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Money as a Form of Communication

By Patrick A. Heller 

1795 copper chain cent

Liberty depicted on the obverse of a 1793 copper “chain” cent. (Images courtesy U.S. Mint.)

While almost everyone looks at coins and currency in terms of their purchasing power at the time they circulated, not many people consider that money could also be used as a form of communication.

Think back to the days of the Roman Empire. At its peak, the Empire’s borders were often as much as hundreds to over a thousand miles from each other. That might not seem like such a great distance in terms of today’s transportation and communication technology, but in the days of the Roman Empire, few people other than soldiers ever traveled more than 10 miles from where they were born. Traveling even 10 miles might be a journey beyond contemplation.

In these closed-in societies, there were no regular mail services, televisions, radios, internet, emails, newspapers, magazines, telephones, text messages, or videos. It would be a rare occasion to even see other people from any kind of distance.

Think about it. In such living conditions, how would you ever know who was the current Roman Emperor? You could look at the change in your purse. If you saw a new face on a coin, that very well might be the new Emperor. The reverse of the coin might also give you an indication of the state of the Empire. Depictions of gods and goddesses such as Pax or Concordia might signify times of peace and prosperity. Military themes might indicate the opposite message.

One thing that Roman coins did not need to state was their purchasing power. For a long time, Roman gold and silver coins traded on the basis of their precious metal content, with no notation of face value needed. It was when coins were debased that the denomination mattered.

Of course, the use of money for communication purposes did not end with the Roman Empire. Many coins issued after the fall of the Roman Empire bore the images of political leaders. After the United States of America came into existence, the new nation’s coins proudly bore a depiction of Liberty to symbolize the relative lack of a powerful ruler.

The next time you have some coins in your hand, take a closer look at them. What kind of information does the size, shape, metal content, artwork, text, numbers, or any other features communicate to you? What does it tell you about the land of issue?

Read more by Patrick A. Heller

 

Patrick A. Heller was honored as a 2019 FUN Numismatic Ambassador. He is also the recipient of the ANA 2018 Glenn Smedley Memorial Service Award, 2017 Exemplary Service Award 2012 Harry Forman National Dealer of the Year Award, and 2008 Presidential Award winner. Over the years, he has also been honored by the Numismatic Literary Guild (including twice in 2019), Professional Numismatists Guild, Industry Council for Tangible Assets, and the Michigan State Numismatic Society. He is the communications officer of Liberty Coin Service in Lansing, Michigan and writes Liberty’s Outlook, a monthly newsletter on rare coins and precious metals subjects. Past newsletter issues can be viewed at www.libertycoinservice.com. Some of his radio commentaries titled “Things You ‘Know’ That Just Aren’t So, And Important News You Need To Know” can be heard at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday and Friday mornings on 1320-AM WILS in Lansing (which streams live and becomes part of the audio and text archives posted at www.1320wils.com).

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