Money Talks: A Very Short History of Roman Currency

Alfred Deahl

The impact of the Roman coinage system is self-evident all around the world. The denarius, for instance, inspired the pennies of medieval Europe, and found its name fossilised in the denomination marker d. of British pre-decimal coinage; much of the Arab world still uses a currency called the dinar. Even our shared understanding of what a coin should look like is firmly rooted in the Roman past. We take for granted our round, metal coins which depict a ruler or an important figure, curiously in profile, on the ‘obverse’ (front), and bear on the reverse a symbolic image, along with a legend naming the ruler and stating the denomination. Today’s coins are part of a tradition of close imitation that started in the early medieval period. Despite subsequent evolution, modern coinage has not deviated far from the stylistic template struck by the Romans – after some trial and error. That tale is told below.

Sestertius of the Emperor Hadrian, with Britannia on the Reverse, AD 134-8.
Pre-decimal penny/denarius of Elizabeth II with Britannia on the reverse, AD 1967.
Silver coin of Alfred the Great, AD c. 880, still very much showing Roman portrait conventions. The relationship of Anglo-Saxon coinage to Roman practice is complex and fascinating.

Double Ducat of Phillip II, King of Spain, 1578, struck in Milan. As well as the Roman portrait conventions, Phillip is even wearing a Roman Radiate crown.
Arab-Sasanian dirham of the Umayyad Caliphate showing the general Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad (AD c. 680). Even early Islamic coins contained portraiture (highly unusual for Islamic art) as a result of the influence of Roman coins.
Today’s US Quarter Dollar still preserves Roman portrait conventions. The mint mark ‘D’ behind Washington’s neck, denoting its origin from the Denver mint, is also highly Roman. A letter or a series of letters were used on Roman coins to designate the mint from the 4th century AD.

Of course money is no Roman invention – but the English word itself comes from the name of the location of Rome’s first mint (a word which also derives from it): the temple of Juno Moneta. This epithet reflects local worship of a goddess called Moneta, who was gradually assimilated into the deity Juno, wife of Jupiter. What started as a remnant of religious worship gradually became synonymous for a mint and later, after the Roman period, for money itself.

The origin of ‘money’: the location of the temple of Juno Moneta under the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome.

Understanding how the Roman coinage system developed helps us to develop insight into our own numismatic conventions, and can also improve our understanding of Roman history: imagery on Roman coins, especially in the Imperatorial (49–27 BC) and Imperial (27 BC – AD 476) periods can illuminate aspects of what is essentially propaganda. The portraits provide an important data source for how Roman portraiture evolved. Metallurgical studies can tell us about economic phenomena such as inflation, particularly when they demonstrate the debasement of currency. The study of coin dies (the design of individual metal stamps inferred through variations in coin appearance) and hoards (large coin deposits removed from circulation at a single point in time) can help us understand how and in what quantity currency circulated.

Roman monetary history

Rome was very much a latecomer among the monetarised societies of the Hellenistic Mediterranean. Coinage first emerged in Rome around 300 BC, centuries after it arose throughout the Greek world. During this period, certain numismatic conventions had already been established, most importantly the preference for round coins, with a portrait in profile on the obverse. Their symbolism was tied to city-state identity, and (later in the Hellenistic period) to the monarchies which held the balance of power in the region.

Tetradrachm of Ptolemy II Philadelphos: Ptolemy I on the obverse, eagle Reverse. Struck in Alexandria between 284 and 261 BC.

Throughout this period in Rome, the economy was more or less based on a bartering system. Pecunia, the Latin word for money, was a derivative of pecus (the word for cattle), revealing how livestock was at the centre of the economic system before the advent of coinage. Gradually, what we call Aes Rude (chunks of cast bronze) began to be used to facilitate exchange of goods. Aes Rude can be seen as the prototype for the first coinage system in Rome. Precious metals have always been valuable on account of their scarcity and durability: this rendered them almost uniquely suited for economic exchange until comparatively recently, because portable quantities could conveniently be traded for goods.

Aes Rude: it is what it is.

Initially, Roman coinage was a part of three separate money systems, which had arisen organically and independently of one another, but were gradually rationalised: (1) Aes Signatum (bronze ingots weighing about 1500g); (2) silver and bronze ‘Romano-Campanian’ coinage (genuine struck coins);  (3) Aes Grave (cast bronze disks). None of this was ever properly planned; scholars still debate about what the precise original functions of this coinage even were.

Coins were produced in very low quantities, particularly when compared to the amounts of precious metals that were plundered in warfare. At this early stage, the Roman economy was only a partially monetarised system: it is unlikely that there was any popular usage yet. Most probably, coins were thought convenient for official purposes, such as repaying loans to the state from private citizens, or for construction projects or religious dedications. Mercenary soldiers were also likely to have been paid in coins. Indeed, mercenaries seem to have been responsible for much of the coin production in Magna Graecia (former Greek colonies in Southern Italy, Sicily and beyond), and were perhaps the primary reason why Rome’s great enemy Carthage issued any coins at all (their armies were entirely composed of mercenaries).

Coinage in the Roman world must have also arisen from a desire to compete with the Greek world. Hellenization grew as a result of Roman expansion; this is clearly reflected in the predominantly Greek designs and iconography of Roman coins from the beginning.

Aes Signatum ingot featuring a bull, 280-250 BC.

Romano-Campanian coinage consisted of limited irregular bronze and silver issues. The difference in material reflected these coins’ area of circulation: silver coins circulated in Campania; whereas the bronze used for these in central Italy reflected earlier systems of exchange. These coins were not produced centrally in Rome, but in towns under the growing Roman hegemony; their designs tended to be specific to each town. They were identified as ‘Roman’ by their reverse ROMANO legend (which later became ROMA).

Romano-Campanian Didrachm 230s BC: Apollo obverse, galloping horse reverse.

The technique of striking coins involves engraving two dies, placing a heated metal disk, or flan, between them, and hitting it with a heavy object to produce a coin. This was copied from Greek cities; the silver coinage struck in Campania, also borrowed the weight standards from Neapolis (modern Naples). Striking enabled faster and eventually mass production, especially as dies could be used for hundreds of coins before beginning to show signs of wear.

The ancient striking method, which is still used today, albeit automated by machinery.

Both Aes Signatum and Aes Grave were cast in Rome. This is best viewed as an amalgam of the large cast ingots of the north and the round coinage of the south. This system revolved around the As (whole unit) which equated to the Roman pound, or libra (324g), which was subdivided by weight into the following divisions: semis (half), quadrans (quarter), sextans (sixth) and uncia (twelfth). These names persisted well into the Imperial period, even when this was no longer a system based on weight.

Aes Grave As (230s BC): Janus obverse, ship’s prow reverse. ‘I’ above the prow marks its denomination.

All Aes Grave coinage marked denominations on the reverse, and generally featured standardised designs with a fixed deity on the obverse. Like the Aes Signatum, they were cast in Rome at the Temple of Juno Moneta on the Capitoline.

These coinage systems emerged in ad hoc fashion, and at first fit awkwardly into the pre-existing economies of each region. But a general system steadily became rationalised, until a relationship between the systems was defined. The Aes Signatum totally disappeared; silver coins were equated to the value of three asses; finally, common symbols and elements arose and predominated (all c. 250 BC).

Harmony did not last for long. The Second Punic War (218-201 BC) devastated the Roman economy: existing coinage underwent a severe reduction in weight, although the stated value remained the same to enable the mint’s supply of bullion to be stretched further. Coinage was even issued sporadically in gold to help fund the war effort. The As perhaps underwent the most dramatic transformation, dropping in weight from around 300g to 50g.

Around 211 BC, the denarius was introduced, at a value of 10 asses (its name means ‘containing ten’). This was a small silver coin (4.5g) that was first struck in large quantities from the silver obtained by Marcellus’ sack of Syracuse the previous year. The quinarius (‘containing five’) and sestertius (‘containing two and a half’) were also introduced, although these were not frequent issues.

 Denarius of 211 BC: Roma helmeted obverse, Dioscuri reverse.

These denominations were to remain largely unchanged until the Imperial period. The currency now effectively held a token value, as the value of the bullion they contained no longer matched their tariffed prices following the economic trauma of the Hannibalic war. Rome in this period increasingly transformed into a monetised society: coin issues became more frequent, and even regularised; coins became standard for paying soldiers. Henceforth they began to exist in the public sphere beyond their original state-based functionality. There was of course significant economic change in the following century: the denarius was actually re-tariffed to 16 asses in 141 BC; but the name remained.

Designs for coins were controlled by the tresviri monetales (‘monetary magistrates’, or ‘mint magistrates’), a subcommittee of three senators appointed to oversee the mint (a tresvir or triumvir denotes a member of a trio of magistrates). The tresviri chose the iconography, which became increasingly political over time. In the mid 2nd century, the most common reverse was the biga type, with Victory displayed triumphantly driving a two-horse chariot (a biga is a pair of horses). This was presumably chosen to reflect the success of Roman conquests, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean over Greece.

Denarius of 157 BC: Roma obverse, biga reverse.

Towards the end of the second century, aristocrats began using coinage to promote themselves and their families. Individual moneyers (often guided by the tresviri) started issuing coins with iconographic references to their own ancestors. But the full propaganda value of coinage only became apparent in Rome at the end of its Republican period. Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) famously placed his own living face on the obverse of Roman coins. It was a step he gradually built up to: first he had his own portrait featured on coins in the province of Bithynia (47 BC), where such a practice was less controversial than at home. In Rome, he carried on with modes of self-promotion that had already existed on the coinage for more than half a century until 44 BC, when he decisively he broke with tradition:

Denarius of Julius Caesar, 46 BC: Venus Genetrix obverse, Aeneas carrying Anchises and the Palladium on reverse. Caesar claimed to be the descendant of Venus through her son Aeneas, the proto-founder of Rome. Every part of this coin is about Caesar – aristocratic promotion in the extreme, yet still no portrait.
Caesar now up there with the gods on the obverse of this denarius of 44 BC.

Caesar’s step was audacious, and not only because of the eyebrow-raising divine association. Since coins in the Greek East coins represented the heads of monarchs, Caesar was in fact aligning himself with Hellenistic kings – a damning association in a proudly Republican society. The conspirators who assassinated him had propaganda tools of their own: their ‘Ides of March’ denarius depicted the pileus (the cap of liberty given to slaves when they were manumitted) alongside two daggers, which clearly demonstrates how coins had become a vehicle for openly political messages:

The ‘Ides of March’ Denarius (43/42 BC), a declaration of the Republic’s ‘liberation’ from tyrannical Caesar. Ironically, Brutus (like Caesar) appears on the obverse! For obvious reasons, this is one of the most sought-after coins from the Roman world.

From the reign of Augustus (27 BC – AD 14), Caesar’s adoptive son and eventual successor, the full potential of the political value of coins became apparent. Augustus reformed the coinage system wholesale, regularising denominations and establishing a new mint at Lugdunum (modern-day Lyon). Like Caesar, his portrait graced the obverses of the new currency system – the imperial iconography right from the start was stamped into the fabric of Rome’s Economic system. The vague, makeshift currency system of the Republic, which was predicated on irregularly-issued denominations, was now replaced with a robust, codified, multi-metallic system:

Gold Aureus, worth 25 Denarii…
Brass (orichalcum) Sestertius, worth 2 Dupondii…
Silver Denarius, worth 4 Sestertii
Brass Dupondius, worth 2 Asses…
Bronze As, worth 2 Semisses…
Brass Semis, worth 2 Quadrantes…

Bronze Quadrans, worth a quarter of an As.

Augustus’ ageless portrait dominated the obverses surrounded by legends containing his various accumulation of titles. Gone were the gods, who were now relegated to the reverses (if they were lucky!), or omitted entirely. Since coins were mass-produced and widely circulated beyond the periphery of Rome, the significance of this power projection is easily overlooked – especially since we have become so familiar with numismatic portraiture. But for the contemporary Roman this was something very new: coins brought the image of the ruler to the masses for the first time, since statuary by definition stayed put where it was and was generally confined to urban environments.

As coins increasingly became a vehicle for politics, and a tool of imperial propaganda, so too did they become an area for dissent. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. AD 50–135) famously stated, “Whose imprint does this sestertius bear? Trajan’s? Give it to me. Nero’s? Throw it out, it will not pass, it is rotten” (Discourses 4.17). Manifestly such a thing as coin preference did exist: coins were rarely withdrawn from circulation. Occasionally, this could manifest itself in more extreme ways:

An as of Nero from AD 64, whose portrait has been attacked far beyond normal wear and tear.

The system established by Augustus persevered for most of the Imperial period. By the time of Nero’s reign (AD 54–68) the denarius had been gradually debased (by diluting the silver with copper); this tell-tale sign of inflation continued, until it was essentially replaced in the third century by the emperor Caracalla’s Antoninianus (a double-denarius). Yet even this was not to last for long, as the empire was consumed by the political tumult following the end of the Severan dynasty, commonly referred to as the Crisis of the Third Century (AD 235-284).

Caracalla Antoninianus of AD 215…
… and a Gallienus Antoninianus of c. AD 260-8, showing debasement in the extreme

Throughout this prolonged period of civil wars, the denomination system was completely eroded; by the end of the century, most coins looked the same – small bronze disks with varying silver content. Diocletian, who ruled from AD 284 to 305, was responsible for reforming the coinage system, which survived throughout late antiquity and in the Eastern Roman Empire.

What I have outlined above is true of Republican and Imperial Rome from roughly the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD). But many Roman provinces operated with their own coinage systems. In western provinces of the Empire that lacked pre-existing monetary systems and traditions, there was more widespread circulation of coins from Rome, whereas Eastern provinces carried on with their own long-standing minting traditions, and generally used their own coins. Nevertheless, throughout the Imperial period, members of the Imperial family featured on numerous issues of the Eastern provinces, often as a local initiative to honour the emperor.

Hadrian Tetradrachm from Alexandria of AD 126, with Eagle Reverse. The continuity with the tetradrachm of Ptolemy Philadelphos above is clear, and the Greek denomination has also been retained.

These independent systems all eroded gradually as Imperial coinage became more widespread. Only the longest-established mints (for example, that of Alexandria on the northern coast of Egypt), were able to last, but none survived the third century AD.

In the fourth century, minting became a more institutionalised process (if not a centralised one), with cities across the empire producing essentially the same coins. A few specific letters on the legend designated the mint where a given coin had been struck. Coins, for instance, began to be struck in Londinium (London), first by various pretender emperors in the third century, but later by the various imperial administrations of the ‘Dominate’ that began with Diocletian and ended soon after the withdrawal of the Romans in AD 410.

Follis of Constantine of AD 310: Sol Invictus reverse, London mint indicated by the mint mark PLN on the reverse below Sol.

Over these six centuries, Rome forged its own numismatic conventions: what began as a system of bullion exchange, developed into a financial system like our own, where coins possessed a value beyond their mere weight as metal. Moreover, they came to be used as a mass-produced medium of political representation and propaganda. The system which evolved is one that has been replicated and propagated throughout history. Although Rome fell, her numismatic revolutions continue to live on.

Alfred Deahl is a first-year Classics undergraduate at the University of Cambridge and a keen collector of coins.

Further Reading

The best books to start with are Christopher Howgego’s Ancient History from Coins (Routledge, London, 1995) – a fantastic work dealing with the various approaches to numismatics and its value as a source (it covers both Roman and Greek coinage) – and Andrew Burnett’s Coinage in the Roman World (Duckworth, London, 1986), which provides perhaps the best concise overview of Roman coinage and its evolution. I would also recommend Kevin Butcher’s Roman Provincial Coins: An Introduction to the Greek Imperials (Seaby, London, 1988), which provides a valuable insight into the complex coinage systems of the Roman provinces.

The website Wildwinds provides a useful online catalogue that is particularly good for viewing Imperial coin types by emperor. Roman Republican Coinage Online has an invaluable and searchable online catalogue of Republican coinage. For further more detailed reading about a specific period or area of Ancient Numismatics, the Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage (Oxford UP, 2012), edited by William Metcalf, is a helpful resource, and available via institutional access here.

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