Before coinage became a monopoly prerogative of governments, religious temples minted coins in Greece, playing an important role in spreading the practice of coinage to the Greeks. The coinage of money on sacred temple grounds, under the direction of priests, brought to bear the full weight of
religion and custom to protect the funds of the mint and assure the quality of the coins.
The famous religious shrines of ancient Greece and Rome acted as treasuries, including the temple of Athena at Athens, the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and that of Juno Moneta at Rome. Even the later Roman Republic, famous for clever statecraft, used shrines as repositories of public funds. The gold statutes in the Parthenon and the bullion in the temple treasury were part of Athens’ monetary reserve. Thucydides, in his famous Peloponnesian War, puts these words into the mouth of Pericles regarding the resources of Athens:
Apart from other sources of income, an average revenue of six hundred talents of silver was drawn from the tribute of the allies, and there were still six thousand talents of coined silver in the Acropolis…. This did not include the uncoined gold and silver in public and private offerings, the sacred vessels for the processions and games, the Median spoils, and similar resources to the amount of five hundred talents. To this he added the treasury of the other temples. These were by no means inconsiderable, and might fairly be used. Nay, if they were ever absolutely driven to it, they might take even the gold ornaments of Athene herself, for the statute contained forty talents of pure gold and it was all removable. (Thucydides, 1952)
The temple priests handled large amounts of precious metals, flowing in from gift offerings, and revenue from investments in land, mines, and other ventures. In addition to providing religious services, temple shrines became centers of trade, affording safe conduct to travelers to the temple and occasionally constructing sacred roads that led to the temple. Temples were dedicated to a particular deity that protected pilgrims. Temple coins may have begun as souvenirs for pilgrimages held at the time of sacred festivals. In time, temple districts during religious festivals began to wear the aspect of trade fairs, attracting merchants who saw the concentration of people as an opportunity to market their wares. Temples supplied the need for local coins to transact the burst of commercial activity. Pilgrims also needed coins to pay priests.
The influence of temple coinage accounts for the religious influence that is evident in Greek coinage. Coins minted in temples, under the auspices of temple priests, usually bore a sacred symbol associated with the patron deity that protected the temple, or perhaps an effigy of the deity. Coins struck in the temple of Zeus bore a thunderbolt, or an eagle, and coins struck in the temple of Apollo a tripod or lyre. The temple of Artemis stamped its coins with a stag or a wild boar, and that of Aphrodite with a dove or tortoise.
Religious themes remained a trait of Greek coins after civil authorities had assumed responsibility for coinage, perhaps reflecting the high esteem that temple coins enjoyed. Athenian coins bore the stamp of an owl, the sacred bird of Athene.
Some scholars have attached deep significance to the religious symbols stamped on temple coins, suggesting that the stamped symbols indicated the coins belonged to a specific deity, and were sacred to him or her. The symbols also assured the temple priests that the precious metal they received was of the same quality and quantity as the metal they paid out. The sacred symbols may also have helped establish the coins in the confidence of people, adding to the credit that the coins commanded.
Early in the sixth century b.c. minting coinage became the sole privilege of government authorities throughout the Aegean world.
Burns, A. R. 1927. Money and Monetary Policy in Early Times.
Thucydides. 1952. The Peloponnesian War. Trans. Richard Crawley.
Williams, Jonathan, ed. 1997. Money: A History.