Phoenician Weight Standard

The Phoenician weight standard bore a strong resemblance to the Babylonian system. Both systems expressed money values in shekels and talents, and both systems were bimetallic monetary regimes. In the Phoenician standard, a gold shekel was worth 15 silver shekels, weighing 112 grains each. A talent may have begun as the weight that one person could lift, but the Phoenicians and Babylonians fixed the value of the talent in terms of a set number of shekels.
One of the puzzles of monetary history is that the Phoenicians, who ranked among the most highly commercialized peoples of the ancient Mediterranean, hardly merit a footnote in the history of coinage, accepting it very slowly. The Phoenicians devoted themselves to commercial pursuits and found a place in history for inventing the alphabet. By contrast Lydia, a pastoral society that was a poor candidate for commercial innovations, became the birthplace of modern coinage.
It was not a shortage of gold or silver that hampered the development of coinage in Phoenicia, at least according to reports in the Old Testament. The first book of Kings says:
At the end of twenty years, in which Solomon had built the two houses, the house of the Lord and the king’s house, and Hiram, king of Tyre [a Phoenician city] had supplied Solomon with cedar and cypress timber and gold, as much as he desired…. Hiram had sent to the king one hundred and twenty talents of gold…. King Solomon built a fleet of ships…. And Hiram sent with the fleet his servants, together with the servants of Solomon; and they went to Ophir, and brought from there gold, to the amount of four hundred and twenty talents;… The prophet Zechariah says: “Tyre has built herself a rampart, and heaped up silver like dust, and gold like the dirt of the streets.”
John Maynard Keynes, the most famous economist of the twentieth century, observed in his Treatise on Money that coinage seemed to hold no charm for some of the societies of the ancient world, and held out the following suggestion:
The stamping of pieces of metal with a trade mark was just a piece of local vanity, patriotism, or advertisement with no far-reaching importance. It is a practice which has never caught on in some important commercial areas…. The Semitic races, whose instincts are keenest for the essential qualities of money, have never paid much attention to the deceptive signatures of mints, which content the financial amateurs of the North, and have cared only for the touch and weight of the metal. It was not necessary, therefore, that talents or shekels should be minted.
Evidence of Phoenician coinage appears during the middle of the fifth century b.c. Coinage had been in use for 200 years in the trading area of the Aegean Sea, and Athens had been coining money for 100 years.
The Phoenicians were famous as navigators and distant traders, perhaps often bringing them into contact with peoples who would be satisfied with nothing less than weighing precious metal and verifying its fineness on the spot. Such people would have been more suspicious of coinage whose fineness and weight was certified by the seal of a government in a distant land. Also, justly or unjustly, the Phoenicians were known to be sharp, aggressive, and sometimes unscrupulous traders, rendering it unlikely that traders in distant lands would accept Phoenician coins without questioning their quality in terms of weight and fineness. These factors may account for the slowness of the Phoenicians to adopt coinage.
See also:
Betlyon, John Wilson. 1982. The Coinage and Mints of Phoenicia: the Pre-Alexandrine Period.
Burns, A. R. 1927. Money and Monetary Policy in Early Times.
Einzig, Paul. 1966. Primitive Money.
Keynes, John Maynard. Treatise on Money.