Are your fantasy characters in the market for a loaf of bread? A new suit of armor? A mercenary army? Then it’s time to think about how people in your world buy and sell things. Of course, the beauty of fantasy is that you can do anything. Do you want to write a world where the common currency is bolts of silk and songs of youth? Go for it! But if you want your world to be more grounded in the familiar, coins stamped out of gold and silver are both historically accurate and staples of the genre.
Gold and silver are both relatively soft metals that were easy to work using pre-modern technology. They are unreactive and resistant to corrosion, so coins will not lose weight over time and use. They are also metals that are rare and highly valued for creating objects of beauty and prestige, which gives coins struck from these metals intrinsic value not dependent on confidence in the state that issued them, unlike modern paper money. Gold and sliver coins were worth something no matter where you carried them, even if just to be melted down as bullion.
In the modern economy, with prices driven by industrial demand and market speculation, the relative values of gold and silver can vary widely. In pre-modern times, the values of these metals was more stable, shaped by the productivity of mining and refining on one hand and cultural demand on the other. Geological research has found that silver and gold ores occur naturally at a ratio of about 19 to 1, which is to say that for every 19 grams of silver in the earth waiting to be dug up, there is about 1 gram of gold. Ancient mining techniques were of limited efficiency, however, and it is likely that the ratio of metals actually put into use was closer to 10 to 1. Where we are able to compare the historical values of gold and silver coins in use by the same culture, we tend to find them falling within these brackets: one gold coin was typically worth 10 to 20 times its weight in silver coins. Bear in mind also that gold has about twice the density of silver, so a gold coin will weigh about double what a silver coin of the same size weighs. When gold and silver coins are struck at the same size, that means that we would expect one gold coin to have a value of anywhere from 20 to 40 silver coins.
Assigning an actual value to an individual coin is a trickier proposition. Pre-industrial economies are hard to compare directly with the modern world. Some things are much cheaper in real terms for us today than for our ancestors, like clothes and books; others are much more expensive, like labor. We rarely have good, comprehensive evidence for what a given amount of money could buy in any historical context (and when we do, it is often hard to tell whether the values and prices quoted are realistic or an expression of what someone in authority thought things ought to be worth).
In many cases, our best way of estimating the worth of a coin is to put it in terms of daily wages for a soldier. Military pay was a pressing matter of state finance that was important to get right—you definitely don’t want to forget to pay the people hanging around your castle with swords. That leaves us with reasonably good evidence for soldiers’ pay in many historical contexts (of course, not all soldiers are paid in money).
Gold coins are classic standbys for fantasy currency, but historically gold was too valuable for everyday use. The value of any specific coin depended on its weight, with heavier coins naturally worth more, but even a small gold coin was typically worth a great deal. Examples like the Persian daric or the Roman aureus had a value of approximately a month’s wages for a soldier or a skilled crafter. Most people in their daily lives would never even have seen a gold coin, let alone had occasion to spend one.
Silver was the standard metal for coinage in most places and times. Silver, like gold, could be minted at whatever weight the issuing state wanted, from large, high-value coins to tiny small change. Often, however, the basic silver coin in circulation, like an Athenian drachma or an early Islamic dirham, amounted to about a soldier’s daily wage.
The difference in value between gold and silver helps explain why gold coinage was rarely debased (issued at lower purity by mixing precious and base metals or applying a precious coating over a base metal core), but silver sometimes was. Gold coins were used for major state expenses and usually only came into the hands of people who could cause real trouble if they felt stiffed; silver was used for routine purchases and changed hands among people with limited recourse except to treat their debased coins as being worth less than face value.
Now, if you remember your classic Dungeons and Dragons coin charts, you may be wondering “What about platinum, electrum, and copper?” All of those metals do appear in pre-modern coinage, but they all have their limitations.
Platinum is extremely rare and hard to work by pre-industrial means. At least in the eastern hemisphere, it was not identified as a distinct metal until the 1500s. There is some evidence that metalworkers in pre-Columbian South America created alloys of platinum and gold, but the process is poorly understood, and they weren’t making coins with it. Traces of platinum are found in some ancient and medieval gold coins, but only as impurities not refined out of the metal. Moneyers in any pre-industrial world are unlikely to have the technology to deliberately produce platinum coins, and even if they did, the expensive and labor-intensive process would make it impractical.
Electrum is an alloy of gold and silver, either naturally occurring or produced by smelting. Some early coins were minted out of electrum, but a problem arose: because the ratio of gold to silver in a particular batch of electrum coins could vary, it was hard to be confident of its real value. Too much silver in the mix, and people might be reluctant to accept a coin at its stated value; too much gold, and it would be more profitable to melt coins down for their bullion value than to spend them. Most monetary systems moved away from electrum to pure gold and silver for the sake of stability.
Copper, usually in alloyed form like bronze or brass, was used for low-value coinage in many places. These coins could be useful for paying wages to ordinary workers or buying everyday goods like a mug of ale or a loaf of bread. Since copper is a much more common metal than silver or gold, its intrinsic worth was much less by weight. As a result, for copper alloy coins to have enough worth to be useful, they had to either be made much larger and heavier than contemporary silver and gold coins or else be issued at a face value significantly higher than their worth as raw metal. Most states that issued copper alloy coinage chose the latter route, making their copper coinage essentially a token whose value was guaranteed by the state’s promise to accept it at the issued value for taxes and fees rather than its metal content. For this reason, copper alloy coinage rarely circulated beyond the reach of the state that originally issued it, while gold and silver were useful as international means of exchange.
As always, you have the flexibility in building your own worlds to make the money work however you want, but for historical verisimilitude you can’t beat gold and silver for your coinage.
Image: Lydian gold Croessid, obverse, photograph by Classical Numismatics Group via Wikimedia (minted Sardis; 564-539 BCE; gold)
History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.