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Coins and Temples in the Ancient World

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From the very beginning, money was a public institution, its value administered in antiquity by civic authorities taking control of commerce and markets.

KINGS of LYDIA. Time of Cyrus to Darios I. Circa 545-520 BC.jpg
Michael Hudson has devoted his career to the study of debt.
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Introduction

From its origins in the 7th century BC in Asia Minor, coinage was state money. As Aristotle emphasized, that made coins a creation of law (nomos). Their study (numismatics) shows how civic governments and their temples shaped monetary policy to promote their major fiscal objectives. In Greece these aims started with the need to provide a medium to pay taxes, fees and fines, for market trade at public games and festivals, and to finance armies and naval construction.

This Greek coinage experience had a similar motivation to Mesopotamia’s palaces monetizing silver, grain and other commodities in order to standardize and co-measure fiscal collection and payments in a single set of integrated accounts, an innovation also requiring weights, measures and purity overseen and sanctified by temples.

In contrast to this Greek and earlier Near Eastern fiscal practice, Rome saw its coinage deteriorate into a crude commodity quasi-money. The resulting “barter stage” of exchange resulted from the landed aristocracy breaking free from taxation. The state’s weakening fiscal authority left coinage without its use in paying taxes and fees. As the post-Roman economy resorted to payment in kind with little fiscal function—that is, without a “market demand” for coinage to pay taxes, fees or debts to public institutions—there was little fiscal role for coinage beyond its commodity content.

The Changing Weight of Money

Most 19th-century historians blamed classical antiquity’s debt conflicts and related economic upheavals on the transition from payments-in-kind to cash payments. But ever since the third millennium BC in the Near East, weighed pieces of silver of standardized purity had served the credit functions later attributed to coinage. Metallic money therefore long predated coinage. No economic trauma was created by its introduction, because classical antiquity’s mints did not change the basic character of money. Coinage did not even make market transactions more convenient, as weighing was still required. “Through most of the Middle Ages,” notes one monetary historian, “many individual coins of the same issue differed substantially in weight and fineness. Indeed, prior to the 13th century, coinage methods hardly permitted less than a 5 to 10 percent variation in weight between individual coins struck from the same plate.”[1] Such deviation was aggravated by wear, clipping and sweating of coins, requiring professional weighing to measure the actual bullion content of the proliferating diversity of coins.

Temples as Mints

Commodity-money theorists have emphasized how silver compresses a high economic value into a relatively small space. It also is malleable, readily melted and shaped into coins, and does not spoil. But these qualities do not explain money’s public fiscal origins. When economists “say that currency was devised to overcome the limitations and inconveniences of barter,” the anthropologist Arthur Hocart has pointed out, “they are imputing to ancient man the motives which would sway a modern financier. They are victims of the dangerous fallacy that because a custom serves a certain purpose [in modern society] it was invented for that purpose. If we divest ourselves of our modern preconceptions and study the evidence, we are driven to the conclusion that currency had a religious origin.”[2] And the practical fiscal reason for its innovation was to make payments to communal or civic authorities.

The most prestigious contributions to temples were silver and gold, associated with the lunar and solar deities respectively. Seeing metallic coinage as evolving out of religious tokens imbued with a sacred cosmology, Hocart suggested that India’s square coins reflected the mandala’s four directions, while the round shape of Western coins symbolized the sun’s disc, as did the royal crown and the halo, with the coins impressed with the symbol or image of the local divinity under whose auspices they were issued.

As in Sumer and Babylonia, Greek temples played a central monetary role by refining silver and attesting to its purity. “Hence the religious character of all early coin-types,” Barclay Head summarized. “Just as the word θEOI [THEOI] frequently stands at the head of treaties engraved on stone, so the emblems of the gods stand conspicuous on the face of coins…the gods being as it were called to witness to the good weight and purity of the coin.”[3]

Money’s Roots in Religion

Money always has been a public institution, with its value administered in antiquity by civic authorities taking control of commerce and markets. Pheidon of Argos (in the southern Peloponnese, east of Sparta) is often said to have created the first silver coinage, the stater, on the neighboring island of Aegina. The mint probably was located in the sanctuary of Aphrodite, the island’s “goddess of trade, and, as such, a promoter of international unity, identical with the Phoenician Astarte,”[4] goddess of the sea. Early Aegina coins bore Aphrodite’s sacred symbol, the tortoise.


“[Aphrodite Urania, the goddess] formed the kernel of every Sidonian factory, whence we find her worship on all the coasts of the Archipelago devoted to maritime intercourse. Every occupation, trade, or industry, such as fishing and mining pursued by the inhabitants, was under her protection. Through her means did the precious metals, with the Babylonian systems of value and weights, make their way into Greece. Her priests first introduced the metals as measures of value…and marked with the symbol of the deity the ingots belonging to the temple-treasury, just as in the temple of Apollo the furniture belonging to the sacred inventory was marked with a lyre.”[5]

Temples were relied on as minters and overseers of monetary silver and gold throughout all antiquity. “The Jews, in Roman times, struck sacred coins for offerings in the Temple, where money-changers set up their tables in the precincts to provide such coin in exchange for foreign money.”[6] Our word money (as well as mint) derives from Rome’s Temple of Juno Moneta, which issued Rome’s first silver coinage in 269 BC.[7]

Temple Treasuries

Storerooms were located in the rear of Greek, Roman and Jewish temples to serve as treasuries for public savings (and often those of private individuals), as well as to store food and weapons:


“Every temple of any degree of importance had a treasure, which consisted of the surplus of the proceeds from the lands dedicated to its use, the presents made, and of the income flowing from other sources of the god to whom the temple was consecrated. These treasures were under the care of the treasurers of the sacred moneys. In Athens important sacred treasure was that of Minerva in the citadel. Into this flowed—to say nothing of the public money therein deposited, beside the rich votive offerings, and large amounts of rent—many fines entire, of others the tenth part, and also the tenth of all booty, and of confiscated property.”[8]


Violating laws typically resulted in fines to expiate one’s offense. The word for sin originally signified the debt owed as expiation or reparations, as in German Schuld, which has caused much confusion for translators of the Lord’s Prayer regarding “Forgive us our debts/sins.” In cases where offenders were banished or proscribed, they might forfeit their estate to the temple. The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was especially notable for being enriched by such sequestered properties.

Temples as Creditors

Temples were creditors as well as depositories, lending at interest to the poor as well as to merchants, and to civic authorities in times of war or other crises, issuing early money to denominate payments to themselves and other public authorities. Temple treasurers, superintendents and sacrificers were responsible for handling the official savings of Athens, Thebes, Cnidus and Sicyon, the savings being kept in “sacred chests” or “public chests” at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. But when Delphi was drawn under the influence of Corinth and Sparta of the Peloponnesian League, Athens extended its control over the temple of Delos, which in 478 became the first treasury and central meeting place of the Delian League, named after the temple. (In 454 BC the League’s treasury and headquarters were moved to Athens, turning what had been a defensive democratic alliance against Persia into an exploitative Athenian tribute system. One 60th of this tribute was dedicated annually to the goddess Athena.) The strong-room of the Temple of Delos contained row upon row of jars and other receptacles “on which was indicated the provenance of the contents or the purposes for which it is earmarked.” One series contained “over 48,000 drachmas which remained unopened from at least 188 to 169.”[9]

In light of this monetary role of temples in antiquity, there is ample reason to call modern banks “temples of finance,” with architecture often symbolically resembling that of ancient temples, and like them, typically towering over the skyline of their cities.


[1] Jacques Mélitz Primitive and Modern Money: An Interdisciplinary Approach 1974:71

[2] Hocart, A. M. (1952), The Life-Giving Myth (London): [Chapter X: Money]:97-104. Pp. 99-101.

[3] Head, Barclay V. (1887), Historia Numorum: A Manual of Greek Numismatics (Oxford):lvi-lvii.

[4] Head 1887:xxxv and xxxviii.

[5] Curtius, Ernst (1870), “On the religious character of Greek coins,” Numismatic Chronicle 10:91-111(translated by B. V. Head; original title “Ueber den religiosen Character der griechischen Münzen.”) 1870:92-93.

[6] Gardner, Percy (1913), “Coinage of the Athenian Empire,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 33.(1918), A History of Ancient Coinage: 700-300 BC (Oxford). 1918:37.

[7] Thomson, Rudi (1957-61), Early Roman Coinage and its Evidence (Copenhagen, 3 vols.). 1961 III:161 and 259-262, and I:33

[8] Boeckh, August, The Public Economy of Athens (Boston and London). 1857:217-219. See also pp. 568-571.

[9] Larsen, J. A. O. (1938), “Roman Greece,” in Tenney Frank, An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome (Baltimore), Vol. IV (Baltimore). 1938:341. See also Finley 1973:174, and Boeckh 1857:219 and 565-566.

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