This is a pleasant essay - to call it a "history" is to give it more weight than it has - organized around the development of a truly transforming idea: money. And as innovations in money advanced those societies in which they arose, so this book must be a discussion of how money changed, and was changed by, the most "advanced" cultures of their time. Initially just the merchants needed something trans-national, and bars of raw gold and silver fit the bill. But it was the invention of coins, money that could be used by anyone, that started us down the path to the modern world, where all things - from pain and suffering to bushels of wheat - are commensurable in the one metric: money.
Jack Weatherford is an anthropologist, not an economist, so it is not surprising that he lingers over certain details that don't have a lot to do with his ostensible subject. Thus we are treated to the grisly spectacle of an Aztec human sacrifice, and how the Peruvian Indians who mine the silver that enriches others reconcile themselves to their poor and hazardous lives. Yet he does not stray far, and his depiction of the squeezing of the citizens of Rome for more and more taxes by successive emperors (plus their dilution of the currency) that led to the destruction of the free small-holding and business-owning classes, and with them the Empire, is chilling and instructive. The barbarians were kinder: they didn't use money.
The inventions of banking and of merchants' instruments (such as bills of exchange) are discussed, as well as the first national banks, in explaining the advent of paper money, the next great innovation. The pax Britannica is discussed, too, in a way: the British empire was not really as important, probably, as the British pound, backed by gold, and serving as a fixed monetary point, for a long period of world prosperity. For whatever logic inheres, or does not, to the "backing" of a currency by a precious metal, it did have the faith of many for a long time, and held currencies in rock-solid interrelationships for years.
Are things better now that all our currencies are floating, changing values relatively and absolutely every moment? Gold is a superstition, after all, so away with it! This book is at its best discussing the national hyperinflations that followed the Great War, the falling away from the gold standard, and the advent of the newer types of money and near-money. Electronic cash of various sorts, currency markets, and credit-card purchases that create private money are playing havoc with the traditional calculations of national money supply, and undermining the ability of governments to control their currency.
Where will it end? We'll have to surf this tidal wave of new money creation as long as we can without getting swamped: "The current electronic revolution in money promises to increase even more the role of money in our public and private lives, surpassing kinship, religion, occupation, and citizenship as the defining element of social life. We stand now at the dawn of the Age of Money." (p268)