Tales of Soft Money — Money of the Steppes


The third chapter of Money Dethroned details the use of livestock as money. It was arguably the most common standard in use before metallic monies, and has therefore contributed considerably to everything from the shape of early metallic coinage, to money-related etymology.

Remnants of a Nomad Past

The medieval traveler Ibn Battúta visited multiple towns north of the Byzantine Empire. He went to the Genoese city of Kaffa, in what today is Crimea, by enduring severe storms that almost capsized the ship. Curiously, it appears Battúta and his company were unused to the loud ringing of church bells, because as the predominantly Christian city suddenly rang with them, they took to the rooftop of their housing in confusion and loudly called for prayer. Muslims living in Kaffa quickly calmed Battúta and stopped him from accidentally conjuring up a religious brawl. From Kaffa he set out on the vast grass plains towards the Caspian and Aral Sea. As he traveled to meet with Sultan Muhammad Úzbeg Khán (Öz Beg Khan) of the Golden Horde - a powerful Turco-Mongol ruler that Battúta claims had been busy warring with the Byzantine Empire - the nomadic background of these Mongols soon made itself apparent:

We set out [from Kaffa] with the amír Tuluktumúr and his brother and two sons. At every halt the Turks loose there horses, oxen and camels, and drive them out to pastures at liberty, night or day, without shepherds or guardians. This is due to the severity of their laws against theft. Any person found in possession of a stolen horse is obliged to restore it with nine others; if he cannot do this, his sons are taken instead, and if he has no sons he is slaughtered like a sheep. (Battúta, 1325-1354, p. 143)

Livestock had for a long time been the money of various Mongol and Tartar tribes, and although the Golden Horde at the time of Battúta's visit operated mostly under silver dirhams, his note on livestock fines likely revealed one remnant of such systems. Similar traces could be observed as soon as he reached Sarai, the capital of the Golden Horde:

The day after my arrival I visited him [the Sultan] in the afternoon at a ceremonial audience; a great banquet was prepared and we broke our fast in his presence. These Turks do not follow the custom of assigning a lodging to visitors and giving them money for their expenses, but they send him sheep and horses for slaughtering and skins of qumizz [curdled milk], which is their form of benefaction. (Battúta, 1325-1354, p. 148)

It should be mentioned that Battúta, on his long travels, received money from local rulers almost everywhere he went, even in some non-Muslim kingdoms. These Mongols, while utilizing coined silver, likely still carried strong influences of past livestock monetary systems when giving gifts as well.

Paul Einzig has much to say about the historic livestock standard of the Mongols. He emphasizes that the, by far, most important money used by them, was their animals. Even as prisoners were taken and ransomed for silver or gold, and even as they looted hoards of such metals, trade among the Mongols themselves were often conducted in livestock (Einzig, 1949, p. 283). British soldier and author of The Quest for Cathay, Percy Sykes, corroborated on similar monetary systems as late as the 19th century, as he was stationed by the Pamir Mountains. Here is what he had to say about the use of sheep money among the people he met there:

Among the Kirghiz whom I met on the Pamirs the difficulty always was for the young fellows to find the hundred sheep which was the usual price for a girl, and one of my hunters, when paid off, counted his wages as representing so many sheep! (Sykes, 1936, p. 103)

Einzig has a number of references to sheep money as well. He found that in Tibet, they were used to measure value - in other words a unit of account. In Mongolia and other parts of Central Asia, sheep served as a unit of account as well, and the monetary system even dealt with different denominations. A grown-up bull was worth ten grown-up rams, twenty grown-up sheep, thirty one-year-old sheep, or sixty lambs. (Einzig, 1949, p. 108)

Yet another telling example of remnants of a livestock standard in modern Mongolia, is reference by Hingston-Quiggin:

A traveller once asked a patriarch owner of several thousand horses why he did not sell some every year. He replied, 'Why sell what I delight in? I do not need money. If I had any I would shut it up in a box where no one would see it. But when my horses run over the plain everyone sees them and knows that they are mine and is reminded that I am rich'. (Quiggin, 1949, p. 277)

Civilizations in Transformation

Livestock standards of the past often provides valuable examples of monetary systems in transformation. Not only did some of the early coins depict the very animals that they likely replaced - metal coinage and livestock often operated as money in parallel. Einzig, upon researching the money of the Hittites, noted:

To judge by a code of law originating from the 14th century B.C., weighed silver played the part of currency during that period in the Hittite Empire. A very advanced system of price fixing appears to have been in force. The unit was the shekel, or rather the half-shekel, in terms of which prices and wages were fixed in the code. The price of meat provided the only noteworthy exception from this rule. It was fixed in terms of sheep and fractions of sheep instead of silver. This seems to indicate the existence of a sheep-unit during an earlier period. (Einzig, 1949, p. 219)

Studying the history of the Persians (whose ancestors were nomads) provides similar examples. Einzig:

Oxen and sheep were the original standard of value in Ancient Persia and were also used as medium of exchange. There is evidence in the Zend Avesta that they were confined to be used as currency concurrently with metals. A doctor's fees were fixed in terms of animals or parts of animals according to the standard of the patient. (Einzig, 1949, p. 227)

Another circumstance of an older sheep-standard is provided by the Jews who historically transacted in kesitah. Although it is no longer known what exactly a kesitah represented, etymology (and early Greek translations of the Bible) suggest it was a coin bearing the impression of a lamb, or just a measure of the amount of silver equal to the price of a lamb. That the word mikhne means, or at least meant, both "livestock" and "purchase" lends further support to the theory (Einzig, 1949, p. 220).

Ancient Greece likely operated on parallel monies as well. Various copper ingots in the shape of ox hides were thought to have first represented such a commodity as some even had one side mimicking the hairy part of the hide, and the other side mimicking the raw inside (Quiggin, 1949, p. 272). The Iliad and the Odyssey both provide references to the use of oxen as a unit of account. Einzig also mentions a curious phrase used in the 6th and 5th century B.C. to describe someone having been bribed to keep silent: "[having] an ox on his tongue" (Einzig, 1949, p. 229). Finally, it is thought that the marks of oxen and sheep on early Roman bronze- and copper coinage represented similar links between an older system on livestock money, and that of metallic coinage (Einzig, 1949, p. 236).