Rome: A Thousand Years of Monetary History

From Republic to Empire

Starting in the late 4th century B.C., the Roman Republic based a bronze (aesin Latin) coinage upon the weight standard of the Roman pound, which was about 323 metric grams. The heavy base unit, the as, initially weighed one Roman pound, while fractional coins were minted at proportional weights. The Roman monetary weight standards quickly collapsed during the 2nd Punic War (218-204 B.C.), triggering a massive rise in prices.

As. 2nd half of the 3rd century B.C. Bronze, 284.65 g. Rome (ANS1943.127.1).

Aes grave is used to name the early Roman weight standard.

Uncia (1/12th of an as), 1st half of the 3rd century B.C. Bronze, 26.13 g. Rome (ANS 1954.263.128, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Tavener).

Sextans (1/6th of an as), c. 215 B.C. Bronze, 27.52 g. Rome (ANS1944.100.115, bequest of E. T. Newell).

The weight of this coin is close to that of the previous uncia, although its notional value is twice as high.

As, c. 200 B.C. Bronze, 34.71 g. Rome (ANS 1969.83.273, gift of Eugene R. Miles).

At this point, the as weighed less than 1/6th of a Roman pound.

As, 88 B.C. Bronze, 10.31 g. Rome (ANS 1944.100.939, bequest of E. T. Newell).

This coin’s weight follows a standard of 1/24th of the Roman pound, called the semuncial (half-ounce) standard.

By the end of the Republic, the Roman monetary system evolved towards a system of gold, silver, and several copper-based alloys. Rome had started issuing silver coinage at the beginning of the 3rd century B.C. and standardized it as a coin weighing 1/84th, and then 1/72nd, of a Roman pound. Called the denarius, its name initially meant that it was worth 10 bronze asses, before being revalued to 16 asses around 140 B.C. A combination of increased silver supply from Spanish mining and external conquests, revaluations, and decreasing bronze weight standards pushed the Roman price system into an inflationary spiral. Julius Caesar minted gold coins, at 1/40th of the Roman pound (about 8 g.). The main Roman denominations were linked following the equation, 1 aureus = 25 denarii = 100 sestertii = 400 asses. The Roman monetary system was stabilized for three centuries, and inflation was eradicated.

Aureus (Caesar), 46 B.C. Gold, 8.09 g. Rome (ANS 1944.100.3336, bequest of E. T. Newell).

Denarius (Caesar), 48-47 B.C. Silver, 3.98 g. Moving mint (ANS 1950.103.50).

Sestertius, (Octavian), 38 B.C. Orichalcum, 26.96 g. Italy (ANS1944.100.6017, bequest of E. T. Newell).

This coin is twice as heavy as an as, though it was four times more valuable. The reason for this is its expensive copper-zinc alloy called orichalcum.

Dupondius (Augustus), 16 B.C. Orichalcum, 9.99 g. Rome (ANS1944.100.38366, bequest of E. T. Newell).

The dupondius was worth 2 asses.

As (Augustus), 22-21 B.C. Bronze, 10.52 g. Rome (ANS 1987.26.268, gift of Damia Francis).

Bronze (Augustus), prior to A.D. 14, 10.06 g. Antioch in Pisidia (modern Turkey) (ANS 1960.170.420, bequest of D. M. Robinson).

The exact denominations of provincial coins are often uncertain, as Rome permitted a high degree of local autonomy in the East. This coin is comparable to contemporary Imperial asses.


Debasement and Inflation

In A.D. 64, Nero initiated a monetary reform that would have lasting consequences by mixing the silver content of the denarii with up to 25% copper. After further debasements of the Imperial coinage, “silver” denarii included less than 50% silver by the time of Septimius Severus in the early 3rd century A.D.

Sestertius (Nero), A.D. 64-66. Bronze, 25.40 g. Lyons (ANS 1941.131.715, gift of George H. Clapp).

Denarius (Commodus), A.D. 192-193. Silver alloy, 3.24 g. Rome (ANS1944.100.49711, bequest of E. T. Newell).

Sestertius (Commodus), A.D. 188-189. Debased orichalcum, 23.52 g. Rome (ANS 1944.100.49760, bequest of E. T. Newell).

Instead of debasing the denarius below 50% of silver, Caracalla, sole emperor from A.D. 211 to 217, introduced a coin that weighed 1.5 times more, but was valued at two times as much, resulting in an effective 25% additional debasement. Inflation appeared after three centuries of stability.

Aureus (Caracalla under Septimius Severus), A.D. 205. Gold, 7.11 g. Rome (ANS 1955.191.27, gift of Elizabeth A. Chalifoux).

This coin is significantly lighter than the aureus which was minted two and a half centuries before.

Antoninianus (Caracalla), A.D. 215-217. Silver alloy, 4.85 g. Rome (ANS1944.100.51525, bequest of E. T. Newell).

During the later 3rd century A.D., the old Roman monetary system collapsed. With time, antoniniani included less and less silver to the point where the precious metal became a trace element in an overall base coinage. The previously bronze coins became increasingly lighter, including more lead, and finally disappeared as bad money chased good. Prices multiplied ten-fold during the decade A.D. 260-270, implying about 25% annual inflation during those years.

Antoninianus (Claudius II), A.D. 268-270. Billon, 3.05 g. Rome (ANS1944.100.32420, bequest of E. T. Newell).

Possibly a “double” sestertius (Postumus), A.D. 260-268. Bronze, 21.21 g. Gallic mint (ANS 1951.23.30).

The weights of the coins minted at this time are spread over a very wide range, possibly implying that coins were traded by weight and no longer at nominal face value.

Bronze (Claudius II), A.D. 268-270, 7.78 g. Antioch in Pisidia (ANS1944.100.51154, bequest of E. T. Newell).

This most likely represents the same denomination, with about 25% less weight.

Diocletian (A.D. 284-305) restored imperial order and established the Tetrarchy, a shared system of four co-rulers. By A.D. 295, a major currency reform aimed at emulating the previous Augustan system was implemented. It relied upon a system based on gold, silver, and billon (5% silver). The lack of gold and silver led to a groundbreaking fiscal reform that attempted to promote a proportional global taxation system. In A.D. 301 the exchange rates between the various denominations were reformed, with 1 aureus = 1,200 denarii; 1 argenteus = 100 denarii; and 1 nummus = 25 denarii. The denarius was “resurrected” as a unit of account, but not as a coin. Such a scheme could allow nominal price increases disconnected from any change in the coinage itself, since the nominal value of each coin could be modified by official decision. Much of medieval and pre-modern Europe operated under similar currency regimes.

Aureus (Diocletian), A.D. 295-305. Gold, 4.99 g. Trier (ANS 1944.100.5863, bequest of E. T. Newell).

Argenteus (Maximian), A.D. 298-299. Silver, 3.11 g. Trier (ANS1944.100.5871, bequest of E. T. Newell).

Nummus (Galerius), A.D. 295-296. Billon, 10.16 g. Uncertain mint (ANS1984.146.363).

This coin still retains its original silverish appearance.

Half nummus (Maximinus II), A.D. 307. Billon, 3.61 g. Trier (ANS1984.146.1349).

Quarter nummus (Constantine I), A.D 307. Billon, 2.47 g. Trier (ANS1984.146.1351).


Depreciation and Reform in Late Antiquity

By A.D. 324 Constantine was the sole emperor. Diocletian’s successors failed to keep the monetary system intact. The billon nummus became lighter and lighter, while its proportion of silver diminished. Nominal inflation reached very high levels. In A.D. 301, one pound of gold was worth 72,000 denarii. It finally stabilized at about 3,000,000,000 denarii by the end of the 4th century implying an average annual compounded inflation of 12.5%. The depreciation of the base coinage itself was far more limited: one needed 7,200 nummi to purchase one pound of gold in A.D. 301. By the end of the 4th century, over 500,000 debased nummi were needed, implying a rate of depreciation of only 5% per year. Gold became the sole anchor of a system of a deteriorating base currency. The aureus, struck at the weight of 1/60th of the Roman pound (5.4 g), was replaced under Constantine in A.D. 312 by the lightersolidus, struck at 1/72nd of a pound (4.5 g.).

Solidus (Constantine I), A.D. 335-336. Gold, 4.4 g. Antioch (Syria) (ANS1967.153.47, bequest of Adra N. Newell).

Light miliarensis or siliqua (Constantius II), A.D. 340-350. Silver, 3 g. Thessalonica (ANS 1944.100.21208, bequest of E. T. Newell).

Silver coins from this period follow several weight standards: roughly 1/60th, 1/72nd, 1/96th, and 1/144th of the Roman pound.

Nummus (Licinius), A.D. 310-313. Billon, 4.06 g. Trier (ANS 1925.176.106, gift of J. P. Morgan, Jr.).

Nummus (Constantine I), A.D. 316. Billon, 3.10 g. Trier (ANS 1925.176.116, gift of J. P. Morgan, Jr.).

Nummus (Constantius II), A.D. 337-340. Billon, 1.12 g. Thessalonica (ANS1944.100.21221, bequest of E. T. Newell).

The weight standard by this period was about 6 times lower than at the beginning of the century, and the alloy included almost no more silver.

Multiple of a nummus (Constantius II), A.D. 350-355. Billon, 6.01 g. Thessalonica (ANS 1944.100.21267, bequest of E. T. Newell).

A monetary reform occurred in A.D. 348, as the authorities tried to restore a higher billon standard with heavier coins. This coin was most likely calledpecunia maiorina (literally, “somewhat larger money”), possibly worth 2 nummi. It was later demonetized.

Multiple of a nummus (Julian II), A.D. 361-363. Billon, 8.02 g. Nicomedia (ANS1944.100.21523, bequest of E. T. Newell).

Julian emulated the coinage of the Tetrarchy by issuing a heavier billon coin. The experienced was short-lived.

Light miliarensis or siliqua (Valens), A.D. 367-375. Silver, 1.95 g. Trier (ANS1944.100.25314, bequest of E. T. Newell).

Solidus (Valentinian II), A.D. 388-392. Gold, 4.4 g. Trier (ANS 1905.57.177, gift of Daniel Parish, Jr.).

Gold coins became more numerous after the 360s, implying that new sources of gold had been found, probably in the Balkans. Nominal inflation started to stabilize. Yet the Eastern emperor Valens and his army were annihilated at Adrianopolis in A.D. 378, signaling the end of centuries of Roman military’s tactical superiority.

Solidus (Romulus Augustulus), A.D. 475-476. Gold, 4.38 g. Rome (ANS1944.100.54897, bequest of E. T. Newell).

The collapse of the Western Empire in A.D. 476 did not prevent emperor Romulus Augustulus’ gold coinage from respecting the standards of weight and quality of his predecessors.

Roman emperors continued to rule in the East from Constantinople. Under Justinian (A.D. 527-565), important regions of the West were re-conquered. A major reform in A.D. 498 led to the introduction of a heavy bronze coin, thefollis, worth 40 old nummi. After a base coinage revaluation in A.D. 538, a gold solidus was worth 180 folles or 7,200 old nummi.

Nummus (Valentinian I), A.D. 367-375. Bronze, 2.07 g. Lugdunum (Lyons) (ANS 1944.100.25350, bequest of E. T. Newell).

From this period onward, the nummus was a plain bronze coinage.

Nummus (Valentinian III), A.D. 423-455. Bronze, 1.62 g. Rome (ANS1944.100.54874, bequest of E. T. Newell).

One gold solidus bought about 7,200 nummi, versus 150 heavier nummi from the time of Constantine I.

Nummus (Libius Severus), A.D. 461-465. Bronze, 0.96 g. Rome (ANS0000.999.24031).

About 10,000 of these coins were needed for one solidus.

Follis (Anastasius I), A.D. 498-518. Bronze, 6.87 g. Constantinople (ANS1971.257.2).

“M” means “40” in Greek and represents 40 nummi.

Follis (Justinian I), A.D. 538-539. Bronze, 22.82 g. Constantinople (ANS1944.100.14818, bequest of E. T. Newell).

The legend is still in Latin, indicating the regnal year. By that time, inflation had long been eradicated and the base coinage returned to a standard close to that of the old sestertius. The relationship 1 solidus = 40 folles is reminiscent of the 1 aureus = 100 sestertii under the early Caesars.


What Could the Gold Earned by Ancient Romans Buy Today?

The average Roman household income was equal to 140 grams of gold.
The average U.S. household income today is approximately $50,000, equivalent to 800 grams of gold at today’s prices. This is over 5 times more gold.
In ancient Rome, the average household could afford to buy 8.5 loaves of bread per day.
A modern average American family can afford to buy 40 loaves per day. This is nearly 5 times as much as well.

So while gold has become about five times more affordable to an average family, its purchasing power has remained stable against basic goods.

Gold is cheaper now than in ancient Rome, but buys about as much.

This is because of the increase in our standards of living compared to ancient times.