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The Third Century Crisis : Inflation! and Debasement

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The Third Century Crisis : Inflation! and Debasement

 

EXCERPT, from:

Memo to Central Banks: You’re debasing more than our currency

 

History is replete with Great Disorders in which currency debasement has coincided with social infighting and scapegoating. I have written in the past about the Roman inflation of the Third Century AD. The following chart shows the rapid turnover of emperors during what is known as the Third Century Crisis. As trade declined, crops failed and the military suffered what must have seemed like constant defeat, it wasn’t difficult for a successful or even popular general to convince the rest of the empire that he’d make a better fist of governing.

 

102612-02.jpg

 

But this political turnover was accompanied by what may be history’s first recorded instance of systematic currency debasement. With the empire no longer expanding and barbarians being forced westwards by the migrations of the Steppe peoples, Rome’s borders were under threat. But the money required to fund defence wasn’t there. Successive emperors therefore reached the same conclusions that kings, princes, tyrants and democratically elected governments would later reach down the ages when faced with a perceived “shortage of money”: they created more by debasing the existing stock. In the second half of the third century, the silver content of a denarius had shrunk to zero. Copper coins disappeared altogether.

 

This debasement of currency also coincided with a debasement of society. Factions grew more suspicious of one another. Communities fragmented. And one part of the community bore the brunt of the fears: Christians. While Rome had always welcomed new religions and Gods, incorporating new foreign deities as their empire grew, Christians were altogether different. They rejected Rome’s gods. They refused to pray to them. They said that only their God was deserving of worship. The rest of the Romans concluded that this obstinacy must be a source of great anger for their own ancient Roman gods, and supposed that those gods must now be exacting their own great punishment in return.

 

102612-03.jpg

 

So the Romans turned on their Christians with a great violence which lasted throughout the period of the currency debasement but peaked with Diocletian’s edict of 303 AD. The edict decreed, among other things, that Christian meeting places be destroyed, Christians holding office be stripped of that office, Christian freedmen be made slaves once more and all scriptures be destroyed. Diocletian’s earlier edict, of 301 AD, sought to regulate prices and set out punishments for ‘profiteers’ whose prices deviated from those set out in the edict.

A similar dynamic seems evident during Europe’s medieval inflations, only now, the confused and vain effort to make sense of the enveloping turmoil saw the blame focus on suspected witches. The following chart shows the UK price index over the period with the incidence of witchcraft trials. Note the peak in trials coinciding with the peak of the price revolution.

 

102612-04.jpg

 

Were the same dynamics at work during the French Revolution of 1789? The narrative of Madame Guillotine and her bloody role is well known. However, the execution of royalty by the Paris Commune didn’t begin until 1792, and the Reign of Terror in which Robespierre’s Orwellian sounding “Committee of Public Safety” slaughtered 17,000 nobles and counter-revolutionaries didn’t start until well into 1793. In the words of guillotined revolutionary Georges Danton, this is when the French revolution “ate itself”. But the coincidence of these events to the monetary debasement is striking.

 

/John Mauldin: http://www.ritholtz....he Big Picture)

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Third century Rome seemed to spend too much (inflation) by expanding the army and started to put cheaper metals in coins (M2). I would have thought Nero had bankrupted the empire a few centuries earlier. But, the big thing that happened was that there were large economies outside of Rome which was driving the economy as a whole rather than just Rome's own. Rome was fighting Germania and this big area was killing them by pouring more and more resouces into the battles.

 

During the French revolution, institutions were destroyed. The one being created in America was money spent by the French without the benefits flowing back to France due to the French revolution. This almost sounds like the US in Afgananstan where there is nothing to take from the country. Money is spend to destroy, with no cows or taxes to collect after the war.

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