Historically Speaking: You Might Not Want to Win a Roman Lottery

Humans have long liked to draw lots as a way to win fortunes and settle fates

The Wall Street Journal

November 25, 2022

Someone in California won this month’s $2.04 billion Powerball lottery—the largest in U.S. history. The odds are staggering. The likelihood of death by plane crash (often estimated at 1 in 11 million for the average American) is greater than that of winning the Powerball or Mega Millions lottery (1 in roughly 300 million). Despite this, just under 50% of American adults bought a lottery ticket last year.

What drives people to risk their luck playing the lottery is more than just lousy math. Lotteries tap into a deep need among humans to find meaning in random events. Many ancient societies, from the Chinese to the Hebrews, practiced cleromancy, or the casting of lots to enable divine will to express itself. It is stated in the Bible’s Book of Proverbs: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.”

The ancient Greeks were among the first to use lotteries to ensure impartiality for non-religious purposes. The Athenians relied on a special device called a “kleroterion” for selecting jurors and public officials at random, to avoid unfair interference. The Romans had a more terrible use for drawing lots: A kind of collective military punishment known as “decimation” required a disgraced legion to select 1 out of every 10 soldiers at random and execute them. The last known use of the practice was in World War I by French and possibly Italian commanders.

The Romans also found less bloody uses for lotteries, including as a source of state revenue. Emperor Nero was likely the first ruler to use a raffle system as a means of filling the treasury without raising taxes.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Following the fall of Rome, lotteries found other uses in the West—for example, as a means of allocating market stalls. But state lotteries only returned to Europe after 1441, when the city of Bruges successfully experimented with one as a means to finance its community projects. These fundraisers didn’t always work, however. A lack of faith in the English authorities severely dampened ticket sales for Queen Elizabeth I’s first (and last) National Lottery in 1567.

When they did work, the bonanzas could be significant: In the New World, lotteries helped to pay for the first years of the Jamestown Colony, as well as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia and many other institutions. And in France in 1729, the philosopher Voltaire got very rich by winning the national lottery, which was meant to sell bonds by making each bond a ticket for a jackpot drawing. He did it by unsavory means: Voltaire was part of a consortium of schemers who took advantage of a flaw in the lottery’s design by buying up enormous numbers of very cheap bonds.

Corruption scandals and failures eventually took their toll. Critics such as the French novelist Honoré de Balzac, who called lotteries the “opium of poverty,” denounced them for exploiting the poor. Starting in the late 1820s, a raft of anti-lottery laws were enacted on both sides of the Atlantic. Debates continued about them even where they remained legal. The Russian novelist Anton Chekhov highlighted their debilitating effects in his 1887 short story “The Lottery Ticket,” about a contented couple who are tormented and finally turned into raging malcontents by the mere possibility of winning.

New Hampshire was the first American state to roll back the ban on lotteries in 1964. Since then, state lotteries have proven to be neither the disaster nor the cure-all predicted. As for the five holdouts—Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah still have no state lotteries—they are doing just fine.

Historically Speaking: Inflation Once Had No Name, Let Alone Remedy

Empires from Rome to China struggled to restore the value of currencies that spiraled out of control

The Wall Street Journal

May 27, 2022

Even if experts don’t always agree on the specifics, there is broad agreement on what inflation is and on its dangers. But this consensus is relatively new: The term “inflation” only came into general usage during the mid-19th century.

Long before that, Roman emperors struggled to address the nameless affliction by debasing their coinage, which only worsened the problem. By 268 AD, the silver content of the denarius had dropped to 0.5%, while the price of wheat had risen almost 200-fold. In 301, Emperor Diocletian tried to restore the value of Roman currency by imposing rigid controls on the economy. But the reforms addressed inflation’s symptoms rather than its causes. Even Diocletian’s government preferred to collect taxes in kind rather than in specie.

A lack of knowledge about the laws of supply and demand also doomed early Chinese experiments in paper money during the Southern Song, Mongol and Ming Dynasties. Too many notes wound up in circulation, leading to rampant inflation. Thinking that paper was the culprit, the Chongzhen Emperor hoped to restore stability by switching to silver coins. But these introduced other vulnerabilities. In the 1630s, the decline of Spanish silver from the New World (alongside a spate of crop failures) resulted in a money shortage—and a new round of inflation. The Ming Dynasty collapsed not long after, in 1644.

Spain was hardly in better shape. The country endured unrelenting inflation during the so-called Price Revolution in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, as populations increased, demand for goods spiraled and the purchasing power of silver collapsed. The French political theorist Jean Bodin recognized as early as 1568 that rising prices were connected to the amount of money circulating in the system. But his considered view was overlooked in the rush to find scapegoats, such as the Jews.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The great breakthrough came in the 18th century as classical economists led by Adam Smith argued that the market was governed by laws and could be studied like any other science. Smith also came close to identifying inflation, observing that wealth is destroyed when governments attempt to “inflate the currency.” The term “inflation” became common in the mid-19th century, particularly in the U.S., in the context of boom and bust cycles caused by an unsecured money supply.

Ironically, the worst cases of inflation during the 20th century coincided with the rise of increasingly sophisticated models for predicting it. The hyperinflation of the German Papiermark during the Weimar Republic in 1921-23 may be the most famous, but it pales in comparison to the Hungarian Pengo in 1945-46. Inflamed by the government’s weak response, prices doubled every 15 hours at their peak. The one billion trillion Pengo note was worth about one pound sterling. By 1949 the currency had gone—and so had Hungary’s democracy.

In 1982, the U.S. Federal Reserve under Paul Volcker achieved a historic victory over what became known as the Great Inflation of the 1960s and ‘70s. It did so through an aggressive regimen of high interest rates to curb spending. Ordinary Americans suffered high unemployment as a result, but the country endured. As with any affliction, it isn’t enough for doctors to identify the cause: The patient must be prepared to take his medicine.

The Sunday Times: It’s your Waterloo, chaps: a new epoch of female spending power is here

Creative Commons

Creative Commons

Here is a thought for when the bells ring in 2014: we are teetering on the edge of a new epoch. Historians should never pretend to be fortune-tellers, but we can recognise patterns. One of the most consistent over the past millennium has been the significance of years ending in 14 as a marker or gateway between eras. It is as though the tide of human events reaches the new century only after a decade and a half of frothy preamble.

In the 13th century, for example, 1214 was the year that the feudal barons turned against King John, followed in 1215 by the signing of Magna Carta.

The mass misery that characterised the 14th century, with its great famine and Black Death pandemic, began with the harvest failures of 1314. The meteoric rise of the Portuguese empire in the 15th century began in 1414 when Henry the Navigator laid down plans to attack the Moors. Continue reading…