Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 12.djvu/601

This page has been validated.
583
THE DEBASEMENT OF COINAGES.

cate and gained an illusory augmentation of wealth by reducing the weight of metal in the as, still calling it by the same name. But this fraudulent plan, once adopted, was worked with such assiduity by the successive emperors, that in 175 b. c. the as contained but half an ounce of copper, or 124 part of its original weight. In the case of so cheap a metal, diminishing the quantity was the only way in which the coin could be degraded. The principal silver coin was the denarius, rated at ten asses, and weighing one-seventh of an ounce. Its weight was tolerably well maintained, but adulteration was carried to its utmost extent, and eventually the imperial denarii came to be only copper coins plated with silver! Similar vicissitudes marked the career of Roman gold. When first coined, 204 b. c., the aureus weighed 140 part of a pound of pure gold, but through various degradations came to be only 172 part of a pound in weight, and this bore 20 per cent, of alloy.

The French money-unit, the livre, up to the reign of Charlemagne, contained exactly a pound weight of pure silver, and was divided into 20 sols. It was reserved for Philip I. to violate this standard. He considerably diminished the amount of silver contained in a sol, and his example was followed with such zeal that by the time of the Revolution the livre contained less than a seventy-eighth part of the silver which it had in the eleventh century.

Nor is this an extreme case. In 1220 the Spanish maravedi weighed 84 grains of gold, and was equal in value to about $3.50; it descended until it became a small copper coin valued at one-third of a cent.

The German florin was originally a gold coin worth $2.50; when abolished it was 40 cents' worth of silver.

These examples are taken from the history of the most stable and best-governed European states, and from them may be inferred the rapacity and swindling of the lawless, irresponsible feudal princes during the middle ages, which caused this particular fraud to fall into the deepest discredit even in those early days.

The Chinese probably illustrate in the most extreme manner the length to which loose views concerning currency can be carried. The history of their currency presents that mingling of the grotesque with the tragic which most of their actions have when viewed through Western eyes. Coined money was known among them as early as the eleventh century before Christ, but their inability to comprehend the principles upon which a currency should be based has led them into all sorts of extravagances, which have been attended by disorder, famine, and bloodshed. Coins came at last to be made so thin that 1,000 of them piled together were only three inches high; then gold and silver were abandoned; and copper, tin, shells, skins, stones, and paper, were given a fixed value, and used until, by abuse, all the advantages to be derived from the use of money were lost, and there