War changed dramatically from the time of Homer to the later polis period. Wars grew in size and changed in nature, with more participants and more diverse types of combatants. Wars also became more aggressive, longer, and more sustained. Thucydides states that the smaller and less concentrated encounters of Homer’s Trojan siege were different from wars in his own day not because of a lack of manpower (oliganthropia), but due to the lack of resources (chrêmata), literally “tools” or “useful things” (1.11). What he meant by resources and by the term he used for them – chrêmata – was coined money. Coinage transformed Greek warfare from its introduction in the later sixth to the fourth century BC. Coins enabled both the payment of greater numbers of men as crews in fleets and soldiers in land-armies and the prosecution of longer and more sustained wars.
This paper explores what Thucydides actually meant by the role that coinage played in facilitating war’s prosecution. It explains how coins made possible larger, longer, and more sustained wars for, while coins in and of themselves could do little to alleviate issues of supplying armies with food or maintaining campaigns, they acted as a medium of exchange that facilitated processes of supplying the army’s needs. Thucydidean chrêmata, in the form of coins, therefore worked to make wars bigger and more aggressive. Coinage centralised the economics of war-making. Prior to coinage individuals brought what food they could with them to feed themselves for only a few days (Ar. Ach. 197; Pax 311-12; Eub. fr. 19.3 K-A; Thuc. 1.48.1). Thus, the un-monetised Spartans could only stay in Attica at the start of the Peloponnesian War as long as they had food (Thuc. 2.23.2). At the same time, successful armies redistributed plunder according to status and in terms of raw materials, for example at Salamis (Hdt. 8.122-124) and at Plataea (Hdt. 9.81-85). Such armies also had to carry plundered goods with them to cities and exchange them for necessities like food and other raw materials (as described by Thucydides in Aetolia 3.96.3 and Sicily 6.92.1). With coinage armies could sell captured goods and slaves to merchants who themselves now came to the army to feed, remunerate, and reward soldiers in the field.
The army transformed plunder into coinage and so provided a medium of exchange with which to prosecute wars more effectively. This coinage could then pay for food brought to the army by merchants or might be used to pay the soldiers in the army’s service. Coins thus centralised two processes: the sale of plunder and the acquisition of necessary things, especially foodstuffs. Through coins the army became a centralised economic entity into which flowed food, raw materials for weapons, and other goods and services and out from which flowed captured plunder, especially people now enslaved, and other stolen items (animals, precious objects, artefacts, icons). Coins acted as a tool – literally a Greek chrêma – at the centre of this flow. Coinage transformed Greek warfare, and so it is easy to see why Thucydides saw chrêmata’s role as central to the growth and development of warfare from Homer’s time to his own day.
Profits and Losses in Ancient Greek Warfare