Montesquieu
 

XXII.13 Operations on the currencies in the time of the emperors

In the ope­ra­tions they car­ried out on the moneys in the time of the repu­blic, they pro­cee­ded by means of reduc­tion : the state sha­red its needs with the peo­ple, and did not attempt to deceive them. Under the empe­rors, they pro­cee­ded by means of alloys : those prin­ces, redu­ced to des­pair by their own libe­ra­li­ties, found them­sel­ves obli­ged to adul­te­rate the moneys : an indi­rect means, which les­se­ned the damage, and see­med not to affect it ; they with­drew a part of the gift, and hid the hand ; and while there was no men­tion of decrea­ses in pay or lar­gess, these were in fact decrea­sed.

In col­lec­tions we still see medals refer­red to as filled, which have only a sheath of sil­ver cove­ring the cop­per.1 This kind of coin is men­tio­ned in a frag­ment of Dio’s book 77.2

Didius Julianus began the atte­nua­tion. The coin of Caracalla is found to be more than half alloy,3 that of Alexander Severus, two-thirds4 ; the atte­nua­tion conti­nued, and under Galienus all that remai­ned was sil­ve­red cop­per.

It is clear that these vio­lent ope­ra­tions could never take place in our times : a prince would fool him­self, but no one else. The exchange has taught the ban­ker to com­pare all the moneys in the world and assign to them their cor­rect value ; the purity of coin can no lon­ger be a secret. If a prince begins to adul­te­rate, eve­ryone conti­nues, and does it for him ; strong spe­cie is ship­ped abroad at once, and sent back to him weak. If, like the Roman empe­rors, he atte­nua­ted sil­ver without atte­nua­ting gold, he would sud­denly see gold disap­pear, and be redu­ced to his worth­less sil­ver. The exchange, as I have said in the pre­vious book,5 has made great sove­reign inter­ven­tions, or at least their suc­cess, impos­si­ble.

See The Knowledge of Medals, by Father Joubert, Paris ed., 1739, p. 59.

Extract of Virtues and Vices.

See [Louis] Savot, part. 2, ch. xii, and Journal des Savants for 28 July 1681 on a discovery of 50,000 medals.

See Savotte, ibid.

Chapter xvi.