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  • When Money Talks: A History of Coins and Numismatics by Frank L. Holt
  • Robert Weir
Frank L. Holt. When Money Talks: A History of Coins and Numismatics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. xii + 254. CDN $43.95. ISBN 9780197517659.

Frank Holt’s books are always interesting and usually groundbreaking. Holt is the author of several books on Greek history, especially monetary history, with a particular emphasis on Bactria. His books approach their given subjects with both wit and wisdom. Holt also has a way with words whose flow carries the general reader along with little effort. This book is no exception. It is surely the distillation of decades’ worth of study of, and fascination with, ancient coins—witness the book’s 30 pages of endnotes and 16 pages of select bibliography—but Holt always wears his learning lightly. His didacticism is the easy, avuncular one of a raconteur like Herodotus and thoroughly enjoyable for it. For instance, the section headings in each chapter are cleverly named by someone who loves a good pun: “Johnny’s Cash,” “To Coin a Phrase,” and “Pocket Science” can all be found in the first chapter. The inclusion of 139 illustrations also facilitates readability.

When Money Talks differs from Holt’s earlier books for its more diffuse aim and broader audience. Holt promises discussion of how coins were made, how they were used, how the study of coins has evolved over the centuries, what we can learn from coins about history, and their place in the debate over the ownership of cultural property. As a promotional blurb by Peter van Alfen of the American Numismatic Society quite rightly says, this book is one of a kind. Its being unique admittedly makes Holt’s book difficult to contextualize and compare with other work in the field. Van Alfen’s statement could also be a euphemism for idiosyncratic self-indulgence on the part of the author, but that is not the case here. The intended audience is universal, since When Money Talks is both accessible to anyone without any prior knowledge of numismatics and engrossing for experts in the field.

To start with, it is hard not to like the first sentence of the preface, which sums up the whole book in a nutshell: “I did not go into history for the money; I went into money for the history.” Not only is the focus on the historical dimension of coins made clear, but so is the personal take on what will follow. Holt takes us by the hand for a tour that is intimate but no less scholarly for that.

The first two chapters give a good sense of what to expect from the rest of the book. In Chapter 1 (“Introduction,” 1–18), Holt sets out to define what coins and money more generally are and are not by touching lightly on several topics like a bee in a meadow (e.g., Abraham Lincoln’s greenbacks, Mongolian talking coins, the etymology of monetary vocabulary in several languages, the animate iron kissi of Liberia). This eclecticism makes two points: that money is both a universal concept present in most times and places, though uniquely defined in each case; and that money, that figment of [End Page 305] the human imagination, often transcends a purely economic role to “[serve] additional spiritual, political, ceremonial, or judicial needs” (8).

Chapter 2 (“From the Coin’s Point of View,” 19–34) contains a thought experiment that is a good example of Holt’s ability to make us consider in a new way something that seems very familiar. The story of an object through time and space is a well-known narrative trope, but it almost always is a story about the human lives touched by that object and not so much about the object itself. Holt, however, is sincerely interested in what one could call the “thinginess” of things, as befits an archaeologist. Coins are of course neither sentient nor alive, but they do have a lot in common with viruses, and that means they are subject to Darwinian pressures that guide the extent to which they survive to spread their memes (as Holt...