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The Crime of Diogenes


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© Copyright 1998 by Michael E. Marotta

[This article originally appeared in the May 1999 issue of The Celator.]


In mid-300s BCE, the two most famous men of the Greek world were Alexander of Macedonia and Diogenes of Sinope. Alexander ruled the world. Diogenes lived like a dog. "If I could not be Alexander," said the Macedonian, "I would want to be Diogenes." For all of his fame in his own day, we have only second-hand accounts of the life of Diogenes and many of them contradict each other. All historians agree that Diogenes came to Athens in the wake of some crime against the coinage of Sinope.


In 400 BC, Sinope was the most prosperous city on the Black Sea. As in other Greek towns, the assembly chose the public officials, including the mintmaster. In the broadest terms, either Diogenes or his father was convicted of tampering with the coinage. However, just which crooked path either man took is not clear to us today.


Bertrand Russell, in A History of Western Philosophy, called Diogenes "the son of a disreputable money-changer who had been sent to prison for defacing the coinage." According to the Encyclopedia Americana: "Diogenes is said to have gone to Athens as an exile with his father, when either his father or he himself was accused of counterfeiting or tampering in some other way with the currency of Sinope." In The Life of Greece, Will Durant called Diogenes "a bankrupt banker from Sinope." The citation in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that he was "... an eccentric tramp at Athens and Corinth, defacing the conventional human standards -- as he or his father, Hicesias, was supposed to have defaced in some way the currency of Sinope..." Yet another spin comes from the Encyclopedia Britannica Micropaedia: "Almost certainly forced into exile from Sinope with his father... He made it his mission to 'deface the currency,' perhaps meaning 'to put false coin out of circulation.' That is, he sought to expose the falsity of conventional standards and to call men back to a simple, natural life."


The most authoritative work is the Loeb Classic Library edition of the Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Written by another Diogenes, called Laertius, 400 years later, whose biographies were assembled from a wide variety of sources, some reliable, some not. According to the translator of Laertius, the crime of the earlier Diogenes was "adulterating the coinage." Laertius allowed that Diogenes may have conspired with the workers in the mint to "alter the political currency" or to "adulterate the state coinage." Another story from ancient times is that Diogenes' father entrusted him with the money and he debased it, causing his father to be imprisoned.


Is there any way to reconcile these accounts? Suppose that Diogenes adulterated the silver bullion from which the coins were made. As an elected official, he would have no more access to the mint than our own Secretary of the Treasury. Therefore, he would need the help of at least some mint workers. To cover his tracks, as the mintmaster, he could then make a test cut on each debased coin. The test cut would be taken by most people as showing the coin to be genuine.

Another way to approach the matter is to look at the specific wording of the source documents. Where the translator says "adulterate" the Greek word is "parachaksas". In modern Greek this is understood to mean "forge" in the sense of "fake" or "counterfeit."


However, we need to appreciate the sense of it in the context of the ancient world. There is a cliché: "The Greeks have a word for it." The ancient Greeks, living in changing times, took delight in making up new words. They attached prepositions to roots and they stuck roots together to form compound words. We can do both in English, as well, and we often use Greek (or Latin) when we do. We know "para" from paradox, paraphrase, and parasol. The root "charaks" means cut or dig and appears in our word "character." The ancient Greek word "para-charaksas" could have meant "deface" or even "counterstamp." The Anglo-French word "counterfeit" could be considered as a direct translation of "paracharaksas."


Philosophers and historians, with their own domains of special study, do not necessarily share our numismatic expertise. For academics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the very act of "defacing" coins may have seemed criminal. They did not belabor the differences among counterfeiting, defacing, and debasing.

The matter is more than a detail in the life of Diogenes of Sinope. Consider that we are also unsure of what he slept in. Some say it was a washtub; others say a barrel; some say a huge jug or crock. The difference between these two problems is that Diogenes is recorded to have said that he came to Athens to "deface the coinage" (or "debase the coinage"). No one claims that he came to Athens specifically to sleep in a washtub. Almost all writers, no matter how far their accounts drift from the record, admit that he came to Athens in the wake of some problem with the coins of Sinope.


Just what that problem was remains uncertain. We do have some tantalizing evidence, perhaps. The British Museum and the Danish Museum are not alone in cataloguing coins from Sinope signed DIO and with a test cut on the obverse. I acquired just such a coin and sent it to the American Numismatic Association’s Authentication Bureau for a determination of the specific gravity. My specimen's specific gravity was measured to be 10.32, which is about the same as an alloy of 90% silver and 10% copper. We accept this as normal coin silver today.


However, in the ancient world, silver coins were nominally pure. Was this coin purposely debased by Diogenes the Cynic when he served as the town moneyer? It is tempting to give in to the desire to believe. It is also just as tempting to remain cynical.



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