As early as c. 350 BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle explained the need for a currency exchange system in the ancient world, and by implication the limits of a pure barter system, in the following words: ‘When the inhabitants of one country became more dependent on those of another, and they imported what they needed, and exported what they had too much of, money necessarily came into use.’ The first known Greek silver coins, bearing an image of a sea-turtle, came from the island of Aegina during the 7th century BC and spread to become the common exchange standard in the Aegean c. 600-450 BC. Many rival coins were also minted in the fragmented world of Greek city states, and the all-powerful, silver-rich Athenian state gradually assumed regional supremacy, a fact confirmed by its issue of a tetradrachm (four-drachma) coin around 510 BC. This handsome silver coin depicting the Athenian owl was regularly used for trading until 38 BC. The spread of this Aegean coinage was first westward through Greece, and then north into Persia. And in what was to prove a prophetic exchange, coins circulating around Greek outposts in Southern Italy also persuaded the Romans to abandon their own bronze-bar monetary system c. 300 BC in favour of striking their own coinage.
As the tides of history enveloped the Grecian world, the drachma was displaced by the Roman denarius from 146 BC onwards, and destined not to return until the advent of modern Greece in 1827. Following four centuries of Ottoman government, this new drachma carried a phoenix image and was once again minted on Aegina. Five years later a full-blown coinage appeared with drachmas struck in copper, silver and gold. By 1868, the drachma had achieved parity with the French franc, and the last-ever silver drachmas were cast in 1911.
After Greece became a republic, a new coinage was issued in 1926 which discarded the royal crest, and the Greeks retained this version even though their monarchy was reinstated just prior to World War II. After weathering post-war financial crises and revaluations, the drachma was finally replaced by the Euro in 2002.
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The Egyptian currency
Although Egypt’s ancient Nile-valley civilisation has bequeathed much to the modern world, it was slow to develop a coinage. Some coins were in circulation by 500 BC, but prior to that, barter trading was refined and informed by a system of copper, silver and gold weights used to evaluate quantities of traded goods and settle merchant accounts.
Notwithstanding a small amount of tetradrachm coins minted to secure the services of Greek mercenaries, the first Egyptian currency appeared with Alexander the Great (c. 332 BC) and the Ptolemies. This system followed the Greek model and persisted under Roman rule until Diocletian introduced widespread currency reform across Rome’s Empire at the close of the 3rd century AD. As Rome splintered, Egypt came under the influence of Roman Byzantium and thus used Byzantine coins until waves of Arab conquerors appeared in 646 AD, first resulting in a Caliphate, and then Ottoman rule until 1789. The Ottomans introduced the Egyptian Piastre currency, with a piastre equal to 40 Paras. Then in 1834 the Egyptian Pound appeared and was valued at 100 piastres. This arrangement was refined in 1885 when the para was abolished and replaced by a new malleem subdivision – giving 1,000 malleems to each piastre. The Ottoman Empire still retained some influence in its former territories and thus Ottoman markings were still seen on Egypt’s coins right up to the First World War.
During the 20th century, the Egyptian Pound was tied to the Sterling Pound at a rate of exchange of £1 GBP to £0.975 EGP, but this arrangement finally ended in 1961 when Egypt’s currency switched to the US dollar standard. Back in 1885, Egypt’s elaborate coinage had incorporated denominations as low as just ¼ of one malleem – just a 1,000th part of a piastre. However, such extravagant subdivision no longer takes place, and all malleem fractions were removed from circulation during the 1970s. For practical purposes, contemporary coinage is restricted to just 25- or 50-piastre pieces, plus the Egyptian Pound, even though lesser piastre coins are still legal tender.
The Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople originally came into being as the Eastern, Greek-speaking counterpart to the Western, Latin-speaking Empire of Rome. The division was a gradual transition throughout the 4th century AD, and the history of the Byzantine currency exchange system really begins with the solidus, issued in 309 by Constantine I. This solid-gold coin was a constant feature of Byzantine currency for over 600 years, and even though it was modified by the Emperor Constantine VII (913-59), the solidus retained its identity right through into the 1350s. The smallest currency unit was the humble nummus which was fashioned from copper and, at 4th century values, was worth about a 7,000th part of a gold solidus. Between these two extremes, a complex range of coin denominations appeared and disappeared, often seeming to track the fluctuating fortunes of the Empire itself. In response to an early crisis, Anastasius I revised the currency in 498, introducing a hierarchy of three gold, and five copper coins. By 615 a silver hexagram had been added alongside constant reductions in the weight of all copper currency.
The reign of Constantine IX (1042-55) saw plenty of coinage debasement with impure blends of gold and silver, plus the arrival of a new concave-shaped coins. Alexius I addressed this decline with a further currency reform in 1092, and added another new coin, the gold-alloy hyperpyron. At this point the coinage already contained debased coins of different shapes, and by 1304, Andronicus II had seen fit to mint another new addition, the basilicon – a solid silver coin modelled on the Venetian ducat.
As the Byzantine Empire entered its final stage, so the gold hyperpyron was retired in 1367, along with all other gold and gold-alloy coinage, to be replaced by the less-expensive, heavy silver stavraton – a move which reflected the grave economic collapse which occurred as the Byzantine Empire approached its final demise.
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