Currency

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"In these lumps of silver and gold, we can find our souls."
— Sophytos, royal mint master of Valonia

Writer Credit


  • Currency Codex Entry

Codex

Description


Even if its world-spanning hegemony was utterly broken by the Godswar and its aftermath, Old Belhar still bequeathed a legacy to the Savarra of today. Certainly, its architecture and symbols retain some iconic power, especially in what remains of the Heartlands. The state cults of the Seven that it once fostered gave birth to the often elaborate liturgy and practice of modern religion. And its language has spread far and wide, even if it has since begun to diverge into different regional dialects. But by far, the most indelible mark Old Belhar made on society was — and remains — the little electrum coin, or "hawk".

The peoples of Savarra knew coins before the arrival of Old Belhar, but they were of varying weights and compositions. This made it difficult to trade reliably; one had a hard time determining how pure the silver in a silver coin was, and whether it had been shaved (reducing the amount of material on a coin that appeared the same as any other). Rulers in a financial pinch could and did reduce the proportion of precious metals in a given coin, altering its density but making up for it by changing the amount of metal in the coin to keep its weight the same. But this would also lower its value, especially once ordinary people found out about it… even if the rulers decreed that the coin would trade for grain or some other commodity at a fixed price. Without constant, universally accepted compositions, coins had to be minutely examined to determine their "true" value, a process as time-consuming and frustrating as barter itself.

This changed dramatically with the Belharan discovery that a certain alloy of electrum with specific proportions of gold and silver (with a few other trace metals mixed in) served as a remarkably effective conductor of magical energies, and in particular was perfect for alchemy. Since electrum on a specific standard now had value beyond the commodity prices of the metals themselves, the rulers of Belhar had a strong incentive to coin on that standard and stick to it, rather than altering the proportions of the metals in attempts to extract value. Even a slight deviation from the standard would result in an alchemically useless lump of metal.

On the Belharan standard, coins might have different weights (and thus different values), but coins of the same mass would have the same weight, same proportions of metals, and therefore the same value. It helped that Old Belhar had access to ready sources of electrum, both artificial and natural, and that it had achieved a broad political hegemony: it could introduce this new coinage with relative ease and the coinage would be accepted. Belharan rulers paid their soldiers and bureaucrats with electrum coin, and thus continually fed new hawks into the economy as those people in turn paid for their own needs with electrum, and so on.

This is not to say that Old Belhar fully monetized the economy overnight. The vast majority of the population continued to work on the land, and had little use for coin; much of their tax burden was taken in kind, rather in cash, and went directly to feed the Belharan armies. And the electrum coin's value was still somewhat too high to enable easy use by the urban poor or for small transactions, spawning a multiplicity of low-value copper coins that only somewhat replaced barter for transactions in city marketplaces and at fairs.

Furthermore, although the electrum hawk did have a fixed amount of gold, silver, and so on within it, the relative scarcity of trade goods in different parts of the Empire (along with local cultural conventions) meant that a hawk would still trade at different extrinsic values in different places. One could buy more wheat in the Heartlands with a single hawk than one could in the relatively cereal-poor Marches, for example. Naturally, the state attempted to control these prices through various universalizing edicts, but these were almost impossible to enforce and thus rarely altered the reality of the market.

Still, the new electrum coin had an immediate, positive effect on the Empire's power. It enabled the government to tax more efficiently, it made trade significantly easier by reducing transaction costs, and it made recruitment easier by giving soldiers a more reliable source of income. Furthermore, it served as important propaganda for the Empire. On the reverse, every coin was stamped with the Belharan hawk icon, the state's chosen motif; on the obverse, the Emperor or Empress of the day would place their own portrait, along with an inscription of their name, epithet, and title. Thus, for example, "Laodike (III), Bringer of Peace, Empress of the Belharans".

These symbols and coin inscriptions were almost always the primary contact that most Belharans had with their state, serving as constant reminders of who was in charge and permeating local life with their iconography. Old Belharan coins still have the power to astound with their tiny but detailed artistic portrayals of the Empire's rulers. Some insist that these portraits' expressions even offer glimpses into those rulers' personalities… although these claims ultimately say more about the beholders than they do about the time-weathered faces of ancient Emperors.

Indeed, coins wear out. An electrum hawk exchanged between different people will lose tiny amounts of its mass to the handling process alone, to say nothing of those hawks that are consumed entirely in alchemy. Thus, a further marker of Belharan power was its ability to tax and to otherwise buy back coins for remelting, reminting, and restriking, to ensure that as many hawks as possible circulated at the appropriate weight. Not all coins would make their way back into imperial hands, even without counting alchemy. Often, coins were hoarded, buried, and forgotten — or their owners were killed without revealing their secrets. And other coins simply never circulated that frequently. One person's coin purse might contain hawks with portraits of rulers whose reigns varied by centuries.

As Old Belhar disintegrated, the hawk perversely remained viable. In fact, during the early years of the Godswar, more coins were minted than ever before, a sign of the desperate crisis that the Empire found itself in and its frantic need to raise (and pay for) more soldiers. Later, however, miners died or fled, Wraiths depopulated towns, and the throne gradually lost control. For those places that remained populated, Belharan mints (which were generally established in areas with ready supplies of mined electrum, gold, or silver anyway) served as ready centers of power in the absence of imperial authority. They continued to coin on the same standard, because coined electrum remained valuable for alchemical purposes; their dies even continued to bear the hawk in many cases. It was only the rulers and their titles who changed, as would-be potentates and tinpot dictators attempted to spread their word of their power through coins and coin-portraits. Sometimes, Belharan armies loyal to the center would manage to retake the mints, slay the would-be ruler, and overstrike their portraits with that of the Emperor du jour. (With so many written sources of the time having disappeared, many historical accounts — insofar as anybody can create them — rely on careful examination of coin-portraits, die-marks, proofs, and overstrikes.) Despite their efforts, the Empire faded away, as did its armies; its enemies continued to multiply. But the coins persisted.

Instead of attempting to coin on a different standard and reduce its expenses, the Belharan Empire and its successor states continued to use the same alloy, driven by the ubiquity of alchemy and a fear of appearing weak. Devaluation appeared less dangerous than converting more and more obligations from in-cash to in-kind. The great state farms were parceled out and granted to local aristocrats, who were already rarely supported by the resource-strapped imperial government in their struggles against Wraiths and internal foes. To do otherwise was not an easy choice. Those warlords who attempted to coin on different standards with less gold and silver in order to make those precious metals go farther (and to avoid alienating their sources of revenue) often found that their coins were not accepted by their soldiers, or by the vendors they attempted to purchase from.

Nowadays, most major cities (and a few smaller ones) maintain their own mints, and their coins usually remain on the Belharan weight standard. For want of plentiful skilled labor, the old mines are much less productive than they once were, but overstrikes and remelted coins from pre-Godswar hoards keep the circulating numbers up reasonably well; after all, as princess-historian Angeliki Doukas once wrote, "people died, but their coins did not." In fact, prices in electrum for some goods are now higher than they were under Belhar for a variety of reasons.

With that said, most transactions remain a matter for barter or copper coinage; although most merchants will accept hawks, they are mostly useful for trading with people from far away. Long-distance trade is more dangerous and costly than at any point during the Empire's rule, but the hawk, at least, allows caravans and ship captains to be assured of getting decent value in trade when they do reach their destination. And when they get there, they can be similarly assured that their customers will be happy to take electrum, since it is coined on generally the same standard (if not in the same quantity) from Kitsuhon to Jassira.

In the Frost Marches of today, almost all electrum coins are proper hawks, coined on the Belharan standard. They bear an almost absurd multiplicity of portraits, both of Belharan rulers long dead and of the leaders of the region's towns and cities, like Khor'minos, Maidenbridge, and Tychris. The most successful of the Heartland's rulers — and thus those who coin the most — can also be found on the obverses of Marcher hawks. And rarest of all, coins depicting the proud elvenqueens of the fabled Winter City and bearing the Ridell river emblem on the reverse sometimes appear in Marcher shops and markets, presumably dating from the tentative armed peace that persisted in the Frostwood during the days of Old Belhar.

Coin portraits and legends are of somewhat inconsistent quality, due to the difficulty of finding skilled crafters. Belharan coins were so expertly crafted and error-free that they must — according to modern mint masters — have been created partially through magic. This technique, if it ever existed, has been lost, so that most of the die-work is now a matter for crafting by hand. (There are rumors that some mints in Tronarii and the Winter City retain the ability to make magic coin-dies, and the quality of their work would seem to substantiate this, but if so, they jealously guard their secrets.) Workers who inscribe the legends in their dies can make comical mistakes, reversing the words in their ruler's title or running out of space to place all the letters; that these errors still make it into coined hawks is a clear sign of the lack of quality control that besets most post-Belharan societies.

Most ordinary Marchers would not notice these mistakes. In fact, most ordinary Marchers wouldn't use hawks very much at all in their day-to-day lives. But for an adventurer whose horizons extend across the whole of the Marches, they are absolutely essential.

Codex Acquisition

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Trivia

  • Apart from the alchemical nature of electrum and the relatively constant proportions in the electrum coinage, this Codex entry is in many ways a summary of modern numismatic (study of coinage) scholarship that attempts to adapt it to the economic realities of a fantasy game economy that needs abundant coinage to "work".
  • Many of the names in the Codex entry are outright historical references.
    • Laodike was a common name for female Hellenistic royalty, especially in the Seleukid and Baktrian realms.
    • Sophytos was a Baktrian who dedicated a famous acrostic inscription in Old Kandahar, Afghanistan.
    • Angeliki Doukas is a reference to the late economic historian of Byzantium, Angeliki Laiou. (The house of Doukas was a powerful Byzantine clan.) The quotation attributed to her, about men dying and coins not, was originally said about the Black Death by the late David Herlihy.