Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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HISTORICAL SUMS, Valuation of. It is often a matter of great interest, as much from an historical point of view as for the solution of certain economic questions, to obtain an approximately correct idea of the relative values of things at different epochs, and to ascertain as nearly as may be the importance of certain amounts given by historians in the money of their times. It is on this account that some of the best known economists have devoted several pages of their works to what they term the "valuation of historical sums," while at the same time the subject is itself possessed of sufficient interest to furnish matter for several special treatises. What examination seems necessary will be given here, without, however, intrenching on the subject of money, which will be treated of in its own place.


—There are two points to be looked at in considering the subject of historical sums. It must first be determined what they represent in gold or fine silver, that they may be reduced to moneys of the present date, metal for metal and weight for weight. This reduction made, there remains to obtain the best idea possible of the relative values of the precious metals at the dates in question. With regard to the first point we possess at the present time tolerably exact data, at least with regard to certain countries and certain periods. The medals which remain to us in great numbers from the Greeks, the Romans, and European peoples of the middle ages, medals which for the most part are simply the moneys of those dates, have given us the opportunity, although they were often greatly altered by rust, of measuring with fair precision the actual weight of those coins and the proportion of fine metal which they contained. This material testimony has in addition been corroborated by the researches of antiquarians and savants. It is, however, only fair to admit that on this very subject grave differences of opinion exist. A savant whose name is well known to every economist, Count Germain Garnier, has advocated a new system, plausible enough even if it be not correct, which would wonderfully modify the deductions claiming to be derived from the inspection of ancient medals. According to his theory all or nearly all the sums mentioned in ancient history were given in an imaginary or counting currency, entirely different from the actual currency as it appears in the medals. Hence it would follow that the estimates made formerly would be misleading. We will recur presently to this assertion, if not for the purpose of determining its value, at least to show what would result from it. Meanwhile we may assume that the calculations based on the study of ancient medals are justified, and starting with this hypothesis we may affirm that the reduction of some ancient moneys to modern coinages presents at the present time no serious difficulties.


—The same can not altogether be said with respect to the relative values of those moneys at the dates when they were current. Like everything else that is bought and sold, the precious metals are liable to fluctuations in value from time to time, in accordance with their greater or lesser abundance in circulation. These variations, although but slight at any given time, may, however, become very considerable after the lapse of several centuries. We know as a fact that between the times of the ancients and our own times, nay, even since the middle ages, the values of gold and silver have fallen considerably, so much so that the sums of money mentioned in the history of those times are invariably of an importance greatly superior to what might be attributed to them, were regard to be had merely to the actual quantity of the precious metals they represent. It would be of the greatest importance to know the exact extent of this depreciation, but unfortunately it can only be estimated by valuations at best somewhat vague and constantly subject to revision.


—We will inquire presently into how the resolution of this last problem, so far as it has been resolved, has been set about. But we must first state, following the statistics of the most trust-worthy authors, the relation borne by money of the present date to the most interesting and best known coinages of ancient times.


—In ancient Greece the money best known to us is that of the Athenians. It is also the most interesting, both on account of the importance of the republic to which it belonged, and because, according to Xenophon, it was sought after by the merchants of all countries, and was used as a common medium of exchange in the international relations of that time. Beginning with the last century, minute and profound research has been made into the subject of Athenian money, and its value has been successfully determined with almost absolute accuracy. Mention must be made in particular of the works of the Abbé Barthélemy, who, in his Voyage du jeune Anacharsis, leaves little to be desired with regard to this. We prefer, however, to rely on the more recent works of Boeckh, who, in his "Political Economy of the Athenians," a large work and one of high reputation, has made a happy selection from the investigations of his predecessors, to which he has added the results of his own. Besides, the data given and the values arrived at by Boeckh vary but little from those of the Abbé Barthélemy, whose point of departure he adopts.


—The monetary unit of Athens was the drachma, a silver piece of slightly inferior value to the French franc. The multiples of this monetary unit were the mina, which was worth 100 drachmas, and the talent, which was worth 6,000. The mina and talent were, however, only nominal money, for no coins of those values were struck. The circulating medium was then the drachma, although any calculation of large amount was made in minas and talents. In addition to this, the Athenians occasionally coined four-drachma pieces, named, consequently, tetradrachmas; but this circumstance did not alter the system. Of lesser value than the drachma, there were used in Athens, as small change and for the necessities of everyday life, the chalchus and the obolus, which were fractions of the unit. It would appear that this simple and fairly well organized monetary system underwent but slight variation during the time of Greece; and as the Athenian money had then, as we have said, an almost world-wide circulation, it is possible with a little attention to make use of it in most of the valuations which relate to those times. According to the Abbé Barthélemy, whose valuation is adopted by Boeckh, the weight of the ancient drachma ought to be, after making allowance for what it may have lost in the passage of centuries, 82 grains, which he reduced, however, on several considerations, to 79. Its standard of fineness was very high, seeing that it only contained 1/72 of alloy. On this basis it is easy to compare this money with French money. 79 grains, ancient weight, correspond to 4.197 grammes, or, in round numbers, 4.20 grammes; deduct 1/72 for alloy, .06 grammes, and there remains, in fine silver, 4.14 grammes. Supposing the franc to contain 4.5 grammes of fine silver, the Attic drachma is then to the franc as 414 to 450; giving as the value of the drachma, 92 centimes, or, to be exact, 91.66 centimes—Without entering further into the details of the comparison we will give in a short table the relation borne by the Attic money to French.




Chalchus... 0 2
Obolus... 0 15
Drachma... 0 92
Mina... 91 66
Talent... 5,500 00


The practice of computing amounts by talents, says Boeckh, was not confined to Attica; it spread over almost the whole of Greece and even beyond it. The talent was worth 60 minas; the mina, 100 drachmas; and the drachma, 6 oboli. In Athens the obolus was divided into 8 chalchi; and the chalchus into 7 lepta. It may be said in passing that this last mentioned coin has no equivalent in French money, as it is of greatly inferior value to the centime.


—With the assistance of the preceding comparative tables it is generally easy enough to convert into French money the sums mentioned in the history of ancient Greece. Attention must be paid to the fact that if the use of the talent was almost universal it was not everywhere of the same value. The talent of Eubœa, which was also greatly used in Greece, differed from the Attic talent, although not to a great extent. There was a wider difference between the Attic talent and the talents of Babylon and Alexandria, although the exact amount has not been accurately established. The last named, although mentioned sometimes in history, figure there less than the first two, about which more precise knowledge is fortunately possessed. Attic money, reformed in Solon's time, has scarcely varied since, and the talent of Eubœa is referable to a still more distant date.


—The Roman monetary system was reformed or modified several times. This was first done in the year 490 after the foundation of Rome. Silver money coming into use about that time, it was judged expedient to reform, in consequence, the copper coinage with which the Romans had till then been content. At a later period two other reforms were made successively in the course of the sixth century, but these latter were mainly in regard to silver coin. As some differences of opinion exist among savants as to the nature and extent of these reforms the money current in Rome previous to those dates will not be spoken of, nor has it any particular interest.—"After the establishment of silver money," correctly says M. Germain Garnier, "the sesterce was the chief coin of the Romans, and it was in sesterces that they expressed all sums small or great, from two or three even to the highest numbers; tens, hundreds, thousands or millions." It then remains to settle what the sesterce represented in fine silver. Unfortunately, although the sources of information with respect to Roman money are very abundant, they are far from being in accord on this primary question.


—Although the sesterce was the numerical term generally employed in calculations, it was not, for all that, the unit employed in the Roman monetary system. The monetary unit was the denarius, of the value of four sesterces, and which was besides more frequently a sum in computation than an actual coin. It is certain, and on this point all the savants are pretty nearly agreed, that the Roman denarius approximated closely to the Attic drachma. According to M. Germain Garnier, these two monetary values were absolutely identical, the object of the Romans in reforming their money system during the sixth century being to bring it into unison with that of Greece. According to other writers, who in this respect seem to us more accurate, although the Roman denarius and the Attic drachma were so closely allied that ancient historians when not speaking with rigid exactitude used the terms indifferently, there was, nevertheless, a distinct difference, the denarius being to the drachma nearly in the ratio of 8 to 9. But it is with respect to the actual intrinsic value of the two monetary units that there is a wide divergence.


—It has just been said that Boeckh, agreeing in this with the Abbé Barthélemy and almost all other savants, gives the weight of the Attic drachma as 79 grains of fine silver. Admitting the proportion given for the two coins as correct, namely, as 8 to 9, the Roman denarius ought then to contain about 70 grains weight of fine silver. This closely approaches the value as given by several savants. M. Germain Garnier, however, values the denarius at only 31½ grains of fine silver, which, according to his system, would also be the exact weight of the Attic drachma. This is a wide departure from the former estimate. The difference would be more than half, and is sufficiently great to render hopeless all efforts at adjustment which it might be proposed to effect on such a basis. It is not for us to choose a side in the controversy. Political economy has to take note of the results only when they seem to be sufficiently established, and draw from them their proper sequences. We may, however, mention briefly how this extraordinary divergence of opinion which we have just mentioned is caused. According to M. Germain Garnier, savants until his time went astray through confounding the nominal money of the ancients with the current money which was of much higher value. With the Romans, the denarius, which was during their first centuries a current coin, became after the reforms mentioned above almost entirely a nominal sum whose value remained invariable. The silver coin in actual circulation was the argenteus, which was worth 2½ denarii. "The silver coin actually current was the argenteus, which some Latin authors have called the silver sesterce, argenti sestertia, because it consisted of two and a half denarii and formed literally the sesterce of the denarius as the first sesterce was of the as." Now it is this argenteus, worth 2½ denarii or 10 sesterces, which antiquarians have constantly mistaken for the denarius mentioned by the ancient historians. A similar error, on the same authority, that of M. Germain Garnier, was made with respect to Attic money, antiquarians having taken for a tetradrachma or piece of 4 drachmas, a coin which really represented 10 drachmas. In each case, therefore, the savants were in error in a ratio of 2½ to 1. By multiplying by 2½ the value given by M. Germain Garnier, i.e., 31½ grains, a result of 78 8/4 grains is obtained, which is almost identical with that previously given as the value of the Attic drachma.


—The middle ages next claim our attention. Here, although there is still great cause for uncertainty, we are treading on firmer ground, for the history of modern coinages is, after all, better known than that of ancient times. We only intend to deal with French moneys, refer ring the reader for those of other countries to the works which treat of them in particular, and with respect to French money our purpose is merely to point out the principal changes it has undergone, leaving all details to works specially written on the subject.


—In France, from the end of the eleventh century until the revolution of 1789, which completely altered the old monetary system, silver was always weighed and uttered by the mark. There were marks of different weights; but that of Paris, to which ancient prices are referred, was of eight ounces or 4,608 grains. The mark since the same period has also always been divided into livres and the livres into sous and deniers. But on account of the successive deteriorations of the coinage, often reduced in weight by the kings, the number of livres contained in the mark has gradually increased; at the end of the thirteenth century, for example, it but slightly exceeded 2(2 livres 18 sous), and it was more than 54 at the end of the eighteenth; a fact which gives a general idea of the alteration which money underwent during that period. To know what the livre represented at each intermediate epoch it is necessary to determine into how many livres the mark was then divided. Tables have been compiled on this subject, for the most part fairly complete and satisfactory, although here and there are met with, if not positive errors, at least gaps and omissions. We will only give here the principal results, beginning at the end of the thirteenth century:

Table.  Click to enlarge in new window.


—The information possessed in respect to the condition of the coinages during the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries is very incomplete, but more is known of it at the end of the eighth century in the time of Charlemagne. The Carlovingian livre was, according to historians, of 13½ flue silver, and was subdivided into 20 sous. It remained pretty nearly the same during the ninth century, then the traces of this Carlovingian livre disappear, and the livre is recovered at the end of the thirteenth century considerably diminished, and it continues to lessen from century to century till 1789.


—The preceding observations give an idea of the comparison possible between ancient and modern money. But to follow the parallel more closely, recourse must be had to special works of which we have here only given a glimpse. Let us suppose now that it is desired to know what a sum of money mentioned by the historians (in drachmas if Greek, in denarii or sesterces if Roman, in livres, sous and deniers if French) of the middle ages represents as a commercial value. The first step, as we said at the beginning of the article, is to determine the value of the sum in current specie, weight for weight, only fine metal, of course, being taken into account. It has been shown by the foregoing remarks what means are at hand for the solution of this first problem, and what reasons for uncertain ty and doubt present themselves in certain cases. Let us suppose it solved. We should then know sufficiently accurately with what weight of fine metal we had to deal. But all would not then be said on the matter. There would remain still to be considered what this weight of metal represented in commercial value at the date in question. Here then is another side of the problem, and it is certainly not the least difficult of solution.


—Whatever the value adopted, in fine silver, for the Attic drachma and the Roman denarius; whether adherence is given to the views of Boeckh, the Abbé Barthélemy, and almost all the savants who have given the subject their attention, or the preference is shown to those of M. Germain Garnier, the fact remains that that denarius and that drachma represented in ancient times a greater commercial value than the same weight of silver would have at the present time. But wherein lies the difference? That is what we have to determine.


—To make at least an approximately correct estimate it has been usual to take as a standard of comparison certain marketable articles in common and regular use, whose commercial value during the course of centuries is supposed to be less subject to change than that of any other commercial articles, whether because they always represent a constant force expenditure or because the need of them is the same at all times. Thus, the daily pay of a common man, a day laborer, has sometimes been taken as the measure. It has been supposed that at all times the pay of an ordinary laborer, that is, of one with no special qualification, would be measured by what was necessary for a man's support; a value subject, it is true, to variations, but not to any of great moment. At other times a soldier's pay has been taken, when it could be ascertained, the theory being that his pay was more regular and better gauged to the ordinary needs of life than even workmen's wages. Others again have taken as their test the price of wheat, which although occasionally very variable at a given time yet seemed to them more than anything else apt to return constantly to a given level.


—Let us examine shortly the merits of each of these data. It need scarcely be said that no one has thought of giving these standards as absolute. There is no possibility of attaining by their means a rigorously exact estimate of the relative values of the precious metals in ancient times; all that can be hoped for is a satisfactory approximation, and it is to this end solely that the data must be considered. Even with this limitation it seems to us that each of these standards taken by itself is far from being adequate to the purpose in view, and the economists who have taken as the sole basis of their calculation one or other of these values seem to us to be liable to grave errors in their work.


—J. B. Say adopts as his basis of valuation, wheat, which he supposes to have changed its real value very little during the course of centuries, except temporarily, because it is a necessary food substance whose scarcity or abundance has a powerful effect on population. But wheat, whatever may be said to the contrary, is liable to very marked oscillations and those not merely temporary but of considerable duration, in proof of which it is not necessary to have recourse to ancient times. Is wheat, for example, at the same price in Russia or America as it is in France or England? Far from it; the difference is great, going from once to twice as much, and even beyond that. But there is no need to leave France, in different parts of which will be found notable variations. Thus the price of the hectolitre of wheat is usually from 24 to 26 francs at Marseilles, while it is only from 13 to 15 francs in other parts of France, for example, in the Haute Marne. In old times, when communication was far from being as easy or as safe as it now is, the variations in price between one locality and another must have been even more marked than now. It may perhaps be said that Marseilles is a great centre of consumption, and that these centres of consumption ought to be compared with each other. Paris is a much greater centre of consumption than Marseilles, and yet wheat is usually cheaper there than in the last named place. Why so? Simply because the position of Paris, which has in its immediate neighborhood on one side the vast plains of Picardy and on the other the plains of La Beauce, is with regard to a wheat supply much more favorable than that of Marseilles.


—It is manifest that in the study of ancient affairs account may to a certain extent be taken of similar circumstances. It will be said, for example, that Athens, obliged as it was to draw part of its wheat supply from abroad, and that too from great distances, through many difficulties and perils; obliged at times even to resort to force to obtain the necessary quantity,—that Athens in this situation would have to pay greatly in excess of the average cost of wheat. Those considerations have doubtless some weight, yet who could, after the lapse of so many centuries, estimate correctly the influence of these local circumstances? Could any one determine precisely the average cost of wheat at any given time or place, a thing very unlikely to happen, it would be but a very untrustworthy, very irregular test of the relative values of the precious metals at the same time.


—The average rate of wages does not seem to us a much safer standard. Whatever may have been said about it, it is not the case that the wages of ordinary laboring men are measured everywhere by their bare needs, and therefore are based with fair accuracy on the actual cost of the means of subsistence. All that can be admitted with respect to this is, that the cost of the absolute necessaries of life forms, so to speak, the extreme limit below which wages can not fall, at least for long. But nothing prevents them rising far above it. Do we not see in our own times, that the average pay in the United States (and it has been so for a long time) is at least double what it is throughout the most of Germany, and yet the cost of subsistence in the former is not greater than it is in the latter? If we refer to the figures of M. Moreau de Jonnès, even in France the pay of farm laborers, which would seem to be less subject than any other to be acted upon and altered by external influences, is shown to be at present, due regard being had to the difference in the cost of living, at least double what it was in the reigns of Louis XIV. and Louis XV. And why should these differences that we see so distinctly in modern times not have existed in ancient times? It is besides very difficult to find the real rate of wages among the ancients, as the work then was generally done by slaves. We know, it is true, on the authority of certain ancient writers, what a slave brought in certain cases to his master when the latter hired out his services to strangers. But what a slave brought back to his master formed only a part of the real remuneration of his work. It was still necessary that this slave should be lodged and fed, and however trifling may have been the expense of so doing, it certainly consumed no inconsiderable part of the value of his labor. What he brought his master was in reality only the surplus. Now who can say what proportion this surplus bore to the total pay? In every respect, then, the rate of wages, as a criterion of the relative value of money, is at least as uncertain as the price of wheat.


—As to placing any reliance on the pay of a soldier, as is done notably by M. Germain Garnier, we regard it as simply folly. It is perhaps true, as this author says, that as the pay of its soldiery constituted one of the principal expenses of every state, especially when the army was numerous, it has always been necessary through mere stress of circumstances to reduce it to no more than was absolutely necessary, giving the soldier only what was imperatively demanded by his pressing needs. But, apart from the fact that these needs themselves vary, it is not easy always to establish the exact figure to which the actual pay of the soldier amounted. There almost always enter into the calculation, several different elements. It is a very unusual thing for a government to leave its soldiers to provide out of the pay given them, for all the expenses of their keep. It almost invariably charges itself directly with a part of the expense, and that part one that varies greatly according to the times. Sometimes it is contented with furnishing them their arms; at other times it adds to that, all or part of their clothing; at others it goes so far as to furnish them, in addition, with lodging, food and fuel. How, in such a case, is their real pay to be computed, as it is evident that what is then distributed to them in hard cash can be but a small portion of it?


—The more closely this subject is examined, the more we are forced to admit that if it be desired to obtain an approximately correct estimate of the relative value of the precious metals in ancient times it will not suffice to take as the standard of comparison any one object, be it what it may. Neither the price of wheat nor the rate of wages can lead to any satisfactory conclusion. Still less can it be derived from the pay of a soldier. What then remains to be done that we may obtain as nearly as possible the desired result? What seems to us to be necessary is to find out, with reference to the time under consideration, the prices of a great number of the commonest articles and those subject to great variations in value wheat or bread, meat, fish, common wine, the daily pay of a laborer when it can be ascertained, etc. However, it is not to economists, in their capacity as economists, that it belongs to make researches of this sort. Their part is limited to pointing out the necessity for them and the direction in which they should be made, that they may be profitable when made. They must rely for the execution of the work on scholars.


—Such work has been done and well done for the France of the middle ages. Dupréde Saint Maur went far on the way in 1746, and he has been followed in it by a great number of deeply-read men, who have made their inquiries more precise and more searching. Among works of this sort we may mention specially that of M. C. Leber, published in 1847. He gives in it very extensive tables, showing satisfactorily the prices of a great many of the articles in common use at different times in French history since the thirteenth century, with comparisons showing what M. Leber happily terms the power of money at those times, that is to say, the relative value of the precious metals.


—Unfortunately nothing similar exists in regard to ancient times. No one has yet had, so far as we know, the happy idea of giving, in connected tables, the prices of common things among the Greeks and Romans. It does not, however, seem to us impossible of accomplishment. "The knowledge of antiquity," says Boeckh, at the commencement of his great work, "is still in its cradle." We willingly believe it. And yet in Boeckh's own work there is already abundance of precious material for the execution of the work of which we speak. One first question would remain, it is true, to be solved, the actual weight of the current money of the ancients. Did the Attic drachma and the Roman denarius contain 79 grains of fine silver, as is held by Boeckh, the Abbé Barthélemy and the majority of scholars, or only 31½ grains, as M. Germain Garnier maintains? Without first having solved this main question it is easily seen that all other research is futile. But once suppose it solved and it seems to us that it would not be impossible, with the assistance of carefully compiled price tables, to arrive at a fairly satisfactory determination of the power of the precious metals in ancient times. Then also, in a general way, the importance of the majority of the sums of which mention is made in history would, by means of a most simple calculation, be arrived at.


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