Rome in the news: Monetary matters

It’s rare that we here at The Library of Antiquity get a twofer. But today’s NYT Magazine’s feature story is on money, and guess who’s the original minter?


Unfortunately, the NYT seems to have fired its fact-checker:

When Caesar Augustus minted the denarius coin, around 15 A.D., he did so with a decree that it be made almost entirely of silver. But over the coming decades, as the financial health of the Roman Empire declined — largely because of its increasingly independent army, which demanded ever more money to subdue the rebellious provinces — the emperors began, slowly at first, mixing in copper to stretch the silver further. By 280 A.D., a denarius was 98 percent copper, with a thin silver wash on the surface. The implication was clear to every Roman: Here, in their hands, was a physical manifestation of the empire’s deepening desperation. Whatever proclamations the emperor might make, the coin told the truth.

The lesson, perhaps, is that money shapes — and is shaped by — the society at large.

Last I checked, Augustus died in 14, so it would have been hard for him to mint anything. Also, Augustus? The first denarius??? That’s like saying that Abraham Lincoln invented the penny because his picture is on it.

We can ignore the remarks about debasement of coinage, since I think that’s at least still taught in textbooks (although Jairus Benaji has some interesting thoughts on this matter). But the grim reactions of the Romans is a different story. How is the change from silver to a mixture of silver and copper anything other than an ancient version of quantitative easing? If the author is trying to prove that the Romans! They’re just like us!, he’s doing a good job.

That’s not quite what he seems to want to prove, though. In fact, he seems to think exactly the opposite:

And the last century has seen far more transformation in money than any other to date. A hundred years ago, paper money was still just a reference document, the real value hidden away in a vault full of gold. But with the rise of information technology, money has increasingly become an abstraction. We’ve created A.T.M. and debit and credit cards, electronic transfers and 401(k) accounts. Since 1980, computers and deregulation have allowed Wall Street firms to experiment exuberantly with new securities that blur the line between finance and gambling. By the early 2000s, banks were selling securitized mortgage-backed assets as “money-good,” and it was largely this mistaking of junk for cash that brought about the financial crisis of 2008.

Hmm. So, I admit my understanding of modern finance isn’t the greatest (although at this point, neither is Wall Street’s?), but how is this different from a Hellenistic king trading off his properties to one of his ‘friends’ in exchange for a service? (Besides being faster, that is.) Certainly it sounds pretty similar to the ‘speculation’ that ruined the families in 90% of Victorian novels (Nicholas Nickleby, anyone?). Not the same, but also not as different as I think the NYT Mag thinks. Or wants to make us think.

I do understand that a newspaper needs a hook, and a historical survey makes novelty sound impressive. But really, guys. If it’s ‘fit to print’, it should at least be accurate.

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