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The following is collection of short articles on the history of money

"Monetary Episodes From History"

Author : Paul Tustain 

    Article Table of Contents:

  • The monetary cycle

  • Ionia - Riches without strength [700BC]
  • Sparta - Gold prohibition in a collapsing economy [600BC]
  • The Carthaginian national state lottery [450BC]
  • Byzantium - Early fiscal indiscipline [410BC]
  • Athens - Housing the Gods (on borrowed money) [500 - 300BC]
  • Rome - Monetary expansion & republican militarism [200BC]
  • Chinese credit derivatives after Genghis Khan [1200AD]
  • John Law - The Royal Bank of France [1716AD]
  • Why Sweden’s central banker was beheaded [1719AD]
  • The US greenback [1870AD]
  • The Weimar inflation in Germany [1923AD]
  • What can we learn ?
  • Gold at the junction of monetary systems
  • Gold as a money of choice 
  • Back to previous page

    Athens - 500 BC to 300 BC

    Ancient Athens eventually became a democracy (albeit one dependent on a large slave class) and showed some of the features of a modern democratic state. It was the cultural birthplace of modern western philosophy, culture and systems of government. It was also the creative powerhouse of Mediterranean antiquity, with change and ideas being embraced all around.

    It stood in stark contrast to the overlapping but slightly older civilization of Sparta. In some ways the two were a forerunner of the confrontation between modern capitalism and communism - with a dynamic and creative culture running in parallel with an austere neighbor with a tendency to collective approaches, unchanging institutions and severe treatment of dissenting individuals.

    Athens was developing maritime technologies, and building wealth by trading. Its empire - founded on a mix of trade and coercion - stretched to coastal regions all around the

    eastern Mediterranean, and militarily it had the best high tech capability of the day, which meant naval power. Sparta had the bigger army.

    Athens was further blessed with productive silver mines and a sufficiently progressive government that it was able to extract annual revenues from its empire back to the central Athenian core - ostensibly for defense. Through trade, silver mining and tribute its wealth became phenomenal.

    It spent this money in two main ways. The first was squabbling, which tended to boil over into wars - notably with Persia and later Sparta.  As with most disputes it was usual for both sides to end up weaker at the end, and because there were so many competing proto-empires in the region the typical result of any large scale dispute was the relegation of both combatants to second class imperial status. Certainly the costs of wars and defense was one of Athens' regular and major state expenditures.

    The other we are lucky enough still to be able to see. The enormous Athenian riches of the 5th century BC were spent in building the great public works of the time. There being no particular political pressure for welfare systems in those days, the surplus money was spent on public architecture. The objective was nothing less than to house the Gods, whose previous shrines and temples had been destroyed by Persians in 480 BC. Thanks to this we have the Parthenon and the other great buildings of the Acropolis.

    They were not cheap, and even at the time the degree of extravagance which they entailed encouraged considerable political criticism.

    Presiding over this rebuilding was Pericles. He was a second generation politician, being the son of the moderately significant Xanthippus. Pericles was a master of manipulating popular sentiment - what we would call now 'a great communicator' - and was around at the time when this skill could be used in earnest for the first time, to drive newly democratic Athens in particular directions.

    Although he found himself unable to include his then ally - Sparta - in his plans, he managed to generate enough popular support within his more immediate Athenian alliances to finance his ambitious building program, although he had to resort to demagoguery and even religious exhortation to do so. Indeed he may even have been operating what amounted to a deliberate economic stimulation package for Athens and was later accused of exactly this by one of the two principal sources of historical information on his life [Plutarch].

    At any rate he spent the money, and continued to become involved in occasional military disputes. He had a long and costly campaign to recover Samos, which had been an ally, but revolted in 440 BC. The campaign was eventually successful in its direct aims, but damaging to Athenian strategic alliances. Sparta - generally friendly to that point with Athens - might easily have got involved then on the Samos side, but stayed out.

    Pericles general policy "was one of firmness, coupled with careful manipulation of the diplomatic position to keep Athens technically in the right". He detected a looming war with Sparta which might never have happened were it not for his increasing the diplomatic temperature on key trade issues - notably concerning the region of Megara, which was strategically important for food supplies and whose trade was substantially embargoed by Athens.  After military coercion most of Megara was placed under Athenian 'defensive assistance'. This transparent expansionism was not welcomed by Sparta.

    Although he saw war as inevitable well before it came, and made financial plans to accommodate it, Pericles underestimated its likely length and cost. The Peloponnesian war finally broke out in 429 BC and lasted for 27 years. He saw very little of it, dying in its second year of a plague which swept through Athens killing large numbers of the population.

    The eventual monetary consequences of this war were slow to materialize, because at its start Athens was rich in silver and gold, which circulated as money. These large metallic resources were used to pay garrison soldiers, who were on foreign territory and whose purchases from foreign populations required commodity money rather than any Athenian representative currency with no obvious value in its government guarantee.

    By 407 BC the metallic pot was more or less empty and Athenian domestic currency had to be debased - incorporating significant amounts of copper. It was assigned a face value well above the commodity worth of the modest amount of included gold. It was further debased in 405 BC to highly overvalued copper discs which circulated concurrently with the older gold and silver based coinage, because even at this stage the state still held the population's monetary trust.

    But a year after this debasement the 27 year war was finally lost. The inability of Athens any longer to pay her occupied populations for supplies with a form of money they would accept, or to offer worthwhile financial incentives to her allies, contributed to this loss. The result was the complete valuelessness of the increasingly copper based currency which had appeared in the final three years of the war - once the real money ran out.

    Athenians were now perhaps used to a representative money. In the 50 years following the end of the Peloponnesian war a relatively steady state allowed the re-appearance of copper discs as money, and these were officially redeemable in silver. This was perhaps the finest period of ancient Greek culture - being the time of Demosthenes, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. For all the appearance of easy wealth which these Greeks must have enjoyed there is no record of the copper money ever being redeemed.

    The eventual effect of prolonged war was the impoverishment of the state and after those 50 years of further prosperity - a time of essentially notional but nonetheless trusted money - Athenian political and military dominance of the region ended. A rough and ready people immediately to the north, the Macedonians, were regarded as rather backward by Athens at its height, but their king Philip was militarily and politically shrewd, and he had access to gold mines. This gave him the ability to pay a Macedonian army on the march, so he steadily encroached southwards into Athenian areas, beating them in battle in 338 BC, and subsequently imposing relatively benign terms for peace.

    The Greeks rose up from this temporarily but were thoroughly and finally subjugated by Philip's son, Alexander the Great, who went on to conquer half the known world before his death at the age of 32.

    The legacy of both Philip's and Alexander's enormous military success was colossal debt. Their imperial achievements were short lived in part because of this. 

    Athenian money meanwhile had defined a pattern which was to repeat in other empires which were to follow:- dominance of trade; influx of gold to balance exports; public wealth; liberty; overconfidence; the discovery of loosely managed money as a stimulating solution to stagnation in an economy near its zenith; an ongoing success born of cultural momentum and monetary expansion which was to persist for decades before finally the emptiness of the monetary promise was exposed, leading to rapid national collapse.

    The Roman Republic - 385 BC to 207 BC

    The Roman Republic was the intelligent beneficiary of monetary accidents which befell so many of its forebears. Unquestionably the Romans learnt from the experience of others.

    Their money was entirely representative. It was copper and issued with a face value of about 3 times its commodity value. It was carefully made using the innovation of striking, rather than casting, and the dies used were of the highest quality and artistic complexity. They were extremely difficult to forge and the penalties were heavy.

    Furthermore the monopoly on coin fabrication was jealously guarded by the state, and the extent to which coins remained overvalued was supported by disciplined fiscal government. The Romans were probably the first to obey their own monetary laws limiting the supply of coins.

    As a result for 178 years there is no evidence of demonetization. On the contrary. As the population and economy increased the money - strictly limited in supply - increased in value too.

    The Romans had come to understand the danger of monetary over-issuance. An example of nearly contemporary Roman writing on the subject shows an analysis which Milton Freidman (a famous 20th century monetarist) would have been hard pressed to


    "The origin of buying and selling began with exchange. Anciently money was unknown, and there existed no terms by which merchandise could be precisely valued, but every one, according to the wants of the time and circumstances, exchanged things useless to him, against things which were useful; for it commonly happens that one is in need of what another has in excess. But, as it seldom coincided in time that what one possessed the other wanted, or conversely, a device was chosen, whose legal and permanent value remedied, by its homogeneity, the difficulties of barter. This device - being officially promulgated - circulated and maintained its purchasing power not so much from its substance, as from its quantity. Since that time only one consideration in an exchange was called merchandise, the other is called price." Julius Paulus

    However the result of strict Roman monetary discipline was a perennial shortage of capital, and a tendency not to put what there was into economically productive use. By law the patrician class was prevented from investing in straightforward commercial enterprises, and instead they were involved in primarily civil projects, which contributed to the grandeur of Rome. As a result the economy lagged the political and civic development of the republic, and there were hostilities which broke out periodically between the patrician and plebeian classes. The Romans discovered a social side to monetary policy, namely that the inequitable wealth distribution which arises when money supply is too tight tends to produce social unrest.

    In the end it was not social unrest which undermined the monetary system of the Roman Republic. It was Hannibal. In the legendary campaign in which he traveled, with his elephants, from Carthage in North Africa, through silver rich Spain and across the Alps, he threatened Rome from the north.

    Hannibal took control of the Roman copper mines in what is now Tuscany in northern Italy, and overran many cities where the Roman currency circulated. It became valueless under him. Ahead of his advancing army swathes of the peasant population retreated to Rome itself, where the Romans were forced to issue underweight and overvalued coinage, even more so to finance the massive military effort which was required to repulse the enemy. Even though Hannibal never did take Rome the threat of the implosion of the Roman state irrevocably undermined the money.

    What came out afterwards was a very different Rome. It was necessarily more militarist, and expansionist (which it had to be to sustain its militarism) and within 100 years its republican politics had subsided into what was effectively dictatorship.

    Nevertheless the republic's original money system lasted "for nearly two centuries, during which all that was admirable of Roman civilization saw its origin, its growth and its maturity. When the system fell Rome had lost its liberties. The state was to grow yet more powerful and dreaded, but that state and its people were no longer one."  Del Mar

    Chinese paper money under Kublai Khan - About 1200 AD ....................  (Click here to continue to next page) 

    Pages: 1 2  -  3  -  4  -  5  -  6  -  7    


    Copyright  © 2004 Paul Tustain

     Reprinted with permission and thanks to source-


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