The History of Money : From Sandstone to Cyberspace
by Weatherford, Jack
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group, Incorporated
With The Hot Zone, you know it's not a book to read over lunch, but what could be more mundane than The History of Money?
Armed with my preconceptions and a pina colada yogurt, I started to read Weatherford's account of the relationship between the Aztec and their currency, cocoa beans. All went well until the sacrifice to Xipe Totec. Only the choicest dripping entrails of his sacrificial victim were good enough for chocolate.
Giving up on lunch, I delved into the fascinating connections between money and history; about how Greek civilization came into being through the concept of abstraction money represented; about the etymology of salary from the salt with which Roman soldiers were paid, and pecuniary from the word for cattle, a commodity with which much of Eurasia gauged wealth.
Coined money began in Lydia in the seventh century BC. By the time of Solon, a century later, money was destroying the inherited aristocracy. Instead of the palace, the agora or marketplace became public life's hub. Weatherford even accounts for the spread of Christianity by saying that since marketplaces were centers for discussion, using a facile, expressive derivative of Classical Greek, it was easy to disseminate the teachings of Jesus.
As with Greece, Imperial Rome made the most of money, but also devised problems that afflict modern currency. Commerce, central to Roman life and expansion, depends on having articles for trade, usually from production. Having only limited products, Rome had to export her gold. Since she could rely on conquest to replenish the coffers, all went well for a while, but by the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD), the cost of conquest was greater than the riches it supplied.
Nero, (64 AD) was the first to tamper with coinage. Deceiving the populace into thinking the now lighter coins were the same as earlier ones, Nero gained a temporary 15% profit. By 268 AD, the amount of silver had been reduced to 5%. Naturally, as with today's inflation, "wheat that had sold for one-half a denarius...increased to 100 denarii."
The History of Money : From Sandstone to Cyberspace isn't just the ancient history of money. In the second section, "paper money," Weatherford describes the persecution of the successful and the Florentine ways to get around Biblical injunctions against usury. He also discusses the elimination of a tangible basis for money -- the gold (or silver) standard and the problems attendant on currencies based solely on faith in government systems.
In the third section, "electronic money," he explains the hidden tax of the hyperinflation plague, the situation that leads to the lopping off of terminal zeroes.
In the penultimate chapter, he reveals his prediction for the future of money; that, as it was in the beginning, it will exist in multitudinous forms, only, unlike anything that has gone before, it will exist solely as a series of electronic blips. This is a somewhat different outlook from those pessimistic economists who predict the collapse of our monetary system in the first quarter of the next century.
There are a couple of problems with The History of Money : From Sandstone to Cyberspace. Not being an economist, I can't speak to his theoretical accuracy, but in order to keep up the fast pace and to keep the book short, Weatherford omits details that affect continuity and some of his deductions are undemonstrated. That said, The History of Money : From Sandstone to Cyberspace is a stimulating, focused tour of history and introduction to the complexities of money through the eyes of an anthropologist.
N.S. Gill, your Guide for Ancient/Classical History