The late Roman/early Byzantine emperor Justinian I (or Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus Augustus to give him his pompous full throne name), emperor from AD 527 to 565, codified Roman law in his monumental Corpus iuris civilis (Corpus of Civil Law), which was issued from AD 529 to 534. The four parts of the Corpus iuris civilis were as follows:
(1) the Institutions (a type of introductory textbook for students);In Book 18 of the Digest, we have a passage where lawyers speculate about the origin of money, and this is notable as an early example of the barter origin of money theory:
(2) the Codex (a collection of constitutions by the Roman emperors);
(3) the Digest or Pandects (a collection of excerpts from the works of earlier jurists that now became law), and
(4) the Novellae (new constitutions issued after AD 534).
“The origin of purchase and sale is derived from exchanges, for formerly money was not known, and there was no name for merchandise or the price of anything, but every one, in accordance with the requirements of the time and circumstances, exchanged articles which were useless to him for other things which he needed; for it often happens that what one has a superabundance of, another lacks. But, for the reason that it did not always or readily happen that when you had what I wanted, or, on the other hand that I had what you were willing to take, a substance was selected whose public and perpetual value, by its uniformity as a medium of exchange, overcame the difficulties arising from barter, and this substance, having been coined by public authority, represented use and ownership, not so much on account of the material itself as by its value, and both articles were no longer designated merchandise, but one of them was called the price of the other.”This is a passage that shows us the following:
(Paulus, On the Edict, Book 33 apud Digest 18.1.1).
(1) When people have thought about the emergence of money, even in ancient times, they tend to think of barter, even though the barter origin of money was only one way by which money has emerged, according to the findings of modern anthropology and history. Curiously, it is not stated by whom the medium of exchange was “selected” historically, but let us assume for the sake of argument the text imagines a private, market process.
People might wish to cite this evidence of the universal barter origin of money theory, but in reality what weight does it have? Not much.
This was written by learned legal scholars and jurists in Constantinople in the early 6th century AD, and they cited an earlier jurist called Paulus Prudentissimus from 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
But none of these jurists had any real knowledge of how money had emerged over 1000 years before their time in ancient Rome and Greece: this is the equivalent of a modern scholar in 2012 trying to tell us how the Anglo-Saxon economy worked c. 800 AD, with no real evidence, but merely using intuition. But intuition can be deeply mistaken, for some things are simply counter-intuitive.
(2) Even in this passage, it is notable how these late Roman lawyers also believed that the state had a major role coining money and establishing it as a uniform medium of exchange.