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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.

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