Action & Reaction

Action & Reaction

If Only He Knew

WHEN I READ ARRIAN’S LIFE OF ALEXANder years ago, I guessed that he died of typhoid fever [“Alexander the Infected,” Breakthroughs, October]. I was pleased to see that confirmed by Oldach and Borza.

It is interesting to note that the ancient Persians were aware of waterborne diseases and how to prevent them, by a method unknown for another 2,500 years. Herodotus in his Histories (book 1, paragraph 188) pointed out that Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, carried his own water supply on military expeditions. He took water from the Choaspes River, boiled it, then carried it in silver containers. He was thus aware that boiling would sterilize water, and silver would keep it pure. It would be fascinating to know what he thought the process accomplished.

RICHARD E. JUDAY Professor Emeritus University of Montana

Empire Must Advertise HEATHER PRINGLE’S ENLIGHTENING ARticle “The Cradle of Cash” [October] quotes Thomas Wyrick’s comment that the extensive fourth century B.C. gold and silver coinage of Alexander the Great constituted “ads for empire building.” I have interpreted enigmatic markings on Phoenician coins of the same age as a map of the Mediterranean region (see M. McMenamin, Carthaginian Cartography: A Stylized Exergue Map, Meanma Press, 1996). Phoenicians apparently used their gold coins as a means of advertising their steadily expanding trade network.

MARK McMENAMIN Department of Geology Mount Holyoke College

Paper Chase

YOUR OCTOBER ISSUE STATES IN A “Money Fact” that the first government outside of China to issue paper currency was that of the Massachusetts colony in 1690. Paper money, however, appeared in what is now Canada as early as 1685.

In the late seventeenth century a serious and persistent coin shortage in New France meant that the colony did not have enough money to pay the soldiers stationed in Quebec. As a result, playing cards were given a value, signed by the senior colonial administrator, and were used to pay the soldiers. These cards were convertible to coins, which arrived with the annual supply ships from France.

The issuing of playing cards as legal tender proved to be quite popular with residents of New France. The practice continued until 1714, when it was banned by Louis XIV of France.


IN 1397, VIETNAM–BRIEFLY–ISSUED PAPER currency. Near the end of Vietnam’s Tran dynasty, Ho Quy Ly, a powerful ruler, carried out major reforms. The most radical economic reform was the issuance of paper currency, seven bills in all. Ho Quy Ly decreed that all circulating coinage had to be exchanged for paper currency. Counterfeiting bills or hoarding coins was penalized by death and confiscation of property.

Vietnam was invaded by the Ming dynasty in 1407, and its treasury was looted by the occupying forces. When Vietnam regained its independence in 1428, the new dynasty of Emperor Le Thai To restored the use of coinage.

Ravaged by wars and time, Vietnam retains no sample of the 600-year-old paper currency, the country’s first.

NHAN TRAN San Jose, Calif

The Virtual Future and the All-Too-Real Past

LEON LEDERMAN [“THE FISCAL FRONTIER,” October] predicts that the demise of cash will equal the demise of crime. Violent crime will cease because there is no cash to steal, and taxes will no longer be evaded because our financial affairs will be computerized and they can thus be automatically deducted because all our money will be totally available to government surveillance–and I use that word deliberately. Lederman’s faith in the continuing good intentions of a benevolent, paternalistic government is, to be as kind as possible, frighteningly naive. His call for laws protecting privacy sounds good, but governments historically have made and changed whatever laws they desired to suit themselves.

Total denial of cash or access to money means whoever the government is mad at couldn’t even run away and hide. You couldn’t buy an airplane ticket, a bus ticket, or even gasoline for your car–your currency, your credit, and your accounts could be instantly frozen by government order.

I know a man who is alive today because he had a gold ring, an untraceable medium of exchange, like cash. He used it to bribe a border guard to let him flee into Switzerland in 1942. I don’t think the border guard would have taken his credit card. Without the ring, the man would have been killed.

MIKE ARMAN Ormond Beach, Fla.

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