The History of Money, by Jack Weatherford

The History of Money covers similiar territory to David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5,000 years. But it is a much less sprawling volume and hence, perhaps, a better introduction to this most vital and elusive of things.

Weatherford focuses in particular on four paradigm shifts in the history of money: From the development of coinage in Lydia around 600 BCE to the establishment of banking in the Middle Ages, to the development of paper money, notably in the American revolution, to the evolution of money into what it principally is today – electronic information.

If this sounds dull it is not. The History of Money is essentially the story of the development of human society and a roll call of some of the blackest episodes arising from our perverse relationship with money.

Weatherford argues convincingly that it was the shift to coinages of precious metal away from local credit systems or commodity money, such as cattle or slave girls, that allowed international trade to develop. From this societies evolved from “honour” or ritual based societies such as Homeric Greece, into market-oriented ones.

Furthermore in assigning coinage values to everything from a goat to a sexual act with a goat, the development of coinage forced humans to develop our capacities for abstract thought. The international trade enabled by coinage prompted the adoption of a common lingua Franca – Greek – across the Mediterranean basin. This in turn allowed for the exchange of new ideas – from those of Socrates to those of Jesus – that the evolution of abstract thought facilitated.

But, as well as identifying how money catalysed these positive evolutions of human society, Weatherford also charts how the love of money is a particularly tenacious root of human evil. He argues that it was a financial crisis in the Roman state in the Third Century, rather than any profound intolerance of beliefs, that prompted first Diocletian’s bloody persecution of the Christians, and then Constantine’s persecution of the pagans: Declaring whole sections of society treasonous allowed the emperors to expropriate their property and replenish the coffers that had grown bare once the Romans had run out of foreign peoples to plunder.

It was avariciousness also that led to the brutal suppression of the Knights Templar: Their often vicious international crusading operations had led to the development of Europe’s first international banking system and an amassing of vast quantities of cash. King Philip of France decided that this money would be better in his hands than that of the Templars. Hence to justify his looting of their loot he concocted a spectacularly lurid set of allegations against them, from Satanism to necrophilia, that continue to fascinate and inspire salacious conspiracy theorists to this day.

Love of silver and gold inspired the Conquistadors to visit genocide and slavery upon the entire indigenous population of South America, and England’s murderous and shameful pillaging of South Asia. It inspires still the global “bad boys” who to this day plunder the planet and devastate the lives of ordinary people to further enhance their personal wealth.

The evolution of paper money brought with it new problems, or perhaps simply old problems in new guises: The debasement of the coinage that Roman emperors undertook in the Third Century, has been replicated in more recent times in the recurrent practice of financially incompetent rulers simply printing more money to pay their bills. From that spiralling inflation results, which disproportionately impoverishes the poor. The continued growth of electronic money is likely to bring new challenges.

In the end of the day money is trust. And, as always, when trust is broken or abused it can wreak devastation.

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SPQR, by Mary Beard

Summary: history that the victors would not want you to read

It is axiomatic that history is written by the winners. But, as far as Mary Beard is concerned, that’s no reason to take every tale they spin at face value.

SPQR is, perhaps, more of a histiography of the Roman Empire than a traditional narrative history. Each story of Empire she presents, from Romulus and Remus to Cicero and Caesar, she interrogates with great rigour, testing both it’s internal logic and it’s consistency with other available evidence, particularly the available archeological findings.

Hence it is a sustained lesson in critical thinking as well as classical history. Consequently Beard is no respecter of received wisdoms or conventional understandings. She thinks anew about this subject and demands her readers do too.

Sometimes this iconoclasm can go a bit far. For example, she dismisses Hannibal’s sanguinary victory at Cannae, one that has inspired generations of commanders, with the conclusion that all he really did was sneak around behind the Romans… which is true. But this does seem rather to underestimate all that this involved when outnumbered by thousands of armed and angry Italians.

Elsewhere she notes with approval the comment of a Roman writer that the real skill required to be a general is that of being able to organise a good dinner party. Again perhaps not wholly fair, but an eminently healthy attitude in any society, like Rome, like much of the contemporary world, which lionises the military – or the paramilitary – and turns a blind eye to their atrocities.

For all Beard’s remarkable communication skills SPQR is perhaps not a book that I would recommend as an introduction to ancient Roman history. But it is a vital one for anyone who wishes to get beyond the more simplistic narratives of that empire and to learn how to think more carefully about our own times and the false narratives and propaganda our own leaders still try to force down our throats.