Monday, May 27, 2019


The last two kings of Lydia were Alyattes (r. 610 BCE – 560 BCE) and Croesus (r. 560 BCE – 546 BCE) after which the kingdom was conquered by the Persians and added to their empire. Alyattes issued the first coins for currency. The coins were made out of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver occurring naturally in Asia Minor. The coin was called the trite and weighed 4.5 grams. It had the profile of a lion's head on the obverse. The reverse simply had one or two square punch marks made by the tool used when stamping the coin. 

As the ratio of gold and silver in electrum is variable, so was the value of the trite. Croesus preferred to have the electrum ore refined. He issued separate coins of gold and silver called staters with the profiles of a lion and a bull facing each other on the front. The gold stater weighed 8.1 grams and was worth 10 times a silver stater which weighed 10.7 grams. From the exchange rate we see that the value of gold was 13.3 times the value of silver at the time.

The Greeks had traditionally used spits of bronze called obols as currency. After 546 BCE coins of silver were issued in Athens and other cities. The Athenian drachma became standardized at 4.3 grams. During the classical period it had the head of Athena in profile on the front and the owl of Athena on the back. Silver coins of two, four, and ten times the value and weight of the drachma were also issued, as was a silver coin called an obol like the spits of the archaic period. The obol had 1/6 the value and weight of a drachma.

The Romans traditionally used ingots of bronze called aes signatum as currency. Each ingot weighed about 55 grams. Silver was not abundant in the Italian peninsula but silver coins were sometimes used to facilitate trade with Greek cities in the south. By the time of the 2nd Punic War (218 BCE – 201 BCE) coins became the main form of currency. The Romans struck or cast coins from bronze, silver, and occasionally gold. Coins of the republic displayed images drawn from mythology, but Julius Caesar initiated the practice, imitated by the emperors, of putting his own image on coins. The main coins after Augustus' reform of the currency in 23 BCE were the gold aureus, the silver denarius, and the bronze as. The exchange rate was:

    1 aureus = 25 denarii = 250 asses

Later Roman emperors could not resist the temptation to debase the coinage. By the end of the Roman Empire the denarius was used as the name for a coin of much less worth. Diocletian introduced a new gold coin called the solidus which was lighter than the aureus of Augustus. Constantine set the weight of the solidus at 4.5 grams and put it into widespread circulation.

The exchange rate of the £sd system of currency was set by Charlemagne in 794 who decreed that 240 denarii should contain exactly 1 pound of silver:

    1 libra = 20 solidi = 240 denarii

The Charlemagne standard for currency was used by the French until 1795 and the British until 1971.

    English     French      Charlemagne
    -------     ------      -----------
    pound       livre       libra
    shilling    sou         solidus
    pence       denier      denarius

It is tempting to map these names to the GP, SP, and CP of gaming but the reality is complicated. After the reform of Charlemagne the gold solidus was discontinued and the only coin in circulation was the silver denarius.  The libra referred to a pound of silver and was not a coin.

In France the denier was a silver coin. The only time the sou was issued during the Middle Ages was during the reign of Louis IX (1226–1270) and it was also a silver coin, only heavier. Louis IX also issued a gold coin called the écu d'or with the value of the livre.

In England the pence was a silver coin until 1797 when it became copper. A silver shilling was introduced in 1503 and gold coin called the sovereign with the value of a pound in 1817.

The exchange rates of coins in early editions of the game are as follows

    OD&D:     1 GP  =  10 SP  =   50 CP
    Holmes:   1 GP  =  10 SP  =   50 CP
    AD&D:     1 GP  =  20 SP  =  200 CP
    Moldvay:  1 GP  =  10 SP  =  100 CP

Money and prices were introduced to gaming as part of the Blackmoor campaign. Originally prices were exclusively given in gold pieces and whole numbers to boot. This perhaps explains the inflated prices found in all editions of the game when compared to medieval prices. It's a problem for those who use medieval prices but don't want characters living like princes at second level.