Money has been around for a while, and it's not terribly complicated.
The key element is trust. That was true when money was a piece of metal that you could bite or bounce. Now that money is just a piece of paper, it's even truer. Today's money is nothing but trust.
That's why the euro crisis is so bizarre. The euro is, in theory, one of the world's great currencies. And yet, as this crisis has demonstrated, nobody actually stands behind it. There is no lender of last resort. There is no "full faith and credit." There's nobody on the other end of the promise.
And it's as if the leaders of the eurozone wanted to go out of their way to prove it. They've taken us up to the velvet curtain and then themselves, with a self-satisfied smile, pulled it aside to show us that there is no Great Oz.
And in the process they've done major, and perhaps irretrievable, damage to their own currency and to the very idea of money in our time. If you can't trust the euro, what paper can you trust?
As solid as the solidus?The idea of money may never have been grasped more clearly than in the Byzantine Empire, the great Roman Empire of the East.
From the time Constantine the Great minted the first gold solidus in 312 until the final coin was minted by Basil II, the Bulgar Slayer, around 1020, the solidus was minted at a steady rate of 72 coins to a Roman pound of gold, or 4.48 grams of gold per coin. When coins came back to the imperial treasury -- all taxes had to be paid in solidi -- they were melted down and restruck. No wonder most Byzantine emperors were proud to put their own images on the solidus.
And it's clear that the Byzantine emperors understood the power that owning a trusted currency gave them in the world. One of the first acts of the empire after recovering from the chaos of caused by the attacks of the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor and the Normans in Italy in the 11th century was to reverse the debasement of the currency that had begun in 1042.