Montesquieu
 

XXII.11 On the operations which the Romans performed on the moneys

However autho­ri­ta­tive the acts per­pe­tra­ted in France in our days over the monies in two conse­cu­tive minis­tries, the Romans per­pe­tra­ted grea­ter ones, not in the time of that cor­rupt repu­blic, nor in the time of that repu­blic that was just an anar­chy, but when, in its prime, by its wis­dom as by its cou­rage, after defea­ting the cities of Italy, it fought the Carthaginians for domi­na­tion.

And it is my plea­sure to pur­sue this mat­ter a bit, so an exam­ple will not be made of some­thing that is not one.

In the first Punic War, the as, which was sup­po­sed to contain twelve oun­ces of cop­per, wei­ghed no more than two, and in the second war it was down to one.1 This reduc­tion cor­res­ponds to what today we call the rai­sing of coin : to take half the sil­ver from a six-livre crown to make two of them, or to value it at twelve livres, is exactly the same thing.

We have no docu­men­ta­tion of the man­ner in which the Romans conduc­ted their ope­ra­tion in the first Punic War, but what they did in the second bes­peaks admi­ra­ble wis­dom to us. The repu­blic did not find itself in a posi­tion to pay its debts ; the as wei­ghed two oun­ces of cop­per, and the denier, with a value of ten asses, was worth twenty oun­ces of cop­per. The repu­blic made asses with one ounce of cop­per, gai­ned half on her cre­di­tors, and paid a denier with these ten oun­ces of cop­per.2 This ope­ra­tion gave the state a great jolt : it had to be made as mini­mal as pos­si­ble ; it embo­died an injus­tice : it had to be as mini­mal as pos­si­ble ; its objec­tive was the libe­ra­tion of the repu­blic with res­pect to its citi­zens : the­re­fore its objec­tive must not be the libe­ra­tion of the citi­zens amongst them­sel­ves. Hence the neces­sity of a second ope­ra­tion, and it was decreed that the denier, which had until then been only ten asses, would contain six­teen. The result of this dou­ble ope­ra­tion was that, while the repu­blic’s cre­di­tors were losing half,3 the cre­di­tors of indi­vi­duals were losing only a fifth,4 mer­chan­dise went up by only a fifth, and the real change in the money was only one-fifth : the other conse­quen­ces are clear.

The Romans the­re­fore were more judi­cious than we, who, in our ope­ra­tions, have enve­lo­ped both public and pri­vate for­tu­nes. Moreover, they did it in more favo­ra­ble cir­cum­stan­ces than we did.

Pliny, Natural History, book XXXIII, art. 13.

Pliny, Natural History, book XXXIII, art. 13.

They received ten ounces of copper for twenty.

They received sixteen ounces of copper for twenty.