I had a really fascinating experience last year that has turned into something of a journey of discovery. It’s still ongoing, and I’m sure it will affect my writing in years to come.
It started with family history. Long time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been interested in family history for some time. My sister is a professional genealogist who specializes in Czech records (she keeps a blog here), and I got started by helping her.
In the United States, the census records are only useful to about 1850. Before that, you have to get into land records, probates and wills, and local courthouse type stuff to really go anywhere. But in the Czech lands, the Catholic Church has kept meticulous parish records going back to the 15th and 16th centuries. They’re handwritten in old German and totally unindexed, but the books are all digitized and available online.
As I worked on this research with my sister, I started to wonder: how far back can we push these lines? What are the limits?
The Czech lands were part of the Holy Roman Empire, under the Austrian Habsbugs. In the 15th century, the Hussite Wars shook things up quite a bit, and that’s about as far back as the Catholic parish records go. But the noble genealogies were very well kept, and go back quite a bit further. If one of your lines connects to the nobility (which is very possible, given how many bastard children were running around), you can push back really far.
But past the 8th century, things start to get sketchy. Most of the nobility in Europe are descended from the barbarian tribes who invaded the Roman Empire: the Goths, the Franks, the Vandals, etc. Same thing with the Slavs and the Byzantine Empire, though the Byzantines held out much better than the Western Roman Empire (it was the Turks, not the barbarians, who eventually did them in).
The trouble is that when these barbarians took over, they tried to establish their legitimacy by fabricating genealogies. Plenty of royal European lines go back all the way to Adam and Eve, but how reliable is that really? As rulers of Christian lands, of course they would try to connect themselves to famous characters from the Bible.
The Dark Ages might not be as dark as we think they are, but in terms of records and record-keeping, they certainly are. The largest and most civilized empire in the world had just collapsed, with barbarians running amok in the countryside and the Persians threatening the last vestiges of the empire in the east. Very few historians have documented this era, and it was a huge dark spot in my own understanding of the world.
So I set out to study it. I scoured Wikipedia, subscribed to the Western Civ podcast, and listened to the entire History of Rome by Mike Duncan (excellent podcast, by the way). The Roman Empire had dominated Europe right up to the early middle ages, and I wanted to learn why it had fallen.
That led to a journey of discovery all in itself. Roman history is a fascinating subject in its own right, and the four or five centuries from the Punic Wars through the reign of Marcus Aurelius are very well documented. Rome faced a lot of challenges, and even a few existential threats, but for more than a thousand years they dominated the known world.
So why did they fall?
The more I studied about the Romans, the heavier this question weighed on me. I learned about Diocletian and the Tetrarchy, the crisis of the third century, and Constantine the Great—a period of Roman history that was much less familiar to me. And then things started to click.
My Czech ancestors were serfs. They emmigrated to Texas shortly after the last vestiges of serfdom were abolished in 1848. Under serfdom, they were little better than slaves. The land they lived and worked on was owned by the Hukvaldy Estate, and they were bound to it by feudal law.
When Diocletian became Augustus, the Roman Empire was reeling from half a dozen existential crises, including an economic collapse. The money was so worthless, most of the empire had resorted to a barter economy. Diocletian established a system of exchange where people could pay their taxes with trade goods rather than money. However, the only way for that system to work was 1) for everyone to take the profession of their parents, and 2) for no one to move without Imperial permission. Otherwise, you might have too many pig farmers in one province and not enough blacksmiths in another.
In other words, the system of feudal serfdom that my ancestors labored under had its roots in the reforms of Diocletian. But it went much deeper than just one man. Diocletian reforms were necessary because the Roman economy had collapsed, and the economy had collapsed because for more than a hundred years, the Empire had been in massive debt, and had serviced its debts by devaluing its currency.
The Roman Empire fell because of deficit spending, government debt, and currency devaluation over the course of several generations. In 1913, the United States established the Federal Reserve, beginning our own process of currency devaluation. Our national debt has doubled every eight years since 2000, when the stock market peaked as measured in gold. Right now, our debt-to-GDP is 104%. One hundred four percent.
And that’s just our sovereign debt. Our household debt is north of $12 trillion, or another 73% of our GDP. The largest portion of that is student loans, which cannot be resolved through bankruptcy.
Seven out of ten Americans have less than $1,000 in savings.
Half of Americans would have to beg, borrow, or steal if slapped with an unexpected $400 expense.
Twenty percent of American households do not have a single person that is working.
Fully one-third of America is in debt collections, meaning that they have an unpaid debt more than 180 days past due.
Is it any wonder that the middle class is shrinking? We’re following the same path that Rome followed, except where they merely walked, we’re running headlong. With our modern communications, the pace of life is so fast that I suspect we’re completing the cycle in a fraction of the time.
And then you realize that what passes for money these days isn’t “money” at all, but government paper backed by government debt. What happens when we default? What happens when the credit markets freeze up and contagion spreads across the global economy? What happens when you wake up one morning, only to find that all the ATMs are down, the banks are all closed, and everyone’s accounts are all frozen?
So what started as an interest in family history took me down a rabbit hole where I learned all about how Rome fell, and how we’re following in the footsteps of Rome. It led to a keen interest in monetary policy and our global monetary system. It also gave me a new hobby: coin hunting.
The Romans devalued their currency by melting down the old gold and silver coins, and minting new ones mixed with copper. Over time, the melt value of the coins went down, and that’s exactly what’s happening to our US currency now.
Before 1965, dimes and quarters were made from 90% silver. After, they were made from copper with a thin nickel coating. Nickels have always been made from a 75/25 copper-nickel alloy, however, and pennies were all 95% copper until 1982. Right now, the melt value of a US penny is actually 1.8¢. At the height of the “jobless recovery” it was closer to 4¢.
Now, it’s illegal to melt down pennies because they are currently legal tender. However, as the currency continues to inflate, the penny will become even more worthless, eventually reaching the point where it doesn’t make sense to make anymore. Right now, the material cost alone of each zinc penny is 70% of the face value. Canada has already discontinued minting pennies, and we aren’t far behind.
I started dabbling in copper hoarding. But as I went through lots of pennies, I started coming across some really old ones. Which got me to wondering if maybe the numismatic value of some of these coins eventually might be more than their melt value. After all, when everyone’s melted down their copper pennies, a complete collection of Lincoln cents is going to be something special.
So I started building a collection of Lincoln cents. Then I got into state quarters, first as a cool Christmas gift for one of my nephews, then for myself. Then I got into Jefferson nickels, and started finding silver.
Right now, I have a complete set of Lincoln Memorial cents. They’re all from circulation, and some of them are pretty beat up, but there are a few really nice ones in there too. My wheat cents collection is much less complete, but the coolest piece is a 1909 VDB in very fine condition, with all the wheat berries still showing. That’s a $10-$15 penny that I found in a normal coin roll.
It’s a fun hobby, and it comes around full circle to what got me started down this rabbit hole in the first place. Each one of these coins is a small piece of history. That 1909 VDB is more than a hundred years old. I’ve got coins that my parents and grandparents would have used, and a penny for every year of my father’s and mother’s lives. With a bit of luck and a lot of patience, I’ll be able to find a penny for every year of my grandparents’ lives as well.
So yeah, it’s been a fascinating journey of discovery, and it’s still ongoing too. I just got started with Roosevelt dimes, and I’m catching up on Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, which is just as interesting as his History of Rome. Turns out that the French Revolution also happened because of deficit spending and a runaway government debt. Surprise, surprise.
Life is a giant rabbit hole when you’re curious about everything!