Old World, New Ideas
Kevin D. Goldberg began collecting European coins as a Middle School student in suburban Philadelphia. Three decades later, he still collects European coins, but now in suburban Atlanta, where he teaches in the Department of History & Philosophy at Kennesaw State University. He earned his Ph.D. in European History from the University of California, Los Angeles, and was a postdoctoral fellow in the International Humanities at Brown University, 2011-2013. Kevin has been planning on expanding his collection beyond Europe for the past decade, but is only now getting around to it.
In my World History courses, I harp on how the past—or at least our evolving understanding of it—constantly reshapes the present. I give my students two examples of how this functions in a negative sense; Egypt and Greece. Modern Egyptian and Greek history are so weighted down by the mythologies of their extraordinary pasts that we struggle to fathom each’s modern existence without contextualizing each into the ancients. Today’s national governments cater to tourism and foreign money as much as the plight of ordinary citizens, a phenomenon on display in the Greek currency crisis and the recent “Arab Spring” that blossomed in Cairo.
This is particularly troublesome because Egypt and Greece have as significant a history of the past 200 years as anywhere else. Egypt since 1800 is a tale of canalization, colonial entanglement, and balancing historic attachments to Islam and Christianity. Egypt was a key player in Cold War politics because of its pivotal location in both the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern worlds. Modern Greece also emerged in a cultural border area; torn between Ottoman and European powers in the 19th century. But no matter how vital, these modern stories must wait patiently behind their ancient counterparts.
Of course, Egyptian and Greek coin designs borrow heavily from their ancient mythologies. Although in Egypt this trend did not take off until after World War II, Greek coin designers had begun to experiment a bit earlier by blending ancient narratives with modern politics. A favorite of many collectors is the 1910-11 1 Drachma (5g, .8350 Ag, .1342 ASW). This common two-year type features the bust of the aged King George on the obverse and a stylized depiction of Thetis, bearing the shield of Achilles, on the reverse. This odd pairing demands an explanation.
George was born into the royal Danish family in 1845. Looking to secure Great Britain as an ally, the Greek people courted the Danish prince (Denmark and Great Britain were strategic maritime partners) to be “King of the Hellenes,” a title that George accepted in 1863. In exchange for satisfying British demands (i.e., by not selecting a rival prince), the British transferred the Ionian Islands into Greek possession. Before his assassination in 1913, George’s 50-year reign experienced tremendous highs and miserable lows, with numerous territorial gains and losses, though his most enduring contribution may have been his instilling of confidence in the Greek people during these formative years of the constitutional monarchy.
The 1910-11 Drachma’s reverse is one of the most beautiful of the early twentieth century, in part because of the rounded high points of the design. The choice to depict the myth of Thetis, goddess of the sea and heroine of Homer’s Iliad, is no coincidence. According to Paris Papamichos Chronakis, Lecturer of Modern Greek History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, “the scene depicted [on the coin] can be viewed as symbolic of national regeneration and an affirmation of the eventual triumph of Greece.” With their nationalist ambitions stifled in the 1897 war against the Ottoman Turks (remember, Troy, scene of the action in the Iliad, is located in Turkey), the Greeks rallied, symbolically, behind Achilles’s shield in their attempt to wrest the island of Crete from the Turks. Papamichos Chronakis also points out that the employment of ancient mythology—in this case the militaristic story of Thetis—is perfectly in line with the rebuilding of the army and the modernizing agenda following the Goudi Revolt of 1909.
Ancient symbols matter in Greece more than anywhere else. The wonderful Drachmas of 1910 and 1911 are but a small piece of this 3,000- year history. The governments under King George fully understood the importance of coinage in narrating and legitimizing their vision of the past and present.