The history of Roman coins is a long and highly articulate subject – it involved enormous geographical and temporal expanse.
The subject of Roman coins can be split into two broad areas:
- The development of Roman coinage from Archaic Rome until the end of the Roman Republic. Effectively involving the evolution of Roman coinage to keep pace with the growth of dominions and social structures which lay the basis for the future empire.
- The evolution of Roman coinage from the Imperial period through to the fall of Rome and the ongoing legacy for the western world versus the Eastern Roman empire based at Constantinople.
The first area is one of growing dominions and general wealth for Rome. It was not lacking in its tumultuous periods requiring economic sacrifice, such as during the Punic wars. However, it was generally a period wherein the value of coinage, particularly the silver coinage – the Denarius – held its value.
This article considers the second area: As the Roman Republic came to an end social strife and civil wars took their toll. The clear victor was Julius Caesar’s adoptive heir Octavian. Renaming himself Emperor Augustus he reorganised the entire Roman political and monetary system.
The Roman Empire reached a huge size and sphere of mercantile influence as far as India and even the Chinese trade routes through Syria. However, its enormous size also brought logistical hurdles, structural inefficiency, shifting social needs and inflation.
Ancient Roman coins and Inflation
The metal content, physical size and weight of Roman coins intended to be a close proxy of the coin’s actual value. Hence the changing attributes of ancient Roman coins are an indication of inflationary and economic pressures also.
Just like modern economies, there were many different reasons for the inflationary tendency of the Roman economy. Some of the mechanisms included:
- Low economic productivity.
- Paying for an expensive army and state apparatus.
- Taxes could only be paid in Gold and Silver, meaning demand for these particular metals and coins.
- Winning new territories brought a sudden flux of wealth and a drive on prices in Rome.
- An increasing love for imported foreign goods also meant a steady flow of precious coinage beyond the empire’s confines.
- Events that required exceptional investment, such as the great fire of Rome in 64 AC and the civil wars that followed emperor Nero’s reign had a visible impact on currency debasement.
This type of inflationary mechanism characterised Roman coinage from the time of Emperor Nero for the next 400 years all the way through to the fall of the empire of the West in the late 5th Century AD.
The development of Roman coinage throughout the Roman Empire
There are some key milestones and periods in the history of Roman coinage throughout the Empire.
- Roman Principate: Imperial coinage from until the second half of the 3rd Century (~270AD).
- The Decline of the western Empire from 270AD to the fall of Rome.
- The Influence of Roman coinage in the early middle ages.
- The legacy of the Eastern Roman Empire and Byzantium.
1. Principate: Augustan reforms through to the 3rd Century (ie when Empire reaches greatest expanse)
The events involving Julius Caesar and civil wars effectively brought the Roman Republican system to an end. Caesar’s heir Octavian (aka Emperor Augustus) reformed all major institutions whilst also encouraging a return to traditional values. The cost of the civil wars, the rebuilding of Rome to “a city of marble” and the renewed structure of government required coinage to be reformed. This reform lasted through to the second half of the 3rd century (260AD).
With this reform, the Silver Denarius was now worth 16 Aes (or As) rather than just 10. This implies that the Aes had effectively been debased whilst holding the value of the gold Aureus and silver Denarius steady.
2. Late empire to fall of Rome
Throughout the 3rd Century the silver content of the main structural coin – the Denarius –continued to drop, reaching as low as 1% around 270AD. This is a strong indicator of the ongoing inflationary pressures and rising costs of managing the empire. The trick was to make it of face value 2 denarii but with a coin weighing only 1.5 times the denarius.
Barbarous Radiates and new Roman coinage names
This untenable situation was first reformed by Diocletian (284-305) who attempted to stabilise the empire by splitting it into East and West and entirely reformed and stabilised the value of roman coinage. The Aureus, Argenteus (eliminating the radiate antoninianus) and a new silver-plated “Nummus”.
Emperor Constantine the Great continued the structural reforms and religious reforms which opened the path for Christianisation and shifted the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople. The gold Aureus was restruck as the “Solidus” – a name which was to stick thereafter. Later emperors also issued the “Tremissis”, “Siliqua” and “Miliarensis”
The fall of the Western Empire is dated to the end of the 5th Century, with various “barbarian” (Celtic) incursions and general splintering of power. The Eastern Roman Empire was still “the Roman Empire” with a claim on the western dominions though largely referred to as the Byzantine empire.
The influence of Roman coins on early medieval coins
With the fall of the western part of the Roman Empire, there was a general splintering of regional power through the usage of Roman coinage or reproduction of Roman coinage continued for a considerable time later by invading Germanic and Celtic tribes. For example, the Vandals invaded the Iberian peninsula and north Africa, among regions.
The majority of provincial mints were lost by the middle of the 7th century. Over time coinage was susceptible to fragmentation and redesign towards more abstract designs which echoed the Roman past but gradually re-introduced native styles in favour of Graeco-Roman designs. Early issues were of gold, then silver and later debased to bronze.
Byzantine coins and Roman coinage of the Eastern Roman Empire
The Roman coinage in the empire of the East, also known as the Byzantine Empire, continued to progress for a further 1000 years building on the legacy of Constantine the Great. The gold Solidus continued its existence together with a variety of clearly marked bronze coinage: Follis, Half Follis, Decanummium, Pentanummium and Nummus.
Being closer to Eastern and Middle Eastern regions the language and symbols of such coinage soon took on Greek influence and overlayed onto the Latin inscriptions with strong Christian symbolism such as the Christian Chi-Rho cross for example. The imperial portrait shifted to a frontal image of symbolic rather than figurative style.
Conclusion to the progress of Roman Coinage throughout the Empire
The history of Roman coins and the development of the monetary system throughout the imperial period had to be adapted to many changing needs for some 1500 years. It started with Emperor Augustus’ reforms through to the fall of the Roman empire of the East (Byzantium).
It was a chequered history of ongoing inflation and an eastward shift of trade. This effect is noticeable in the ongoing decrease in the silver content of the Denarius coin – which went from 98% at the time of Emperor Nero down to less than 1% in some instances in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
Creating coinage which could still serve its purpose required some extremely creative monetary reforms and metallurgical techniques to make coins look more valuable than they actually were.
These reforms had to cater for the dwindling fortunes of the western portion of the empire in parallel with those of the enduring eastern Roman empire.
The iconography of Roman coins has come to be a definitive template for many western coinage systems through time – also due to the realisation that the value of coinage lies not only in its intrinsic metal value but also as a form of currency exchange based on trust.
The golden “Solidus” of Constantine the great endured almost until the very fall of Constantinople in 1453, also pressured by the Christian crusades.