Ancient Monetary Currencies

Posted by Allison on 6 April 2009, 15:24

The dollar, the Euro, pounds sterling, the rouble, the yen, rupees, dinars, pesos and many more – those are the currencies we are familiar with today.  They stretch back varying distances into the past; some have a history which can be traced back several centuries while others, such as the Euro, are mere babies on the world economic scene.

That's the world as we know it today.  But what currencies would we have been using at various points in the past?  More specifically, what kind of currencies would have changed hands hundreds of years ago?

One of the most famous nations when it comes to ancient coinage is Greece.  The Greeks arguably produced some of the most detailed and intricate designs seen on coins at that time, including extremely detailed portraits of important figures such as Athena.  The name of one of these coins – the drachm – is probably rather familiar to you, since it evolved into the Greek drachma, which managed to survive right up to the present day, until the brand new Euro finally did away with it in 2002.  With that said, it is one of the few currencies in the whole history of the world to have such a long existence in one form or another.

The other strong contender in the world of ancient coinage that really made a mark – which again can still be seen today – is the denarius.  This coin formed part of the currency system that the Romans used, and various different issues of it can be seen to bear the heads of various Roman emperors, depending on who was ruling at the time.

If the word denarius seems slightly familiar it is probably because today's modern equivalent, the dinar, has evolved from it.  The dinar is still used in Tunisia and Algeria, among others.

But ancient currencies were in force in lots of different parts of the world, and another area which made its own discoveries in leaps and bounds was China.  Many of their early coins were made with holes in the middle, which made them easier to thread onto a piece of string to hang around their neck or wrist.  This is one of the key identifying traits of these coins.  The designs themselves were much plainer than the Roman or Greek coins; sometimes two or three Chinese characters were inscribed upon the coins, but they would be without any pictures or illustrations of any kind.

A small island off the coast of the mainland of Europe was also making its own coins by the time the second century BC arrived.  Britannia, later to be called Great Britain, created its first coins out of gold, until it too eventually went the way of all other world currencies and reduced the amount of precious metals in its coins and started using other metals instead.

Today we are used to each individual country having its own single currency.  In some cases that currency may even be used by more than one country.  But in ancient times when coins were still relatively new, there were occasions where different regions within the same country used their own currencies as they saw fit.  This was perhaps not as drastic a measure then as it would be now though; it should be remembered that in those days people didn't travel as far as they do now, so this kind of situation would not have caused the kinds of problems it would now.

While the designs and values of each coin and currency were different in each area, they did follow a general pattern.  Obviously the more precious the metal was that the coin consisted of, the more valuable it was.  Coins were also routinely made in different sizes.  Eucratides I was a Greco-Bactrian king (ruling part of what is now India) who made what is possibly the largest and certainly the most impressive gold coin ever made.  It is nearly six centimetres long.  Compared to the weight of any of today's coins, this really does come in as a true heavyweight.

Because of the fact that the Greeks had a strong presence in India from around 300 BC onwards, it is not surprising that coins from that region have a strong Greek influence.  As time went on and the years AD arrived, the coins altered drastically in appearance as old rulers died and new ones arrived in their place.  The so called Gupta coinage in particular is very detailed and has different images on the front and back of each coin.

Throughout history there have been lots of instances where coins from many centuries ago have been found in India, bearing all the hallmarks of a Greek influence.  The unearthing of ancient currencies all over the world tells us more about how our ancestors used to live and trade with each other, and there is no doubt a lot more still to discover.

It can be seen that the main difference between today's coins and the ones which were made many hundreds of years ago is their design – or more appropriately perhaps, the reason behind their design.  Today our coins are purely functional.  They may have commemorative issues from time to time but their overall worth is only seen in what they can be exchanged for.

In ancient times, while the methods for making coins were far less sophisticated than the ones we have today, it seems the various emperors and rulers of the regions and countries which existed then took great pride in making sure their coins had their faces upon them.

While none of the ancient currencies are still in use today, and the faces on today's coins are very different, it is perhaps reassuring to know that some names, such as the dinar for example, can still trace their roots right back to the dawn of currency itself.

But will the next several hundred centuries bring about as many changes as the world has seen in the past?