In our fascination with blockchain and cryptocurrency, we tend to overlook one of the most radical currency reforms of our civilization: Lycurgus’ precious metal coin ban.
Around the 8th century, Sparta is said to have been an extremely unequal society, with most of the land and moveable wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. Spartan cities, ancient historians tell us, were rife with poverty and crime. To restore the social fabric, the legendary legislator Lycurgus set out on a series of reforms, of which one focused on coinage. He reportedly ‘revoked all gold and silver coinage and made iron the only legal tender; then he gave even a considerable weight and amount of iron such a low value that ten minas’ [a unit of weight] worth needed a large storeroom in one’s house and a team of cattle to transport it.’
With precious metal out of circulation, order was restored and a measure of equality achieved. No more embezzlement, no more bribery, no more robberies, since iron coinage, while keeping its monetary value, had no intrinsic value and was no longer attractive, or even possible, to appropriate. Who would want to steal big hefty bags of rusty metal?
Just like crypto, Lycurgocoin benefited from enhanced security. And with the iron coins away from greedy eyes and grasping hands, it kept clear of any central regulation.
Admittedly, Lycurgus’ coin reform, if there is any truth to it, created more problems than it solved. If iron coins is all there is and if they are too heavy to circulate, then the whole system will collapse. But the reform has the merit that it says something about ancient thinking, and that is that radical leadership is not as modern as we think.
Thinking big knows no age constraints.