importance of the sign necessarily comes another characteristic that distinguishes coinage from all or most 'primitive money' (and from all previous objects performing money functions): if value can be added to metal merely by the addition of a sign to produce currency, then this production must be restricted: currency is issued and controlled by political authority. And yet on the other hand Greek coinage is not the mere token that modern money is. The intrinsic value of its precious metal helps to create confidence in its conventional value (7D). Greek coinage is located between commodity and sign, between 'primitive' and modern money.

The widespread adoption by the Greeks of this invention - substance given extra and uniform value by its sign - was of immense significance, both for the Greeks and for the other societies who under their direct or indirect influence adopted coinage, which has been in continuous and widespread use from antiquity to the present day. It was a crucial and unprecedented step towards modern money. And it was a factor, I will argue, in a crucial and unprecedented conceptual transformation, by which the Greeks seem closer to us than are any of the sophisticated civilisations that preceded them. Worthy of investigation therefore is what it was that enabled the Greeks to make widespread use of monetary value marked by a sign on a substance.

Aristotle simply notes the transition from metal to coinage as arising from the needs of trade (Pol. 1257b). But this leaves unexplained why other traders, such as the Phoenicians, did not develop their own coinage and were slow to adopt the idea from the Greeks.28 Perhaps the development was favoured by the existence of a series of small-scale, culturally homogeneous, and independently minded political units separated from each other by mountains and sea. But a crucial requirement for the development of what I call 'fiduciarity' - the excess of the fixed conventional value of pieces of money over their intrinsic value29 - is collective trust in its future acceptability. What was it that produced in the Greeks this collective trust?

Confidence in money (general belief in its future general acceptability) may depend on habit, which depends on confidence. This interdependence, once established, may be enough to sustain fiduciarity, but for it to become established something else is required. The something else may seem to be the inherent value of the object used as money - say the ornamental value of silver (despite the inconvenience of establishing purity and quantity). But inherent value is not enough for fiduciarity, which requires general belief in the future acceptability of the conventional value of the money in exchange.30 Such a belief cannot be merely self-fulfilling. A group of individuals who know nothing of each other, or who have no shared symbols, have no basis on which the general belief can construct itself. Such a general belief may be encouraged by an institutional guarantee ('I promise to pay the bearer . . .') that may be symbolised by an image of authority - notably the head of a monarch - represented on the money. But in European history such measures have always been supported by an ancient habit of acceptance confirmed by results. And there is anyway evidence neither for such institutional sophistication behind early Greek coins nor for such images of secular authority on them. Neither political authority nor the market nor habit nor results are enough to explain the Greek adoption of coinage. The origin of the crucial habit of collective confidence in the conventional value of money requires another kind of explanation. We must return to the symbolic associations of money.

Symbols may organise a whole community. A flag - a mere decorated piece of cloth - may rally an army in battle, for every soldier knows that the others too are devoted to it. We have seen instances, among the Are'are and the Baruya, of objects that combine shared symbolic value with fairly general exchange-value. In both cases the symbolic value is manifest in, or even bestowed by, ritual.31 There are indications that among the Greeks a precondition for the initial general acceptability of coinage was its symbolic association - inherited from communal distributions in the ritual of sacrifice - with the solidarity of the community (6AB). Once this general acceptability was established, there was of course little further need for the persistence of its precondition. That is to say, the genesis and widespread adoption of coinage involved transition from the kind of social symbolism that we find in 'primitive money' to the relatively asymbolic universal effectiveness characteristic of modern money.

The connection of money with ritual is no accident. Both money and ritual mediate social relations by providing a detached, easily recognised, symbolic paradigm that depends on collective confidence and persists through everyday vicissitudes, bringing order to numerous potentially uncontrollable transactions.32 Both of them are communicative, organising abstractions, providing a common standard for the vast variety of goods and services (money) or for ways of e.g. killing and eating an animal or uniting a man with a woman (ritual). Much the same could be said of some other symbolic systems, notably language.33 Collective confidence in a merely human, alterable construction is required for conventional monetary value and for ritual, for nomos (law or convention), even for the gods. This similarity between these essential institutions is implicit in Aristophanes' Clouds, in which Socrates - prefiguring his pupil Pheidippides' contempt for nomos as a merely human construction (1421-4) - declares that 'the gods are not currency (nomisma) with us', to which Strepsiades replies 'What do you swear with? Iron (coins), as if in Byzantium?' (247-9). Nomisma is the object or consequence of nomisdein, which means to acknowledge by belief or practice - whether the gods (nomisdein tous theous) or coinage. In iron coinage, which is of very low intrinsic value, fiduciarity is especially conspicuous. To this brilliant passage I will return (7D).

The use-value of Greek coinage is merely potential: it is unlikely to, but can, be transformed into metal objects. Modern money has no use-value, beyond the infinitesimal value of the material in which it may be embodied. But money in general originates as, and may continue to be, an object that combines use-value with convenience as money. This is the historical duality of money, as both commodity and token, corresponding to its persistent mystifying duality as both thing and interpersonal relation. The duality underlies the historical opposition, which has taken political as well as theoretical forms, between those who insist that money is, or should be tied to, something with intrinsic value (precious metal) and those who are happy with money as a mere token of value.34 As a commodity, money enters into impersonal relations with other commodities in the marketplace. As a token, money is value created by people by means of law or of collective confidence based on shared symbolic associations. There are today two (roughly speaking) competing ways of thinking about Greek coinage: on the one hand the view, first formulated by Aristotle, that it developed out of trade (and the related view that it was the instrument of a 'disembedded' market economy), and on the other hand the view that it emerged from the redistributive activity of the polis (and the related view that it remained, despite its commercial use, imbued with civic associations in an economy still 'embedded' in non-market social practices such as reciprocity and redistribution). I have given no more than a crude summary of this controversy, for I do not intend to enter it. My concern is rather with the complementarity of these two aspects of Greek coined money, of its initial symbolic associations with its commercial use, of its dynamic duality as commodity and token.


In my Reciprocity and Ritual (1994) I argued for the importance of the development of the polis for the understanding of (in particular) Homer and tragedy. I now take the argument further by including presocratic philosophy, and by concentrating on a central element - the advent of coined money - of the (crucial) economic dimension of that development. This will mean attempting to transcend the conventional divisions of academic labour, with all the attendant dangers. It is not just that almost no connections have ever been made between these important texts and something as fundamental as the advent of coined money, and very few even with the economy as a whole. The earliest 'philosophy' presents a special case. Whereas it is by now commonplace to recognise the importance - ignored by Aristotle in his Poetics - of the institutions and life of the polis for the understanding of tragedy, the study of philosophy, with some exceptions,35 generally fails to recognise the limitations of Aristotle's account of earlier philosophy as produced in a historical vacuum. This is surprising, given the oddity of so many of the views of the presocratic 'philosophers'. Scholars ask the important question 'What did they mean?', but almost never the question 'Why did they hold those extraordinary fundamental beliefs about the world?'.

Part I describes the unprecedented preconditions, absent from the ancient Near East, for the widespread adoption of coinage by the Greeks of the sixth century BC that accelerated the pervasive monetisation of the advanced city-states. Part Ⅱ describes the contribution made by this monetisation to the unprecedented emergence, at the same time and in the same city-states, of metaphysics and then of tragedy. The final chapter argues that there is no evidence for pervasive monetisation in the Near East before the Greek adoption of coinage.

The earliest surviving texts in the Greek alphabet were written shortly before and concurrently with the monetisation of the city-states. Chapters 2 and 3 are concerned with the wonderfully detailed heroic world described or constructed by Homeric epic, largely premonetary but nevertheless containing signs of reaction to the increasing importance of trade and even of monetisation. In particular, Homer contains indications of the social conditions - notably the failure of centralised reciprocity (redistribution) and the idealisation of communal sacrificial distribution - that are not found in the Near East (chapters 4 and 15), and that allowed the Greek city-state, as it appears in Thucydides and Aristophanes, to be the first thoroughly monetised society in history (chapter 5). The communal sacrificial distribution was a precondition for the emergence of the communal confidence in abstract monetary value (chapter 6) embodied in the rapid development of coinage (chapter 7), resulting in the general acceptance of money, whose features as registered by the Greeks are described in chapter 8.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction; Part I. The Genesis of Coined Money: 2. Homeric transactions; 3. Sacrifice and distribution; 4. Greece and the ancient near East; 5. Greek money; 6. The preconditions of coinage; 7. The earliest coins; 8. The features of money; Part II. The Making of Metaphysics: 9. Did politics produce philosophy?; 10. Anaximander and Xenophanes; 11. The many and the one; 12. Heraclitus and Parmenides; 13. Pythagoreanism and Protagoras; 14. Individualisation; 15. Appendix: was money used in the early near East?

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