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April 30th Lecture by Gilles Bransbourg (American Numismatic Society, New York)

Gilles Bransbourg

"Monetary Unions: what an Ancient Empire can teach us"

The Attic drachm reached the status of a commonly accepted coinage throughout the Greek world and beyond, as exemplified by the imitative issues of Egypt notably. The advantage of possessing a universally accepted coinage was recognized by Xenophon, who wrote (Phoroi, 3, 1): 'Moreover, at most other ports merchants are compelled to ship a return cargo, because the local currency has no circulation in other states; but at Athens they have the opportunity of exchanging their cargo and exporting very many classes of goods that are in demand, or, if they do not want to ship a return cargo of goods, it is sound business to export silver; for, wherever they sell it, they are sure to make a profit on the capital invested.’ Logically, Alexander went to impose the Attic silver weight standard throughout his Empire. 

According to Dio Cassius, Maecenas would have advised Augustus that ‘None of the cities should be allowed to have its own separate coinage or system of weights and measures; they should all be required to use ours.’ (Dio, 52, 30, 9).In the western half of the Roman Empire, Celtiberian and Greek-inspired coinages disappeared after Tiberius. However, a complex system of local and regional coinages kept thriving in the eastern provinces alongside the centrally-minted imperial coinage of Rome - until the monetary dislocation that took place in the later third century CE.

 The question of a monetary union kept haunting later European empires. The Carolingians created the silver penny standard. Much later, Napoleon aimed at an uniform coinage system, 'ce qui sera d'un grand avantage pour le commerce ‘. The same principles led to the 1865 Union Latine, which gathered 26 countries at its peak, including Switzerland, as well as a range of non-European countries. Finally, the European Exchange Rate Mechanism led to the current monetary union implemented on January 1st, 1999 which, according to the 1992 Treaty on the European Union, would 'achieve the strengthening and the convergence of their economies'. 

In the US, even though a continental currency was created in 1775, one had to wait until the National Banking Act of 1863 to witness the creation of a national currency. By that time, beyond its expected economic and financial rewards, it was understood that a national currency would bring a sense of better political unity as the Civil War started. As put by the Bill’s proponent Senator Sherman: ‘We cannot maintain our nationality unless we establish a sound and stable financial system; and as the basis of it we must have a uniform national currency ' 

As illustrated by these political developments, and their corollary economic and financial crises, past and present, the question of optimal currency areas has remained a constant and central concern for a range of imperial and federal powers throughout history.

This talk will aim at understanding the conditions that lead to monetary and currency unions, and, through comparative history, will open a discussion about their relative advantages and reciprocal shortcomings.


About the Speaker

Gilles Bransbourg is the Deputy Director of the American Numismatic Society in New York. He won the French nationwide Concours Général award in History at the age of 17 in 1982 and then studied Economics, Mathematics and Statistics in Paris at Lycée Louis-Le-Grand, École PolytechniqueSciences Po and École Nationale de la Statistique et de l'Administration Économique from 1983 to 1990. He became a market economist, specialized in financial derivatives, and held executive positions in the banking sector until running his own financial advisory company and investments since 2005. By 2010, Bransbourg had completed a PhD in History at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

He joined NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in 2009, first as a Visiting Research Scholar and then Research Associate, and the American Numismatic Society in 2011 as an Adjunct Curator, then an Associate Curator, and most recently as its Deputy Director. He has supervised Online Coins of the Roman Empire and curated the exhibition Signs of Inflation at The Federal Reserve Bank of New York in 2012.

His research deals with comparative economic and monetary history. He publishes extensively in a range of academic journals, conference proceedings and books, including La Politique Monétaire de l'Euro (2009)Fiscal Regimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States (2015) and Le Gouvernement des Citoyens (2017). Among numerous contributions to economic history, he recently published « Capital in the Sixth Century: the Dynamic of Tax and Estate in Egypt » in Journal of Late Antiquity (2016), which addresses the question of fiscal fairness across the social spectrum in Late Antiquity, and coauthored with Roger Bagnall as ISAW papers 14 (2019) « The Constantian Monetary Revolution. He has published occasional Op-Eds for a range of medias.

A frequent guest speaker in academic colloquiums and venues, he lectured in Economics at Sciences Po between 1990 and 1994, at the Executive Master of Finance of Sciences Po between 2007 and 2015, and has been offering a graduate seminar at ISAW since 2018.

Bransbourg was made a knight in the French Order of the Académiques Palmes in 2014. As a financial consultant and committed to philanthropic endeavors, he serves on several boards and financial committees and advises or helps a range of institutions, foundations and corporations in Europe and the US. He has contributed to the establishment of an English-French dual language curriculum in New York public schools.