I’m a history buff. I know, what fun blogger isn’t? But my interest in history doesn’t lie in anything specific. While there are a few historical topics that greatly interest me such as feudal Japan and Viking Age Europe, I generally find myself studying random topics because something about that topic piqued my interest. Recently I’ve found myself interested in the history of alchemy, the predecessor to chemistry. To satisfy this interest I have been reading The Secrets of Alchemy (Synthesis) by Lawrence M. Principe. It’s an excellent title if you are interested in the topic.
During the first part of the book, which discusses Greco-Egyptian alchemy, there is a short discussion of the monetary debasement that was occurring in Rome at the time. As I didn’t expect to find a common thread between my interest in alchemical history and economic theory this discussion surprised me. As it turns out Diocletian was busy debasing the Roman currency by reducing the amount of precious metal in issued coinage.
Diocletian apparently ordered the destruction of all alchemical literature involving silver and gold. While alchemists at the time had not found a way to transmute base metals into noble metals they did find numerous ways to make base metals look like, at least on the surface, noble metals. In addition to writing down processes for making base metals appear to be noble metals the alchemists also wrote down processes for discovering such slights of hand. The theory put forth in the book, which I find very intriguing, is that Diocletian ordered the destruction of alchemical works involving silver and gold because he didn’t want the knowledge about how to detect debased currency to spread.
One of my favorite aspects about studying history is finding all of the common threads that run between my various interests. This story was certainly one of the most interesting collision between my interests that I’ve encountered.