Saturday, November 05, 2011

Article: Coin mintage collapsed the Roman Empire. Is history repeating itself?

Coin mintage collapsed the Roman Empire. Is history repeating itself?

Resources > Coin Articles > Coin mintage collapsed the Roman Empire. Is history repeating itself?

Coin mintage collapsed the Roman Empire. Is history repeating itself?

roman coin

In the third century AD, the Roman Empire went through a hard period, know as the "military crisis". This period is characterized by political problems, such as the violent death of the emperors and their family, caused by revolts, plots and military uprisings, military problems caused by the invasion of the empire by the barbarian populations such as the Goths and economic problems such as the lack of production, the decrease of the population, famine in some cases and inflation.

In this period (235-284), the Roman Empire lived one of its darkest periods. And one of the motives for this was a COIN…

The Roman monetary system was based on a gold coin, named aureus ,

a silver one named denarius and some copper coins like sestertius , dupondius and the as .

The relation between them was well-known and corresponded to a certain quantity of precious metal. For example, the gold aureus of 8 gr corresponded to a weight of 96 gr. of silver, which is the weight of the 25 denarius . One denarius of 3,6-3,8 gr corresponded to a weight of 160 gr. of copper alloy, that is 16 asses of 10 gr. each. In every moment, the weight of the precious metal in your pocket indicates the amount of money that you have.

The emperor Caracalla, 211-217 A.C - officially Marcus Antonius Antoninus , was responsible for the collapse of the stability of this system. Keen to the advice given by his father, Septimius Severus (193-211), on his death night, to take care of the soldiers because, in return, they will take care of his imperial power, he decided to raise the salary of the legionnaires.

In 212, he raised the annual payment for a soldier from a legion to 750 silver denarii, from 500, the usual payment, during his father's reign and from only 225 from the time of the first emperor, Augustus (27 BC-14 AD). But already his treasury was empty and he needed money fast.

Therefore, around the year 215, he decided to introduce a new silver coin, with a weight of approximately 5,5 gr. The silver content was only around 50 %, a very unusual situation. The coin was named after one of his imperial names, Antoninianus , or the coin of Antoninus.

The coin bears the imperial portrait but the emperor's head is not wearing the laurel wreath as on the denarii yet a special crown, a radiate one, imitating the sunbeam. On the reverse, the scenes are similar to the denarii , like military scenes, different gods or goddesses or other types. If the coin is minted by the empress, she doesn't wear a crown yet she carries on her shoulders a moon crescent.

The coin was superior in value to a silver denarius , but the exact value is not known. Two main opinions suggest either a value of 1,5 denarius , corresponding to the raise of the military payment, that is from 500 to 750, 1,5 times, or a double value, suggested by the radiate crown, showing a similar situation like the as -dupondius value, that is 2:1. Nevertheless, soon after this period, the coin was worth 2 denarii and kept this value for the rest of time that it was minted.

The coin helped Caracalla's economic problems but created a greater one. The new coin was in theory twice as a silver denarius . But practically, it wasn't twice the weight. This created a situation known as the Gresham Law that stated that a poor quality coin will take out from circulation the good coin, with a high value. And that happened… The denarius was soon taken out of circulation and melted down.

The heirs of Caracalla, the cousins Heliogabalus, 218-222, and Severus Alexander, 222-235, did not mint antoninianus or they were very few. Severus Alexander even tried to quit the minting of this coins but he did not succeed in doing so (according to one of the main sources for Antiquity, Historia Augusta, on the chapter dedicated to him, Vita Severi Alexandri, part 39). Even the killer of Severus Alexander, Maximin the Thrac, did not mint the antoninianus.

Yet in 238, emperor Gordianus the Third (238-244) started minting these coins, even lighter then the usual ones and with less silver, only around 30-40 %.

After 251, one of the most tragic events in the history of the Roman Empire, the first death of an emperor on the battlefield, Traianus Decius, the military authority of the emperor collapsed. On every corner of the empire, the governors or the military generals who proclaimed themselves or who were proclaimed by the army were made emperors. And the army wanted to be paid for this…. The antoninianus was minted by a various number of emperors simultaneously and circulated in the region controlled by the issuer. It soon lost any kind of silver content, at the beginning being minted in bronze and silver plated and soon after minted in a special silver alloy named billon, with only 3-5 % silver. And the coin became an ugly one, the representation on it became less artistic because of the need of a fast production.

This generated a problem, a major one for a population used to a clear relation between the metal contained by the coin and its value. The antoninianus was, for example, valued at 2 denarii, one denarius being 4 bronze sestertii. So, one antoninianus is equal to 8 sestertii. But if the sestertius weighs around 16 gr. (in teory 27 but the lack of metal made it easily the standard) and one anoninianus is around 3-4 or sometimes even less, what will you do with it? How will you value it?

The problem was so dramatic that the monetary economy of the empire collapsed and merchants started trading their products for other items and not money. And when the army, paid in antoninianus, tried to buy food or other items with the money they received, they were sometimes turned down and this led to civilian massacres or riots.

The emperor Aurelianus, 270-275, tried to fix this problem. He started minting an antoninanus but tried to make it heavier than the rest of the antoninianus minted at that time and tried to keep the weight. He also tried to increase the silver content and to make it up around 5-10 %. And for the first time in history, he placed some numbers on the coins.

The numbers were XX or XXI and they correspond to 20 or 21. Their meaning is still unknown. It may suggest either the value of the coin, for example 20/21 as, or the formula "one part out of 20 (or 21) is silver". The system was imagined to give stability. It is not clear that this coin, sometimes named aurelianus , is an entirely new coin or just an improved antoninianus. But he failed because in this moment, the antoninianus was not the only problem. Not until 294 when Diocletian, 284-305, one of the greatest reformers of the Empire, made a monetary reform, sustained by other laws to confer stability, the monetary system wasn't stable. Diocletian dropped the old system, including the antoninianus, but kept its appearance by minting a bronze coin, named radiatus that was ¼ of the new bronze unit, the follis.

The antoninianus can be an interesting theme for coin collecting. It can also be part of a collection of coins minted by the Roman emperors, because many of the third century rulers, especially after 251, minded only these coins (a classical example is the emperor Marius, who ruled for 3 days in 267 but minted only antoninianus). Another interesting theme is collecting the coins minted by only one emperor, like the so called "animal series" minted by Gallienus (253-268) and showing different kinds of animals like lions, eagles, centaurs and so on.

Also, coins minted by emperors or usurpers such as Regalianus, Nigrinianus, Julian of Pannonia or many others are very rare and surprises can appear. For example, the emperor Macrinus ( 217-218) is rare but not as rare as the emperor Macrianus Senior (259-261) or his son Macrianus Iunior.

Vasilita Stefan

June 2009

Romans were not the first to use gold and silver as a means of payment but they were one of the first to debase their own currency. Are we following the ancient Roman Empire

 Their usual method was to mint coins at the same face value but with a reduced metal content thereby increasing the amount of money available.  This had a massive inflationary impact on the Romans.

Overtime the metal content of silver coins decreased until it was only around 4% of the 'silver' coin. So while for hundreds of years inflation was non existent around 30 yrs after the silver content was reduced inflation rose at an average of 9% a yr.

So we are copying the ancient Romans in inflation also

 That sounds terrible but these days its even worse as the federal reserve can just print more bank notes, at least in the Roman days currency still had some precious metal backing. Governments with large debts always have the incentive to debase their currencies, this hasn't changed over time. The best way to protect your own hard owned money is to make sure it is just that money! Money was is and always has been gold and silver, you always need insurance against government actions.

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Last Update: 22 Aug

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