Many newspapers have recorded the sad demise of Europe’s oldest coinage, the drachma, ‘handful’ (ancient Greek drattomai, ‘I grasp’). Papers did not grasp, however, that coinage itself is effectively a Greek phenomenon.
If ‘money’ is a means of measuring value, making payment or negotiating exchange, money had existed in one form or another long before coin. From c. 2,300 bc in Mesopotamia silver was regularly used for wages, rents, taxes, loans and gifts, and entrepreneurs took silver with them to trade abroad. Often it was shaped into an identifiable standard, e.g. ingots. As for Greece, though neither the earliest Greek documents (‘Linear B’ tablets, c. 1300 bc) nor Homer (c. 700 bc) mentions money, it was in early use in the shape of iron spits (obelos or obolos) and bars of precious metal.
It is not absolutely certain who invented coinage, or when. Literary sources say that it was the Lydians (western Turkey), but the world’s earliest coins (so far) come from the famous temple of Artemis in Greek Ephesus and are dated by context to 560 bc. Since Croesus — the fabulously wealthy king of Lydia — admired Greek culture and contributed to the temple’s construction, the Greek-Lydian connection is extremely likely. At any rate, the Greeks immediately saw what a brilliant idea it was. Coinage at once spread like wildfire among the Greek city-states in the Mediterranean as far as Sicily and south Italy, and in fairly standardised format too, as if to a template — issued in the name of a city-state, in regulation styles (e.g. owl + Athena = Athens), with the large coins being of pure silver and weighing between 12 and 17 grams.
How did this happen? And why? Independent, proud, fiercely competitive and linked by long-established patterns of interchange across the Mediterranean, the city-states had long been engines for the rapid adoption of all sorts of new phenomena. Market exchange was already well-established among them: what could be more useful for expanding market exchange than coinage? Trade through coin was not only easy, it also ‘freed up’ wealth, making it accessible beyond closed aristocratic family circles and creating the possibility of a new wealth-based hierarchy, open to all. No wonder that people-power, dêmokratia, was soon to follow in some city-states.
The drachma, a ‘handful’ of six obeloi, represents one of the world’s most liberating innovations. And the euro....?
The term ‘hero’ these days is commonly used of large numbers of people: those engaged in dangerous work (soldiers, firemen), those engaged in demanding work (nurses, teachers) and those simply doing a conscientious job, whatever that job is. Ancient Greeks might have had some sympathy with this — though not while the ‘heroes’ were alive.
‘Hero’ derives from the Greek hêrôs. The epic poet Homer (8th century bc) used it only of the living, and it meant, broadly, ‘warrior’. In later Greek literature, however, a hêrôs was someone who had been of significance to the local community but was now dead. There was no need for the person to have been a warrior or even male, let alone to have lived in a heroic age.
This status was for the most part bestowed on those who were associated with outstanding local benefactions. They were patrons or saviours of their city, or had founded it in the first place; they had come to the aid of people in danger or sickness; or they had been responsible for the foundation of a new cult. Often an oracle was linked with the award, commanding that so-and-so be given heroic status. The result was that the hêrôs, who was usually envisaged in the full flower of youth, received cult worship. This centred on the hero’s tomb and could involve anything from quite humble annual offerings to the erection of a great sanctuary complex and sacrifices that would do credit to a god.
There were, however, no precise rules about who should receive heroic status. Merit did not necessarily come into it; we hear of a criminal who died an amazing death being heroised. It was some uncanny, unpredictable, eternal quality that created the hero — one passed a hero’s shrine in silence — which was thought to allow him to wield power over the community, even from the grave. An angry hero could strike a city with disaster; an appeased hero would bring it blessings. Here we see the origins of the Christian concept of the ‘saint’, whose supreme holiness not only demanded special acknowledgment after death, but also gave his remains strange powers to influence the world.
Take, then, the World Trade Center outrage. This was surely one of those incomprehensible events that call for special acknowledgment. Thousands of innocents were slaughtered in that appalling moment. Greeks might well have heroised all of them. Who knows what evil they might otherwise visit on the city? Or, heroised, what good?
The ‘Nomenclature’ Committee of the European Union is wrestling with the tricky problem of the number of lumps that a sauce can contain in order for it not to be classified as a ‘vegetable’ — because if it is classified as a ‘vegetable’ it attracts import taxes that can reach nearly 300 per cent. At the moment, a sauce containing more than 20 per cent lumps is a ‘vegetable’. The EU is considering raising the lump quotient to 30 per cent. But this raises a vital prior question — what is a lump? Most importantly, when does a lump actually become a lump?
This is the sort of philosophical problem in which ancient thinkers revelled; it is, in fact, a paradox, the paradox of the ‘Heap’, and ancients adored paradoxes. Heraclitus (fl. c. 500 bc) started the paradox game, pointing out that, for example, hills go both up and down, but the star of the show was Zeno (fl. c. 450 bc) who was determined to shake our grip on reality by showing that the world was full of logical impossibilities. Thus, he argued, an arrow in flight is actually motionless, because at any one time it occupies a space exactly equal to itself. But if it does that, it must be at rest. When, therefore, does it fly?
Then consider his argument about magnitude. Anything of magnitude is infinitely divisible by two; it must therefore have an infinite number of parts; the sum of an infinite number of parts is infinite; therefore anything with magnitude must be infinitely large. This principle lies at the heart of his better-known paradoxes, e.g. that Achilles can never reach the winning post because to do so he has to touch an infinite number of points on the way (half-way, quarter-way, eighth-way, etc.); no one can do that in a finite period of time, so Achilles will never reach the winning post.
A century later Eubulides, who also came up with the ‘Liar’ puzzle (can the statement ‘I am lying’ be simultaneously true and false?), anticipated the Great Lump Question with his ‘Heap’ paradox. It takes two forms: a) You cannot make a heap out of one grain of sand: how, then, can you create a heap simply by adding one? b) ‘One’ is a small number. Any number bigger than a small number by just one must also be small. So all numbers are small.
Und now ve call on Philosopher Kinnock — or is it his charming vife, or up-and-coming son? — to read a paper on ze urgent issue of tax on ze import of frozen angels on pinheads, sorry, horseback....