What Made The Greeks Use Money?


Was it trade or their “psyche”?

It may seem obvious to us that commercial imperatives would have driven the invention of money. But human beings conducted trade for millennia without coinage, and it’s not certain that the first monetised economy in the world arose in ancient Greece simply in order to facilitate such transactions.

The classicist Richard Seaford has argued that the invention of money emerged from deep in the Greek psyche. It is tied to notions of reciprocal exchange and obligation which pervaded their societies; it reflects philosophical distinctions between face-value and intrinsic value; and it is a political instrument, since the state is required to act as guarantor of monetary value.

Financial instruments and institutions – coinage, mints, contracts, banking, credit and debt – were being developed in many Greek cities by the 5th Century BC, with Athens at the forefront. But one ancient state held the notion of money in deep suspicion and resisted its introduction: Sparta.

See other: Which Greek Legends Were Really True?

4 thoughts on “What Made The Greeks Use Money?

  1. The 8th century BCE ruler of Sparta, Lykurgos, the son of the king Eumenos, managed to persuade the Spartan people to give their land property and then he divided it in equal shares; this, in order to avoid strife in the city. He also assigned equal lots of land to the Perioikoi – the free non-citizens of Sparta.

    In other laws, Lykurgos forbade the use of money in gold and silver and in their place issued iron money, too heavy and of very little value. Also Spartans were not permitted to build their houses with other tools, except the axe and the saw.

    Lykurgos did very little for the rich, who tried everything to oppose him. One of them, a youth named Alkander, in the Agora tried to hit him with his stuff and when Lykurgos turned his head, he was hit in the eye and lost it. Lykurgos did not prosecute him, but took him as his servant, giving him the opportunity to discover his character. Indeed Alkander became later a devoted disciple. – Or so the story goes.

    In order to persuade the Spartans to accept his laws, which demanded a lot of sacrifices, he bred two small puppies, the one indoors with a variety of foods and the other he trained it for hunting. He then gathered the people and showed them that the untrained dog was completely useless.

    Lykurgos was, arguably in a very primitive way, a kind of idealist and socialist – which, between you and me – is often outwardly very similar.

    (Many thanks to Ellen Papakyriakou)

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