The Roman currency developed throughout the duration of the empire and was lead by the whims and desires of the emperors coupled with the effects of inflation.
Roman currency for most of Roman history consisted of gold, silver, bronze, orichalcum and copper coinage. (See: Roman metallurgy) From its introduction to the Republic, during the third century BC, well into Imperial times, Roman currency saw many changes in form, denomination, and composition. A persistent feature was the inflationary debasement and replacement of coins over the centuries. Notable examples of this followed the reforms of Diocletian. This trend continued into Byzantine times.
In 27 BC, the Roman Republic came to an end as Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD) ascended to the throne as the first emperor. Taking autocratic power, it soon became recognized that there was a link between the emperor's sovereignty and the production of coinage.
The imagery on coins took an important step when Julius Caesar issued coins bearing his own portrait. While moneyers had earlier issued coins with portraits of ancestors, Caesar's was the first Roman coinage to feature the portrait of a living individual. The tradition continued following Caesar's assassination, although the imperators from time to time also produced coins featuring the traditional deities and personifications found on earlier coins. The image of the Roman emperor took on a special importance in the centuries that followed, because during the empire, the emperor embodied the state and its policies. The names of moneyers continued to appear on the coins until the middle of Augustus' reign. Although the duty of moneyers during the Empire is not known, since the position was not abolished, it is believed that they still had some influence over the imagery of the coins.
The main focus of the imagery during the empire was on the portrait of the emperor. Coins were an important means of disseminating this image throughout the empire. Coins often attempted to make the emperor appear god-like through associating the emperor with attributes normally seen in divinities, or emphasizing the special relationship between the emperor and a particular deity by producing a preponderance of coins depicting that deity. During his campaign against Pompey, Caesar issued a variety of types that featured images of either Venus or Aeneas, attempting to associate himself with his divine ancestors. An example of an emperor who went to an extreme in proclaiming divine status was Commodus. In 192, he issued a series of coins depicting his bust clad in a lion-skin (the usual depiction of Hercules) on the obverse, and an inscription proclaiming that he was the Roman incarnation of Hercules on the reverse. Although Commodus was excessive in his depiction of his image, this extreme case is indicative of the objective of many emperors in the exploitation of their portraits. While the emperor is by far the most frequent portrait on the obverse of coins, heirs apparent, predecessors, and other family members, such as empresses, were also featured. To aid in succession, the legitimacy of an heir was affirmed by producing coins for that successor. This was done from the time of Augustus till the end of the empire.
Featuring the portrait of an individual on a coin, which became legal in 44 BC, caused the coin to embody the attributes of the individual portrayed. Dio wrote that following the death of Caligula the Senate demonetized his coinage, and ordered that they be melted. Regardless of whether or not this actually occurred, it demonstrates the importance and meaning that was attached to the imagery on a coin. The philosopher Epictetus jokingly wrote: "Whose image does this sestertius carry? Trajan's? Give it to me. Nero's? Throw it away, it is unacceptable, it is rotten." Although the writer did not seriously expect people to get rid of their coins, this quotation demonstrates that the Romans attached a moral value to the images on their coins. Unlike the obverse, which during the imperial period almost always featured a portrait, the reverse was far more varied in its depiction. During the late Republic there were often political messages to the imagery, especially during the periods of civil war. However, by the middle of the Empire, although there were types that made important statements, and some that were overtly political or propagandistic in nature, the majority of the types were stock images of personifications or deities. While some images can be related to the policy or actions of a particular emperor, many of the choices seem arbitrary and the personifications and deities were so prosaic that their names were often omitted, as they were readily recognizable by their appearance and attributes alone.
It can be argued that within this backdrop of mostly indistinguishable types, exceptions would be far more pronounced. Atypical reverses are usually seen during and after periods of war, at which time emperors make various claims of liberation, subjugation, and pacification. Some of these reverse images can clearly be classified as propaganda. An example struck by emperor Philip in 244 features a legend proclaiming the establishment of peace with Persia; in truth, Rome had been forced to pay large sums in tribute to the Persians.
Although it is difficult to make accurate generalizations about reverse imagery, as this was something that varied by emperor, some trends do exist. An example is reverse types of the military emperors during the second half of the third century, where virtually all of the types were the common and standard personifications and deities. A possible explanation for the lack of originality is that these emperors were attempting to present conservative images to establish their legitimacy, something that many of these emperors lacked. Although these emperors relied on traditional reverse types, their portraits often emphasized their authority through stern gazes, and even featured the bust of the emperor clad in armor.
Unlike most modern coins, Roman coins had (at least in the early centuries) significant intrinsic value. However, while the gold and silver issues contained precious metals, the value of a coin was slightly higher than its precious metal content, so they were not, strictly speaking, bullion. Also, over the course of time the purity and weight of the silver coins were reduced. Estimates of the value of the denarius range from 1.6 to 2.85 times its metal content, thought to equal the purchasing power of 10 modern British Pound Sterling (US$15.50) at the beginning of the Roman Empire to around 18 Pound Sterling (US$28) by its end (comparing bread, wine and meat prices) and, over the same period, around one to three days' pay for a Legionary.
The coinage system that existed in Egypt until the time of Diocletian's monetary reform was a closed system based upon the heavily debased tetradrachm. Although the value of these tetradrachmas can be reckoned as being equivalent in value to the denarius, their precious metal content was always much lower. Clearly, not all coins that circulated contained precious metals, as the value of these coins was too great to be convenient for everyday purchases. A dichotomy existed between the coins with an intrinsic value and those with only a token value. This is reflected in the infrequent and inadequate production of bronze coinage during the Republic, where from the time of Sulla till the time of Augustus no bronze coins were minted at all; even during the periods when bronze coins were produced, their workmanship was sometimes very crude and of low quality.
The type of coins issued changed under the coinage reform of Diocletian, the heavily debased antoninianus (double denarius) was replaced with a variety of new denominations, and a new range of imagery was introduced that attempted to convey different ideas. The new government set up by Diocletian was a tetrarchy, or rule by four, with each emperor receiving a separate territory to rule.
The new imagery includes a large, stern portrait that is representative of the emperor. This image was not meant to show the actual portrait of a particular emperor, but was instead a character that embodied the power that the emperor possessed. The reverse type was equally universal, featuring the spirit (or genius) of the Romans. The introduction of a new type of government and a new system of coinage represents an attempt by Diocletian to return peace and security to Rome, after the previous century of constant warfare and uncertainty.
Diocletian characterizes the emperor as an interchangeable authority figure by depicting him with a generalized image. He tries to emphasize unity amongst the Romans by featuring the spirit of Romans (Sutherland 254). The reverse types of coins of the late Empire emphasized general themes, and discontinued the more specific personifications depicted previously. The reverse types featured legends that proclaimed the glory of Rome, the glory of the army, victory against the "barbarians," the restoration of happy times, and the greatness of the emperor.
These general types persisted even after the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire. Muted Christian imagery, such as standards that featured Christograms (the chi-rho monogram for Jesus Christ's name in Greek) were introduced, but with a few rare exceptions, there were no explicitly Christian themes. From the time of Constantine until the "end" of the Roman Empire, coins featured indistinguishable, idealized portraits and general proclamations of greatness.
Although the denarius remained the backbone of the Roman economy from its introduction in 211 BC until it ceased to be normally minted in the middle of the third century, the purity and weight of the coin slowly, but inexorably, decreased. The problem of debasement in the Roman economy appears to be pervasive, although the severity of the debasement often paralleled the strength or weakness of the Empire. While it is not clear why debasement was such a common occurrence for the Romans, it's believed that it was caused by several factors, including a lack of precious metals and inadequacies in state finances. When introduced, the denarius contained nearly pure silver at a theoretical weight of approximately 4.5 grams.
The theoretical standard, although not usually met in practice, remained fairly stable throughout the Republic, with the notable exception of times of war. The large number of coins required to raise an army and pay for supplies often necessitated the debasement of the coinage. An example of this is the denarii that were struck by Mark Antony to pay his army during his battles against Octavian. These coins, slightly smaller in diameter than a normal denarius, were made of noticeably debased silver. The obverse features a galley and the name Antony, while the reverse features the name of the particular legion that each issue was intended for (it is interesting to note that hoard evidence shows that these coins remained in circulation over 200 years after they were minted, due to their lower silver content). The coinage of the Julio-Claudians remained stable at 4 grams of silver, until the debasement of Nero in 64, when the silver content was reduced to 3.8 grams, perhaps due to the cost of rebuilding the city after fire consumed a considerable portion of Rome.
The denarius continued to decline slowly in purity, with a notable reduction instituted by Septimius Severus. This was followed by the introduction of a double denarius piece, differentiated from the denarius by the radiate crown worn by the emperor. The coin is commonly called the antoninianus by numismatists after the emperor Caracalla, who introduced the coin in early in 215. Although nominally valued at two denarii, the antoninianus never contained more than 1.6 times the amount of silver of the denarius. The profit of minting a coin valued at two denarii, but weighing only about one and a half times as much is obvious; the reaction to these coins by the public is unknown. As the number of antoniniani minted increased, the number of denarii minted decreased, until the denarius ceased to be minted in significant quantities by the middle of the third century. Again, coinage saw its greatest debasement during times of war and uncertainty. The second half of the third century was rife with this war and uncertainty, and the silver content of the antonianus fell to only 2%, losing almost an appearance of being silver. During this time the aureus remained slightly more stable, before it too became smaller and more base before Diocletian's reform.
The decline in the silver content to the point where coins contained virtually no silver at all was countered by the monetary reform of Aurelian in 274. The standard for silver in the antonianus was set at twenty parts copper to one part silver, and the coins were noticeably marked as containing that amount (XXI in Latin or KA in Greek). Despite the reform of Aurelian, silver content continued to decline, until the monetary reform of Diocletian. In addition to establishing the tetrarchy, Diocletian devised the following system of denominations: an aureus struck at the standard of 60 to the pound, a new silver coin struck at the old Neronian standard known as the argenteus, and a new large bronze coin that contained two percent silver.
Diocletian issued an Edict on Maximum Prices in 301, which attempted to establish the legal maximum prices that could be charged for goods and services. The attempt to establish maximum prices was an exercise in futility as maximum prices were impossible to enforce. The Edict was reckoned in terms of denarii, although no such coin had been struck for over 50 years (it is believed that the bronze follis was valued at 12.5 denarii). Like earlier reforms, this too eroded and was replaced by an uncertain coinage consisting mostly of gold and bronze. The exact relationship and denomination of the bronze issues of a variety of sizes is not known, and is believed to have fluctuated heavily on the market.
The exact reason that Roman coinage sustained constant debasement is not known, but the most common theories involve inflation, trade with India, which drained silver from the Mediterranean world, and inadequacies in state finances. It is clear from papyri that the pay of the Roman soldier increased from 900 sestertii a year under Augustus to 2000 sestertii a year under Septimius Severus and the price of grain more than tripled indicating that fall in real wages and a moderate inflation occurred during this time.
Another reason for debasement was lack of raw metal with which to produce coins. Italy itself contains no large or reliable mines for precious metals; therefore the precious metals for coinage had to be obtained elsewhere. The majority of the precious metals that Rome obtained during its period of expansion arrived in the form of war booty from defeated territories, and subsequent tribute and taxes by new-conquered lands. When Rome ceased to expand, the precious metals for coinage then came from newly mined silver, such as from Greece and Spain, and from melting older coins.
Without a constant influx of precious metals from an outside source, and with the expense of continual wars, it would seem reasonable that coins might be debased to increase the amount that the government could spend. A simpler possible explanation for the debasement of coinage is that it allowed the state to spend more than it had. By decreasing the amount of silver in its coins, Rome could produce more coins and "stretch" its budget. As time progressed, the trade deficit of the west, because of its buying of grain and other commodities, led to a currency drainage in Rome.
[This ssection taken and modified from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_currency]
The pre-decimal currency in Britain, consisted of Pounds, Shillings and Pennies. Despite popular belief, this currency was not based on the Roman system. The only link was in the designation of '£sd'. which meant 'Librae, Solidi, Denarii'.
After the Roman Empire collapsed, the Saxons invaded Britain and instigated their own currency system, which changed again when the Nomans invaded Britain in 1066AD
Around 117-138AD, it was recorded the rates of pay for soldiers were:
Non Commissioned Officers (NCO's) were on a higher scale, with junior NCO's having 1½ times the basic rate, and the senior NCO's receiving double. However the soldier was expected to pay for items such as his uniform, weapons, bedding, the unit's burial fund and even for rations. By the time all the deductions had been made, he was left with about one fifth of his original earnings. Even so, the soldier had security and a level of pay that was higher than he would receive in civilian life.
The Romans landed at Richborough in AD43 and, after a short delay so that Claudius himself could be present, took possession of Britain as a province of the Roman empire, later that year.
Roman rule of their new province was at first limited to the southeast. By AD47 the area south and east of the Fosse Way, which runs from Axminster to Lincoln, was firmly under Roman control, but this was probably not a deliberately chosen frontier. It marked the geographical border of the lowlands and, although the Fosse Way was fortified, there were forts to the north and west of it, too. The conquest continued.
In the early days, the Romans created client rulers outside their immediate area of occupation. Prasutagus, king of the Iceni in East Anglia, was one such, and soon Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes to the north, was also recruited. The Romans were careful to appoint rulers rather than to create permanent client states. A client king or queen was not necessarily followed by a natural heir or, indeed, by anyone if it then suited Rome to take over.
The arrival of the Roman legions and the administration of the province brought with it an immediate requirement for large amounts of money in coin. The Romans, naturally, introduced into Britain the coins which were in use in Rome at the time. The gold aureus was used for large payments, but not much for day-
The mere presence of the Romans acted as a spur to the development of a monetary economy in Britain. Long distance transport was a problem, so that food, fodder, livestock, building materials and so on were all purchased locally. Around the military settlements, traders would set themselves up to provide the goods and services required by the soldiers and civil servants. The Romans in Britain were practically all government servants, either military or civil, and had to be paid. Taxes and dues had to be levied to pay for the whole set up.
Although pay for the Roman legionary was one denarius per day, a fairly sophisticated system of keeping back money for his eventual discharge, and deductions for food and equipment, left him (perhaps wisely) with much less actual spending power, and most of the payments to the troops appear to have been in aes. Obviously, most of the smaller transactions between the Romans and the local traders would also have been in aes, and it was this requirement for huge quantities of large, heavy coins which presented the authorities with their first major problem concerning the provision of coinage in Britain.
All Roman aes at this time were struck at Rome itself, which was a long way from Britain. Very few ships attempted the stormy passage west of the Pillars of Hercules, so the heavy bags of coin would have to be carted with strong military escort the length of Europe, and taken by sea across the Channel. Little wonder that the military paymasters were soon short of coin. The solution to the problem seems to have been the striking of large numbers of ‘unofficial’ asses of Claudius, copying the official as, with Minerva on the reverse. Just who produced these copies is uncertain, but the fact that they are sometimes found with genuine coins in hoards shows that the better copies, at least, were officially accepted. Numismatic opinion varies, but it seems likely that these better copies were produced officially as a temporary measure to supply the local shortage, while the poorer examples were produced by local entrepreneurs who seized the opportunity to, literally, make a bit of money.
There was a long tradition during the Republican and Imperatorial periods, of Roman commanders in the field being permitted to strike coins, when required on a campaign far from home, so the striking of a temporary coinage in Britain by the local administration should not be considered unlikely.
Another measure was the countermarking of Claudian and earlier aes, which seems to have taken place all along the northern frontiers of the empire, including Britain. The purpose of these countermarks – usually a few letters such as AVG, PROB, etc – applied to the obverse of worn coins is not known, but, like the Claudian copies, their presence in hoards shows that countermarked aes were officially accepted. The marks may have been applied by officials, to confirm the continued validity or revaluation of old and inferior coins, when the supply of new coins to the frontier areas was very difficult.
At about this time, c. AD64, Imperial aes began to be struck at Lugdunum. The reason for this is obscure, but Lugdunum was certainly closer to the geographical centre of the western empire – while the east was still mainly using locally-
During the early empire there were other occasions when a shortage of aes in Britain may have led to locally-
The high quality of the Roman gold and silver coinage began to decline under Nero, who reduced the weights of the coins, and also the fineness of the silver, in AD64. Before this reduction, perhaps half of the Roman silver circulating in Britain was old republican denarii. After it, the republican element in hoards gradually reduces.
A major debasement of the silver coinage took place towards the end of the second century. Around AD214 or 215, a larger silver coin was introduced by Caracalla (whose real name was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) which has become known in modern times as the antoninianus after the emperor. It was almost certainly intended as a double denarius – the emperor is always shown on these coins wearing a radiate crown, just as the dupondius (two asses) often uses the same device. It is because of this radiate crown that the antoninianii are sometimes referred to as ‘radiates.’ Their silver content and weight were significantly less than that of two denarii, although the denarius itself remained the dominant silver coin until the AD230s.
During the third century, the antoninianus was steadily reduced in fineness and weight until by the AD260s it was often little better than an aes coin. These debasements of the third century reflect, to some extent, the state of the empire itself.
Emperors from all corners of the empire came and went with remarkable rapidity, although nearly all of them (even Marius who is said to have lasted only two or three days in AD268) managed to strike coins. Some of these rulers were only able to claim rule of part of the empire.
It was in this climate that the phenomenon known as the ‘Gallic Empire’ arose. Under the successive emperors Postumus, Victorinus, Tetricus I and Tetricus II, an area roughly corresponding to Britain, Gaul and Spain, effectively seceded from the central empire between c. AD260 and 273. During this time, when Gallienus, Claudius II and then Aurelian, were the legitimate emperors in Rome, Britain was cut off from the main empire.
The Gallic emperors struck huge quantities of radiates, some denarii and a little gold at their mints, probably Trier and Cologne, and for the period of their usurpation these were the coins that entered Britain. At around this time, a shortage of official coin in Britain and Gaul led to the local production of large numbers of imitation antoninianii; these unofficial issues are known today as ‘barbarous radiates.’
After AD273, there was probably some attempt to suppress the coinage of the late Gallic usurpers, and this could have created further shortages. The use of barbarous radiates in Britain probably continued until c. AD286. They copy the coins of the central as well as the Gallic rulers, and some are so ridiculously small that it is difficult to imagine them all circulating at par.
The Gallic Empire was followed in AD287 by a British usurpation under Carausius, AD287-
The shortage of coin was remedied by the opening of the first identifiable Roman mint in Britain. It is debatable if the mint of a usurper can be termed ‘official’ but the product of the London mint was very similar to the mints of the central empire.
In his yearning for recognition, Carausius sometimes used the style AVGGG on these coins, the extra ‘G’s signifying his ‘colleagues’ Diocletian and Maximianus who were now ruling in Rome and Byzantium. Carausius’ London mint was soon supplemented by a second mint, probably established at Colchester.
It was during the usurpation by Carausius and Allectus that the emperor Diocletian, AD284-
Another of Diocletian’s reforms was an overhaul of the coinage, which probably took place over several years, and which marked the end of the old Augustan monetary system. The aureus had reduced considerably in weight during the third century, but was increased to 1/60th of a pound around AD290. Already, by AD301, this coin was known to the Romans as a solidus, but numismatists today apply the new term to the lightweight coin of 1/72nd of a pound first introduced by Constantine I in AD309. There had been no regular supply of silver coins since the debasement of the antoninianus, but Diocletian re-
Diocletian continued to strike the radiate antoninianus, but now with no pretence that it was anything other than aes. There was also a small laureate aes coin, probably in the same 1:2 relationship to the radiate as the denarius had been to the antoninianus. The main subsidiary coin, though, was now a large silver-
Coins of all mints circulated throughout the empire and, as hoards show, mixed fairly quickly. Obviously, local mints supplied the majority of new coinage in any one province, and the London mint, which had been set up by Carausius, was kept in use by the central emperors until c. AD325.
Diocletian’s reforms also brought an end to the independent coinages of the eastern empire. By and large the same types were in issue at all mints at the same time thus creating a truly common European currency, with an apparent ease which must be the envy of many modern Eurocrats.
The relationship that Diocletian’s coins bore to each other is not known with certainty today, nor are the values at which they circulated. The contemporary names of the aes coins are also mysteries, but it is possible that the currency system, by 301, was something like this:Aes laureate = 2 denarii
It must be stressed, though, that this is guesswork, and other systems have been suggested based on an aes laureate of one denarius.
The fourth century was a period of continuous change to the coinage. The smaller aes coins disappeared within a few years, and the follis was reduced in size quite rapidly, until by 337 it was only around 15mm in diameter (known as AE3 today.) This smaller coin was probably known to the Romans as a centenionalis. Larger bllon coins, possibly known as ‘maiorina,’ were introduced in 348 with a reverse legend of FEL TEMP REPARATIO, and these may have contained a nominal amount of silver until c. 371.
A shortage of aes in Britain in the 350s led to the same local remedy as had produced the third century barbarous radiates, and huge numbers of copies of the FEL TEMP REPARATIO coins, some very small, were produced in Britain and Gaul. An interesting development during this rash of imitations was the overstriking of earlier coin types by the FEL TEMP forgers, perhaps because of an official recoinage of earlier types. This overstriking seems to be peculiar to Britain.
After Adrianople, the battle in which emperor Valens was killed in 378, the eastern and western empires began to diverge. The west generally declined in importance, stability and security, while the east prospered and eventually became the Byzantine Empire. The unified coinage also began to diverge from c. 380 after which eastern issues of aes are rarely found in Britain.
In spite of inflation and obvious problems with the supply of an adequate subsidiary coinage, gold and silver became more plentiful as the fourth century progressed, and the coins maintained constant purity.
The lapse of the western empire into virtual anarchy led inexorably to its demise. The real decline of Roman control in Britain probably began about the middle of the fourth century with barbarian incursions coming from what are now Scotland, Ireland, Germany and Holland. These incursions were raids for personal enrichment, rather than attempts at invasion, but by the mid 360s barbarian attacks on the north western provinces of the empire became more concerted – a new and worrying trend for the Romans.
A military defeat of the Romans in Britain in AD367 by several barbarian tribes led to a general breakdown of law and order, large scale desertions from the Roman army, and unchecked plundering of the province. The subsequent re-
After this, the last thirty years of the fourth century may well have been a peaceful and prosperous period for the province, although it included the usurpation of Magnus Maximus, AD383-