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Archaic Small Change and the Logic of Political Survival

Peter van Alfen

In his seminal 1964 article, "Hoards, small change and the origin of coinage," Colin Kraay argued that "few parts of the Greek world in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. were equipped with a sufficient range and volume of low value coins to cater to the needs of daily retail trade. Where the denominations existed, they appear in quantity so small that they can have made little impression on the total currency." Nearly fifty years later, new finds have challenged that picture, making it certain that more archaic and classical authorities were in fact producing small change. In a much cited paper from 2001, Henry Kim outlined this new picture suggesting that small change was far more prevalent than Kraay had realized, and at a earlier date, thus contributing greatly to a deeper and more meaningful monetization of archaic economies across all strata of society.

In the first part of this paper I reexamine the production of small change in the archaic period making use of a database of coinage far more comprehensive that those used by previous scholars. Based on these data, it is clear that while the denominational structure of the largest proportion of the coin series produced before c.480 BCE shows marked preference for small value coins, nevertheless the output of these coins appears generally comparatively limited. At the same time, a significant proportion of the coin series still are skewed towards large denomination coins, many of which were produced in very large numbers.

In the second part, I address this uneven distribution of small change from the perspective of political survival. I start with the question: does "catering" to daily retail needs mean catering to a particular segment of society, and if so, why? As Thomas Sargeant and Francois Velde demonstrate in The Big Problem of Small Change (2002), producing full bodied small coins is economically inefficient, a factor contributing to the wide spread shortages of small change throughout the medieval and early modern periods. At the same time, shortages were often a cause of political and social unrest, as non-elites struggled to make do. I contend that in archaic poleis decisions about coin production, including denominational range, could become enmeshed in the various social and political struggles that developing poleis faced. For those in power, granting access to a larger (non-elite) segment of society to the transactional efficiencies of coinage via small change, no matter how costly its production, may have been a means of garnering support for the regime and thus aiding political survival.

Session/Panel Title

Economic Integration and Disintegration: New Approaches to Standards and Denominations in Ancient Greek Coinage

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