Coin of the Moment
The Euro - a new idea?
On 1 January 2002, the euro, the new European single currency, was introduced in twelve countries of the European Union. From Brussels to Athens, and Lisbon to Helsinki, some 300 million people are now using the same currency. The Eurozone countries share the same banknotes, but each has coins with its own national design on the reverse. For example, the Belgian euros and cents show King Albert II (see below). To find out more about the euro, visit the European Central Bank website, which has pictures of all the coins and banknotes.
A new idea?
But the euro is far from being the first or only single currency in Europe's history. Its most recent predecessor is the Latin Monetary Union, formed by France, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland in 1865, which, at its height, had 35 member and associated countries. The coins of each country were of the same weight, fineness and diameter. This 5 franc piece was minted in the Paris commune in 1871. Coins from the other countries belonging to the union were accepted in each country. The monetary union lasted effectively until the First World War.
The Middle Ages
An even older single currency goes back to the early middle ages, and the Carolingian empire. Under Charlemagne (768-814), the Frankish empire extended from Barcelona to the Danish border, and from Brittany to Rome and Pannonia (in the modern day Balkans). Among Charlemagne's achievements was the creation of a single currency for his vast empire: silver pennies of the same weight and design were minted throughout the empire. This is a unique penny from the port of Quentovic in Northern France. The ship design of the reverse shows that it was struck at a port.
Why a single currency?
Why did Charlemagne do this? Firstly, the single currency helped to facilitate trade and the collection of taxes within the empire. Important trading partners such as the Venetians and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England also adopted Carolingian-style coins, to ease trade with the Carolingian empire, the largest power in Western Europe. In the same way today, many small European states with close ties to the European Union are adopting the euro as their currency, for example Andorra, the Vatican City and Montenegro.
But Charlemagne was also inspired by the Roman empire, which created the original single European currency. Though some Eastern parts of the Roman empire had local currencies, there was one unified monetary system for the entire Roman empire. The Carolingians were inspired by the Roman empire in many ways: look for example at Charlemagne's portrait on the obverse of this coin, with its Roman-style bust and imperial laurel wreath. Modern ruler portraits, such as that of King Albert II of Belgium on the euro, are also ultimately inspired by Roman images.
Can the history of these other single currencies help predict the fortunes of the euro? Both the unified Carolingian coinage and the Latin Monetary Union lasted some fifty or sixty years. The Roman coinage, however, had a far longer history, surviving for some five hundred years, before evolving into medieval Western and Byzantine coinages. In each case, changing political circumstances, even more than economic factors, led to the end of these former single currencies.