In the second part of his series focussing on the gold coins of Europe, Sebastian Wieschowski examines Greece’s royal and fiscal history, and reveals how the country’s financial instability meant few gold pieces were ever produced
In our ongoing series on famous gold coins, we look at Greece’s seemingly unorthodox approach to gold coinage
The life of Christian Vilhelm Ferdinand Adolf Georg, born in Copenhagen in 1845, is full of surprises. The boy was modestly educated and headed towards a solid officer career. Although his family belonged to the aristocratic house of Schleswig-HolsteinSonderburg-Glücksburg, the
Danish crown was, until 1863, in the hands of the House Oldenburg.
Because King Frederick VII remained childless, however, it had already been decreed that the Danish crown should be passed on to the house of Schleswig-HolsteinSonderburg-Glücksburg. Christian’s son William started to support his father’s move towards the monarchy, but it was actually the future king’s son who wore a royal crown first. Two weeks before his father became Christian IX of Denmark, on 30 October 1863, the eighteen-year-old William was appointed king… in the Greek capital of Athens.
The Greeks already had experience of royal ‘guest workers’; shortly after the founding of the kingdom, when the first head of state was murdered, and no suitable successor could be found, the European powers decided that it was best for Greece to be governed by an experienced and professional prince from Europe.
The Greek National Assembly then hosted a royal casting, but one after another their preferred candidates refused: Leopold of SaxeCoburg-Saalfeld apparently had a better job in view and became the first king of Belgium in the same year. Even Prince Charles of Bavaria would not take over the task; he sent his nephew instead and in 1831 the sixteen-year-old Otto of Bavaria ascended the Greek throne.
After more than thirty years, the National Assembly in Athens went on a search for a new candidate after consultation with the major European powers. Prince William of Denmark was duly chosen. This time the Greeks gave their new royal a more Greek-sounding name; the Dane was thus called Geórgios. So Prince William of Denmark became King George of Greece.
This was only one of several details that were designed to please the Greek people. Thus George was proclaimed in 1864 as ‘King of the Hellenes’ and not as ‘King of Greece’ to underline his close relationship with the people. He even learned to speak Greek and often looked for direct contact to ordinary citizens. Sadly, this desire to be accessible to the public proved fatal when George was assassinated during a walk in Athens in 1913.
While King George was one of Europe’s longest-serving and most respected rulers, with a reign of almost fifty years, his country was already known for its political instability and fiscal tricks. The Greeks were called to the ballot boxes no fewer than 21 times during the reign of George, roughly every two years. Remarkably seventy different governments were in power between 1864 and 1910.
George, too, was unable to combat the unstable political situation, corruption and the inefficient bureaucracy within the new constitution, which he had decisively promoted. In 1893 there was even a national bankruptcy, which led to the Greek government’s finances being placed under international control.
In the decades before, Greece had earned a reputation for fiscal funny business. Although the country joined the Latin Monetary Union (LMU) in 1868, the Greeks issued mainly paper money instead of gold coins. The LMU did not officially prohibit this, since paper money was still in its infancy in the 19th century, but Greece defied the purpose of the Latin coinage because paper money and gold coins were de facto equal.
How serious Greece took its membership in the Latin Coinion can be very easily determined by the mintage figures of their gold coins issued during that period. The gold coins were issued with a face value of 20 drachmas only in 1877 (with only 37,000 pieces) and 1884 (with 550,000 pieces). Greek gold was therefore virtually absent in daily monetary transactions. The other member states protested, and after Greece had delivered its gold reserves as a result of the state bankruptcy, the country was excluded from the Monetary Union in 1907.