In early medieval Europe, in contrast – and even where Christianity hadn’t yet reached – the model was all very human, and the god-given strength of the monarch took very imperial form. On his Gold Coins of the early 9th century, in fact, “It is extraordinary how the Bulgarian khan, a pagan and fierce persecutor of Christians, chose to be depicted,” write Eurydice Georganteli and Barrie Cook in their short 2006 history for the British Museum and Barber Institute, Encounters. Dressed as a Byzantine emperor, Omurtag carries both an akakia – a roll of cloth holding dust and symbolizing man’s mortality – and a sceptre topped with of all things a cross!
Symbols still matter on money today. Witness Argentina’s latest 100-Peso note, marking the 60th anniversary of Eva Peron’s death, and unveiled by the would-be modern Evita – facing economic unrest and protests of her own – President Cristina Fernandez. Or look at the Scottish £10 note, issued this May by the British taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Great Britain’s Elizabeth II. That was no small gesture after Edinburgh’s devolved government had in January set the date for a national poll on Scots independence as autumn 2014, the 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce’s famous victory over the English monarchy at Bannockburn.
“The right to coin money has always been and still remains the surest mark and announcement of sovereignty,” wrote 19th-century numismatist Alexander Del Mar. Unreliable he may be on details, but Del Mar had studied money and coinage from the earliest Roman examples, and in the sweep of history his conclusions still stand. Modern scholars can’t stress enough the link between political power and money either, as we saw last week. Yet barely a decade ago, “The Euro was launched as a ‘currency without a state’ to preserve the sovereignty and diversity of member countries,” says the European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi. And a currency without a sovereign was unlikely to avoid trouble for long. Much less a currency desperate to avoid upsetting the sovereign pretensions of its member states.
Yes, the Euro’s small change can carry a face or an animal — a concession from Frankfurt and Brussels to the Eurozone’s 17 nations which all too loudly echoes Emperor Justinian I’s edict of the mid-sixth century to his subject princes. Austria, Belgium, Cyprus and the rest may mint coins – today’s silver and bronze — but not the higher value banknotes. Coin can only be produced within agreed limits too, as set by the European Central Bank, and with a national design on one side only.
So here is Austrian pacifist Bertha von Suttner, King Albert of Belgium, or Zeus abducting Europa on Greece’s cents and €2 pieces. But on the other side is always one of three maps of the wider Eurozone, variously showing “Europe in relation to the rest of the world…the Union as a group of ‘individual’ nations [...or] the same group of nations integrated into a whole.”
Never mind that odd use of quote marks around ‘individual’. Because on any unit worth €5 or more, all national marks are barred anyway outside the serial number, printed on the back. That puts the commissioning nation’s “sovereign” status about on a par with the banknote’s printers, who also get a unique identifier – a code of their own inside a star. So look closely and here is an “N” for Austria, a “Z” for Belgium, a “V” for Spain. The Hapsburgs are nowhere.
Today’s emperor-bureaucrat Mario Draghi at least gets his signature onto the notes. Proclaiming “The future of the euro: stability through change” in Die Zeit today, Draghi is at pains to repeat how fixing the Eurozone crisis “does not require a political union first…We do not need a centralization of all economic policies.” Yet for fiscal policy, Draghi adds straight after, “we need true oversight over national budgets.” Which sounds like a plain loss of national sovereignty to English ears. No doubt Scots feel the same. And whatever Greece, Spain, Ireland or Portugal might make of the Euro’s symbols today, all too often bridges and windows are what people jump from when they just can’t take any more.