The Greek and Roman Historians and Philosophers; the Adaptation of Coinage Over Time
A phrase commonly circulated throughout the ancient numismatic community is the title “historian”. Indeed we look at this word through the lens of a modern day perspective, but it has been a term that is ever-changing and widely controversial. Just as we look up to the great figures of history, they too looked up to others before them, and then so–it is a dynamic paradox that seeks its roots in the beginning of humanity. We are driven through our inspiration to act according to what we find true. So the question is…what is truth? Is all of history true or is it embellished? The evidence we have is coinage. When looking at the hobby of kings, collecting the coins we find the most interesting and appealing to us is a subtle understanding of human intuition. Whether we prefer Roman, Greek, or US coins, or any other country there is still that deep connection. This is why it is so powerful not to collect coins based purely on investment or profit potential, but to connect us with the past and enjoy handling the timepieces that thousands have held before us. Perhaps the person who minted the exact coin could have thought the same “where will this coin be in two thousand years?”
In order to understand the relationship between coinage and society, it is important to analyze the most important civilizations of the ancient world. The Peloponnesian wars are the best start, as it is the most pivotal event of the archaic ancient world. Indeed the societies of Athens and Sparta differ greatly from each other when compared between the texts of Xenophon and those of Plato. Thus, whilst examining both the societies and their similarities and differences, a certain viewpoint is set on the societies which allows us to catch a glimpse into what life was like during such a time in history. Firstly, the society of the city-state Lycaonia was vastly different from the society of Attica. Athens and Sparta, being the administrative capitals discussed in the two texts, have two completely different governments and cultures. Sparta, according to Xenophon, was a war-stricken society focused on the "physical training for the females no less than the male" (Xenophon 49) and preparing the young "lads" for an eventual service in the military or government. The leaders of Sparta were dedicated purely for the interests of honor and strength, with a main focus being on raising the next generation of youth to become the most fearsome leaders. The acts of Lycurgus, for example, perhaps hinted at a competitive mentality in the Spartan education system; where men fought against men in order to see the hierarchy of who is best fit for each position in society. As Xenophon states, "the very best of them [were] the commanders [who had fought against each other]...each of them enrol[ling] a hundred others" (Xenophon 52). So one could argue that the city of Sparta was centered on an oligarchy with a single monarch as the leader of the society. In contrast, the Athenians were centered purely based on advancement of society and achievement. The time period after the Peloponnesian war, as hinted from Plato's text, was a time of great prosperity and economic excellence. Athenian Democracy experienced a surge in wealth and achievement in the arts, as well as a standardized economy. Plato leans on more democratic principles, where his opinion is extremely ever-present in the text. This is different to Xenophon's approach, where he prefers the oligarchical approach dominated by competition in a society. To Plato, the Athenian society must include a standard set of morals that all people are to follow. Plato believes in a democratic government like the Athenian Democracy, one set on harmony in society rather than survival of the fittest. A more tangible ideal that is centered around Plato's philosophy relates to the idea of abandoning gender roles and a society where men and women are alike, "the only difference is that males are stronger and females weaker" (Plato 58). This approach compares to the Spartan culture in one way, which is centered on male domination but equal in power and prosperity. In conclusion, Xenophon and Plato have vastly different views on society. Although some compare in many aspects, the overall opinion on a war-stricken people versus a healing nation set on prosperity rather than conflict is centered on one passion: survival. We see this in the coinage that each city state produced. Although Sparta as a state did not issue coins, the regions of Lycaonia issued coins to be paid in emergency wartime issues or for trade. They are a single hemidrachm denomination, and were issued a few centuries after Sparta’s prime. When compared to the vast and expansive coinage of Athens, a country with immense wealth and resources, the change is unbelievable. Athens minted millions (maybe billions) of coins during their prime from 510-404 BC (after the Peloponnesian war and the dismantling of the Athenian league).
The decline of the Athenian owl, ca. (454-404) after 404 BC
Courtesy of CNG
The next great superpower after Athens, Macedonia dominated the Hellas as early as 400 BC. Athenian democracy would no longer be what it used to be, and its former glory of corruption days were over. The relationship between Thucydides' work on the Peloponnesian war and Plutarch's work on Alexander III differs greatly albeit the individuals and tactics described in military procedures. The Peloponnesian war was filled with a violent overlord Athens who was in complete control of the Hellas. When Athens would gather up their so-called "allies" they would do it by force, forcing those to be a part of their Delian league in pursuit against the Persians. In reality, according to some, Athens had become worse than the Persians. The Athenians and their democratic approach to war was no longer apparent, and in their encroachment to recruit the Melians (the majority of Thucydides work being the dialogue between Athens and Melos) they seemed to force the city state to be conquered for the sake of greater good. For example, in the talk about the city of Melos being conquered by Athens or destroyed by Athens, the Melian representative exclaims that "It may be your will to be our masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?  To you the gain will be that by submission you will avert the worst; and we shall all be richer for your preservation" (Thucydides 45).
Stater of Melos during the time of the Peloponnesian war, ca. 465 BC.
Courtesy of CNG
Similarly, this brutality is seen in the Macedonian empire after Athens falls. Philip II of Macedon, Alexander III's father, ruled with a rather brutal and unorganized methodology. When he would conquer a city state and dismantle their society, he would simply leave them without rule until he could find the time to rebuild their society. "[Philip II] had swept away the[ir] existing governments, and then, having prepared their peoples for drastic changes, had left them in turmoil and confusion, because he had created a situation which was completely unfamiliar to them" (Plutarch 71).
Tetradrachm of Philip II of Macedon, ca. 342-337 BC.
Courtesy of CNG
On the other hand, When examining his son, "Alexander's principle object[ive]...was to frighten the rest of the Greeks into submission by making a terrible example" (Plutarch 72), but Alexander also showed tactics which were less violent and more diplomatic, such as when he would show pity on the Thebians in later times due to the destruction of their city. He also sympathized with those who were under the scrutiny of other city states in the Macedonian empire, which demonstrates his qualities as a fair but just ruler. Of course, there are the exceptions to this justness at times; when Plutarch states that Alexander's drunkenness got out of hand where he murdered Kleitus in cold blood. Alexander lost only thirty four men in the Persian conquest whilst the Persians lost nearly twenty thousand. After the war, he sent the spoils as gifts to those he wished to win their favor, such as the Athenians. After the battle, Alexander allowed the Persians to bury their dead and for the women of Darius to keep the lives they had before instead of being sold into slavery.
Commemorating the victory against Poros at the Hydaspes. The first Tetradrachm minted in Babylon after Alexander conquered Persia, ca. 325 BC.
Courtesy of CNG
As coinage changed, rose, and declined, so is it reflected in the society of Greece. A once great league of states, the Peloponnesian league, fell to the hands of a power vacuum. The great Greek states were not what they used to be, and they soon succumbed to the growing Roman republic. A powerful state appearing out of southern Italy, the Republic (which formerly was controlled by the powerful Patrician families) grew their power into the Hellas.Historians at the time observe these changes and its lasting effect. When looking at the coinage produced during the decline of Greece, coins are no longer depicted in high art and style, and a focus from war and battles has shifted to the arts and philosophy. Coins which once depicted soldiers and battle scenes now depict musical instruments and divine deities.
Stater of Aspendos in 460-420 BC. Obverse depicts a soldier with a shield and the reverse a triskele.
Courtesy of Emporium Hamburg
Stater of Aspendos in 380 BC after the war. A focus on the Olympic games and human improvement. A sign of a weaker society.
Courtesy of Roma
Contemporary historians, who would have viewed this shift in coinage, such as Polybius and Juvenal, it is apparent that both men have completely different views of the Roman government. A society plagued with good and bad, the Roman government was intended to be the center of it all and create a structure that could govern the masses. It is described in detail, in two different forms, by these two men. In the case of Polybius, it is incredibly apparent that he is impressed by both the uniformity and execution of the Roman Republic's government. He goes into immense detail from the start, first exclaiming his utmost certainty that even though all he has said about the Roman government, there is still bits and pieces of information that he is not including. He then compares it indirectly with his own familiarity of government (perhaps alluding to the democracies or the tyrants of Greece), where he elaborates that "a good critic should not judge authors by what they omit, but by what they relate, and if he finds any falsehood in this, he may conclude that the omissions are due to ignorance; but if all the writer says is true, he should admit that he has been silent about these matters deliberately and not from ignorance.” (Polybius 71). This is important to the overall context of the government of Rome in which Polybius is describing, as he wants to make sure that his account of the Roman Constitution is accurate to history. This can be important for many reasons, and most notably for the reliability of the text; even two thousand years later Polybius is used as a primary and reliable source for our ideas of the Roman government. His most important piece of information that is given to us early in the context of the passage is the organization of the Roman government. In between the Plebeians and Patricians, there lies an ideal for everyone in the Roman government. Polybius reiterates that "if one fixed one's eyes on the power of the consuls, the constitution seemed completely monarchical and royal; if on that of the senate it seemed again to be aristocratic; and when one looked at the power of the masses, it seemed clearly to be a democracy" (Polybius 71). In these words he is trying to explain that the Roman rule was different depending on whose eyes you look at it upon. The people have the power to approve or reject laws. We must ask ourselves an essential question: does this mean corruption?
The Quadrigatus, which circulated in trade as a Didrachm after the Punic wars
Courtesy of Roma
The satires of Juvenal compare a more monotone message hidden within the lines of humor and philosophy. Unlike Polybius, Juvenal does not have a high view of the Roman senate. Written at a time often considered the "golden age" of Rome, Juvenal discusses the challenges of being a good person in such a corrupt environment, the issues of the city, and managing a large empire to name a few. A specific phrase that stands out is when Juvenal discusses the women in the roman empire pertaining to a wife, where he talks about the greed of the women who “until that day comes, the gold-digger's a shrew. She flies off in fits, she bullies her husband, must have her pound of flesh" (Juvenal 83). In this excerpt he hints at the corrupting society of Rome, which is a culture centered around pleasure and greed instead of the traditional family values of the Republic. Juvenal condemns the elitist class as well, the vice and crime in Rome, and the depravity of it all. Reading the text, it seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel. This alludes to the possibility that Juvenal believes that Rome is damned and can never go back to her glory days. In the earliest days of coins struck by the Roman Republic, they mirrored the denominations of the neighboring states. This was entirely on purpose, because as the Republic absorbed the Greek city states the coinage began to spread. Rome soon dominated coinage, and due to the ideals they spread coinage began to assimilate to the ever-growing empire. The Roman Quadrigatus replaced the Didrachm and the Aureus replaced the Stater. The Denarius replaced the drachm, the Assarius the Unit, and so on. Because of the assimilation that Juvenal was so worried about, coinage was entirely controlled by the Roman government by the time of emperor Trajan.
Denarius of Trajan 117 AD
Courtesy of Nomos
Article By. Colby J. Abele