Saturday, October 18, 2008

Money questions

Yesterday while reading Plutarch’s biography of Poplicola (d. 503 BC), we came across this interesting tidbit:

[T]he use of money was then infrequent amongst the Romans, but their wealth in cattle great; even now pieces of property are called peculia from pecus, cattle; and they had stamped upon thier most ancient money an ox, a sheep, or a hog…

My Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (fifth edition, don’t know what year, but the population information in the back is taken from the 1940 census) lists the first definition of the word peculiar as “belonging to an individual; privately owned; not common.” This dictionary also lists the word peculium, saying that it’s a term from Roman law and means “The private property of a wife, child, or slave.” Our word pecuniary, “relating to money,” comes from the same root.

The word capital comes from the Latin caput for “head.” Caput is also the root of the word cattle, from which we get our word chattel, and as Plutarch points out, our ancient ancestors measured their wealth in cattle.

This all makes sense to me. My question is, “How did we get from land and cattle to money?”

I’ve read a few accounts of how it happened, including RC Sproul, Jr’s in his Biblical Economics, all of which posit a kind of evolution from barter to tally sticks to pretty shells to hunks of gold to gold coins minted by a governing body. But none of these accounts offers historical evidence for this narrative so I’m wondering if that’s the way it actually happened.

Yesterday, after looking up the roots of the word peculiar, the kids and I looked up money. We had speculated that it would have something to do with manus, “hand,” meaning it’s wealth you can carry about in your hand. Boy, were we wrong! Money comes from the Latin word Moneta, one of Juno’s names. It was at the temple of Juno Moneta that money was coined, or minted.

This of course raises the question of what the money was for. Why were coins needed such that they were made at the temple of a Roman goddess?

Whatever the answer to that is, Juno’s money wasn’t the first. The temple of Juno Moneta was built in the year 344 BC, but money is first mentioned in the Bible during Abraham’s lifetime, more than 700 years earlier.

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