Upon a visit to the Art of the Ancient World collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I couldn’t help but to be moved by the ancient coin collection on exhibit. As a novice coin collector myself, I couldn’t believe that these dozens, possibly hundreds, of coins dated as far back as 2500 years to the 5th century B.C.E. Further, upon the completion of my studies of world history at Bridgewater State University, I can now relate to the fact that these coins are a direct symbol of a time that we now consider to mark the start of the second-wave of human civilization on earth.
What do we mean by the second-wave of human civilization? Around the time of the 5th Century B.C.E., human civilization was transforming into what we now consider to be significant empires. In the first-wave of human civilization, humans had exhibited significant pastoral patterns and eventual settlement in organized city-states as a direct result of an agricultural revolution. By 500 B.C.E, global population had grown steadily to 100 million people, but in the next millennium, global population would grow five-fold to nearly 500 million people. This population explosion is attributable to human ingenuity in the creation of the empire. Important characteristics of settlement in empires include increased food production, language, writing, metallurgy, artisans, trade, and leadership in the form of religion. As human settlements became larger, they became more productive as a whole. Food necessary to sustain the population could be produced by smaller percentages of the population giving rise to the creation of political leaders, military personnel, educators, artisans, merchants and more. In fact, a growth in trade during this second-wave of human civilization would likely be the single most important element in global human population. With the growth of trade, human society needed an ability to compensate its working class so that free exchange of goods beyond a simple barter would become feasible. The development of coins would make an explosion in global trade and population inevitable.
In 500 B.C.E, Persia was the largest empire on the globe with nearly half of the global population. Persia was located in the region we now refer to as the Middle East between Greece and India, exclusive; and inclusive of Jerusalem and Egypt. This region bustled with people speaking multiple languages, enjoying varying cultural traditions, and most importantly thriving with advanced forms of artisan-ship and trade. Persian government exhibited advanced accounting systems, taxation, education and more. One would be remiss if we did not highlight here that in Persia, the first formal trade route known as the “Royal Road” was created. The Royal Road marks a 1700 mile route that connected Susa to Sardi and this marks the main route for exchange of trade across Persia. Persia obviously became the model on which future trade across Asia via the Silk Road would become possible. Much has been written here introducing Persia; and, while our definition above does not include Greece as a formal part of Persia, Greece will prove to be a vitally important neighbor on the western border of Persia, as Greece will one day conquer all of Persia as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great. These two empires were certainly important to one another both as partners and competitive enemies. Nothing drives the growth in these or any empires more rapidly than trade among strong competition.
A tetradrachm is a silver coin of Greece. This demonstrates that Greece was likely leading the way in its ability to mine this soft and brilliant metal, melt it, and to then shape it a form desired by the artisan. Gaza is a region in what we now know as Jerusalem. Naxos is one of many of the islands between Greece and Persia. Both of these location are on the shores of the Mediterranean, certainly under Greek influence, if not completely controlled by Greece at this time. Athena and Dionysos are products of the mystery religions, or more specifically orphism in ancient Greece, which were popular in the Greek culture from the earliest centuries of its settlement to its peak at around 300 C.E. Mystery religion practice was conducted by secret cults and not officially endorsed by government leadership. Participation within these cults required membership. These cults would convene in secret places and they would practice Hellenistic forms of religion whereby they would meditate and imagine very powerful mystical creatures which would embody some all mighty power over the earth, the sun, the moon, the water and more. It is reported in the Encyclopedia Britannica that the god Dionysus was one of the most popular gods, worshiped in every Greek city in fraternities, sororities, and also by mixed cities. Dionysus was a god of fruitfulness, vegetation, and wine. No wonder this cult was popular among the youth. This cult was known for its gleeful singing, mime, sexual practice and initiation, and of course the enjoyment of wine. According to GreekMythology.com, Athena was the Greek virgin goddess of reason, intelligent activity, arts and literature.4 Her importance to Greek culture doesn’t need much of an introduction since the city of Athens itself bears her namesake.
We know to this day just how important coinage is to the success of our individual civilizations and to the world itself. To this day, we still place the heads of some of the most influential people in our lives on the face of these coins. It doesn’t matter whether these heads are real or imagined. If they are so important that they shape of minds, our growth, our abilities to co-exist, and most importantly our ability to enjoy the lives that we live peacefully, then these heads are “real”. One of the biggest take-a-ways for me after studying world history this semester (Spring 2016) is certainly the important role that religion played in the development of human civilization. Without religion, we would not likely exist. Religion civilized this globe by taking us from very barbaric times in our history and ultimately allowed humans to co-exist, to be productive, to share, to trade, and to thrive. Trade is at the foundation of who we are on earth. Break this foundation, and we will tumble.
1. Strayer, Robert W. and Nelson, Eric W. (2016). Ways of the World, A Brief Global History with Sources, Third Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. pp 97-136.
2. Art of the Ancient World, Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Web. Retrieved from http://www.mfa.org/collections/ancient-world. May 4, 2016.
3. Merkelbach, Reinhold. (n.d.). Mystery Religion. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/topic/mystery-religion. May 4, 2016.
4. Athena. GreekMythology.com. Web. Retrieved from http://www.greekmythology.com/Olympians/Athena/athena.html. May 4, 2016.