Cashless Payment in Ancient Mesopotamia

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by António Ramos dos Santos
published on 20 March 2012

This study is based on the analysis of texts coming from several dispersed archives and collections referring to the activity pursued by private families in Mesopotamia during the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid Periods. We chose to classify the documents according to types, taking for granted that documents referring to «goods» and “currency» were concerned with the activities referred to in the records themselves. Nevertheless, some queries arise almost immediately. Right from the start, a question may be asked about what was understood as “money” in those days?

It cannot be denied that silver played an important role in institutional life in Mesopotamia. Thousands of tablets belonging to public and private archives register the metal as a means of payment not only of workers and other specialised personnel, but also of merchandise. Documents also mention loans made on the basis of silver.

If silver acted as “money”, it was not the only form of currency. Indeed, other goods, particularly barley, dates and wool acted in a certain way, as goods used in transactions. Until Darius I, Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid silver was never really accepted as universal currency. Daily essentials such as bread could not be bought with silver. It may therefore be assumed, as some authors have done, that the need for silver in Mesopotamia was fairly limited because most of the population resorted to bartering with farm produce. Naturally, the question of silver and its availability is highly debateable as an explanation shedding light on why there was so little need of it. It was not possible to rely more on using silver on a daily basis because it was worth much more than other merchandise. Small products were thus bought with other kinds of «cheap» goods. We believe that silver, barley and dates also acted as yard sticks.

Paper given at IEHC 2006: XIV International Economic History Congress – Helsinki, Finland (2006)



Written by , linked by Jan van der Crabben, published 20 March 2012. Source URL: http://www.helsinki.fi/iehc2006/papers1/Ramos2.pdf.

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