Numismatic and History Discussions > Greek Coins

Incuse coinage of Magna Graecia and Pythagoras

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Earlier Enodia asked why Pythagoras would get involved in minting this "mundane item."  We should realize that to us, a coin is a mundane item, but to the ancient Greeks of 6th century BC, it would be the technological cutting edge, it would be the equivalent of an iPhone.  People were just starting to learn how to use coinage, just like people are now just learning how to use apps.  And just like today with smartphones, ancient Greeks probably over estimated the influence that this new _communications_ technology (for that is what it is) would have.
Communications technologies are different than other technologies in how much they change the way we think, because when we think we think _through_ communications technologies, whether it be the spoken word, or writing, codices vs. scrolls, manuscripts vs. the printed word, and so on.  Coins are no different, they express quantity, value and the endorsement of authority.  We understand the limitations of coinage today, not only because of the long history of coinage, but also because increasingly we are able to compare it with other things such as electronic currency.  "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."  In terms of commerce, however, we have not only "hammers" (coins) and screwdrivers and pliers, etc.

When coinage was introduced (or rather, within the first few hundred years after it), it was thought to reveal the nature of cosmos.  This may sound strange, but it really isn't.  People today believe that if we just get enough computing power, computers will be able to "think."  The Curiousity rover is said to "see" Mars.  Statements like this are really just sloppy and imprecise language, but it is understandable because our technological optimism doesn't understand the limits of the technology.

How does coinage feed into a technological optimism for the ancients.  Well, the Pythagoreans were interested not only in coinage directly, but also in quantity and number, in other words the arithmetic of commerce, the geometry of building temples.  Xenophanes expressed an interest in coinage and he and other Eleatics may have influenced the coinage of Velia.  In my opinion, anyone looking at the tiny fractionals, should realize from whence Democritus and his atoms came.  Abdera, the home of Democritus, also happens to have a few coins that depict "a" Pythagoras, perhaps "the" Pythagoras.  Heraclitus said that 'all things are exchanged for fire (cosmic fire), just as gold is for goods.'  The sophists taught the nuevo riche and Protagoras came up with the idea of subjectivity, saying man is the measure of all things.  My favorite is Diogenes the Cynic who was told by the Delphic oracle to "counterfeit the currency" so he went home and debased currency at Sinope before getting run out of town and finally becoming a philosopher.

So why would Pythagoras make the incuse coinage filled with Pythagorean symbolism?  One, because he could having been trained as a Celator, but also, two, because coins were the hottest new communications technology around, and tapping into that meant getting part of that action.  If coins are the cutting edge,  then the incuse coinage is the _bleeding_ edge, with nice round flans, multi-letter ethnics, rims, etc.  By getting into coinage, Pythagoras is saying something about the cosmos, in addition to the cosmogony I point out from Hippolytus.  He is pointing out that the cosmos is rational, orderly, mathematical, composed of things which ultimately add up both literally and figuratively.  Philosophy has an early, long history with coinage, and so it really should not be that much of surprise that Pythagoras used coinage to express his own message, in addition to that kind of message (economic) for which it is most suited.

I hope that helps, please feel free to let me know what you think.



--- Quote from: JBF on February 08, 2013, 02:18:48 am ---...My favorite is Diogenes the Cynic who was told by the Delphic oracle to "counterfeit the currency" so he went home and debased currency at Sinope before getting run out of town and finally becoming a philosopher.

--- End quote ---

Read this :

ummm... maybe?

i'm sure after the initial novelty wore off, say by the 6th century or so, these would have lost much of their cosmic mysticism and come to represent dinner, or a plow blade, or cloth. not much different than the way i think of a quarter in my pocket (only worth a helluva lot more).

i myself am pretty intrigued by silicone, but i still don't think of it as anything but mundane.
just me.

but the Pythagorian influence is interesting, and reminds me of some of the 'projective synthetic geometry' popular in the 30's, although dating back, i believe, to the 17th century at least (to put Descartes before the horse   ;)  ).

still following as best i can,
~ Peter

Peter, I wish you'll always have pockets full of quarters, and your toolbox full of silicone! ;)

You wrote: "i'm sure after the initial novelty wore off, say by the 6th century or so, these would have lost much of their cosmic mysticism and come to represent dinner, or a plow blade, or cloth.".

My idea is different.
We should not decline our modern perceptions concerning "coins" in the economic and social reality of the archaic world. Today we live in a Market-System governed by demand and supply, in which the production of currency is a need and a necessity of the States, currency is suitable for all purposes, it's widespread used, and it performs the functions of a general measure of all Goods (dinner, plow blades, clothes... silicone :) ) and Services.

I think that in the archaic world things were a bit different: currency was not a measure for Goods; currency could have been a measure for Services linked to religious significance.

I will try to be schematic because it is not easy for me to express in English the concepts I have in mind.

1) The ancient literary and historiographical evidences tell us that, untill the half of V cent, economy was certainly not handled in monetary terms, but was still based on barter and exchange of goods.

2) The earliest coins were minted mainly in large denomination pieces with high intrinsic value, sure also fractionals were minted, but not in sufficient quantities to ensure the divisional function, which is essential in the modern concept of monetary economy.

3) We shall remember that the earliest hoards we know are found in temples, or near sacred areas... an example for all, the famous Ephesus Artemision.

4) Denominations of ancient currency: "obelòs" was originally the minimum quantity of meat offered to a single citizen after a sacrifice, in a second time the same word was used to indicate the iron skewer, and "dracmé" was the amount of skewers that a man could take hold in one hand, six on average.
These etymological evidences recall an abstract measures of value, mediated by the functions of cults and rituals.

5) Two of the wonderful electrum staters found in the Artemision of Ephesus, considered among the most ancient coins emissions of history, have enigmatic legends (see attached pics, courtesy of British Museum).
The first: "Phaneos", the second: "Phaneos emi sema" ("I am the sign of Phaneos").
Phaneos could refer to the god of light Apollo-Phaneos, but some scholars state it could have been the name of a rich private coin issuer of Ephesus. In the first case we find again the religious significance, in the second case we shall believe that greek coinage in its origins was not exclusively an "affair of State", but also a private action of individuals or groups, whom impressed their own symbol on pieces of metal, surely not for trade, probably as a gift to the temple, and thus to enhance their social position.

Summing up, I think that until the advanced V century monetary economy was not "horizontal" for Goods, but only "vertical" for Services (I don't know if these terms are used in Economy, I apologize if I'm writing balderdash).
To explain myself:
Coins were not used by people and among people as mundane instruments to buy goods and supplies (still exchanged by barter).
Coins were only used by State-Cities as measures of a sort of "mystic value", used to pay the services that citizens held for the community (military service, security of the streets, building of temples, walls, ships, aqueducts etc.), and then coins returned to the "Administration" of the Cities by the offerings of those citizens to the Temple.
In this perspective, I think, the use of coins as mystic communication technologies by the Pythagoreans is highly plausible.

What a linguistic effort, I have headache now!  :P
I hope I was able to be clear.
Bye friends :)

Taras and John,

If you haven't read it yet, Richard Seaford's Money and the Early Greek Mind (Cambridge, 2004) deals with the emergence of coinage and its religious aspects extensively.  I highly recommend it.



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