Skip to main content

This paper explores the ways in which the introduction and spread of coinage shaped and transformed Greek sanctuaries, the communities that they served and religious practices. Disembedding religion from Greek society is impossible and by the fifth century money pervaded many aspects of the Greek world transforming warfare and politics dramatically. Religion could hardly be an exception, yet money is profane by its very nature, it is impersonal, lacking prestige, “grubby,” and profoundly un-religious.

Recent scholarship has combined the study of coinage, traditionally the bastion of numismatists with the wider worlds of politics, society, economy and warfare. The major works on Greek religion have yet to focus on coins and their affect on religious practice (Burkert; Bremmer; Mikalson; Parker). Richard Seaford laid foundations for work on the way in which coinage impacted religious and philosophical thinking. In a practical sense, many sanctuaries were major repositories of coinage (e.g. Samons) and involved in financial transactions (Bogaert; Davies), it would be unsurprising if coinage and religion had little relationship.

One obvious way in which coins transformed ritual practice saw the placing of coins in the mouths of the dead for the journey to the underworld, a practice confirmed by both text (Ar. Frogs 140-141) and archaeology (Stevens). If one looks at the way that coinage transformed other areas of Greek life like the military and politics one sees that it brought with it a democratisation, by which increased numbers of outsiders and poorer insiders participated, alongside a growing professionalism. A broadening of the sacrificial community may easily be envisaged. Stories like that of the woman in the New Testament (Luke 21.1-4) who entered the temple by means of two small coins illustrate that coins acted as low prestige items to gain access to religious space. In addition coins facilitated the organisation of larger more coordinated festivals and the ability of sanctuaries to top-slice and redistribute or store its assets from the sale of donations or animal skins. Indeed, plenty of evidence shows that coined metals replaced prestige items used in ritual and sacrifice. Inscriptions from sanctuaries in Attica, especially like those from Eleusis show the ease with which money functioned as markers of value in the accounts of religious activities.

Of course, religious practice was a part of the embedded social phenomena of antiquity. Despite the usefulness and ubiquity of coins and the obvious means by which coinage affected sanctuary life, this paper concludes that coins transformed religious life in less profound ways than other aspects of Greek society.