Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Themistocles Lesson #4.0 -- The Daric vs The Drachma

Money in the ancient world was still relatively new when Themistocles was born. Invented by the Lydians only 100 years previous, coins were made of gold, silver, a mix of gold and silver (electrum), and so forth. As money began to replace the bartering system in Greece, city-states began minting their own coins.
Each city-state had its own unique stamp. The Athenians minted coins with owls, the Aeginetans turtles, the Argives horses, and so forth. Only the Spartans stubbornly refused to use coins; they thought money invited greed and corruption. Thus the government forced the populace into austerity by only allowing them to exchange iron bars dipped in vinegar (the vinegar was added so the bars could not be melted down and made into something more valuable). The Ancient Greeks weren't the only ones with coins however...
The Persian Daric was one of the most valuable coins in the ancient world. It was issued by King Darius in the late 6th century BCE as a way to help stabilize his empire's monetary system. Darics were made of gold and were stamped with an archer king, perhaps originally a portrait of the Darius himself.

Below is a part of my novel will probably not make the final cut since it's not crucial to the story. It is however an interesting read for those of us who love ridiculous amounts of detail. :p ...
To the left of was a stall flanked by two unsmiling guards with pale skin and strangely curved swords. Beneath the purple-dyed canopy a merchant with dusky skin and flowing robes was waiting patiently for a customer. Curious I went over. The merchant gave me an indulgent smile when I asked where he was from. “Phoenicia,” he answered in a bright, chirping accent. I didn't know where that was. "A place far to the east," he explained when I asked him.
"Are your guards from there too?"
"No, they are from Scythia, which is far to the north."
"How did you find them then?"
"That is what it means to be a merchant, young Athenian. I travel all over the world and meet many people." I frowned at his empty stall front.
“If you're a merchant, then where are your things? What do you sell?”
“Money, actually."
"How can you sell money? ” He laughed.
“Ah, a good question. You see, every country uses different coin. What you can buy with Owls in Athens you can only buy in Eretria with Squids. Here. Let me show you.”
My attention was directed to a large cedar box. Inside, a cloth cradled a variety of shiny coins, each a slightly different size and color. The merchant picked up each one as he spoke. “Here is the winged horse Pegasus, the symbol of the hero Bellerophon and the pride of Argos. And this one has a turtle, the symbol of Aegina. This coin here is stamped with the Theban Shield--”
I pointed to a small, shimmering coin, slightly separated from the others. “What’s that one?”
“Ah. The Royal Archer! You have a good eye, my young friend. I believe you Hellenes call it a Daric.”
“Why is it nicer than the others?”
“Because it is of pure gold, a symbol of the Persian empire’s wealth and prosperity.”
“Could that coin me get to Ithaca?” I had no interest in Persia or Scythia or Phoenicia or any other strange place for that matter. I only wanted to see the home of Odysseus. The merchant gave another laugh.
“The Royal Archer can pay your way to Hyperbole if you like!” I didn't know where that was, but I decided it had to be much farther than Ithaca.
“I’ll take it,” I declared, putting the obals my father gave me for food on the table. I figured he wouldn't get too mad. The Phoenician's smile turned apologetic.
“Sorry, my young friend. That is not enough. You would have to exchange many, many coins for just one Daric. But why not keep these wonderful coins?” He held up one and pretended to inspect it carefully. “Ah. You see? An owl. A symbol of great wisdom. A wiseman would be wise indeed not to let his money fly away. Take your owls and keep them caged to let free for something very important.” He stacked my coins neatly and gave them back with a pat on my head. “May Fortune smile upon you.”
I sulked as I moved away, wondering if I would ever get to Ithaca...
*I apologize for the weird formatting. I tried to change some of it and I keep going in circles (?)


Carla said...

The first forex trader? :-) I rather like that scene - it gives an idea of the wider world. Maybe you could shorten it and find a place for it?

Okay, I have to ask. Why does dipping iron bars in vinegar mean you can't melt them down? I'd have thought the vinegar would vanish fast enough in a crucible - what am I missing?

Meghan said...

Thanks Carla! It is a fun scene I'll just have to find a place for it.

Ploutarchos mentions Spartan iron money as it was drawn out of the fire was dipped in vinegar, so that it would become unfit for forging, brittle and incapable of taking good edge. The iron used btw might have been cast iron.

There's a neat article that discusses the whole concept: http://www.metrum.org/measures/castiron.htm