Review: Money in the Late Roman Republic

David B. Hollander. Money in the Late Roman Republic. Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition 29. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007. Hb., 190 pp., bibliography, index locorum. ISBN-13: 978-90-04-15649-4. $99.

David Hollander, a 1995 graduate of the ANS Eric P. Newman Graduate Seminar in Numismatics, completed his Ph.D. at Columbia in 2002, and this book is an elaboration of his dissertation. It is an important contribution to the study of the economic history of ancient Rome both for its innovative structure and for the author’s comprehensive mining of the written sources for useful references to the subject at hand.

The first few pages lay out the scope of the book, defining “the Late Roman Republic” as the period from the introduction of the denarius in 212 BC to Octavian’s victory at Actium in 31 BC, and “money” in the broadest possible terms, as anything that can perform the function of a “medium of exchange, measure of value, unit of account, store of wealth, and means of payment” (2) and “the stock of assets readily available to make transactions” (13). This broad definition of money is an underlying theme of the book, and he takes numismatists to task for viewing money solely in terms of coinage. Hollander points out that the Roman definition of pecunia certainly included more than coinage.

Chapter 2 is a brief overview of the coinage of the period. In the section on the silver coinage, Hollander discusses the debate over the validity of Crawford’s quantification of mint output, and he concludes that the method is fundamentally sound, at least in relative terms. He also discusses quantification based on hoard evidence, concluding that there was “a massive increase in the supply of Roman silver coinage in the late Republic” (20), but he provides no finer detail. He is apparently unaware of Bernhard Woytek’s Arma et Nummi, which breaks new ground for the period 49–42 BC. In the discussion of the gold coinage, Hollander concludes, conventionally, that gold only became significant in the Roman coinage system with Caesar’s issues of 46 BC. And his treatment of the complexities of the bronze coinage of the period seems, perhaps inevitably for a book of this scope, superficial. He describes some of the prevailing theories but adds little. It is not clear what his statement that “the Romans continued to mint divisors during this period” (26) is intended to mean, and he seems, with one exception, unaware of the important work of Clive Stannard on the massive unofficial bronze coinage of central Italy in the first century BC. One would have liked to see a summing up of all of this prior work in quantitative terms, but this, in itself, would have required a much longer book.

The next three chapters represent the meat of the book. Chapter 3 discusses the various noncoinage financial instruments available under the Republic: bullion, financial instruments (Permutations, Syngraphae, Partes, and Nomia), and financial institutions. For each of these, the sparse literary evidence is comprehensively and lucidly marshaled. And the Index Locorum allows the reader to easily find all of the references to a particular source. While this chapter is quite useful, it makes no attempt to assess the relative significance of the various instruments, presumably because the evidence does not support such an analysis.

Chapter 4 discusses the role of assets other than bullion and coinage in the Roman monetary system and concludes that commodities such as livestock and land were sometimes used as money. Again, the discussion is based on the literary sources, and there is no attempt at quantification.

One of the significant insights in Hollander’s work is that any discussion of the monetary economy of the Roman Republic must distinguish between the various parts of that economy (or “monetary zones,” as Hollander designates them), because the form and uses of money varied greatly among them. Four monetary zones are described: governmental, commercial, urban, and rural. He then details the flows of money within each, again based primarily on the literary sources. Hollander’s structure makes sense and permits coherent commentary. In the discussion of the “commercial zone,” Hollander notes that gold and silver are rarely found in ancient shipwrecks, implying that they may therefore not have been important in commercial transactions. Surely the large number of gold and silver hoards of a commercial nature found on land would belie such a conclusion. When considering the “urban zone,” he briefly discusses the evidence of coin finds, citing the results of only one excavation, but he dismisses such evidence as inconclusive. It strikes me that a comprehensive analysis of the coins found at the many urban site excavations from this period would yield a wealth of information about the nature of the monetary economy. Hollander again turns briefly to a discussion of coin finds in his “rural zone” section, but again, he mentions only three sites and does not attempt to assemble the substantial archeological evidence into a coherent whole.

The final chapter is devoted to the application of modern macroeconomic theory to the monetary economy of the Republic, which concludes that, for a variety of reasons, the demand for coinage did increase substantially in the late Republic, as did the quantity of coinage. The proportion of assets kept steady as coinage increased substantially as well.

In sum, this is a useful and well-written book that should provide a sound basis for further study of this important subject.

­—Rick Witschonke