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Coin Quality, Coin Quantity, and Coin Value in Early China and the Roman World


Walter Scheidel


Stanford University

September 2010


Abstract:     
Coinage developed in different ways in eastern and western Eurasia. In ancient China, early bronze ‘tool money’ came to be replaced by round bronze coins that were supplemented by uncoined gold and silver bullion; whereas in the Greco-Roman world, precious-metal coins dominated from the start, initially in the form of silver coins that were increasingly accompanied and eventually eclipsed by gold issues. The question of which factors determined the value of these coins has been debated for a long time. The Chinese tradition is often said to have favored a ‘chartalistic’ approach, and while a ‘metallistic’ perspective used be common among students of Greco-Roman coinage, putatively fiduciary elements of the Roman currency system are now receiving growing attention. In this paper I will argue that both the intrinsic properties of coins and the volume of the money supply were the principal determinants of coin value, and that fiduciary aspects must not be overrated. This principle is reinforced by the comparative study of two superficially quite different currency systems, in Warring States and Han China and in the Roman Empire.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 19

Keywords: Roman economy, Chinese economy, Coinage, Money, Devaluation, Inflation

JEL Classification: B11, N10

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Date posted: August 2, 2009 ; Last revised: August 24, 2010

Suggested Citation

Scheidel, Walter, Coin Quality, Coin Quantity, and Coin Value in Early China and the Roman World (September 2010). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1442585 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1442585

Contact Information

Walter Scheidel (Contact Author)
Stanford University ( email )
Stanford, CA 94305-2145
United States
HOME PAGE: http://www,stanford.edu/~scheidel
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