American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars: The History of Money

Ancient Rome


The Romans established a highly centralized system of currency, which became the model for many later states. The first Roman currency consisted of heavy bronze bars, which were used to pay taxes or fines until as late as the 4th century BC. Contact with the Greek colonies of southern Italy and Sicily, as well as the pressures of the war against Hannibal of Carthage (218-202 BC), led to the adoption of a new silver denomination. This denarius remained the basis of Roman money for five centuries.

The rapid growth of the city of Rome into one of history's most enduring empires went alongside a highly organized system of money. Under the Republic, which lasted until 31 BC, elected magistrates used coinage for expressing political messages. Coin production within the vast empire was enormous since the emperors used coins to create a positive public image by advertising everything from their various public works and military victories to domestic harmony. In a world in which most people were illiterate, images on coins were often the fastest way to get a particular message out to a large audience.

Frequent political and economic crises in the 3rd century AD caused massive inflation, which ultimately contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. By the 5th century, much monetary wealth was concentrated in the treasuries of wealthy landowners and Christian churches.