Tag Archives: money

The Invention of Money by the Greeks

Richard Seaford spoke at uni earlier this year – I’ve just re-discovered my notes, so I thought I would write them up, for my own memory and public delectation. He wrote a book called Money and the Greek Mind, and this lecture was called “The Invention of Money by the Greeks.” Of course, this is what I wrote as I listened – I may have misunderstood… my thoughts are in square brackets.

**In the sixth century BC came the invention of what makes society today what it is [Western, anyway; and these are just his ideas]: democracy, drama, philosophy, scientific medicine, money, and history writing.

**Money and its Invention
– money is different and separate from wealth
– started in Ionia, Thrace, Cyprus and the Greek colonies.
– coinage: revolutionary and convenient – could be used in everyday life, which led eventually to a thoroughly monetised society.
– Egypt and Mesopotamia did not have money; they used metals as a commodity, which Seaford claims is not the same as using money.
– it’s hard to give a definition for money, because it is both a ‘thing’ and a relationship, particularly a power relationship, especially over someone’s labour [Marxism…].
–So how do you decide what is acting as money?!
—Money functions: it must be a means of payment, and a means of exchange, and and a measure of value, and a means of storing value. If something does all four functions, it’s money.

Money=sophistication? For a culture, that is. [Really not convinced by this idea… I think it’s a very modern, Western, and fairly arrogant assumption….]

**Philosophy: the view that the universe is an intelligible system, subject to uniformity and impersonal forces.
* Seaford claims that sixth C BC Greece is the first time anywhere this view was held.
* He also says that the world is/was divided into those who think the world is personal vs those who see it as impersonal.
– Philosophy started in Miletos,
– Why?? Some say it is because of a political development – indeed, the polis, not subject to an autocrat, where citizens rule themselves. So there is no monarchy to be imprinted onto the cosmos. But, the polis was in existence before these guys, and there is nothing that special about Miletos. So it doesn’t really fit, although it is appealling. So why Miletos? Was the first to be thoroughly ‘monetised’, and one of the greatest economic powers of the time – trading, etc.

Short Interlude…
The supposed way money was invented: The King of Lydia at Sardis get lots of electrum from a river, and pays mercenaries with it, and stamps it all to make the pieces worth the same amount.

And Lydia is very close to Greek cities like Miletos….

Interesting point: in Homer, in animal sacrifices, everyone gets the same amount of meat – on a spit of the same size. The obol, the smallest coin, is a similar word to that for the name of th spit! One theory runs that the spits got traded [but I ask, why??], and then replaced by coins [eventually…somehow…].

…so Back to the Story…

**So the link between money and philosophy is?
– The philosophers all thought that the world was composed of one substance, in different forms (although of course they all thought that it was a different substance from what the last guy said).
– Without a monarch, money is the most powerful thing in society. It is exchangeable for anything, and anything is exchangeable for it… much like the one universal substance of the philosophers. [He did go into the various philosophers and what they thought that substance was, but I was tired by that stage and couldn’t keep up, so I’m not really doing him justice.] Additionally, of course, it is impersonal – another attribute of the philosophical view of the world [according to Seaford].
– Money is also abstract: it has two different values – the substance and the form. The abstract value is of more importance. So the most real and most important power in society is abstract… which influences the way the thinkers of the time view the world.

**Final thought: Parmenides dealt with the rift between the abstract and the sensual; he says that the sensual is an illusion, and that only the abstract actually exists. Like money.
*Parmenides influences Plato.

***My final thoughts: I most definitely don’t know enough about the development of money, nor of the various philosophers he mentioned, to decide based on this lecture whether I believe it or not. He was certainly a very entertaining and persuasive speaker, and during the lecture I was more than willing to be convinced. One of my favourite things about these sorts of lectures is playing Spot the Lecturer/Tutor (there’s the magnficent Chris Mackie, there the brilliant Ron Ridley, supervisor extraordinaire, the moderately boring Roger Scott, etc). In front of me this time was Elizabeth Pemberton (for whom I can’t find a link, as she has left my Melbourne Uni), who shook her head a fair bit and was obviously not convinced by a number of things he said. This served as quite a nice counterbalance to my possible gullibility!