History of Numismatics

 

Numismatics (from the Greek "nòmisma") is the science concerned with the study and description of coins as well as with historical, artistic and economic matters related to them. Numismatics and the coins it studies therefore constitute an open book on the history of the world. For millennia these small metal disks have represented not only a means of exchange but also an expression of the place of art and civilization in the history of peoples.

The earliest forms of coinage appear in the seventh century B.C.; however, the invention of this medium of exchange did not take place anywhere overnight, nor was it the conception of a single genius. Instead, the social function of coins was perfected over many generations, in a way similar to navigation and writing.

Prior to the invention of coins, other forms of exchange were conceived in the service of commerce, forms as old as human history itself, among which money became the essential instrument over time. In historical sequence, these forms begin with the barter system, which is based on the simple exchange of one kind of merchandise for another. Following the barter system came the choice of the most sought after and abundant commodity as a currency. In a later period currencies were chosen on the basis of their intrinsic value, homogeneous composition, durability, possible applications and general utility; in short, precious metals were chosen.

Decorated historical monuments and literary sources prove that no ancient people during its primitive phase of existence could make do without this natural law, neither Egypt, Assyria or Chaldea, nor the peoples of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Among the metals most frequently selected as currency were gold, yellow amber and silver. In about 4000 B.C., the Sumerians, an ancient people of Mesopotamia, were the first to develop an infinite series of numbers and to set values for different metals independent of their relationship to other goods. Because the Sumerians thought that gold was sacred to the sun god as silver was to the moon god, they were able to calculate the values of these metals on the basis of the observed revolutions of the sun in relation to the moon at a ratio of 1:13, which corresponds to the time differential between the solar year and lunar months. This ratio 1:13, which was established solely on the basis of astrological and mythical beliefs, remained unchanged and was later adopted by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance up to our own times or, more precisely, until 1971, when the Bretton Woods Agreements collapsed following the suspension of convertibility from US dollars to gold.

In the beginning these precious metals were exchanged on the basis of their weight as gauged by a hand-held scale. The metals were broken into fragments or torn into pieces according to local units of measurement. Such a practice clearly reveals the sense of accountability that pointed already to the future creation of a standard, regulated currency, a state monopoly which has remained intact up to our own times.

In ancient societies, priests were responsible for handling precious metals as part of their duties in overseeing both the economy in general and individual transactions which took place in front of temples. During disputes that inevitably emerged in commercial affairs, priests also acted as arbiters and in this way won for themselves the confidence of both the people and their rulers. The alliance between temporal and priestly power was consolidated in the management of money. As a consequence, money was stored in the temple. In this way, money preserved its sacred character. Even though it expressed temporal sovereignty, it both came from the temple treasury and returned there to be converted to the gods.

When we speak of the invention of money, we are talking specifically about a kind of innovation through which the state, at a certain point in time, monopolized its manufacture. Such an innovation took place in the Mediterranean basin between the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. During the reigns of the kings of Lydia, and particularly during the reign of Croesus, the first metallic disks appeared in varying size, bearing the king’s own seal. At about the same moment in history coins were being used in the principal Greek cities on the shores of the Aegean Sea. Thereafter coins began quickly to appear in the more important commercial centers, a phenomenon matched only by other great human inventions in history. At the same time that coins first appeared, an important social change took place. Commercial activity as an occupation grew more intensively alongside traditional agriculture and stock-breeding, as a result of which whole populations came together to form larger cities. Money thus lost its sacred character and, after about a half century following its invention, it began to circulate among people and to spread to all the great civilizations through the centuries.

Numismatic studies permit us to document and understand human history even in the absence of written texts, through the effigies, images, brief inscriptions and symbols printed on coins, which both characterize human evolution and serve as the foundation of our modern civilization.

Today’s decimalized and rationalized national monetary systems along with the globalization of a number of large world markets (such as in Western Europe) and the introduction of the Euro denote a further expansion of economies linked no longer with individual nations, but with an economic-financial superstructure in which the epicenter is no longer political or juridical in nature, but economic and financial.

As the expression goes, "there is nothing new under the sun" from the time of alliances (including monetary alliances) thousands of years ago up to the relatively recent experiences of the Latin Monetary Union (in the second half of the 19th century), alliances which foundered in the wartime conflicts that marred this particular historical period.