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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Coinage and History: what do we really know?

To know where you're going, you have to know where you've been.

The past is prologue.

Those ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it.

All the statements above contain some truth.  Recorded human history is about 5000 years old.  That's not a lot of history.  The history of the western world is only about 3000 years old if you count Biblical Judaea which dates back to about 1000 BCE.  That dates the beginning of alphabetic language.  Which is why we know about biblical Judaea.  Yet nothing written at that time exists except for a very few inscriptions on clay shards.  Certainly nothing we can call "history." 

In fact very little written Western history has survived from the period before the fifth century BCE  - when Herodotus began to write extensive histories in Ancient Athens.  Suddenly at that particular point there was an explosion of writing - and literacy.  It is also the period in which coinage began to exist in a system of widespread international trade.

But the fact is that from the 5th century BCE until about  the 15th century AD written history is very spotty.  Most of the "facts" about characters whom we regard as central to western history are unconfirmed by more than one source.  And most often the source was someone who never met these characters, and often someone who never met anyone who personally knew these characters. 

The fact is that much of true history - cold hard historical facts - come down to us through coins.

What do we really know about Caligula or Augustus or Alexander the Great?  Nothing that's isn't confirmed - or revealed - by their coinage.  Most of the rest is speculation. Sure the were many historians writing in Ancient Rome.  But much of what they write is speculative, based on rumor and innuendo - and much is contradictory.  And little of the writing survives.  Most has been translated and re translated by writers who have added their own speculative touches.

But the extensive coinage of all the characters from Ancient Rome attest to their titles, their victories: their physical attributes and the exact dates of these milestones of history.

Herodotus wrote extensively about Croesus of Lydia.  But he lived a generation after after Croesus died.  Can we be sure of the truth of anything he wrote that is not confirmed through the coinage of Croesus? 

Not really.  His writings lend color and flavor to the very few cold hard facts.  But without the coinage we could not be sure the Croesus even existed.  In the same way the coinage of Ancient Athens established dates and facts about the Athenian political economy and  that can not be otherwise confirmed even with all the the writings of Greek philosophers, historians and playwrights.

Fast forward 1500 years to Charlemagne.  Even at this later date - a seminal figure like Karolus Magnus' only  historical attestation is in Einhard's Vita Karoli Magni.  Of course Einhard actually knew Charlemagne, so some of what he wrote is probably true.  But we do not even know the date or place of his birth for example.  Can we even know for certain that Charlemagne really conquered the Lombards to the point where they were obliged to render fealty?  Yes, but only because his name appears on their coinage.  It is only through his coinage that we can accurately piece together his route of conquest.

Whose coinage functioned as the Western World's reserve currency and when?  Only the coins themselves can tell us.  This tells a story that no other written history can tell.

So much of what we really know about history is what we have learned from coinage - and conversely - to understand coinage one has to have a firm grasp of so much of what we consider to be history.

This is what makes coinage such a fascinating - and intrinsically valuable area for the collector.  History and Coinage are inextricably linked.

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