Roman Coins Reveal Ancient Financial Crisis

History

| LAST UPDATE 04/20/2022

by Stanley Wickens
ancient rome financial crisis
picture alliance / Contributor via Getty Images

It all began when Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote an essay about the fluctuating value of coins in 44 BCE. A historical debate began to bubble up a few centuries later, and it's only recently been settled - by the actual coins themselves.

In 91 BCE, the Roman State was on the verge of going bankrupt, partly because of war. Just a couple of years later, the state found itself in a debt crisis, and people began to lose their trust in the Roman currency. "Historians have long debated what the statesman and scholar meant when he wrote 'the coinage was being tossed around, so that no one was able to know what he had.' (De Officiis, 3:80) and we believe we have now solved this puzzle," said University of Warwick archeologist Kevin Butcher.

Roman denarius historical value
DEA / G. NIMATALLAH / Contributor via Getty Images
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In an attempt to decipher the words of the ancient philosopher, Butcher and his colleagues began their years-long project of analyzing the ancient Roman coins. They used sampling techniques to examine the coins, which were round, silver relics that presented heads of Gods and Roman leaders. These coins were first used as silver denarius coins in Roman currency in 211 BCE and were valued at ten bronze coins. The findings of their examination showed that, although the coin was made of pure silver before 90 BCE, the value of the denarius began to drop just a few years later. "The denarius first dropped to under 95 percent fine, and then it fell again to 90 percent, with some coins as low as 86 percent, suggesting a severe currency crisis," said University of Liverpool archeologist Matthew Ponting.

That same year, Rome also increased the production of coins, creating an impressive 2,372 molds of the denarius, compared to 677 the year before that and 841 the year after. This increase was probably to finance the Social War with Rome's Italian allies. But even in years after the Social War ended, when a civil war erupted between Pompey and Julius Caesar, the drop in the currency's value didn't come close to the decrease it saw in 87 BCE. "This could be the meaning of Cicero's words: that the value of the coinage was 'tossed about' because nobody could be certain whether the denarii they had were pure or not," noted Butcher. On the bright side, the value of the denarius was later restored to a high-quality currency. But what's certain is that ancient Rome will continue to fascinate us millennia after its end.

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