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Category: Gold – according to Dominic Frisby

Gold – according to Dominic Frisby: From Constantine to the Islamic empire

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By the time Rome fell in 476 AD, after a hundred years of struggle against Goths, Huns and other barbarians, the nucleus of the empire had long since moved east to Constantinople, today Istanbul.

The emperor Constantine I had declared it a ‘New Rome’ in 330 AD, and this ‘Eastern Roman Empire’ would survive another thousand years, a trading hub and military buffer between Europe and Asia, before it finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453.

We may call it the ‘Byzantine Empire’ today, but its citizens called themselves Romans and their empire was, to them at least, the Roman Empire. Its zenith came during the reign of Justinian I, who ruled during 527–565, when much of North Africa, as well as Italy and Rome itself, had fallen under its authority.

War with the Sasanians to the east in the early 7th century, however, exhausted the empire’s resources, and paved the way for the Muslim invaders to take many of its richest provinces from Egypt to Syria.

Byzantine money, meanwhile, followed the trajectory of the money of most empires: it started sound, and ended worthless.

Diocletian had introduced the solidus in 301 AD to Rome to replace the aureus, and under Constantine I use of the solidus became widespread. Constantine I, or Constantine the Great as he is known, must be one of the more capable individuals who ever lived. Despite being of low birth, he fought and won battles as far afield as Persia and Britain, emerged victorious from the Roman civil wars, relocated Rome to Byzantium, founded an empire that lasted 1,000 years and eradicated the rampant inflation that had infiltrated the empire with the implementation of the solidus, the gold coin that became the standard for Byzantine and European currencies for hundreds of years.

The solidus was 4.5 grams of gold, and it remained essentially unaltered in weight, dimensions and purity, until the 10th century. Most were minted in Constantinople itself, but other cities of the empire such as Thessalonica, Rome, Syracuse, Alexandria, Carthage, and Jerusalem would also mint coins. In medieval Europe, one solidus was worth 12 silver pennies, and the Italian word for money, ‘soldi’, has its roots there. In Western Europe, the valued Byzantine solidus also became known as the “bezant”, although legally solidi were not supposed to be exported beyond the empire – else how would the emperor get his taxes?

Smaller denomination money tended to be bronze. Silver was not as widespread as it had been under the Greeks or Romans.

It was in the 11th century that the debasement began in earnest. The debasement was gradual at first then accelerated rapidly – heard that one before? The carats were reduced from 24, to 21 then to 18; to 16, to 14 to 8 and eventually below. That process took 50 years. The solidus was then abandoned and replaced with another coin, the hyperpyron. By the time Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, Byzantium had stopped issuing gold coins altogether. The silver stavraton was the currency.

Constantinople may have fallen, the Byzantine empire may have gone, but the golden constant had not. It lived on elsewhere.

Thanks to victory in battle, exhausted Byzantine and Sasanian empires, astute occupation of trade routes and promises of equal treatment for all, within three decades of the death of Mohammad in 632AD, the Islamic empire had become one of the largest in the world. Arabian solidi, minted from the captured gold supplies of the upper Nile, were soon circulating.

The Islamic armies swept across North Africa and eventually into Spain. All fell before them. Conquered lands put up little resistance. Heavily burdened with taxes as they were under their previous regimes, they had neither the means nor the inclination. “In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate”, exhorted a conquering general, “become Muslim and be saved. If not, accept protection from us and pay the poll tax. If not, I shall come against you with men who love death as you love wine”. Death, taxes or Islam – that was the choice. Many chose Islam. Even those who did not convert were often glad of the relief the Islamic invaders brought. The largest body of converts were Christians.

Islamic money soon followed, and, just as they would leave existing tax structures in place, the Islamic conquerors mimicked the money of their predecessors. Even the word dinar comes from the Latin denarius. But the denarius was a silver coin, the Arabic dinar was 4.4 grams of gold, similar in weight to the solidus. However, the overtly Christian symbolism inscribed on the solidus would, first, become religiously innocuous pillars on the Arabic equivalent and, eventually, simple inscriptions, expressing the ruler’s faith.

The silver dirham – about 3 grams of silver – also came into widespread use. Like the Roman denarius, and the Greek tetradrachm before it, these tended to be minted wherever soldiers would be receiving their pay – from Andalusia in Spain, through North Africa to Georgia, as far as Pakistan and India.

Islamic gold coinage became one of the senior currencies of the medieval world, especially across the Mediterranean. Silver dirhams even reached Scandinavia, probably as a result of the fur trade.

The word dirhem derives from the Greek drachma, meaning handful, although, like the dinar, the dirhem was a measure of weight. Both the dinar and the dirhem predate Mohammed, even if they were embraced by his successors. Currencies of the same name are widely used throughout the Arab world today, from the Moroccan dirham to the Kuwaiti dinar, although sadly, like their western counterparts, which have also kept their names, none have kept their underlying gold or silver.

* Dominic Frisby, author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now in paperback at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.

Gold – according to Dominic Frisby: The rise and fall of sound money in ancient Rome

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Ancient Rome is probably more famous for debasing its money than for its money itself. But for its debasement to have been so effective and so prolonged, it needed an established and widely- recognised, credible money as a starting point. The geology of central Italy is not particularly abundant in gold and silver, and it was only really after Rome began expanding beyond central Italy in the third century BCE that it started using gold and silver. Commodity money tends to be determined by the resources available. Bronze (copper and tin) is abundant in the area, and bronze, in the form of weights – aes rude or ‘rugged bronze’ – often as heavy as 300 grams (11oz), was the early currency of choice.

But as the Republic expanded, so did access to gold and silver – either from loot, tributes or mine supply – and so these precious metals made their way into Roman money.

The first silver denarius was minted in 211BCE. Within 50 or 60 years Roman coinage was widespread across Italy. Much of the silver to mint the coins came from mines in Macedonia, which Rome now controlled. For the next 500 years this silver coin, containing about 4 grams (0.12oz) of silver – a little bit more than the weight of a 1p coin – would be the backbone currency of Rome. One denarius was exchangeable for ten pounds of bronze – hence its name, which means “containing ten”.

The purchasing power of a denarius would be more than the underlying metal value – ranging between 1.5 and 3 times the value. That’s seigniorage for you

The denarius lives on today, especially in many Latin languages. The Italian word for money is “denaro”, “dinero” is Spanish, “dinheiro” is Portugese, “denar” is Slovenian. In several Arab nations, the currency is the dinar.

When the denarius was introduced it was 95-98% pure silver. To give you some kind of benchmark, sterling silver is only 92.5% pure. The infamous debasement began shortly after the Republic became Empire, and control of money passed from the Senate to the Emperor. It lasted several hundred years. Heads of emperors began to appear on coins, and so, as a result, did their use as imperial propaganda. The more coins circulating around the ever-growing empire, spreading the message of Roman imperial might, the better.

By the first century AD, taxation and tribute only covered around 80% of the imperial budget, however. The shortfall was met by mining and the loot of newly conquered nations. But mining is a fickle business at the best of times, and the empire was no longer expanding at the same rate, so this was a risky strategy that could lead to shortfalls, especially under extravagant emperors. The solution to excess spending, as today, was not to rein it in, but to debase the currency. In AD 64, the Emperor Nero reduced both the amount of silver in a denarius (to 3.5grams) as well as the purity of the metal itself (to 93.5%).

A few decades later, the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent, under Trajan. From that point on, it receded. That meant the supply of loot from newly conquered territories also shrank.

By lowering the amount of silver in its coins, Rome could produce more coins and ‘stretch’ its budget. Successive emperors followed Nero’s strategy. As with boiling frogs and the debasement of currency today, the process was gradual. 100 years after Nero, around 150 AD, the purity of silver had been reduced to 83%. By 250 AD the silver purity was 50%. By 275 AD it was just 5%. As time progressed, the sleight of hand was exposed. By the time of Diocletian, who was emperor from 284 to 305 AD, there was so little precious metal in the money the emperor had to resort to price controls. It was under Diocletian that the last denarii were minted.

By the way, you can pick up genuine denarii on eBay for less than fifty quid, sometimes even under a tenner – surprisingly cheap given the underlying history, I’d say.

The most important gold coin of Ancient Rome was the aureus, similar in size to the denarius, but containing roughly twice the weight of precious metal – 8 grams, or ¼ ounce of gold (gold is denser than silver). It would be roughly the same weight as a 2p today. 25 denarii would get you an aureus, so the gold-silver ratio would have been about 1:12, the historical norm.

Nero then reduced the gold content to 7.3g, which perhaps coincidentally, was the same weight as the sovereign of the British Empire. By 210 AD the gold content had fallen to 6.3g. However, unlike the silver denarius, the aureus kept its near-100%, 24-carat purity.

By the fourth century, the idea of obtaining an aureus for 25 denarii was long gone. In 301, one gold aureus was worth 833 denarii; barely a decade later, that same aureus was worth 4,350 denarii.

In 337, Constantine replaced the aureus with the solidus – about 4.5 grams of 24-carat gold. Initially, one solidus was worth 275,000 denarii, but by 356, one solidus was worth 4,600,000 denarii. The good money had chased out the bad. Talk about inflation!

In a breath-taking blow of hypocrisy, that even leaders today would struggle to pull off, the Roman authorities, despite the declining quality of the metal content of their denarius, refused to accept anything other than gold and silver in payment of taxes.

By the way, you can’t pick up aureus in eBay for anything like as cheap as you can a denarius. Pure money keeps its purchasing power. In fact, the solidus outlasted the Roman Empire itself. I’ve got one minted by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. I got it for little more than the value of the underlying metal. Seigniorage doesn’t always last!

Of course, one key reason for the relentless debasement was a bloated Roman state that was incapable of living within its means. But another reason must be lack of raw material. As we have already noted, central Italy had little mine supply so the metal had to be obtained elsewhere. Much of it came in the form of war booty from newly defeated territories, and the subsequent tributes and taxes levied. The problem with this model is that it relied on constant expansion. When the expansion ceased, Rome had to rely on new mine supply alone to expand its money supply. So instead it turned to debasement.

No wonder Rome was constantly at war. That was its business model. But with the expense of continual wars, without the corresponding payback of loot from the newly conquered, the model was unsustainable. It’s not unlike the two world wars of the 20th century for the British Empire. The wars of previous centuries had more than paid for themselves, but for their efforts in the Second World War, as far as the loot of a newly conquered nation is concerned, the British got very little.

One final titbit. Consider the Roman aureus of Hadrian from 117AD, when he became emperor, and when the Roman empire was at its most extensive. On the reverse, Trajan, the previous emperor passes a globe – the empire – to Hadrian who accepts it. It seems the Romans knew then that the world was round.

* Dominic Frisby, author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now in paperback at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.

Gold – according to Dominic Frisby: Coins in Ancient Rome

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Coins in Ancient Rome Dominic Frisby

Rome was founded by refugees fleeing the Trojan war. The poet Virgil tells the story of prince Aeneas and his band who fled Troy by boat as it fell to the Greeks. After many months and rough seas, they landed on the banks of the river Tiber. The men wanted to go back to sea, but the women persuaded them to stay. The women got their way. Given what Rome achieved later, it was probably a good decision – easy to say with hindsight, of course – although Virgil says it was not so much a conscious decision, as destined by the gods.

Another Roman founding story gives us the precise date on which the city was founded – 21st April 753 BC. The background is this. There was one King Amulius who deposed his brother to take the throne of Alba Longa. His brother’s daughter, Rhea Silva, meanwhile was raped by Mars, the god of war, and gave birth to twins, Romulus and Remus – demi-gods, no less, and also descendants of Aeneas. Fearing for his kingdom, King Amulius ordered they be drowned, but a she-wolf saved them and went on to rear them. When the twins were old enough, they came and dealt with the treacherous Amulius, restored their grand-father to the throne and founded the city of Rome.

Rome began as a kind of sanctuary for estranged young men, exiles and the unwanted. To bolster its population they took to kidnapping maidens from nearby kingdoms.

At this point in the story of Rome, coins barely existed in Italy or anywhere else. It was across the Mediterranean in Lydia (today’s Turkey), that the technology of coinage was first employed around 600BC, some 150 years after Romulus and Remus ‘founded’ Rome. Over the next few centuries coins would gradually spread across the Mediterranean. In Italy, the Etruscans were using coins before the Romans.

Rome ‘transitioned’, to use an awful modern word, from monarchy to republic in 509BC. The next five hundred years would see the Roman Republic fight a seemingly never-ending series of wars as its empire gradually expanded. Their enemies were Latins, Etruscans, Celts, Gauls, Samnites, eventually Carthaginians, Iberians, and Macedonians. First they took control of central Italy, then the south and into Sicily. From Northern Italy they took control of Provence. They expanded into Greece, Spain and North Africa. By 52BC, seven centuries after Romulus and Remus, the Romans had taken Britain.

By then Roman coinage was widespread and established. But the process was slow and gradual.

Salt was an essential commodity and reasonably fungible, so it also found use as money. In ancient Greece salt was traded for slaves. It’s thought the expression ‘not worth his salt’ – unworthy of his pay – has its roots here. Soldiers of the early Roman Republic in the fourth and probably fifth centuries BC would receive a handful of salt as pay – from where we derive the word, ‘Salary’.

This prized commodity, over which wars were fought, was part of the reason the Romans began building their great roads. The salt trade was both lucrative and essential, and they needed to get salt back to Rome to support its growing population. The Via Salaria was built to move salt from the pans at the mouth of the Tiber inland to Rome itself.

Sheep were also used as money, it seems, and the Latin word for money (pecunia) is thought to derive from the word for sheep (pecus). Irregularly shaped pieces of rough bronze, which needed to be weighed with each transaction, were also used, and this same bronze would make Rome’s first standardised coins.

The Republic started minting its own coins from about the third century. Rome seems to have been rather slow adapting coins compared to the rest of the Mediterranean, especially Greece and Asia Minor. The Romans were limited by the natural resources they had available. Silver and gold were scarce, though the bronze that made its first coins was abundant in central Italy. It seems silver coins were gradually devised for trade with the Greeks in Southern Italy.

As the Republic expanded, and access to silver grew, the silver denarius evolved and the denomination remained in circulation for 450 years. They were produced by ‘mint magistrates’, junior officials who choose the designs and legends, often advertising the officials’ families for political purposes.

But eventually Roman currency would be widely used throughout Europe, western Asia and northern Africa right into the Middle Ages. It would become the model for later currencies – the currencies of the Islamic and the European states during the Middle Ages and the Modern Era. Their names too derive from Rome. The Arabic dinar, for example, comes from the denarius. The British pound, the Italian lira, the French livre and Hispanic peso are all translations of the Roman libr.

* Dominic Frisby, author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now in paperback at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.

Gold – according to Dominic Frisby: Alexander the Great

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As he conquered, Alexander brought his money with him. His coins did not just serve as a medium of exchange and store of wealth, but also as an important tool of propaganda. Early coins were minted from mines in Macedonia and Thrace, but, as he conquered, he plundered and then minted coins from the huge bullion stocks he captured, especially in Persia. The Persians were ancient rivals. Alexander took their gold and silver, melted it down and then struck new coins emblazoned with the Greek goddesses Athena and Victory (Nike), and the gods of strength (Herakles) and power (Zeus). It must have been somewhat demoralising for the conquered Persians to see their own myth, legend and history, literally, struck off.

Alexander established 26 mints across his vast empire – seven in Europe, 18 in Asia and one in Africa. He had coins minted everywhere, and the instruction was that his coins should all look the same. He wanted people across his empire using the same coin. He was standardising money and creating an internationally recognised currency.

Nor did he skimp on the job. There was no coin clipping here. Alexander’s money was true.

His Stater, one of the highest denomination coins, has a gold purity of around 98%, among the purest found in ancient coins. (It beats the old English sovereigns, which are closer to 90%).

His silver Tetradrachms were similarly pure. These became the most widely used coins of al;, international, imperial money used in state transactions, to pay his armies, and to pay off Celtic invaders from the North.

The stature and value of his coins were such that his successors continued to mint coins with the same design for the next 250 years.

The gold Stater weighed about 8.67 grams, just over a ¼ ounce – a fraction larger than an English sovereign. On the front was the helmeted head of Athena, goddess of wisdom, and on the reverse the standing figure of Nike, goddess of victory. Nike holds out a wreath in one hand and a naval standard in the other. Behind her we read the word “Alexandrou” (of Alexander).

Drachma became the name of modern Greek currency, before Greece joined the euro. But a drachma meant a handful: a handful – a measure in other words – of Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, one of the most successful military commanders in history. He lived in the 4th century BC, and was just 33 when he died, having spent most of his adult life it seems, on military campaigns in Asia and northeast Africa.

Having been tutored by Aristotle as a child, he became king at the age 20, and by the time he was 30 had created one of the largest empires ever known, stretching from Greece all the way through Persia and Pakistan to north-western India. Despite often being outnumbered, he never lost a battle. His 13 years of rule really did change the face of the world.

Though better known for his military exploits, his contribution to the evolution of money and coinage should not be underestimated.

His coins replaced the metal rods formerly used as money in earlier centuries, and by the time of Alexander the Tetradrachm was one of the most widespread coins in the eastern Mediterranean. A drachma would amount to about a day’s wages for a common labourer – a Tetradrachm would thus be about four days’ wages. They weighed around 17grams (a bit over ½ an ounce) of silver. The Athenian owl Tetradrachm was common, but Alexander’s innovation was to strike his coins everywhere he went. As a result these Tetradrachms coins are seen as the world’s first global currency. Judas, later, was almost certainly paid in Tetradrachms to betray Jesus.

Alexander’s silver Tetradrachm was his standard denomination and so many were minted that thousands still exist today, many in excellent condition and not trading at as great a premium as you would expect to the spot value of the underlying metal. More were minted than any other ancient coin – and they were minted for over 300 years. On the front they had the head of Heracles, founder of Macedonia, wearing a lion skin. On the back they had Zeus seated on a throne, holding a sceptre in one hand and an eagle in the other. As with the Stater, behind Zeus we read that word again, “Alexandrou” – of Alexander.

Another innovation of Alexander was that the depiction of Heracles – usually beardless and young – showed a remarkable likeness to his own self. Thereby did he open the door to the custom of imprinting coins with the heads of rulers, rather than gods.

The lowest denomination coins, and the ones that had the most variation in both denomination and design, were his bronze coins, made from tin and copper. The most common bronze Alexanders feature the head of Heracles, again depicted in likeness to Alexander, on the front, and a quiver and club on the back.

Alexander’s empire, in terms of land mass, was one of the greatest the world has ever seen; only the Mongol, British and Soviet empires were definitely larger. He might have conquered with armies, but he consolidated with his currency – and his coins became the world’s first international currency, used for over 300 years.

* Dominic Frisby, author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now in paperback at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.

Gold – according to Dominic Frisby: Gold, Midas and the very first coins

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“S  ome things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth”. Peter Jackson: The Fellowship of The Ring.

Perhaps the most famous golden myth of all is the tale of Midas. It is one of the later Greek myths; Ovid tells the story in his Metamorphoses.

Midas was King of Phrygia (now part of Turkey) and Dionysus, god of wine, was passing through with his entourage, revelling as they went.

Dionysus discovered that his tutor, Silenus, was missing. Silenus was a satyr; half man half goat and, like all of them, had been drinking. He’d wandered off and fallen asleep in a rose garden. That garden belonged to King Midas, who would enjoy spending time there with his daughter, whom he loved more than anyone else in the world.

Midas found Silenus sleeping and took him in, no doubt nursing a hangover. Silenus stayed with Midas for some ten days and nights, delighting him with songs and stories, enjoying his wine, food and hospitality. On the eleventh day, Midas took Silenus back to Dionysus, who was so delighted to see his old mentor safe and well he offered Midas whatever reward he wished for. Midas thought hard and then asked that everything he touched should turn to gold. Dionysus urged the king to reconsider, but Midas was sure and so his wish was granted.

Initially, Midas was delighted. First a twig then a stone turned to gold at the power of his touch. When he got home, he touched every rose in his garden, and they all turned to gold. Delighted, he ordered his servants to make him a feast, and that was when he began to regret his wish. When his food and drink turned to gold, he realised his gift was a bane.

His beloved daughter came to him, crying that their roses had lost their smell. Midas hugged her and she too turned to gold. What was his daughter was now a golden statue. Despairing at what he had done, he prayed to Dionysus to deliver him from his curse. “Go and wash your hands in the River Pactolus,” Dionysus told him.

Midas did so and Dionysus’s cure worked. Midas’ power flowed into the water and the sands of the river turned to gold, while whatever he put in the water, his daughter included, was reversed of the touch. And so does that part of Midas’ story end.

The obvious moral to Midas’ story is of the tendency of lust for wealth to overpower good sense, to make us lose sight of what we love. From Midas to the California gold rush to the Bre-X mining scam of the 1990s, immortalised in the Hollywood movie Gold with Matthew McConaughey, lust for the purest form of wealth there is has, forever, overpowered rational thought.

But there is another, less visible moral in the Midas tale there in the sands of the River Pactolus: gold lasts.

At its height the Lydian empire stretched across all western Asia Minor. The Pactolus flowed right through the middle. Erosion is such that the precious metal has long since gone, but once upon a time the gold in its beds – the same alluvial gold put there by Midas – was plentiful enough to form the base of the Lydian empire. That gold would form the world’s, or the West’s, first coins. The casting of coins, which could ensure the weight and quality of metal contained, made other, more primitive, forms of cash redundant.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Lydians were, around 700BC, “the first people to mint and use gold and silver coins, and the first retail tradesmen”. Ancient bronze coins found in China, however, suggest the Chinese might have been first. Given that we still use coins today, coinage has proved a remarkably successful technology. Indeed the Chinese ‘yuan’ and Japanese ‘yen’ both mean ’round shape’ – referring, of course, to the shapes of coins.

King Alyattes I, a descendent of Midas, was the first king to mint coins. He used the alluvial electrum (a gold-silver alloy) found in the beds of Pactolus.

The innovation of Alyattes’ son, Croesus, was to melt down the electrum coins of his father, separate the gold from the silver, and then remint them. On one side of his new coins was the image of a lion and a bull, on the other were punch marks to show their value. Effectively, Croesus launched not only the first imperial currency in the history of the world, but the bi-metallic standard.

His coins were not only accepted, but demanded throughout Asia Minor, Greece and beyond. This universal acceptance played a key role in developing Lydia’s prosperity. With his coins circulating so widely and effectively Croesus’ reputation as an extremely rich man was secured for all time.

Not only was he as rich as Croesus, he had, it seems, the Midas touch.

That touch lasted. His basic denomination was then subdivided into smaller denominations of thirds, sixths and twelfths and these reforms evolved into the troy ounce we use today, composed of 24 carats of pure gold. Coin values reflected the actual value of the metal content.

Within 100 years coinage had spread to Persia in the east, across Asia Minor and Greece and at least as far as Sicily in the west. Roman and Celtic coins would later follow the same principles.

Coins provided both geographical and social mobility. People could move around and carry value with them. Trade spread with a newfound ease, and civilisation developed rapidly.

Human faces only began to appear on coins about 150 years later. The first human being who dared to have his own features presented on coins was one Tissaphernes, a provincial governor in ancient Persia around 400BC. Other Persian sovereigns soon followed his example. In the western world, it would take a little longer.

The drachms and tetradrachms of Alexander the Great, perhaps the most widely circulated coins of ancient times, featured Herakles, greatest of the Greek heroes, on one side and Zeus on the other. However, Herakles was portrayed in the likeness of Alexander. After Alexander’s death, his successor, Ptolemy I, went on step further and inscribed coins with portraits of Alexander himself. One example shows Alexander – looking remarkably similar to the Herakles of previous coins – with an elephant scalp with tusks and a trunk on his head, symbolising his conquest of India (to which Alexander brought coins for the first time). The portrait of a ruler’s head on a coin became an important tool of propaganda.

* Dominic Frisby, author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now in paperback at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.

Gold – according to Dominic Frisby: The dangers of ancient obsessions

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As the Age of Materialism (1832-1914) matured, humankind fell slowly out of love with gold. Societies grew less religious, and critics of the gold standard smeared gold’s advocates. It was an obsession, they said, a superstitious worship of the ancients.

The 19th century US Congressman Ignatius Donnelly called advocacy of the gold standard “the last remnants of sun worship”. The economist John Maynard Keynes put it in the “realms of sex and religion”, a “furtive Freudian cloak”, while Freud himself related fascination with gold to the erotic fantasies and interests of early childhood.

The Bible mentions gold more than 400 times. Gold was wealth. Gold was money. Gold was from God. We drink the blood of Christ from a golden chalice to represent the chalice used to serve wine at the Last Supper. In Arthurian legend, the Holy Grail was a symbol of God’s grace.

In Ancient myth, gold did not just represent purity and truth. The lust gold inspires wrought chaos: ambition, desire, greed for wealth and power. And the moral of many a fable derives from the terrible decisions that people consumed with such emotions can make. But, gold standard or not, the same motivations that drive these ancient narratives are alive and well today.

Zeus held a banquet on Mount Olympus, a huge banquet, and all the gods were invited. All except one – Eris, Goddess of Chaos.

Eris was upset by the snub and, in retaliation, threw a golden apple into the party. She had inscribed the word “Kallisti” onto the apple. It means “for the most beautiful”.

Immediately, the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite began to quarrel. Each felt they should have the apple, for they were most beautiful. It fell to Zeus himself to pass judgement. Who should he choose? Hera, his wife, the queen of the gods? Athena, his daughter, the goddess of wisdom and warfare? Or Aphrodite, his other daughter, goddess of beauty, love and pleasure?

What a predicament. Whoever Zeus chose, he would incur the wrath of the other two.

So, instead, he nominated the Trojan prince, Paris, to decide. So the goddesses were led to Paris on a mountainside, each to make their case.

The goddesses undressed, bathed and then appeared each in turn before Paris, naked (perhaps at his request) in a kind of divine lap dance. But still Paris could not decide. So the goddesses tried to bribe him.

Hera offered Paris power: control of all Europe and Asia. Athena offered him wisdom and victory in battle. Aphrodite offered him the love of the most beautiful woman on earth.

Paris chose Aphrodite.

The most beautiful woman on earth was, of course, Helen – Helen of Sparta. What Aphrodite forgot to mention, however, was that Helen was married – to Menelaus, king of Greece. And when Paris ran away with Helen, the greatest war the world had ever known was precipitated. The Trojan War.

All because of a golden apple.

The English philosopher John Ruskin told the story of a man who boarded a ship carrying all his wealth in a bag of gold coins. Several days into the voyage a terrible storm came up. “Abandon ship!” came the cry. The man strapped his bag of gold around his waist, went on deck and jumped overboard, only to sink to the bottom of the sea. “Now”, asked Ruskin. “As he was sinking, had he the gold? Or had the gold had him?”

Gold is beautiful. Gold is compelling. Gold is awesome. But beware the decisions it can lead you to make…

* Dominic Frisby, author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now in paperback at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.

Gold – according to Dominic Frisby: The Golden Fleece

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The story of Jason, the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece is one of the earlier Greek legends. It happened about a generation before the Trojan War.

Jason father’s, Aeson, was the rightful king of Iolcos, but Pelias, Aeson’s brother, had usurped him and taken the throne. He then had all Aeson’s descendants killed. Jason, however, survived. His mother ordered her servants to cry when he was born, to fool Pelias that he was still-born. She then smuggled Jason away to be reared by Chiron, “the wisest and justest of all the centaurs”, according to Homer. Chiron was the son of Cronos and counted among his acolytes such high achievers as Achilles, Odysseus, Hercules, Theseus and Perseus. And so Jason’s education began. An oracle, meanwhile, warned Pelias to fear the man with one sandal. No doubt feeling guilty about his ill-gotten kingship, he lived in dread of that prophecy.

When Jason was fully grown, he set off to Iolcos to claim his throne. On his way, he chanced upon an old lady trying to cross a river and helped her across. In doing so he lost his sandal. Little did he know that old lady was Hera; she would become his ally.

Jason arrived in Iolcos, and was announced as a man in one sandal. Coming before King Pelias, Jason revealed who he was and claimed the kingdom. Pelias agreed to cede it, but only on one condition: that Jason brought him the fleece of the golden ram. He had set Jason an impossible task, a task that would take him beyond the known world (which at this point was about as far as the Black Sea), to the barbarian kingdom of Colchis, but Jason agreed. The fleece was that of a magical ram that had once belonged to Zeus, so the story went. It hung from a tree in a sacred grove, guarded by bulls with hoofs of brass and breath of fire, and a dragon that never slept, whose teeth became soldiers when planted in the ground. The fleece belonged to Aietes, King of Colchis, son of the sun god Helios no less, and another oracle had foretold that Aietes would lose his kingdom if he lost his fleece. No wonder Aietes put up such a formidable guard.I love how legends and myths are born out of truths and here is a case in point. Sheepskins were used to pan gold from rivers, a practice thought to have begun to the east of the Black Sea in what today is Georgia. The fleeces were stretched over a wooden frame and then submerged in the river, where the tight curls of the sheep’s coat would catch nuggets and specks of gold carried down in the rushing water from placer deposits upstream. The fleeces were then hung in trees to dry, after which the gold was combed out. If you have a wet fleece full of alluvial gold hanging to dry in a tree, you are going to make sure it is well guarded – by bulls and dragons, if necessary. It’s quite easy to see how this myth of a golden fleece had spread east from Asia.

Jason had a ship – the Argo – built. He assembled a crew- the Argonauts – a band of heroes which included such luminaries as Hercules, the twins Castor and Pollux, Peleus (father of Achilles), Orpheus (the musician) and Atlanta (the virgin huntress who would never marry). They then set off on what is seen by some as the first long-distance voyage ever undertaken. Perhaps this was the first time a Greek had successfully navigated the hostile currents of the Bosphorus, but in doing so it probably marks the point at which the Black Sea opened up to the Greeks. The story is certainly an origin myth for many of the towns and cities there. Along the way, the Argonauts stopped on the Isle of Lemnos, inhabited by a band of women who had killed their husbands. The Argonauts stepped in where the dead husbands had left off and a new race, the Minyae, was born. Jason himself fathered twins with the queen, Hypsipyle. When they went off to search for supplies at their next stop, their ship was attacked by giants, with six arms, in leather loincloths. Hercules fought them off.

At their next stop in Thrace, they killed the harpies that, sent by Zeus, had emaciated the king, Phineus, by eating his food every day. In gratitude, Phineus explained how to navigate the clashing rocks of the Bosphorus, and thus did the Black Sea open up to the Greeks. So did Jason arrive in Colchis (modern-day Georgia). Like Pelias before, King Aietes set Jason an impossible task – actually three – if he wanted to claim the fleece as his own. He had to harness fire-breathing oxen and plough a field with them. He had to sow a field with dragon’s teeth and fight the army of phantom soldiers that resulted. And finally, he had to overcome the dragon.

Needless to say, Jason was discouraged, but Hera, Jason’s ally, leant on Aphrodite, goddess of love, to lend a hand. She sent her son, Eros, to shoot one of his arrows and it struck Aietes’ daughter, Medea, who fell in love with Jason. Medea would prove a useful ally. She gave him an ointment to protect him from the oxen’s fire. She showed him how to defeat the phantom soldiers with a rock that would confuse them into fighting each other. And she gave him a potion with which to send the dragon to sleep, so that he could take the fleece. As they fled Colchis, Medea then killed her brother and threw pieces of his body into the sea. Grief-stricken, Aietes stopped to collect them allowing Jason, Medea and the Argonauts to escape.

There were as many adventures on the way home. They passed the infamous Sirens, whose songs enticed sailors, only for their ships to wreck on the rocks. But Orpheus played his lyre and drowned their songs with music that was more beautiful. They could not pass Crete, due to the rocks that the bronze man Talos threw at them, but again they were saved by Medea, who cast a spell on Talos and then killed him.

Back at Iolcos, Jason’s father, Aeson, was too old to participate in the celebrations, but Medea used her witchcraft to rejuvenate him. Pelias’ daughters asked her to do the same for the aging Pelias. Medea told them to chop him up and put him in a cauldron to boil, which they did. It was a trick, of course, and Pelias was no more. But Jason and Medea were exiled for the murder and they fled to Corinth. There Jason betrayed Medea by marrying the king’s daughter. Medea confronted Jason, heartbroken, but Jason blamed Aphrodite for having made Medea fall in love with him. Medea would have her revenge, a revenge which has become the subject of many a drama since. Medea gave Jason’s betrothed a dress that stuck to her body and burned her to death. Her father died with her as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed her own two sons, born by Jason, and fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios. Jason returned to Iolcus to claim his kingdom, but as a result of breaking his vow to love Medea forever, he lost the favour of Hera, and he died lonely and unhappy, asleep on the rotting Argo. It’s a buccaneering adventure story with a typically Greek tragic end. The formula of hero, dark power and female helper has become the backbone of numerous plots since, not least in Hollywood. The premise, a young man setting off in search of his fortune, made of gold, is the premise of every youngster setting off on his or her life’s adventure.


* Dominic Frisby, author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now in paperback at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.

Gold – according to Dominic Frisby: Why the ancients revered gold

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Its origins are thought to lie in supernovae and the collision of neutron stars. It was present in the dust which formed the solar system four and a half billion years ago. And it was delivered to earth via the asteroids that then bombarded the planet.

According to the Bible, gold and silver are products of God. “The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, saith the Lord of hosts” in the book of Genesis.

Today we find gold in tiny particles embedded in ancient rocks, or occasionally as grains or nuggets in riverbeds where it collected after rushing water eroded away the rocks.

Given its unique characteristics – beautiful, eternal, immutable – it is no surprise that gold found special status at the dawn of civilisation. Our prehistoric ancestors cherished gold even before they were able to speak. Nor did that captivation fade after pre-history.

Whether Asian, African, American, Mediterranean, Germanic or Celtic, gold occupies a place in the history and mythology of almost every ancient culture, the most valuable of all metals.

Today we know of 90 metals or more. Many you’ve probably never heard of, let alone touched or seen.  The likes of Cesium, Nihonium, Flerovium, Moscovium, Livermorium, Yttrium or Zirconium. Until the 13th century, we knew of just seven: gold, silver, copper, tin, lead, iron, and mercury. There were also only seven known celestial bodies: the sun, the moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn.

Each metal came to be associated with a celestial body – silver with the moon, iron, rusty and red, with Mars, Mercury with its namesake, Jupiter with tin. With its glimmering yellow colour, gold was associated with the sun.

To the ancient Greeks, and other cultures besides, the sun was a golden chariot driven by the sun god, Apollo, across the sky each day. The Egyptian sun god Ra was depicted as a yellow blaze of gold. The Incas of South America believed gold to be the “sweat of the sun”.

The Latin word for gold, aurum, derives from Aurora, the goddess of dawn, who rose each morning to announce the sun’s arrival. The root of the word by which the Celts and Greeks referred to gold was the Sanskrit “Harat” which means colour of the sun.

The symbol for the Sun (a circle with a dot in it – ☉  was once the alchemical symbol for gold. Plato and Aristotle both thought gold was obtained by combining intense sunlight with water.

There are seven days of the week too, and so did each metal come to be associated with a day. Gold’s day, of course, was Sunday.

Unlike feminine silver, gold is a masculine metal, connected not just with the sun but with the lion, a symbol of strength. It represents wealth, prosperity, authority and charisma. It was an aid to healing, to protection, to growth, and knowledge – all qualities associated with the sun and the gods of the sun. The ancient Greek sun god Apollo was also the god of healing and diseases, while his son, Asclepius, was the god of medicine. Apollo delivered people from epidemics. What’s that about Vitamin D (which we get from sunlight) being an aid against COVID, while Vitamin D deficiency is linked to more severe cases? Apollo was also a god who could bring ill-health and deadly plague.

Kings and queens decorated their bodies with gold to demonstrate their power, to impress, to dazzle, to command and to authenticate their god-like status.

In ancient Egypt, gold was a royal prerogative and pharaohs were buried with their gold to aid their travel into the next world. Tutankhamun, whose father was the sun god, Ra, was buried in a golden shrine. Gold was a gift from and given to the gods.

Gold itself is immortal, it is permanent, never rusting, nor tarnishing. In the museums of Cairo, you will find a golden tooth bridge made 4,500 years ago for a Pharaoh and it is good enough to go in your mouth today.

Because of gold’s imperishable characteristics, many imbued it with divine qualities, and it is forever associated with the eternal, the permanent and the incorruptible.

The myth of the Golden Apples of Hesperides is that they conferred immortality on whoever ate them.  Gold represented perfection, purity and excellence – “neither moth nor rust devoureth it”, said an ancient Greek text, and it has had a significant role in legend, symbolism and folklore.

From Hercules‘ quest for these golden apples to Arthur’s for the Holy Grail to Frodo’s to destroy the precious ring of power, gold is a symbol of incorruptible quest, ambition, or purpose. Even today the young student gets a gold star, the athlete a gold medal. It is a symbol of achievement.

* Dominic Frisby, author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now in paperback at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.

GLINT’S REGULAR NEW FEATURE. Gold – according to Dominic Frisby: Why our instinct for gold is primal

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Over the course of these articles for Glint, I’ll be tracing the history of man’s relationship with gold – from pre-history through to the present day. We start back in the Stone Age, thousands of years before the dawn of civilisation.

As prehistoric man hunted and gathered, he came across the 6 native metals – silver, tin, lead, iron, copper and gold, which occur in nature in a relatively pure state. Gold was almost certainly the first metal he used.

Nuggets of gold could be found mixed with sediment in river beds, relatively easy to collect and shape. Man adorned himself with it – as well as with bones, teeth, shells and precious stones – while he was still using tools made out of stone, bone and wood, long before he started using copper, tin, or lead. The oldest actual records we have of man using metal are fragments of gold in Spanish caves inhabited by Paleolithic Man, dating back perhaps as much as 40,000 years. The first records of man using copper came tens of thousands of years later. Lead, tin and iron’s first use came even later.

The beauty of gold – dense, glimmering, shining – and its imperviousness no doubt captivated Stone Age Man the same way it does his 21st century descendants. A symbol of power and status, and of reproductive fitness. Like other forms of decoration – shells, bones and stones, even hand axes – gold was also used as reward – for heroic deeds, perhaps, as a prize for completing a task, as an expression of gratitude, as a tool in barter and exchange. In other words, it functioned as early money.

Even in prehistory gold was performing the role it has always served – and always will: to store value.

Stone Age man had the same instincts as we do today – the same urges, desires and compulsions. Survival is the most basic compulsion. You have to find water, food and shelter, for yourself and for those close to you.

Then there is the survival of your species: you have to reproduce. If you survive, thrive and reproduce, then the species as a whole grow stronger. Our self-interest is good for the species as a whole.

And so we have the same basic instincts: fear, desire, love, hate. What often goes unmentioned is our instinct for beauty.

We are instinctively repulsed or alarmed by things that are dangerous – snakes, spiders, a cliff edge, loud noises. Things that aid our survival we find beautiful – the sound of running water, a fit and healthy potential mate, an open landscape with water, varied animal, bird and plant life, good visibility and shelter. What we find beautiful is often good for us in some way. It is why man has always sought beauty.

With its unique characteristics, beautiful yet impervious, gold found special status even before the dawn of civilisation. Our prehistoric ancestors cherished it even before they were able to speak.

Our instinct for gold, the emotion it inspires, is as eternal as the metal. It is a primal instinct.

Next week – Gold in ancient mythology

* Dominic Frisby, author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now in paperback at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.