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Who Benefits? Incentive and Coercion in the Selection of Greek Monetary Standards

Peter van Alfen

Coinage in the ancient Greek world was produced in accordance with a weight standard selected by the political authority within a state ultimately responsible for the production of that coinage. This standard served as both a money of account (e.g., Attic drachm) and as the basis for the denominational structure of the coinage (e.g., tetradrachm, drachm, obol, etc.). This much is clear. How authorities came to select a particular standard is much less obvious, however. Metrological studies of Greek coinage, along with the occasional insights provided by epigraphic or textual evidence, suggest that authorities could follow one of a number of different paths in selecting a standard. They could, for example, adopt or modify an existing epichoric standard; they could voluntarily borrow a standard from elsewhere; they could acquiesce to hegemonic demands to use an imposed standard; they could modify a borrowed standard either independently or as part of a collective of other authorities. Scholars generally reduce the motivations authorities had for selecting one path, or standard, over another to a somewhat limited range of political and economic incentives: their desire to generate fiscal revenues in currency exchanges; their desire to reduce transaction costs in international trade, taxation, or joint military endeavors; their relative political strength within the international arena. For those hedging, the more vague explanations of “maintaining tradition” or “being influenced by” offer crowded refuge.

While cold economic rationalities and cross-border power plays no doubt played a role in some choices about standards, this cannot be all there is to the story, a supposition that the recourses to “tradition” and “influence” would seem to affirm. In this paper, I suggest that as with all decisions concerning archaic and classical coinage—whether to mint or not, which metal, which denominations, etc.—those concerning weight standards likewise had larger social and political ramifications. Some within the community stood to benefit by the decision, others did not. Some could put pressure on decision makers, other could not. Thus, our interpretation of how coin weight standards were selected must be expanded to include a process that was potentially a great deal more problematic, contentious, and internally divisive than is usually suggested. By doing so, we can begin to see that standards were not necessarily selected for the greater public good, but rather for the good of those able coerce their selection.  

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Standardization and the State

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