Posted by Allison on 6 April 2009, 15:21
While there are plenty of similarities between modern and ancient currencies (even though they are spread across hundreds and hundreds of years and civilisations) there are a lot of differences as well.
Today we are used to working within a very rigid framework when it comes to money. We know exactly what notes and coins are in use within each country and everything is very closely monitored and evaluated on a daily basis.
While ancient currencies had their own value, they were not always in widespread use as they are today. Whereas the Euro now spreads across more than a dozen countries, in ancient times you would have had lots of currencies across that same expanse of land – sometimes more than one currency in a particular country.
But the differences do not just occur on a national or even global scale. They also occur right down to the actual coins themselves. If you were to lay a modern day coin next to an ancient one you would see plenty of differences which largely point to the leaps and bounds that minting has taken over the centuries.
While old coins tended to be circular they were far from being perfect in their design. Today we have computers and tools to show us what a perfect circle should look like, and to that end we are far in advance of our ancestors, who had to do the best job they could. While each coin would have the same design stamped on it, the quality of the design would depend on who had stamped it and how good a job they had managed to do.
Today it is all done by machine and so all the coins in your pocket which are of the same denomination will look and feel the same (provided the design is the same of course.)
One of the main differences between ancient and modern currencies is the fact that nowadays we use coins and notes for making our transactions. We no longer use the more creative means of trading which our ancestors relied on in the early days of money. It's just as well, since our modern day outfits and pockets wouldn't hold too many axe heads or knives to pay for our goods with.
There is also the fact that whatever was used as money was worth what it said it was. So a gold coin, for example, would actually have been made of gold, whereas nowadays the only type of gold involved would probably be the colour. This is why paper money took so long to catch on throughout the world. It was made of paper, which was essentially worthless when compared to all those gold coins – and yet it was supposed to be worth more to stop you having to carry around so many coins at a time, just as our modern day banknotes are. We have the Chinese to thank for the invention of the banknote, since they brought into being the note which has evolved into what we know and recognise today.
In time paper money did become more widely used, because people came to realise that it was in fact still backed by something else which was equal to its face value – unlike today, when our currencies are reinforced and exchanged more on faith than anything else.
Another big difference between ancient and modern currencies involving banknotes is the amount of control exercised over the printing of them. In times gone by, when banknotes first came into being, governments realised they could print as many of them as they liked. Unlike gold coins, which were made from a commodity which there was only a certain amount of in existence, people could make as much paper as they liked, which meant that they could in turn make as many banknotes as they liked, even if they had nothing of value to support it with.
This sounded wonderful until it was realised that people could actually start asking for gold to the value of all the notes they had – and of course when that happened everything started to collapse around the foolish and greedy governments that had printed so many in the first place. In effect they were left with a worthless pile of paper, and an economy – even back then – which was in a complete mess.
Thanks to the degree of control that was gradually attained over currencies and how they were made, this was prevented from continuing on a large scale and modern currencies don't tend to be affected from this type of problem.
Another important difference between ancient and modern currencies is the ease of which ancient currencies could be forged. Because the early currencies came into being with no thought of the possibility of anyone actually forging them, no measures were taken initially to try and prevent it from happening. Compare that state of affairs to the measures in place today!
The irregularity that was a feature of ancient coins also made it easier to forge them, since anyone with a reasonable degree of intelligence could attempt to make forgeries and come out with a good result.
It is perhaps ironic though that modern day forgers are still trying to make good forgeries of ancient coins, in order to sell them to collectors all over the world. It seems that the forgers of today are not just interested in making counterfeit copies of their own currency; they would like to challenge the ancient forgers at copying coins from their times as well.
Given all the changes and upheavals revolving around money in all its forms over the centuries, it is somewhat surprising that there are any similarities left at all. But it is certainly the differences which give us the most exciting view as we look back over monetary history, from the earliest centuries to where we are today.