Its weight and fineness are of no intrinsic interest, except for the fact that if a coin is too valuable people will be tempted to melt it down for bullion. --David Schaps, What Was Money in Ancient Greece? ONE OF THE MOST frequently asked questions that classical numismatists encounter is What was this ancient coin worth back then? A meaningful answer must usually begin: "Its complicated." A more complete answer might include It depends... In our global economy, where almost everything is instantly convertible into cash, we can state precise exchange rates: one US dollar is worth 0.87 euro or 0.95 Swiss francs, or 0.65 British pounds. But what is todays value of a US dollar in terms of ancient Athenian drachmai, or ancient Roman sestertii? When an ancient Roman had a silver denarius in his purse, what could he buy with it? Ancient economies did not work like modern ones, and ancient writers, almost all slave-owning aristocrats who belonged to privileged elites, rarely wrote about the vulgar topic of money. Bullion Equivalent Value Ancient coins, like medals in the modern Olympic games, come in gold, silver and bronze. Cant we simply express equivalent ancient and modern values in terms of precious metal? Gold closed this week at US$1,142 per Troy ounce, so a 7.0-gram ancient Greek gold stater from the time of Alexander the Great (died 323 BCE) represents a bullion value of $262.87. An 8.18-gram Roman gold aureus from the time of Julius Caesar (died 44 BCE) would contain gold worth $307.18. The spot price of silver is $15.55 per Troy ounce. At this price, the silver in an Athenian tetradrachm (the most important trade coin in the Mediterranean world of the fifth century BCE) would be worth $8.60, and a denarius of the Roman Republic from the time of Julius Caesar would be worth about $2 (these coins were nearly pure silver; modern silver coins are typically alloyed with about 10% copper for improved wear resistance).
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