Friday, September 30, 2011
25. Croesus Coin (Turkey, about 550 BC)
Throughout the series, and throughout the British Museum, attention is paid to money, as stuff we make that tells an interesting story. Coins developed in the west at this point in the Lydian kingdom of western Turkey, and simultaneously in China; more on Chinese money later. Croesus was the king of Lydia during the period when coins replaced the old ‘measure the weight of precious metals’, and became fabulously wealthy because his government was the first one to issue coins. MacGregor points out that this is huge, and really the beginning of modern political thought--the issue of TRUST being so paramount, in state organization and in economics.
A government really only works if the governed trust that their government will work. Once the people give the government a vote of no confidence, everybody’s hosed. Similarly, money is about trusting (or not trusting, as it were) strangers. I want your product/service; you might give it to me, if you trust that I will make you a return product/service in a barter economy. That only works if there’s only 150 people in our world. If you don’t trust me, if you know you’re likely never to see me again, you still might give me your product/service if I give you money issued by somebody you do trust. Such as a powerful central government who has the drop on both of us. We saw this tremendous failure of trust a few years ago, as the recession got worse and worse. In my world, nobody wanted to do anything.
In any event, Croesus and his people came up with the idea of making these little portable coins, in standarized sizes and weights, of gold and silver; since those metals are typically found alloyed with copper or tin, it involved a chemistry problem of boiling them at high temperatures to sort out the different elements. Moving from chemistry class to myth class, Croesus, who was a real-life person, has always been mixed up in my mind with Midas, who’s a mythic character--the guy with the Midas touch, where everything he touches turns to gold so he can never touch another human being. Croesus got involved with myths in that he built the great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (original inspiration for our statue of Diana in Seattle Opera’s Iphigénie en Tauride set, by Tom Lynch), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Croesus also consulted the oracle at Delphi, which apparently people did in real life, not only in myth, to get the dire prophecy of how he’d be conquered by the Persians, which did in fact happen during his lifetime. So much for the Lydians.
One last thing about the Lydians--since they invented money, the root of all evil, the music historian in me loves the fact that the scale/mode known as “Lydian” (aka F, G, A, B, C D, E, F) prominently features the tritone, “diabolus in musica,” because the 4th of this scale (the B) is in fact an augmented fourth up from the root, F. Them Lydians are evil, I tells ya! Evil! But their music sure sounds cool, with its ever-present blue note.