Denarius for your thoughts: Leicester academic publishes book on Roman finance

Posted by mjs76 at Mar 31, 2011 01:43 PM |
Ancient history meets economics in a new book by Dr Constantina Katsari, Lecturer in Roman History in our School of Archaeology and Ancient History.
Denarius for your thoughts: Leicester academic publishes book on Roman finance

Silver coin of Alexander Severus (image: Wikipedia)

The Roman Monetary System: The Eastern Provinces from the First to the Third Century AD is a comprehensive exploration of what we know about the production, distribution and use of money within the Roman Empire. Although the book’s subtitle indicates the self-imposed limits of its subject matter, it covers a significant range of economic situations.

For example, within the geographical area covered by Dr Katsari’s book, the southern Balkans complemented official Roman coins with locally minted bronze coins on a fixed exchange rate, thereby enabling local government to respond swiftly to financial ups and downs. The northern Balkans on the other hand had no local mints and were therefore reliant on the importation of bronze coins from Rome.

Gold coins, meanwhile, all originated in the mother city, minted from ore imported from across the Empire. One of the northern Balkan provinces, Dacia (now part of Romania), had some particularly good gold mines which helped to bolster the Roman economy.

A plethora of Emperors

Gold coin of Emperor Hadrian (image: Wikipedia)

Dacia was conquered by the Emperor Trajan whose reign from 98AD to 117AD marks the start of the historical period covered by the book. Trajan was succeeded by Hadrian (of Wall fame), Antoninus Pius (who used his private treasury to finance struggling provinces), Marcus Aurelius (who devalued the currency by reducing the silver content of coins) and the somewhat loopy Commodus (who fancied himself as a gladiator and charged the city coffers a million denarii each time he appeared!). Each of these Emperors ruled for about 20 years, give or take,

Commodus was assassinated on 31 December 1992, precipitating the ‘Year of the Five Emperors’: three months of Pertinax, three months of Didius Julianus and then an alliance between three claimants which, not unexpectedly, descended into conflict before Septimus Severus emerged as the winner.

He devalued the currency still further, dropping the silver purity from 78% down to just 54%, and his successor Caracalla knocked another few percentage points off; this of course enabled more coins to be minted from the same amount of silver but reduced the intrinsic value of each coin.


After a couple more short-lived incumbents, the laurel wreath passed to Alexander Severus who had a more financially sound attitude: improving the coinage, lowering taxes, reining in public spending and establishing loan offices with reasonable interest rates. But by the middle part of the Third Century there were so many Roman rulers coming and going – including 238AD, the ‘Year of the Six Emperors’! - that the Senate installed the world’s first revolving door.*

The last Emperor in Dr Katsari’s volume is Gallienus whose 15-year reign saw an endless succession of revolts including the loss of Gaul and other important dominions.

This period of political instability was reflected in financial instability although it is Dr Katsari’s view that the economic crisis happened alongside the political crisis rather than being the root cause as some historians have suggested. However, the focus of her work is an exploration how the Roman monetary system changed (or not) over time.

Silver and gold

Roman currency was based on a ‘bimetallic’ standard, which means that there was a fixed ratio between the values of gold and silver, even though the supply and demand of the two metals could vary, a situation not helped by constant jimmying about with the silver content of ‘silver’ coins. (Bimetallism continued until the 19th century when it was eventually replaced by the monometallic gold standard which underlies modern economics.)

Gold coin of Emperor Gallienus (image: Wikipedia)

In contrast to both forms of metallism is ‘chartalism’, in which coins function as mere tokens with an assigned face value rather than one dependent on their metal content. Dr Katsari argues that metallist and chartallist theories should be combined in studying Roman finance, since although there is some evidence for the latter, metal values could fluctuate enough to make coins worth more than their face value, a situation likely to prompt melting down of coinage for the base metal.

Infamy, infamy...

Whatever the coins were made of, one thing was certain: the Roman government kept a tight hold on the economy, which was essential to the management of the Empire. Soldiers always had to be paid, and since their loyalty was to their generals, not Rome itself, in matters of dispute the Legions tended to side with whoever paid them the most.

Dr Constantina Katsari

Successive Emperors had to try and balance the books, imposing taxes and minting coins to pay for not only for the army, but also building works throughout the Empire**, ‘bread and circuses’ for the populace and the extensive catalogue of bribes and backhanders that was the only way to hold onto power.

Those economic decisions made within the Senate affected Roman citizens and Roman subjects throughout the Empire, and were themselves affected in return by wars, revolts and unrest across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East as the Empire crumbled.

Dr Katsari combines her knowledge of ancient history with modern economic theories – and numismatics – to explore the rise and fall of Roman finances over three centuries. The Roman Monetary System was published last month by Cambridge University Press.

*Not strictly true.

**Apart from the sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order - what have the Romans ever done for us?