Roman Coins

One of the most organized and carefully planned elements of the Roman Empire was its currency. The Roman coinage system consisted of the Aureus (gold), Denarius (silver), Sestertius (brass), Dupondius (brass) and the As (copper). This system of coinage existed for over 600 hundred years from the third century BC to the end of the third century AD. During that period the value of the coins in relation to each other changed to reflect the situation in the Empire, but the overall system remained largely intact.

Recently a very rare coin from the era of the Emperor Macrinus became known and was put up for auction. The coin was in remarkably good condition and fetched the owner over US$200,000. The coin itself was a gold Aureus and was dated to 218AD aureus

In the history of Roman Emperors, Macrinus is not a very well known figure, but he is important for two facts. First of all, he was the first Emperor from the Equestrian class of society and was not a member of the Senate when he became Emperor. Macrinus was a well-respected lawyer and his deference to the Senate probably allowed them to look past the fact that he wasn’t a Patrician. Secondly, he also made changes to the coinage of the empire during his short reign.

Having been unable to successfully reclaim Mesopotamia from the Parthians in the summer of 217AD, Macrinus was forced to negotiate peace with them. His peace deal was extremely costly; 200 million Sestertius were paid to the Parthians to maintain peace. This bounty had a destabilizing impact on the entire financial system of Rome because unlike modern fiat currencies where the value of the coins and money has no actual value beyond the promise of the issuer, Roman money had an intrinsic value. To stabilize the currency, Macrinus ordered that the purity of the Denarius be increased from 51.5% to 58%.

The Denarius was the backbone of the Roman economy and until the increase by Macrinus, it had been constantly under attack from previous emperors looking to stretch their money further than the intrinsic value would allow. After Macrinus the debasing of the Denarius would continue until in 274AD there was virtually no silver left at all in the coin. The Emperor Aurelian, a known reformer of Rome, would eventually make an effort to fix the coinage of the Empire. He replaced the Denarius with the Double Denarius, more commonly known as the Antoninianii. For those of you curious about how much silver is in a silver dollar of the Roman Empire by that time – the answer is 5% which explains just how bad the situation had gotten.

When you look at how often our modern currency changes, it is quite amazing to think that the Roman coinage system remained largely intact for over 600 years. The occasional renaming or change in valuation aside, it shows just how sensible the Roman Empire was administered and in some respects explains in large part why it remained such a force for so long.

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