Leather-Wrapped Money of Ancient Carthage

The city of Carthage, an ancient Phoenician city in North Africa near the present site of Tunis, was the major rival to Rome during the third and second centuries b.c. It was destroyed by Rome in 146 b.c. in the third and last of the famous Punic Wars. Aeschines, an immediate disciple of Socrates in the fifth century b.c., wrote in his Dialogues of Socrates:

The Carthaginians made use of the following kind (of money): in a small piece of leather, a substance is wrapped of the size of a piece of four-drachmae; but what this substance is, no one knows except the maker. After this, it is sealed (by the state) and issued for circulation.

(Angell, 1929)

Apparently, removing the leather wrapping rendered the pieces worthless. Other classical authors make reference to the leather-wrapped money of Carthage, but make no mention of the nature of the mysterious substance inside the wrapping. More recent scholars have speculated that the “leather” was more likely a parchment, and that the enwrapped substance was either tin or a compound of tin and copper. Perhaps the government of Carthage maintained the value of this fiat money by restricting its supply.

The murky history of the leather-wrapped money of Carthage reveals little about the dates of its circulation, or its success as a stable currency. In the third century b.c. Carthage was the richest Mediterranean city, but no history of Carthage written by Carthaginians has come down to us. This wrapped money may have been the short-lived product of the exigencies of war. Presumably, the Carthaginians no longer needed a fiat money after the opening of the gold and silver mines in Spain early in the fifth century. Carthaginian conquest of Sicily, from which Carthage learned coinage, and control of western Mediterranean sea trade brought on a century-long duel to the death between Rome and Carthage.

The metal currency of the Carthaginians was undistinguished, particularly in light of the high standards set by Greek coinage. The Carthaginians do deserve credit for introducing the equivalent of a paper money in the ancient world of the Mediterranean. In the history of Western civilization the ancients understood the debasement of metal coinage exceedingly well, but only Carthage is credited with developing anything resembling a paper money. China may have predated Carthage in paper money development, but well-documented evidence of paper money in China occurs after the Carthaginian innovation of leather-wrapped money.