The History of the Coin By Helen Szymichowski
Within Western Europe, coins have been one of the most universally recognised emblem of money since around 700 – 650 BC. Each coin, from ancient Greek drachma too today’s British pound, is steeped in symbolism and history, significant to its own origin and country revealing a wealth, not only in relation to its own worth, but in highlighting the culture, economy and abilities of its creators.
An Ancient Greek Drachma picturing Athena’s head on one side and an owl, the animal most commonly associated with Athena on the other.
Whilst there is some debate on who created the first metal coins in Europe, it is commonly attributed to either 550 BC in Aegina followed by Athens and Corinth or by the Lydian’s from the Roman provinces but who essentially resided in Asia- Minor. However, the coins found from around the same era are similar in that they were simply pictorial with no writing and crafted in gold and silver according to Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian. The images found on these early coins are called ‘legend’ or ‘inscription’ and have wide variety of subjects on them, mostly focusing on either religious icons, mythical tales or current political and military leaders which affiliated the people and lands to their sovereigns and religions. This is a tradition that is carried on today where, for example, the Euro both unifies the countries within in it with its use of star symbols and simultaneously allows them to retain aspects of their own traditional culture.
‘Solidus’ coins of the Byzantine Empire featuring Justinain II from around 705 AD.
Early money was not meant to take over from earlier trade economic systems. Despite coins coming into curculation at such an early date, bartering and trade with food and other objects remained common place throughout the early middle ages as economy’s remained unstable and the worth of the coins was questionable. Despite common misconception, there is little to no evidence of an economy soley residing on bartering, in its place there seems to have been gift economics which could be descirbed as I.O.Us which would be easier to maintain in smaller and less intricate markets. However, even within the modern period the people of several countries have resorted back to bartering to gain necessary requirements; food, medicine, etc, such as post World War One Germany when hyperinflation left the Mark unusable for the common people.
The inscription reads: ‘On the first of November 1923 one pound of bread cost three billion, one pound of meat cost 36 billion and one glass of bear cost four billion.’
Whilst we no longer produce coins containing 100% gold or silver, instead obtaining their worth as fait money, in a way similar to bank notes. Coins are instead made of a base metal such as copper and lead, many coins now have milled edges in an effort to stop coins being clipped or shaved whilst in circulation. This produces the distinctive raised edge of many coins including the British pound coin.
Despite the long history of coins, very little seems to have changed in actuality, a coin from ancient Greece is clearly recognisable to the modern eye even with the different use of metal, imagery and worth. It was suggested, and for some feared, that the coin would become obsolete in the era where bank notes were the norm in every day use. Yet it is today, where the physical money of coins seems to be becoming futile in a world of virtual money where governments can write off millions in debt at the press of a button. Will the quintessential British pound coin become useless in this age of computers?
By Helen Szymichowski