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Katerina Brégianni, Modern Greek Coins, State and Ideology from the Revolution to the Inter-war years, Academy of Athens, Athens, 2011, 363 p.

Manolis Arkolakis
p. 220-225

Texte intégral

1If the historical account of the modern Greek coin had been published three years ago, it is almost certain that it would have been dealt with as research into a period that had finished, probably never to return, in 2001. Recent developments, however, and the severe crisis that the Eurozone is facing, with Greece as the pinnacle, but with its other member states moving towards the same impasse, oblige the reader to look again at the history of the drachma from a different angle, seeking parallels, arguments, even answers regarding ways in which the crisis could be faced. Of course, history does not offer ready solutions, recipes for the present and the future, but it does contribute to the understanding of procedures and, for those who really wish it, the exploitation of historical experience. The book has been published in Greek, therefore, for the shake of foreign readers, I shall try to give also some details of its various themes on the political and economic history of modern Greece.

2The recent book of Katerina Brégianni covers these needs because it doesn’t examine the history of the modern Greek coin independently or exclusively in relation to economic procedures in Greece today but links it to the structural characteristics of the mechanisms of a newly established state with a desire to follow the recent example of European nations. One example is the industrial revolution which, during the nineteenth century, spread rapidly throughout Western Europe and North America. In one way or another, it affected the world economy in connection with the ideology of the upwardly moving bourgeoisie and of their basic institution, the nation state. As the author herself says, the tracing within the history of the coin of the economic and social mechanisms, the development of the market and the procedures of financing and, finally and most importantly, the articulation of political power and numismatic institutions has been attempted. More precisely, for the modern Greek state, she says that the coin illustrated different aspects of the way of governing but also reflected the ideological battle for the matter of Greekness. Additionally, the Greek numismatic mechanisms and the domestic financial crises are examined in their European context.

3On the basis of the above, the divisions of the book follow the political events that define the developments and the shaping of the modern Greek state and its economy, i.e. the chapters examine the first attempts to acquire a national coin by Ioannis Kapodistrias (1828-1831) and the coin during the time of King Otto (1833-1862). There follow two periods with the arrival of the new dynasty up to the removal of the forced circulation at the end of 1884 and the political reversal of 1909. In a separate chapter the incorporation of the Ionian Islands (1864) and Thessaly (1881) and the consequences for the monetary system are examined. In the two last chapters the period of economic and political modernisation during the war is tackled and finally the period from the foundation of the Bank of Greece in 1927 up to the entry of Greece into the Second World War is dealt with.

4Before this, however, there is an introductory first chapter, which summarizes the numismatic moves in Europe in conjunction with the economic developments in the corresponding time span where the Greek case is examined. It is a matter of a detailed and systematic analysis of economic liberalism and the industrial revolution, the gold standard, bimetallism and economic developments in the inter-war years, peaking with the crisis of 1929. I think its usefulness and the help it offers, especially to students working on the economic history of Europe, are rare in the Greek bibliography. Naturally, it is aimed at all those who are repelled by stereotypes of the prevailing modern speech that tries to justify and perpetuate the swamp in which we live. Along with this, however, I would like to pause for a while on the presentation in this chapter of the Latin Monetary Union (LMU), thought by many, and probably rightly, to be the forerunner of the Eurozone. Although the LMU did not achieve the establishment of a common currency, it managed, though the creation of a common monetary zone, to ensure the uniformity of the common monetary system, with consequences on an international level. For sixty years, from 1865 to 1926, in the midst of economic crises and the turbulence of war, the LMU demonstrated its capabilities, its inconsistencies and the limits of a common monetary policy between national states. Of course, comparing it to today’s circumstances in the Eurozone is risky, in spite of the definite return, forty years ago, to arbitrary liberalism. However, the internationalism of the monetary question that started with the LMU has now become a fixture, with the result that the need for a monetary mechanism that supersedes narrow national limits has been ascertained (international role of the dollar, the euro, recent thoughts for a common monetary policy in Asia and Latin America). Perhaps today there is no dilemma between bimetallism and the gold standard that occupied the LMU (it disbanded after the domination of the gold standard), but, then as now, the dialectic relationship between political choices and economic necessities has been shown. Many assert that the introduction of the euro came in answer mainly to political questions that concerned European countries on an international, geopolitical level, which explains older forecasts regarding the non-realization of the Eurozone or regular references to the imminent collapse of the euro. On the contrary, things are more complicated and, as Brégianni notes regarding the LMU, « these countries’ joining the LMU was not, in the majority of cases, for political reasons ». So, for the Eurozone, I believe that we have to see the developments in the light of the contradiction between the international nature of capital and the inability to overcome the national state. To refer once again to Brégianni, the coin as an institution and not exclusively as an economic notion, demonstrates the interconnection between political power, historical circumstances and economic mechanisms, That is to say, the collapse of the Eurozone will not be exclusively either an economic or a political event with local consequences.

5 The appearance of the modern Greek state was the first special event in the Europe of the nineteenth century. The small country was neither a colony nor a part of some modern European state but was secession from the Ottoman Empire, a peculiar state with a semi-feudal character and structures that did not fit in with European tradition. The attempt from the first moment to shape a state mechanism that would serve the needs of a society that wanted to follow the paradigm of modernity with corresponding economic relations and ideological references is characteristic. This is confirmed by Brégianni’s historical account of the process of introducing a national coin and incorporating it into the economic and social life of the new state, following previous attempts by historians, for example by V. Prontzas.

6This is the first time that sources have been used so extensively, either in Greece or abroad, to construct in detail the whole course of the modern Greek coin to its establishment and its imposition as the national coinage in daily use. In other words, it is shown through the sources the interaction between national and international practices. In particular, within the legislature and the published Governmental degrees political will can be reshaped to create administrative and economic mechanisms that contribute to the financing of the economy and cover the daily needs of the citizens. The attempt was not at all easy for a new state already in debt even before its foundation, its only source of income being ecclesiastical silver. In spite of the best intentions of the politicians, government decisions and legal decrees were rarely applied with their original objectives, with the result that frequent issuing of amendments was required to cover immediate needs. Kapodistrias decision to found a mint proved quite ambitious since the cost of modern equipment was unaffordable. At the same time there was a lack of technical skill for its operation. In the end, the issue was limited to 11,898 silver phoenixes and silver and gold multiples were never struck, due to a shortage of precious metals.

7The Ottonian numismatic system attempted to solve the serious problems of monetary policy by introducing the drachma. The nucleus of the new system, however, did not differ significantly from the old. On the one hand, the drachma, like the phoenix, was linked to the Spanish real, whereas the initial prohibition of foreign currency was amended by the acceptance of certain kinds for payments into the Treasury. In the current discussion about the nature of the Ottonian monetary system, Brégianni accepts that it was bimetallic, asserting that the intention of linking modern Greek coinage to the structure of foreign trade and its incorporation in an open economy is evident. The policy of the Ottonian Kingdom was in step with the spirit of the prevailing economic liberalism of the age and, as the author notes, the bimetallic standard and later the gold standard attempted to consolidate a monetary regularity, aiming at strengthening the free circulation of capital and fixing an international monetary system . As already stated, the detailed research both into the existing archival material and into additional archives in Greece and abroad, recently publicized, permitted reshaping the history of each coin issue as far as the quantity, place of issue and the course of the imports into Greece are concerned, often overturning former evaluations. Also, the real function of the Greek Mint up to its dissolution in 1858 under the weight of a bad public financial system becomes clear. As the author points out, the monetary system introduced by Otto collapsed quite a while before he himself left the country.

8 The new dynasty found itself with the task of restoring the financial system to health in a European crisis situation. Law 204 of 1867 laid the foundations of the monetary policy for the next 40 years and, according to Brégianni, in broad terms until 1928. The central point of the new monetary policy was the participation of Greece in the Latin Monetary Union, which meant the establishment of safeguards for the bimetallic system. As mentioned at the beginning of this review, the political expediency of Greece joining the LMU is obvious (political dependency on the part of France) but it must be suitably linked to the economic and mercantile infiltration of French investments. The author links the sequence of these events in a very correct and persuasive way without exceeding the international situation and the attempts of all Greek governments to apply a policy of development, always in the spirit of economic liberalism. However, the new numismatic system, never totally applied, demonstrated, according to the author, on the one hand the expectations and hopes and on the other the fears and insecurity of the Greek middle classes that expressed at the same time their love of and scorn for the coin.

9The passing of Law 3642 of 1910 meant the gradual change to the gold standard and allowed the better regulation of currency relations, in spite of the fact that it contributed to the complete control of the currency market by the National Bank. The assessments of various researchers regarding the efficiency of the new legislative arrangement in stabilizing the currency and restoring the finances to health do not agree, although it is a fact that it contributed to the ability of the Greek state to get more foreign loans in a time of war, without serious fluctuation. The author focuses more on the maintenance of the same system after the entry of Greece in the First World War and especially for the duration of the Asia Minor campaign (1919-1922), considering it unrealistic. It should be noted, however as Brégianni also accepts, that all the European states, after the war, insisted on a return to economic liberalism and on the application of the gold standard. In the case of Greece, the forced loans of 1922 and 1926, as well as the immediate intervention of the Financial Committee of the League of Nations, meant the change to the gold-currency standard. The striking of the drachma of 1926, devalued about 15 times in relation to the 1867 drachma, reflected the new circumstances.

10Monetary stability and attempts to improve the economy are linked, however, to the imposition, actually by the Fiscal Committee of the Government of Greece, of the institution of the Central Bank in 1928 and the abolition of the National Bank’s right to issue currency. The author notes that Greek governments were forced to accept the international legality of the gold-exchange standard, since the Greek economy was, for the most part, dependent on international capital. I think, however, that for this period greater emphasis should have been placed on the decisive role played by Britain and the direct intervention of the Bank of England and the policy of the Bank of Greece. The lifting of the connection between the drachma and gold in April 1932 and the cessation of the servicing of the foreign public debt the following month mark the transition from economic liberalism to economic nationalism with the strengthening of the interventional role of the state. Of course, that was the dominant practices in almost all the European countries in the 1930s, consolidated and matured after the war.

11I would like to point out one more aspect of this important book that I consider equally important. If the national coinage permits the newly formed state to arrange economic relations at home as well as internationally, it contributes the same amount to the ideological formation within its symbolic range. As Brégianni is careful to point out, power penetrates the whole of the country through means of the coin, even the smallest fraction, bearing royal image, as happened during the reign of George I. The representations on the coins have ideological connotations for « Greekness » that the state mechanism wanted to project to its subjects. As the author implies, from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, the Greek state adopted Western kind of numismatic patterns in the same time that the application of occidental monetary models reflect the decisive turning of Greece to the West. The numismatic memory is literally engraved. This, based on the portrayal of the dominant myths, attempts to safeguard the continuation of Hellenism : from the ideological impressions on the phoenix with its conveyance of the ideas of the Enlightenment to Greece and polysemy, as the author so successfully iterates, as far as the symbols of « Greekness » in the neoclassicism of the monarchical drachma with the exclusive linear connection between ancient and modern Hellenism are concerned. She points out that the reproduction of classical Greek themes on coins and banknotes was not the result of nationalism but rather under the influence of Western European numismatic practices of the period which were transfer to Greece as a counter loan. With the contribution of new archival material, the choices of iconography on the coins of the new modern Greek state are analysed and interpreted up to the 1930s. There we meet the unique instance of a shortage of new issues after the restoration of the monarchy (1935) and the continuous circulation of the pieces of the democratic period.

12Besides the analysis of economic, political and ideological aspects of the Greek coinage, the book offers new evidence for the quantitative aspect of the numismatic phenomena, showing the degree of regularity of every issue as well as the numismatic functionality of the Greek state, namely how it imposed its policy in everyday life. The author took advantage of new sources, never examined before, of the Ottonian period (Archive of Secretariat of Finance in General State Archives) as well as of the period of George I (Archive of Hôtel de la Monnaie) and presents new or corrected summations of the successive issues. During the 19th century, the numismatic regularity on international level determined also the Greek domestic coin prints, the book offers respective quantitative records according to the new sources, especially for the period after the bankruptcy of 1893 and the consequences during periods of emergency circulation. Although it is not strictly a quantitative subject, the book offers new records for the professional and social networks of the German and French artists who worked for the making of the Greek coins. This is another indication, on the one hand for the dependence of a peripheral country on technical issues of printing and reproduction of coins and on the other hand for the closed relation between central state power and the mechanism of coins production, a phenomenon which started in early modern times.

  • 1 Gilles Deleuze, first published in French as « Post-Scriptum sur les sociétés de contrôle », L’Au (...)

13Katerina Brégianni’s book, drawing in the best possible way on the whole range of sources available, therefore offers a well-rounded historical account both for modern Greek coinage and for the monetary policy of the new Greek state, investigating the many versions of social reality either on a symbolic or on a completely realistic level . As the author notes, in the 19th century coinage and monetary policy were more closely linked to the needs of the state, whereas in the twentieth century to the operation of the market . We could add, quoting Gilles Deleuze, that the developed capitalist society was, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a society of discipline, as Michel Foucault defined it, while mainly after the Second World War it was a society of control. More specifically : It is perhaps the money that expresses better the distinction between the two societies, since discipline was always linked to the minted coin that reaffirmed gold as the value of reference, while the control referred to fluctuating parities, regulated according to the value imposed by a group of given coins1. Now having the history of the modern Greek coin during the period of the society of discipline, we await the history of the drachma and the euro during the period of the society of control.

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1 Gilles Deleuze, first published in French as « Post-Scriptum sur les sociétés de contrôle », L’Autre journal, n° 1, mai 1990, reprinted in the volume Pourparlers, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1990. In English : « Postscript on the Societies of Control » Negotiations, New York, Columbia University Press, 1995,

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Manolis Arkolakis, « Katerina Brégianni, Modern Greek Coins, State and Ideology from the Revolution to the Inter-war years, Academy of Athens, Athens, 2011, 363 p. », Histoire & mesure [En ligne], XXVII-1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 25 juillet 2012, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL :

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