Although iron currency has been regarded as primitive for 2,000 years, it survived into the modern period. Iron spits circulated as money in Greece before the advent of silver currency, and Sparta remained on an iron currency standard throughout the golden age of Greece. Sparta’s iron currency was deliberately intended to make the accumulation of monetary wealth awkward.
Julius Caesar’s writing, Gallic Wars, mentions an iron currency in Britain. Unfortunately, the texts of the various manuscripts of Caesar’s work are not consistent, and scholars have split on the meaning of the text, some claiming the iron currency was iron rings and others that it was iron bars. Archeological evidence seems to have decided the issue in favor of iron bars. No iron rings have been found from that time period but other iron objects, including iron bars, have been discovered. These iron bars were apparently unfinished sword blades.
The monetary unit for this currency seems to have been about 11 ounces of iron. Some pieces weighed as little as one-quarter of the standard unit, and others as much as four units. It is possible that the value of the bars was determined by length rather than weight.
During the nineteenth century iron bars were circulating as money in the Congo. Europeans complained about the high transportation cost of these bars. Apparently, it took one man to carry just 8 shillings’ worth of money. The iron bars came in lengths of one foot and were extremely heavy. One of the Congo tribes, the Bakongo, were particularly noted for coveting these iron bars.
Iron hoes have circulated as money in regions of India, Africa, and Indochina. Iron hoes were the smallest monetary unit in the Bahnars at one time. During the nineteenth century, iron, mainly in the shape of hoes, circulated in the remote areas of Sudan. The Chiga of western Uganda made hoes their unit of account without making use of them as a medium of exchange or store of value. In Portuguese East Africa a hoe standard replaced a cattle standard, and some hoes circulated only as currency and were never used as agricultural implements. In the French Congo, iron bars, shovels, hoes, blades, and iron double bells played the role of currency. In mid-nineteenth-century Nigeria, 40 iron hoes could buy a slave.
Iron is not as immune to the elements as the precious metals and does not have the same aesthetic appeal. It does not seem to have had religious significance, such as did silver and gold. Nevertheless, it is a very practical metal, making it attractive as money in societies that have not mastered metallurgy to the same extent as the industrially developed societies.