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Young Reader's World

Tales of a Thaler

“Did we make a mistake? The date on these new coins is 1780, but today is more than 200 years after that. What’s going on?”

For a moment, the worker watching the shining coins leave the press at the Austrian Mint in Vienna had forgotten these coins were Maria Theresa thalers, and that since 1780 they had been minted with that very date. More than 13,000 were struck in the 2002 run in question, and they were about to be packaged and sent to banks in Austria and Germany, as well as to overseas coin dealers.

Empress Maria Theresa, after whom one of the world’s most famous coins is named, reigned over the Hapsburg Empire for 40 years. She inherited her rule when her father died in 1740, and she was just 23. The first thaler bearing her image was minted in 1741; all those produced since she died in 1780 have continued to bear that date.
Martin Meytens/Art Resource
Empress Maria Theresa, after whom one of the world’s most famous coins is named, reigned over the Hapsburg Empire for 40 years. She inherited her rule when her father died in 1740, and she was just 23. The first thaler bearing her image was minted in 1741; all those produced since she died in 1780 have continued to bear that date.

The Maria Theresa thaler (pronounced tah-ler) is known to coin collectors and scholars simply as the MTT. Its design, luster and fine detail have earned it a reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful coins. Arabs have called it abu nuqta ("the one with the dots"), abu tayr ("the one with birds") and abu reesh ("the one with feathers"), all references to features of its intricate design. However, it is only the name riyal nimsawi ("Austrian riyal") that referred both to the coin's true origin and to the fact that rather than the thaler or dollar the Arabs preferred the term riyalfrom the Spanish silver real coin.

That coin was first struck in Spain in the 15th century. By the beginning of the 19th century, however, the MTT had surpassed it as one of the most widely circulated coins around the globe. Passed from hand to hand by traders, it spread across the eastern Mediterranean into Arabia, down both shores of the Red Sea and the coast of East Africa and to the islands of Zanzibar and Madagascar. It crossed the Sahara and traveled as far east as China. To the west, it sailed across the Atlantic and was known, though not as widely used, in North and South America. In countries that had originally no currency of their own, such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Ethiopia, the thaler survived well into the last century―as late as 1970 in Muscat and Oman.

Look at the letters imprinted along the rim of this Maria Theresa thaler. They spell the Latin word clementia and were part of Empress Maria Theresa’s motto, IUSTICIA ET CLEMENTIA (“justice and clemency”), which appeared on the rim.
Barry Fantich/Courtesy of Clara Semple
Look at the letters imprinted along the rim of this Maria Theresa thaler. They spell the Latin word clementia and were part of Empress Maria Theresa’s motto, IUSTICIA ET CLEMENTIA (“justice and clemency”), which appeared on the rim.

The origin of the term thaler goes back to the 16th century and the opening of silver mines at St. Joachimsthal in Bohemia. The ruling Habsburgs granted the Counts of Schlick, who governed the area, the right to mint coins in their own names. Their large silver coins became known as thalers (also spelled taler), short for Joachims-thaler, "the ones from the St. Joachim valley." The Dutch then picked up the word and called their silver coins daalder, which English-speakers adapted to "dollar." Meanwhile, thaler became a general term to describe any large silver coin.

In 1740, twenty-three-year-old Maria Theresa succeeded her father on the Hapsburg throne. In 1745 she arranged for the election of her husband, Prince Francis Stephen of Lorraine, as Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, and took the title of empress. Thereafter, Maria Theresa's thalers carried the inscription IMP MARIA THERESIA along with some of her other royal titles. IMP was short for imperatrix, Latin for “empress.”

Maria Theresa reigned over the Habsburg Empire from Vienna for 40 years. At the outset hers was a daunting inheritance, especially as the state treasury was empty. To help implement reforms, she picked the ablest of men.

1765 MMT
1780 MMT
Martin Meytens/Art Resource
Some details of the MMT never change: Each weighs 29 grams (.99 oz), has a diameter of 39.5 millimeters (1.55”), a silver content of 833.3 parts per thousand, and a portrait of the empress wearing a diamond-studded tiara and a pearl pin on her right shoulder. Other details do change. Can you see the difference between the double chin in the 1765 coin from the Günzberg mint (top: front and reverse) and the 1780 coin (above: front and reverse)? Also, on the 1780 coin (actually minted in 2000), a veil has been added atop Maria Theresa’s head. She adopted the style after her husband died in 1765.

The abbreviated Latin inscription circling the portrait of Maria Theresa on the 1780 coin reads: M[ARIA] THERESIA D[EI] G[RATIA] R[ROMANORUM] IMP[ERATRIX] HUN[UNGARIAE] BO[HEMIAE] REG[INA] (“Maria Theresa by the grace of God Roman Empress, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia”). The letters “S.F.” are the initials of the family names of the two high-ranking officials at the Günzberg mint in 1780.

The reverse side of the 1780 coin shows a crown atop a double-headed eagle whose shield displays the arms of Hungry, Bohemia, Burgundy and Burgau. Take a closer look at the reverse of the 1765 coin. Its design is much more complex.

The inscription on the reverse of both coins is also in abbreviated Latin: ARCHID[UX] AUS[TRIAE] DUX BURG[UNDIAE] CO[MES] TYR[OLIS](“Archduchess of Austria, Duchess of Burgundy, Countess of Tyrol”). The letter “X” tells all that the coin is officially the correct weight.

One was her treasury head, who promoted use of the MTT abroad. From its first striking in 1741, there were many versions, including half-thalers and smaller denominations. However, it was the full thaler coin that, at the insistence of the empress, was minted to the highest standards of design and with strict control of its silver content. In 1753 she signed one of the first European coinage conventions, a treaty with Bavaria that defined the silver content of the thaler and other coins and set exchange rates. As a result, the MTT won trust and soon became a major export.

Empress Maria Theresa died in 1780, and that is the date that MTTs have carried since. The coins made their way to the Middle East aboard merchant ships, along with European trade items. From trading centers like Suez, Jiddah, Suakin, Mokka and Massawa they traveled farther, to the interior of Africa and Arabia and even to India, China and Southeast Asia. Muslim pilgrims used them, an internationally recognized currency, when traveling to and from the holy places in Makkah and Madinah.

The MTT filled a need. Europe wanted the vast and exotic resources that the Middle East offered: spices, aromatics, coffee, gum Arabic, indigo, mother of pearl, tortoise shells, ostrich feathers, Arabian horses and more. And Asia and the Arab world wanted silver, which was used in a variety of ways, including dowry payments and jewelry.

The widespread use and the monetary value of the MTT made it as valuable in war as in trade. For example, in 1867 a British expedition took 30,000 soldiers from India into the highlands of Ethiopia to rescue the British consul and others taken hostage. The expedition needed money for supplies. Since the accepted currency at the time was the MTT, “an urgent dispatch was sent to the mint in Vienna,” says Clara Semple, who has written a book about the coin. Soon after that, five million MTTs “were carried on the backs of thousands of mules, horses and elephants, along with munitions and supplies.”

The MMT reached the Arabian Peninsula only a decade after it was first coined in Vienna, coming into the hands of coffee merchants in Aden and Mokka who supplied buyers in Austria. Greek, Levantine, Turkish, Jewish and Armenian merchants also took thalers on their journeys to trading centers like Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt, Tripoli in Libya, and Tunis and Algiers. The links maintained by Arab merchants extended from these centers south across the Sahara and into Arabia, Ethiopia and Sudan.

The Ottomans, who ruled much of the Middle East from their capital in Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) in Turkey, encouraged the use of their own silver coinage, the mejidiye, but it was generally regarded as inferior to the MTT. Since soldiers and others in Ottoman service continued to receive payments in mejidiye by weight rather than by count, damaged coins were still acceptable. This practice, as well as a shortage of coins, lowered the value of the currency. As Ottoman debt increased, their mints decreased the silver content of the coins, further devaluing the coin’s worth.

By the mid-1800s, the Maria Theresa thaler had become the monetary standard in the Eastern Mediterranean, where its size and weight earned yet another nickname, riyal kabir, the "big riyal." Well-made and always in good supply, the MMT had unusual edging that prevented clipping, a technique used by those who trimmed and shaved silver from coin edges for resale. After huge silver deposits were discovered in Nevada in 1859, governments gradually offloaded silver, preferring gold as a monetary standard.

Peter Harrigan
An artisan incorporated these MTTs into this piece of jewelry—but a quick look at the noses and chins of the portraits of Maria Theresa tells you they are fakes.

The second half of the 19th century was also a time when colonial powers sought to strengthen their interests. This included introducing their own currencies, which often meant limiting use of the MTT.

For Adrian Tschoegl, a specialist in international banking and finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, what makes the MTT unique is how long it was in circulation and the extent of its use. "It succeeded and survived not because it changed but rather because it did not," he says, arguing that the fall of the MTT was caused by the rise of the modern state with its national money, and the fact that states were able to require their citizens to use domestic currency.

Although the MTT is not widely known today, the transnational concept it represents on the rise. Take the Euro, the money used almost everywhere in Europe that was launched in 1999, for example. And the Arab states of the Gulf region agreed to establish a single currency in 2001. Although that has not happened yet, it will, like the thaler, circulate as transnational money―but it will be Arabian money this time.

For now, however, the MTT stands out as perhaps the world's best example of a truly international money.

Click here to view the original article (This article appeared on pages 14-23 of the January/February 2003 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.)

Peter Harrigan ([email protected]) worked with Saudi Arabian Airlines in Jiddah, where he was also contributing editor and columnist for Diwaniya, the weekly cultural supplement of the Saudi Gazette.

Thanks to Clara Semple ([email protected]) for her assistance in researching this article. Her book, A Silver Legend: The Story of the Maria Theresa Thaler, was published in 2007 by Barzan.

Thanks also to Walter Hafner, author of the definitive Lexicon of the 1780 Maria Theresa Thaler (Vienna, 1984).


This lesson correlates to the following national standards for world history and language arts, established by MCREL at http://www.mcrel.org/: