From New To Old – The Links Today's Money Has With The Past

Posted by Allison on 6 April 2009, 15:18

Money has come a long way since people first started bartering over goods and offering live animals in exchange for grain and wheat many hundreds of years ago.  Exploring the links that today's currency has with the past and what it means to us now can provide an interesting journey – and one which is worth taking.

Back in the days when a currency could be defined as pretty much anything with value – if you and your neighbour wanted to swap bags of salt for bags of grain, then that was an agreement that existed purely between the two of you and may not have any real value for anyone else – the idea of everyone having their own shiny little pieces of metal to exchange for goods would have been a strange idea indeed.

If the ancient civilisations that first thought of the notion of bartering had realised that in centuries to come we would be paying for goods using a small rectangular piece of plastic they would probably have run in the other direction at the thought of using such 'magic'. 

We have far more ways of making use of money nowadays than our ancestors had in the past.  For starters we have actual money, credit cards, debit cards, banks, shares, stocks, savings accounts and still more ways of making use of it than our predecessors.

For them, even when money itself was created and coins were used as a form of payment, the whole monetary system on which our modern world is created was still a long way off.

But that doesn't mean that today's money has no strong links with the past. There are strong connections which perhaps point to the deeply ingrained habits of man to make the best of what he has – no matter which century he is living in.  As such forgery has always been a part of currencies both old and new; in centuries gone by people were just as eager to try and make fake coins as they are now to forge the new improved banknotes that are in circulation.  The only difference is that nowadays the methods of doing so are far more sophisticated – as are the methods of preventing it.

The whole point of money has essentially remained much the same over the centuries, although the material it was made from then and is made from now makes a huge difference to how we see money today.  For example, if you take the highest valued banknote out of your pocket – let's say a twenty pound note – you know that you can go out shopping and come back with exactly twenty pounds worth of goods in exchange for that note.  This is because that is what it's valued at, even though the actual cost of that note is much, much less than twenty pounds.

But if you were to compare ancient coins with modern ones, you would have a very different picture between the two.  Firstly ancient gold coins were really made from gold.  Even in more recent times, going back to 1794, America started producing real silver dollars, which were then made of real silver.  But following on from those times it became less common to have a silver dollar which actually had much silver in it.

This was a real sign of the times, since one main indicator of ancient coins was that they were actually worth what they said they were worth.  For example, gold coins were more valuable than silver coins, and so on.  Now, our coins are merely gold coloured or bronze coloured and do not give any real indication as to the actual value of the coin – the colour is the only real link with the past that is evident in this case.

It was some time later before banknotes came into being, and they were only created to solve the problem of having to carry vast amounts of coins around with you.

It is clear that there are differences between ancient and modern currencies but throughout history there are still links which provide us with a path to trace the development of currencies over the centuries.  But are the sophisticated means and methods of buying and paying for goods in modern times really so much better than the bartering which started the whole issue of money off in the first place?

You might be surprised to learn that coins came into being after the concept of banking was invented.  Even when bartering was still the main form of exchange people who had the most to trade were rightly concerned about how safe their goods really were, and so the most secure locations for keeping such goods (such as palaces, for example) were used as the very first form of banking, hundreds of years before the establishments we know today were first thought of.

It's clear that even while the notions of money and banking are thousands of years old, some of the processes to do with currencies that we think of as being thoroughly modern actually have their roots planted very firmly in the distant past.  Cheques are a great example of this; far from being the invention of the modern banks, they actually date back to ancient Roman times.  Since those early and rudimentary days the cheque has evolved into what we know today – yet it's not so modern an invention as you may have thought.

In truth, while modern currencies might seem completely different when compared to ancient ones, there are plenty of links between them which pop up the more you keep looking.  This leads us towards a greater understanding of how our ancestors approached the subject of money and gradually transformed it into the recognisable notes and coins we do business with today. 

So the next time you write a cheque for something, or fish through the coins in your pocket, spare a thought for your distant relatives in the past, who might have known a little bit more about currency than you previously thought.



  1. I don’t tend to think about ancient currencies at all – you don’t, do you? But I found this article particularly interesting – it certainly opened my eyes to the idea of currency existing throughout the years. We don’t think about how it works but it is there in all the cultures and history books. It’s a lot more interesting reading about it now than it would have been learning about it in school too!

    — Allison · Aug 31, 11:27 AM · #