All through history, I’ve read accounts of rulers and wannabe rulers who minted their own coins. But I rarely stopped to think of the reasons why beyond assuming it was some kind of prestige thing.
Coin bearing the likenesses of Ferdinand and Isabella
But when I wrote my article on Joanna La Loca (Joan the Mad, in English), it struck me that both Joan’s father King Ferdinand and her husband Philip the Handsome had coins minted that showed them co ruling alongside Joan. It hit me that Ferdinand didn’t need prestige. As ruler of several nations already, he had all the prestige he needed. This was a propaganda move.
Webster’s Dictionary defines propaganda as the spread of ideas to either help your own cause or harm another’s cause.
Money may be one of the oldest, most effective forms of propaganda. It’s portable. Most people have at least some of it. And we look at it so often that we rarely think about it. What better way to disseminate your message, and get your target to internalize it?
No one is exactly sure when coins came into use, but scholars believe it was in Ancient Greece. Prior to that, ancient cultures relied on either a barter economy (where you exchange this for that. I’ll trade you that cow for these magic beans), or a gifting economy (thanks for killing Grendel, Beowulf. Here are some lovely parting gifts).
Coins probably came into use once merchants needed to keep track of IOU units (this is my token. The bearer may exchange it for three bags of grain). From the perspective of a trader, coins made more sense. They were portable and universal. Not everyone wants three bags of grain. So if you want a new sword, but the craftsman doesn’t want your grain, it’s easier to give them coins than to find someone who wants your grain, and has something the craftsman wants.
A coin bearing the image of Marcus Aurelius.
And once local economies shifted from food rent economies, having a system of coinage made it easier to collect taxes. After all, a bag of coins lasts a lot longer than a storehouse of grain.
Plus – and this is a big plus – when you mint your own coins, you get to keep part of the gold yourself. So early kings and emperors literally made money while they made money.
From there, it’s a short leap from paying in coins or tokens stamped with your name, to paying in coins or tokens stamped with your message.
The oldest coin archaeologists have found is over 2,700 years old. The coin, which dates from a Hellenic city in Asia Minor, is stamped with a lion, the symbol of the ruling king.
Even the word “money” comes from ancient Roman sources. (the Romans adopted the notion of using coins because the Greeks did it. That was the basis for a lot of Roman decisions. What would the Greeks do?) The mint in Ancient Rome was located in the temple of Juno Moneta.
Often the citizens of Rome learned they had a new emperor when his picture turned up on coins. One emperor who ruled for less than a year had two different coins struck with his picture on it. Prior to the time of Julius Ceaser, only images of the gods had appeared on coins. By putting his own image on coins, Ceaser attempted to equate his image with the gods.
Later, when the culture shifted the official state religion from polytheism to Christianity under Emperor Constantine, the early Christian Chi Ro symbol was stamped on the backs of coins.
Inevitably, when societies get around to making their own money again, they also try shaping public opinion through the money. Look at any currency in circulation today. In most countries, the money is printed with images of past or present great leaders, as well as symbols that represent that country.
The Santa Clause Note
American money has undergone many changes through the years. At one point some of it featured Santa Clause to convey the idea of generosity. The words “in God we trust” were added during the Cold War to counter Soviet Atheism.
But it’s not all propaganda. From 1999 to 2008, the US Mint released quarters with state symbols on the backs as a way of encouraging people to get into coin collecting (and to raise a little more money for the treasury by having collectors taking coins out of circulation). The program is the most successful in history, and was followed up with a National Parks series for collectors.
Who knows? Maybe before the coin-collecting bubble bursts, we’ll see a set of US president quarters.