Just what do
those bridges and windows on Euro banknotes mean...?
So in trying
to match ancient Rome's monetary reach, the Euro is running pretty much
neck-and-neck with the almighty Dollar.
€898 billion of printed notes, plus €23bn in coin, were in
circulation at end-July 2012, says the European
Central Bank. By value, that just pipped the
amount of physical US Dollars in circulation - put by the Federal Reserve
at around $1.1 trillion. One third of those Euros took the form of €500
banknotes, the highest-value note now in circulation worldwide, and the
gangster's money of choice everywhere. But all told, the Eurozone's
population, together with the 6 other states now using the single currency,
still lags the official Dollar zone, 334 million to 339 million.
was such hairs-breadth distinctions that European Central Bank president
Mario Draghi had in mind when, on Wednesday - and
writing in Germany's
Die Zeit - he called the Euro "the
world's second-most important currency." Still, such wide-spread use
1,500 years ago was "a mark of the power of the Romans, which God has
given them," wrote ex-merchant, hermit and cartographer Cosmas Indicopleustes -
referring to the Byzantine empire, run from Constaninople.
"It is with
their nomisma [money] that every nation conducts
its commerce...It is acceptable in every place from one end of the earth to
Christendom's money today, there is no Christ Pantokrator.
On Eurozone banknotes, in fact, there isn't a human or even animal likeness
at all, whether "all powerful" or otherwise. No owl of Athens,
Prussian Eagle or Spanish lion. No monarch, president or other sovereign
leader, dead or alive. Because of course, this faceless monetary union
currently lacks a sovereign - historical or living - beyond the dry signature
of the European Central Bank chief himself.
symbol itself however, when decided in 1995, was chosen by the nearest thing
Europe had to a basileus. "The European
Commission organised an internal competition to
come up with the symbol," the EC explains.
"Some 30 drafts were considered - ten of which were tested on the public
- and the final design was selected from two short-listed proposals by the
then President of the Commission, Jacques Santer,
and Commissioner Yves Thibault de Silguy."
And its meaning? Inspired by the Greek letter epsilon, says
the EC, the Euro symbol "also stands for the first letter of the word
'Europe' in the Latin alphabet, while the two parallel lines running through
the symbol signify stability." Never mind that in economics, the Greek
letter epsilon is used to denote elasticity - or an error in statistics, an
empty string in computer science, or an arbitrarily small quantity in
calculus. Because lacking the emperor's image, the Euro's founders asserted
plenty of other meanings in their money, too.
right across the 17 nations of the 330-million citizen union - and issued
copyright the European Central Bank only - the seven denomination of Euro
banknote were apparently "inspired by the theme 'the ages and styles of
Europe' and depict the architectural styles from seven periods of Europe's
cultural history," says the ECB.
Not wishing to privilege (or ignore) any particular national monument or
building, however, none of the gateways and windows on the front, nor the
bridges on the back are real. Instead, they are "stylised
illustrations", explains the European Central Bank, "not images of,
or from, actual constructions." The Eurozone's money thus shows the form
of windows and bridges - meant to "symbolise
the European spirit of openness and cooperation...[and]
communication" - but not from any true example. How's that for Platonic
idealism? The model currency bears model images only, the form alone of
its chosen symbols.
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!
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
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.
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
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
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