Nikophon’s “Law on Silver Coinage” of 375/4 is already familiar to most students of Classical Athens and the ancient economy (SEG 26.72; Rhodes-Osborne, GHI 25). The inscription is largely complete and the text’s literal meanings generally well understood, yet despite continuous discussion since Stroud’s editio princeps (1974) the law’s basic motivation remains mysterious. Most previous discussions share two assumptions: that the law is concerned with the quality of the Athenian money supply and that it intends to regulate everyday retail transactions. I propose rather that Nikophon’s law is intended primarily to ensure the enforcement of contracts.
Nikophon’s law declares that approved Athenian silver coinage is to be accepted under threat of severe penalty and provides for the salarying of a public slave—a dokimastēs—to assay coin in Piraeus (an earlier law established a dokimastēs in the city). The most puzzling clauses concern the precise responsibilities of the dokimastēs, who, upon receiving silver coinage, is to remove counterfeit coins from circulation but “hand back” good imitations (lines 8-13). Stroud argued that such coins are thereby approved, but was unable to offer a compelling argument as to why sellers should be reluctant to accept such coins in the first place. Subsequent scholarship has preferred to argue that coin “handed back” is not approved but can be accepted at the discretion of sellers (Buttrey 1979 and 1982, most recently Ober 2016, with references). That interpretation allows us to imagine sellers refusing to accept at par imitation coins or gouging customers by only accepting at a discount even genuine Athenian coins (Johnstone 2011: 30-33).
But such discussions fail to solve numerous difficulties, including how establishing a dokimastēs would address the imagined problem given that the same “handed back” imitations would continue to circulate. No one has offered a plausible account of how the assaying process could have been practical in the context of everyday retail transactions. And all interpretations assume that assaying occurs after a price is agreed to but before the sale is effected. But in that case why does the law imagine that sellers will need to be forced to accept approved coinage? I argue that the key to understanding the law’s motivation is the existence of prior agreements on sale. By forcing sellers to accept approved coinage the law is in essence requiring that they honor contracts made before market conditions or other circumstances changed.
As shown by Cohen, Pringsheim’s ‘Athenian Law of Sale’—whereby a sale was only legally valid with the simultaneous exchange of goods and payment—is a clumsy scholarly fiction (2006). At Athens, as elsewhere in the Greek world and at Rome already by the 5th century BC, sales were regularly subject to consensual agreement. The importance of such agreements for our understanding of the Greek economy has been widely overlooked (with notable exceptions, e.g. Bresson 2016: 231-234). Especially common in wholesale transactions would have been the sale on condition of future delivery. In such contracts a seller agrees to deliver at a specified time and place a specified quantity of goods for a specified price. The buyer frequently puts down a deposit and agrees to pay the remainder upon delivery. The greatest risk—change in market price—is borne equally by buyer and seller, but in cases of severe fluctuation the incentive to escape the contract is great. Buyers are constrained by the value of their deposits, sellers by liability and by the fact that such contracts leave little room for dispute since a buyer’s only obligation is to furnish legal tender, khrēmata dokima. But at Athens, where good imitations circulated together with genuine currency, reluctant sellers could plausibly argue that willing buyers had failed to meet that obligation. Wholesale buyers, the nauklēroi and emporoi whose interests are explicitly served by Nikophon’s law (lines 37-38), effectively close that loophole by establishing an assayer in Piraeus.