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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 
  • The monetary cycle

    There is no permanent ideal basis for a monetary system.  The optimal solution is cyclical because it depends on economic conditions. 

    Token money systems are best when there is useful productive work to be done, because it is easier to arrange a supply of capital to get such projects underway. Conversely gold is best when getting projects underway should be avoided because of the poor economic outlook.  Gold's limited supply rations capital.  It cannot expand into all the crackpot schemes and phantom opportunities offered by an advanced but creaking economy.

    Because the ideal money system is cyclical any attempt to resolve it once-and-for-all will fail.  Working systems are destined to continue oscillating - expanding and contracting, succeeding and failing. 

    The easiest way to get a flavour of them - and the position of gold within them - is to look back through a variety of episodes in the history of money.

    Alexander Del Mar

    A fine "History of Monetary Systems" was written by Alexander Del Mar in 1886. The book was important enough to still be in print in 1983, and it is equally telling that for 20 years it has not sold.

    It describes countless varieties of token - or 'numerary' - money systems involving paper money, silk money, copper money, iron money, rice money, mystery leather bag money, fish money, clay money, porcelain money and many others.

    Del Mar was an apparently rigorous historian who was distinctly hostile to a central monetary role for gold.

    "Gold standard ... double standard ... are terms derived from the legislation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when ... private individuals were permitted to coin money, or, what is the same thing, they were accorded the right to require the government to turn their bullion into money, free of taxation, loss, or expense. This idiotic legislation ... deprived government of that control over money ... necessary for the maintenance of opportunities to facilitate a just distribution of wealth."

    His arguments for state controlled money are lucid and founded upon historical

    observation. But even then, if any words appear throughout the length of his history with close to the same regularity as 'numerary' then those words are "gold" and "silver". The regularity of the cyclical re-appearance of the precious metals as money is an established monetary fact, diligently documented by someone who would rather it was not so.

    Substantially drawn from Del Mar's book the following are examples which illustrate some of the variety of revolutions of the cycle through episodes of representative money to precious metals and back again.  In places they seem comical now, but they were not meant to be.  In fact more striking than the absurdity of 'mystery leather bags' is how similar are the monetary issues of today, and how closely we have mimicked the ancient solutions.

    Ionian iron coinage - About 700 BC - modern day western Turkey

    This ancient Greek state's money was described by Aristotle. It seems to have been an early attempt, centered on Clazomenae, one of the 12 Ionic cities, at a wholly representative (numerary) money system. It consisted of iron discs which were stamped rather roughly by the state and deemed to pass as value for gold (or possibly silver).

    The important point of this early attempt is that it showed the necessity of using advanced technologies in the manufacture of money. The iron discs were widely faked - frequently overseas. And as there was a facility for redemption in gold that is what increasingly happened, causing iron to fall out of favour and gold to return as the currency.

    Ionia was a successful maritime trading civilization and steadily built a great national inventory of gold - which ultimately showed one of the disadvantages of owning too much of the stuff in a world where not all states can share. Through its riches Ionia became a target, and Croesus (still idiomatically famous for the colossal wealth he acquired - much of it militarily) invaded successfully from the east.

    The Ionian system shows a representative money being corrupted by counterfeiting, and supplanted by gold, with the gold system being plundered by a neighbouring state.  Both of these fates have befallen monetary systems many times since.

    Spartan iron coinage - 700 BC to 350 BC - Modern day Peloponnisos, Greece.

    This coinage was famous enough to have a classical joke made about it much later by Plutarch (in about AD 100). Assuming that its representative value ought to be its true value Plutarch believed it would require a horse and cart to transfer an amount

    appropriate for even the most modest transaction. The joke lasted longer than the money, perhaps because it paints an absurd picture, but only a fool would imagine the Spartans conducting their grocery transactions with armfuls of iron currency, for 300 years.

    In fact throughout that time the Spartan iron coinage was perfectly operable on a notional value both enforced by law, which declared its status as legal tender, and underwritten by state integrity. It was only the eventual breakdown of Spartan political strength which finished the money, not the over-issuance of the coinage. As Athens grew to culturally dominate Sparta in the 50 years after the apparent victory of the Spartans in the Peloponnese war Spartan merchants’ confidence in their iron coinage started to wane, and they steadily preferred to use gold and/or silver which was creeping into the system.

    As the situation deteriorated the state decreed that "no coin of gold or silver should be admitted into Sparta," and that they should "use the money that had long obtained". The decree did not pass into practice because the choice was a bleak one - no goods, or goods traded in gold.

    The Spartans either left (which they did in droves, leading to the end of Spartan power) or used gold.

    The Spartan system shows the dependence of a representative money system on the power and continuing integrity of the state.

    Carthage leather money - 450 BC - Modern day Tunis (North Africa)

    Leather bags were used as money in the ancient city of Carthage, where the idea was that rather than make all coins of small amounts of silver, they would make the significant majority completely of cheap alloy, and the occasional one of pure silver. The coins - including the duds - were then sealed by the state in a leather bag, granted a face value equivalent to silver, and deemed worthless if the seal on the bag was broken.

    This apparent curiosity is not so very different from a modern day state lottery scratch card.

    The system lasted for about 50 years and fell into disuse at the end of the 5th century BC when the increased military success of the Carthaginians - who had invaded Spain - allowed an increased supply of gold and silver from Spanish mines, which became the practical currency probably because it felt real. Not unlike the Ionians who preceded them - the Carthaginian empire collapsed through Romans attacking them at least in part for their gold. The resulting Punic wars ended with Carthage being totally destroyed for ever.

    Byzantine iron sheets - 410 BC - Modern day Istanbul

    Through its perfect strategic situation for trade and defense  Byzantium/Constantinople has been a natural trading centre for 2,500 years. After its foundation it rapidly assumed the high level of economic sophistication necessary for ancient civilizations to adopt representative money systems.

    It learnt from Ionia and made sure its iron based currency was at the forefront of the technology of the time - which made it difficult to counterfeit. However the central authority of Byzantium as a city state decayed amid an unwillingness to generate public resources through taxes, and public belief in the value of these iron tokens evaporated as they were issued in large numbers to pay for public works.

    The state later privatized its monetary operations by granting a statutory monopoly on money production to a bank. This bank used gold in its coins, which limited the problem, but they were still overvalued, and although an increasing gold content was deployed it failed to stop counterfeiting and smuggling until monetary circulation returned to a gold base as an intrinsically valuable money.

    The iron tokens faded away into valueless disrepute through their own lack of creditworthiness, a result of state sponsored fiscal indiscipline.

    Athens - 500 BC to 300 BC .....................

    (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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