Asia Minor, Bilbo, Bronze, Chinese, Coinage, Currency, Deagol, Egyptians, Germanic, Gondor, Greeks, Isengard, Italy, Middle-earth, Moria, Pennies, Rohan, Roman Coins, Roman Roads, Romans, Saruman, Shire, Silver, Smeagol, Sumerians, Theodric, Tolkien, Trade, Treasure
Welcome, as always!
We recently wrote about Saruman and his pipeweed trade along the North-South and Great East Roads, and concluded that those roads reminded us of Roman Roads. Looking at road networks from both Rome and Middle-earth, we see both as just that, networks, lines of communication which travel to and from central points.
The roads of Middle-earth don’t appear to be so elaborately constructed and paved, of course, but then, at least for many centuries before The Lord of the Rings, there had been no central authority to maintain the system.
Although the idea of a Roman road—especially one that is incomplete or ruinous–
gives us a similar image.
But there’s still something missing—Saruman has roads and connections, but how would he have paid for the pipeweed? He could have used a barter system, although that would mean understanding what it would be that he might use—raw material from the mountains? Some sort of manufactured goods made at Isengard? This could certainly be so, if we’re thinking of Middle-earth as a place set in pre-currency times, such as the Sumerians and the Egyptians, who managed their extensive trade just fine without a single coin.
And we could just leave it at that, but then there’s a clue in the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring which suggests that the actual commercial system is based upon currency.
“When the old man, helped by Bilbo and some dwarves, had finished unloading, Bilbo gave a few pennies away…” LOTR 25
Bilbo is rumored to have treasure hidden away in his hobbit-hole, with much speculation from all,
“’There’s a tidy bit of money tucked away up there, I hear tell,’ said a stranger… ‘All the top of your hill is full of tunnels packed with chests of gold and silver…’” LOTR 23
And the Shire isn’t the only place where pennies are used—when Sam wants to purchase Bill the pony in Bree,
“Bill Ferny’s price was twelve silver pennies; and that was indeed at least three times the pony’s value in those parts.” LOTR 175
This indicates a standard value based upon that currency, which one assumes was universal (with a tone in the text which implies that everyone might share that opinion), and old enough that it was the accepted modus for buying and selling. As Tolkien himself once wrote:
“I am not incapable or unaware of economic thought; and I think as far as the ‘mortals’ go, Men, Hobbits, and Dwarfs, that the situations are so devised that economic likelihood is there and can be worked out…” LT, L.154 P.196.
Thus, although he was clearly aware of such economic transactions, he didn’t need them for a plot and Merry and Pippin’s food and drink–and smoke–are simply there–with the implication that Saruman’s reach is longer than anyone has assumed.
In fact, there are very few scenes where money is needed at all—the Prancing Pony is the only inn they come across on the road, and the Fellowship otherwise camps out until they are taken in at Lorien, Edoras, and Gondor, and a guest/host relationship becomes a major part of the story. We’ve actually even seen this sort of thing near the very beginning of the story, when Frodo becomes Elf-friend to Gildor, and is awarded provisions (and a hearty breakfast) for their journey.
We have only a little knowledge of the commercial world of Middle Earth, as you can see, and no description of “pennies”, except that some are silver. What might they have looked like? In our earlier essays, we’ve used parallels from the history of our earth, just as JRRT might used road systems which could easily have been influenced by the Roman roads which once connected so much of Britain, to build the roads in Middle-earth. Some of those Roman roads, even in his time, were still visible–some even still used (although usually paved over).
Using our parallel method, we turn to Roman coinage.
We’re dealing with silver coinage in northwest Middle-earth, where Saruman’s imports come from, and if we’re thinking about Rome, we’d be looking at a time where coinage had already existed. We have no idea when coins were first issued in Middle Earth–considering how complexly organized the North and South Kingdoms had been for many centuries, we would imagine that a thousand years before the events of The Lord of the Rings probably wouldn’t be too soon. We have a small piece of evidence from some five hundred years before, when Deagol says to Smeagol:
“’I don’t care,’ said Déagol, ‘I have given you a present already, more than I could afford.’” LOTR, 52
In Rome, silver coinage was introduced in 269 BC, courtesy of the Greeks, after the Romans had been using bronze.
Coins originated in Asia Minor in the 6th c. BC and quickly caught on, being a convenient and highly portable way of transporting wealth—it was much easier to carry and design to designate between currencies, and the Chinese even began to manufacture coins which could be strung together.
In Middle-earth, this would make it easier to trade beyond the borders of a local market, or even the Shire–and would certainly have been accepted at The Prancing Pony.
All of this leads, however, to Questions for Further Study, as textbooks often say. Currency needs backing—the Roman republic and then the empire backed Roman coins. What backed those pennies in the Shire and beyond?Imagine that, in Middle-earth, the major legitimate government was Gondor—would these pennies have been originally Gondor-issued? If so, perhaps just what happened to Roman currency in late imperial times might have happened in Middle-earth—as Rome began to fall apart, semi-independent governments began to issue coins on their own, such as Theodric, the Germanic ruler of Northeastern Italy:
Visually, they remind us–and they were certainly intended to–of imperial coins, with their images of Roman emperors. Theodoric, even with his unusual hairstyle, meant to be seen as a new ruler for an old Rome. Can we imagine dwarf coins, perhaps issued from the Moria mint? And, when we remember that Mordor has tried to acquire horses from Rohan, what would Mordorian currency have looked like? And, returning to Saruman for a final time—if he paid for pipeweed in coins, did they bear a white hand?
Thanks, as ever, for reading,