What can the Ancient Greeks do for us?
Lesson 2: The first mention of money in classical Greece
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday August 2
The Greeks may have got the idea of coinage from their neighbours across the Aegean in Lydia, but the Greek world was the first society to use money in much the same way as we do – state-issued currency as a universal and guaranteed form of exchange.
Money was probably introduced in the early part of the 6th century BC – and was a wild success.
Its first mention, notes Richard Seaford in his book Money and the Early Greek Mind, comes in the laws written by the 6th-century Athenian reformer Solon, which, prosaically enough, lay down prices to be paid for animals in public sacrifices and standard rates of compensation for injuries. By the mid- to late-5th century BC, the great flowering of Greek intellectual life, money was universal and commonplace.
But it was still a fresh enough phenomenon to cause Greek writers to submit it to some powerful observations, as Seaford also points out.
The Greeks noted its seductive but somewhat suspect universality, the way it can be exchanged for absolutely anything – rather like a prostitute, who will go with anyone. In Aristophanes' comic play Wealth, money is characterised as a force with power over everything. You can have enough of all kinds of things, he writes – music, bread, sex, honour, courage, pea-soup – and yet nobody ever feels they have enough money. A fragment of Solon's poetry reads: "Of wealth there is no limit that appears to men. For those of us who have the most wealth are eager to double it."
Not everybody valued money, however. Socrates refused to be paid for his philosophical teachings. Just as charging for beauty, he argued, is prostitution, so it is that money cannot be exchanged for wisdom.