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Monday, September 9, 2013

The Barbarous Relic

The Gold Coin pictured above bears an image of Athena with a Griffin on her helmet.  A miserable slave toiled in about 320 BCE in a dank mine somewhere in Mesopotamia, to dig the gold out of the earth.  The gold was turned over to the overseers of the merchant caravan acting under the auspices of the Seleukos 1 Nikator, now Emperor of the Eastern Empire of the deceased Alexander the Great.  In the capital city of Babylon, the shipment reached the Mint in the temple of Athena, where a team of gifted celators carved images into iron which was heated, stamped into a die, which was then recut by another gifted die cutter.  The gold was the heated and rolled into sheets, and stamped into round blanks.  The blanks were again heated then fitted into a metal tong set on an anvil.  The other die face was set in the other tong, pressed over the die and struck with a hammer.

The Mint Master would deliver the result of this massive labor-intensive exercise to the Military Paymaster in charge of paying the troops of Seleukos who was engaged in a relentless series of wars with Alexander the Great's other general who has split up his empire.  Ptolemy had taken Egypt, Seleukos the Eastern Empire, Antigonos had Macedon, Demetrios had Greece.  They all struck substantially similar coins to pay their troops.

Every officer who received one of these coins as a month's wage, was sure that the this payment was constant in terms of weight and purity as guaranteed by the issuing authority of the Babylon Mint under the auspices of Seleukos 1.  Its value would be substantially the same throughout the known world.  Its value would remain constant for centuries throughout the known world.

In fact, its value would remain substantially constant for two thousand years.

The term the Greeks used for this coin was Nomos - which also meant, in verb form, "To Reason."  And, as we know, Reason was the defining characteristic of Greek thought.  The virtue of consistency in the process of reason formed the basis of Greek Philosophy.

This constancy was only interrupted with the advent of the two world wars inf the 20th century, after which a new currency was introduced by the Victors: a currency that was defined by its very lack of constancy.  It had no intrinsic value.  The value would henceforth be assigned at the convenience and to the benefit of the issuing authority and its Banks.  Any constancy of value was thought to limit the ability of the the States and the Banks that controlled them from creating profits.

To call a currency that is defined by its constancy barbaric is amusing for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that constancy is quintessentially Greek, while Barabaric is the term the Greeks used for everything that was Non-Greek.  This is because to the Greeks, those uncivilized tribes who couldn't speak Greek, sounded as if they were saying "Bar bar bar."

Another reason the term Barbaric is amusing when applied to the constancy of gold is because to the Greeks the very concept of Debt - the essence of this new inconstant currency - was Barbaric.  Any form of payment that involved interest was thought belong to the realm of the basest scoundrels, thieves and usurers.  

Of course, times change.  Values change.  Ours are very different from those of Classical Greece.  But applying the term Babaric to the the gold coin pictured above, is certainly a misnomer.

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